The 1940 Club: Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

When looking through my books to choose one to read for Simon and Kaggsy‘s 1940 Club reading week, I was surprised to find I’ve only read one (since I started keeping my spreadsheet) published in 1940 – that was the sublime Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (reviewed here). However, I found two super classics from favourite authors on my shelves that I could read. They were The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene and Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler. Given that I have read the Greene many years ago, and also that 2023 is turning out to be a great year for spy novels for me I opted for Ambler.

Ambler’s speciality is the ‘fish out of water’ scenario; he takes an ordinary man and puts him into a dangerous situation then lets him find his way out of it through grit and determination, and a bit of luck!

Such was the case in his 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios (reviewed here) in which he injected a crime novelist, hungry for research and ideas, into danger when he starts prying into the life of a dead gangster who was wanted all over Europe for his next novel. Set around the western end of the Mediterranean, this book introduced us to Colonel Haki, of the Turkish secret police, who plays a supporting role in Ambler’s next novel too.

In Journey into Fear, set as well as published in 1940, we are once more in Turkey. WWII is in what was known as its ‘phoney war’ stage, where alliances were forming and there was limited engagement on the Western front. Turkey was being courted by both sides, but with naval armaments to be provided by Great Britain was on the side of the Allies. It is in this atmosphere that Mr Graham, a mild-mannered (ain’t that always the case?) engineer has just finished talks with the Turkish Government and is looking to return home to his wife Stephanie going by train from Istanbul via Paris the day after. His company’s Turkish rep, Kopeikin, persuades Graham (we never discover his forename) to come with him to Le Jockey Club, where he’ll meet the alluring Josette, and José, a pair of dancers who will play a large part in the coming action. There is also a man watching Graham, pointed out to him by one of the hostesses he and Kopeikin danced with, Graham sees the man, but disregards him, carrying on dancing.

The band brought an American dance tune, which they had been playing with painful zeal, to an abrupt end and began, with more success, to play a rumba.

That phrase, ‘painful zeal’ perfectly describes the Club’s ambience, doesn’t it! It’s four in the morning by the time Graham returns to his swanky hotel, and upon entering his room, he is shot at. Two shots miss, but the third grazes Graham’s hand, and the intruder escapes into the night. The hotel manager, and a short while later Kopeikin who returns while the doctor is seeing to Graham’s hand, persuade Graham that involving the police will only delay his departure and mark him out for more attempts on his life.

Kopeikin takes Graham to see his contact – Colonel Haki – who informs the disbelieving Graham that there is a contract out for him, and that German agents will do anything to disrupt the British armaments getting to Turkey.

‘I was saying that at the moment your position is curious. Tell me! Have you ever regarded yourself as indispensable in your business, Mr Graham?’

Graham laughed. ‘Certainly not. I could tell you the names of dozens of other men with my particular qualifications.’

‘Then,’ said Colonel Haki, ‘allow me to inform you, Mr Graham, that for one in your life you are indispensable. Let us suppose for the moment that your thief’s shooting had been little more accurate and that at this moment you were, instead of sitting talking with me, lying in hospital on an operating table with a bullet in your lungs. What would be the effect on this business you are engaged in now?’

‘Naturally, the company would send another man out immediately.’

Colonel Haki affected a look of theatrical astonishment. ‘So? That would be splendid. So typically British! Sporting! One man falls – immediately another, undaunted, takes his place. But wait!’ The colonel held up a forbidding arm. ‘Is it necessary? Surely, Mr Kopeikin here could arrange to have your papers taken to England. […]

Graham flushed. […] I was forbidden, in any case, to put certain things on paper. […]

LIsten to me Mr Graham! Turkey and Great Britain are allies. It is in the interests of your country’s enemies that, whe the snow melts and the rain ceases, Turkish naval strength should be exactly what it is now. […] They will do anything to see that is is so. Anything, Mr Graham! Do you understand?

I very much enjoyed this exchange. The dawning of his predicament on Graham gradually becomes crystal clear when he is shown a photo of a contract killer called Banat who is known to be in the area – it’s the man at the Club. Haki arranges instead for Graham to travel to Genoa on a cargo ship that takes a few passengers – they’ll vet them to ensure that no agents are on board and he’ll be met at Genoa with onward arrangements. Graham is forced to accept that this is the best plan.

So, the next day, Graham boards the ship with around ten other passengers, including Josette and José, a highly strung French couple, a friendly little Turkish tobacco salesman, and an old German professor. There is one stop at Piraeus, where Graham takes the opportunity to take a taxi tour of Athens with the Turk, Kuvetli – but we just know that by the time the ship leaves Greece, that Graham’s life is in danger once more. Someone on board is out to get him – but who?

Ambler is so good at describing the stress that Graham is under throughout the voyage. He is pale, tight, drinking too much, quietly paranoid, yet congratulating himself that he is putting up a good front (who is he kidding?). His only relief is in walks up on deck with Josette, whom he is beginning to fall for a little once she tells him that her marriage to José is one of convenience only, and she urges him to stay on in Paris for a while with her. He’s almost tempted… It will, of course, all come to a head, and Graham discovers a layer of resolve in himself that allows him to be an active player in his own fate.

Ambler is not just good at describing peoples’ emotions, he is brilliant at place and atmosphere. From the slight seediness of the Turkish nightclub to the not really designed for passengers steamer, the surroundings of the novel always come alive in its locations and their background characters. Ambler also understands how these places work, the underlying political situation, corruption and bureaucracy.

I think Journey into Fear is my favourite Ambler so far. I’d now love to see the 1943 film, which starred Joseph Cotten as Graham, Dolores Del Rio as Josette and Orson Welles as Colonel Haki. They made Graham American of course, and initially he is travelling with his wife, otherwise Welles and Cotten, who wrote the screenplay, stick to the novel broadly.

Source: Own copy. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 211 pages.

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8 thoughts on “The 1940 Club: Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

  1. Julé Cunningham says:

    This was also my choice for a 1940 book and it was wonderful to get back to Ambler, especially one I hadn’t read before. As you say he does atmosphere so very well and yet his prose is almost as straightforward as a journalistic dispatch. It was also interesting to have his take on those early days of the war.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I saw your review – but will go back and read it fully now mine is posted. I think many of my favourite authors from that mid-20thC period have that concise writing style that I so much like. Greene, Spark, et al.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    As soon as I read “Colonel Haki” I knew this was a kind of sequel to The Mask of Demetrios and, checking my 2018 review of the latter I see you were already a big Ambler fan then! Everything you say about the plotting here makes me eager to get my hands on this — I shall have to see if our library has access to a copy. Good appetite-whetter, your review!

  3. conmartin13 says:

    My father used to love Ambler but I had never read him. Now I am curious enough to try one!

    I read the Katja Ivar book you recommended and enjoyed it although the politics were confusing.


    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ambler is simply superb – you should try him. I plan to read the first Katja Ivar books next year to get more of a feel for those times and that place.

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