“Journey Into Fear” by Eric Ambler (published by Penguin Books)

All aboard with a hired killer

“Journey Into Fear” is a title to entice, as it has been doing on and off for 83 years. Who is taking the journey? From where to where? By car, boat, train or plane (well, there is a boat sailing into the distance on the front cover)? And what is there to fear? All skullduggery will be made clear in this latest reissue of a spy novel first published in 1940.
14. October 2023 6:49

Leaving aside plot giveaways for the moment, we delve more into the author, for Eric Ambler came to be widely regarded as one of the most esteemed writers of espionage and crime fiction, typified by a gritty realism. Born in London in 1909, it was while working as an advertising writer and “ideas” man” that he penned his first, “The Dark Frontier” in 1936.

It was the start of a five-decade career, with the debut book and his other early novels set in continental Europe. These were inbued with the atmosphere of the impending world war, and his careful writing, knotty plots and growing skill at creating colourful characters culminated in the sustained tension of “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1939; also published as “A Coffin for Dimitrios”) and “Journey Into Fear” itself.

Both of these were filmed, and Ambler’s World War Two placement writing training films for the British Army led to a postwar career as a screenwriter, adapting films from novels. One such was “The Cruel Sea”, written by Nicholas Monsarrat in 1951 and filmed in 1953, for which Ambler was nominated for an Academy Award for his script.

A one-time Marxist sympathiser, he later attacked Stalinism in the novel “Judgment on Deltchev” (1951), which marked his return to writing thrillers. He also began travelling widely, and his later novels were often set in the Middle East or East Asia, including “The Light of Day” (1962; United States title “Topkapi”). This won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1964, the same year it was filmed.

His “The Levanter” (1972), centres around a terrorist plot against Israel and was also filmed. The much-praised “Doctor Frigo” (1974) was set on a Caribbean island.

Ambler is credited with writing of ordinary, educated Englishmen thrust by chance or innocent curiosity into danger, in contrast to earlier British spy stories in which xenophobic, romantic heroes defeated vast conspiracies to dominate the world. His villains, too, were realistically drawn and were frequently violent fascists and Nazis.

And so to the thrills and spills expected from “Journey into Fear”, and the answers to those questions above. The protagonist is a Mr Graham, a brilliant English engineer whose speciality is naval ordnance. He works for Mssrs Cator and Bliss Ltd, a big armaments manufacturing firm, and they have been contracted by the Turkish government.

Graham has been sent to Turkey to meet dockyard experts at Izmir and Gallipoli to discuss rearming some of that country’s naval vessels with new guns and torpedo tubes.

It is the early days of World War Two. Turkey and Britain are allies and it would be in the interests of the naval authorities of Germany, Italy and Russia if there would be a delay in increasing Turkish naval strength. How to cause such a delay? Why, bump off Mr Graham before he arrives back in Britain with his valuable information, of course.

Graham has returned from Gallipoli to Istanbul and he is due to take the train to Paris and London next day. But when he returns to his hotel room after a final night out at Le Jockey Cabaret nightclub, a gunman is waiting and fires three shots as soon as he enters. Only one hits its target in the dark, grazing Graham’s hand.

Graham is a quiet, likeable sort of chap, generous with his whisky, and completely naive about any importance he may have to an enemy. He’s one of those ordinary, educated Englishmen thrust by chance or innocent curiosity into danger, as mentioned above, unheroic and unromantic. He thinks the intruder is just a burglar. “I’m the most harmless man alive,” he believes.

It takes the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, to disabuse him and convince him he is in mortal danger. Haki warns Graham that if he takes his scheduled train next day, or any other day, he will be one deceased engineer before he gets as far as Belgrade. Graham now comes to realise the fear of death.

So, terrified, he accepts Haki’s plan to escape in secret on an Italian passenger steamer, the Sestri Levante, from Istanbul. Haki says he has vetted the nine other passengers and it is safe – all of them were harmless previously, four are women (as if women can’t be dangerous too) and none had booked less than three days earlier.

And so they seem. Mr Kuvetli, a Turk, says he is a tobacco salesman, Monsieur and Madame Mathis are a French couple, Signora Beronelli is an Italian widow with her son, Josette and José Gallindo are Spanish dancers and the Hallers are a “good” German couple.

But when the ship reaches Athens, it is joined by Mr Mavrodopoulos, supposedly a Greek businessman. However, when Haki had shown Graham some mug shots after the shooting, Graham recognised one of them as a man he had seen earlier in Le Jockey Cabaret. Haki says this is Banat, a Romanian professional gunman, who certainly would have been the hired killer in the hotel room. Mavrodopoulos  is Banat. Graham’s journey into fear has now really begun.

Amber has written a winning tale as we track the changes in Graham’s mind. One minute he naively expects a happy reunion with his wife Stephanie in England, next he faces the fact that he is a marked man who fears his impending demise. Just a bumbling amateur in a tough world beyond his own, he lurches from despair to exhilaration and back. Here is an Englishman content in his life, his beliefs and attitudes, who is suddenly confronted with extreme danger in a situation beyond his control.

And will his flirtation with Josette Gallindo really amount to anything? Is there a part of Graham that may relish this whole experience, something that his tame life back in England simply can’t? Perhaps, with the veneer of civilised life stripped away, he will find he has hidden qualities. Can he surprise himself as well as the professionals with a decisive action that outwits his far more experienced opponents?

Journey into Fear was filmed in 1943 starring Joseph Cotten. Ambler published an autobiography, “Here Lies”, in 1985. He died in 1998, having written some 18 novels and a few short stories. A number of distinguished authors of such thrillers have acknowledged a debt to him , including Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Julian Symons and Frederick Forsyth.

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