An Ambler for ‘The 1938 Club’

Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler

1938 clubThis week Simon and Karen are hosting their second selected year reading club – and after 1924 last time, 1938 was the year they chose.

1938 is particularly interesting because of the political situation building up to WWII , and the novel I chose to read encapsulates those worries perfectly.

Eric Ambler was a pioneer of the spy novel from the mid 1930s onwards, (see here and here). After the success in the late 1920s of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (I must read those), and the derring-do adventure of Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels, Ambler introduced more realism into the new genre raising the bar for those following him.

Eric Ambler published two novels in 1938. Epitaph for a Spy which features a mild-mannered Eastern European refugee on holiday in the Riviera who gets mistaken for a spy, was filmed with James Mason as Hotel Reserve in 1944.

cause for alarmI chose the other one. Cause for Alarm, written in 1937, was Ambler’s fourth spy novel and is mostly set in pre-war Milan. As happens so often in spy novels, the prologue starts with a murder – a man is knocked down, and then run over to make sure he’s dead in a Milan street. Then we move to England, and the main story narrated after the event by engineer Nicholas Marlow:

You will probably decide that I behaved very stupidly, and that for what happened to me I had no one to blame but myself. If you do decide that, then I can only agree with you. But my agreement will be politely insincere. I shall feel like asking you what the devil you would have done in my place. I am not, you perceive, an even-tempered person. I am perfectly well aware that, even though I am telling the story, I do not cut a very heroic figure in it; and no man likes to be reminded that he is a nitwit.

Nick has just got engaged. When he is made redundant, he struggles to find a new job. He is beginning to get desperate when Claire spots an advert worth pursuing. A Midlands machinery manufacturer wants an Italian-speaking engineer to be their agent in Italy, based in Milan. Marlow had learned a decent amount of Italian from a fellow student he shared a room with.

Marlow visits the Spartacus Machine Tool Company in Wolverhampton. The manager tells him that their agent, Ferning, had been tragically run over and that his assistant Bellinetti isn’t up to running the office yet,

‘Besides, he’s not a trained engineer. That’s what we need, Mr Marlow. A trained man, a man who can go into the works and show the customer how to get the best out of our machines. With the Germans so active at the moment, we’ve got to keep well in with the people who matter, and’ – he winked broadly – ‘and cooperate with the Italian officials. …’ (p23)

So we know that it was Ferning who was murdered, and can fairly assume that there are palms to be greased in Italy to get the contracts. I realise I haven’t told you what kind of machines Spartacus manufactures yet … they make shell casings. It’s a delicious irony in this novel, that it is all about selling armaments technology to one’s future enemies! Indeed, just before the book was physically published, events overtook Ambler when Hitler invaded the Sudetenland.

Nick, of course gets the job and heads off to Milan, where he finds the office in a mess, the police lose his passport when he goes to get his work permit, and his letters are getting steamed open. He also encounters General Vagas at his hotel…

He was a tall, heavy man with sleek, thinning grey hair, a brown puffy complexion, and thick, tight lips. Fixed firmly in the flesh around his left eye was a rimless monocle without a cord to it. …
His lips twisted, with what was evidently intended to be a polite smile. But the smile did not reach his eyes. …
And yet there was a quality of effeminacy about the way he spoke, the way he moved his hands, that lent a touch of the grotesque to the rest of him. Then I noticed with a shock that the patches of colour just below his cheekbones were rouge. I could see, too, on the jaw line just below his ear the edge of a heavy macquillage. (p33/4)

Vagas courts Marlow, and soon proposes a deal. He can facilitate a large order of machines … Marlow has been given a fund for ‘special appropriation’ especially for this way of carrying out business, but he didn’t expect Vagas’ other request – information about Spartacus customers, for which Vagas can pay a handsome allowance. Marlow plays for time and this is where the best character in the novel appears.

Zaleshoff is an American of Russian descent who runs a business in the same building and he seems to know all about the players in Milan and what happened to Ferning. He advises Marlow that not to take Vagas’ deal could be just as dangerous as accepting it – but if he accepts it then they could play him at his own game. Zaleshoff also alerts Marlow to the activities of the Italian secret police, and that his assistant Bellinetti will doubtless be in their pay; Marlow had already thought he was being followed too. Whether he’s a Russian agent masquerading as an American or not, there’s something about Zaleshoff and Marlow often comments:

‘No, you could not help liking Zaleshoff’.

I was glad to meet Zaleshoff, for Marlow is a bit of a pompous ass. When it’s pointed out to him that the very machines his company is making could be the future root cause of the death of many compatriots, he uses the excuse that he’s just an engineer, not the man that pulls the trigger – Grr! However, in Zaleshoff and his resourceful sister Tamara’s company, he’s a different man, and as a classic Ambler ‘Fish out of water’ protagonist, he will be glad of their experience when the shit hits the proverbial fan. There will be lots of dirty business, Fascists and secret police, a chase across Europe and a mad professor before Marlow gets to tell his story.

Ambler had trained as an engineer before turning to writing and he has a gift for describing machines and processes in non-technical language which would otherwise be boring to read and make Marlow a very dull character indeed.

Ambler fans may already know that Zaleshoff and Tamara made a first appearance in Ambler’s second novel, Uncommon Danger; he has few recurring characters. Zaleshoff is certainly up there with Arthur Simpson from The Light of Day as my favourite Ambler characters so far; without him I wouldn’t have enjoyed this novel so much. The picture Ambler paints of Fascist Italy just before the war is fascinating though, and it’s well worth the read. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy

Eric Ambler, Cause for Alarm (1938) – Penguin Modern Classics, paperback 288 pages.

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