No, the piles must be reduced or I face a middle-aged future not all that dissimilar from the Collyer brothers, though I do get out quite a bit and the piles are only thigh-high at their worst. However, before the physical expulsion of allergen-filled material from my bed-chamber, some intellectual exercise may also prove beneficial and I find I am called upon to share my thoughts on reading with the readers of this wayward blog, book-list hungry hordes that you are. So in recognition of the shopping demands (personal and otherwise) of the above-mentioned joyous holiday season - or JHS™ - I've decided on a series of irregular posts on the books I can safely recommend from the past year's reading.
At the top of the stack lie four or five paperback reissues from the canon of Eric Ambler. Now, this choice should carry a bit of foreshadowing against future entries in the series: I fairly wallowed in detective and espionage noir this last year; I needed escape - or at minimum, brief transportation - from the difficulties of worry and creeping despair (I suspect I'm not alone in this) and what better way outside a pill bottle than dark mayhem in the alleys of, oh say, wartime London or the salons of Istanbul. There's a reason so many video games feature the thrill of machine-gunning vast squads of Nazi thugs - it brings such good cheer.
In any case, if you need an escape hatch from the sparkly holiday lights proclaiming "shop, for you must be happy!" then Ambler's the man for you - or that reader on your list.
Early this year, I read Ambler's best-known novel, his 1939 A Coffin for Dimitrios, later made into a film starring Peter Lorre. It features what became Ambler's favorite plot device - the innocent traveler caught in a web of espionage or crime. The writing is straightforward and the characters and settings always serve the plot. Ambler will sometimes allow some of his protagonists' inner struggles and fears to surface, but he also keeps things moving. Sometimes the reader understand more of the situation than the hapless, bumbling traveler - but sometimes the innocent improves his thinking and surges ahead, while the writer holds back the deduction. Ambler, an Englishman who died in 1998, inspired a generation of noteworthy noir writers, including Philip Kerr and Alan Furst.
This summer, I went on an Ambler tear, plowing through Epitaph for a Spy, Journey of Fear, and The Schirmer Inheritance - visiting the south of France, Parish, Istanbul, Italy and Greece with a collection of unknowing Englishmen, shadowy assassins, bluster police officials, assorted femmes fatales and the odd ex-Nazi.
There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe - a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like - realizes with sinking fear that they're not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim. It seems formulaic (and it is ) but Ambler had the rare gift of lifting such tales with his spare writing. Here's that moment from A Coffin for Dimitrios:
Besides, here was real murder; not neat, tidy book-murder with corpse and clues and suspects and hangman, but murder over which a chief of police shrugged his shoulders, wiped his hands and consigned the stinking victim to a coffin. Yes, that was it. It was real. Dimitrios was or had been real. Here were no strutting paper figures, but tangible evocative men and women, as real as Proudhon, Montesquieu and Rosa Luxemburg.
Ambler was born in London in 1909 to music hall musicians and actors, and toured Europe quite a bit as a child. He uses those experiences well, and began his novels at a propitious time: as fascism was descending on the continent like acid rain. John LeCarre once referred to Ambler as 'the source on which we all draw' but I wasn't after the roots of literary noir when I fished out his novels - I was looking for a good read, and if I'm honest, a hide-away from these times. Ambler put me on a tramp steamer in an unfriendly port or on the overnight train across the Alps - and in a better place entirely.
Note: Here's the Amazon link. I particularly like the Vintage paperback covers.