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Mystery Monday – Background To Danger

Background To Danger by Eric Ambler


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Also known as Uncommon Danger, this 1937 novel was a turning point for the spy story. In the Twenties, Somerset Maugham wrote the darkly realistic Ashenden stories and John Buchan wrote adventures like The Thirty-Nine Steps. In the Thirties, Ambler combined Maugham’s realism and Buchan’s fast-paced action with well-drawn characterization, political smarts and good but not flowery prose. Voila – James Bond for adults a la John LeCarre and Alan Furst.

The novel opens in London with a meeting of the board of directors of an oil company. Its detestable chairman, Joseph Balterghen, hints at regime change as the most direct method of grabbing up oil concessions in Bessarabia, which we post-moderns know as Moldova. Balterghen coerces approval from the board to hire fixers such as Saridza a.k.a. Col. Robinson to stir up trouble among the USSR, Hitler’s Germany, and a Romania that is going fascist.

Our hero Kenton doesn’t know this plot. He is a penniless journalist who feels compelled to smuggle an envelope stuffed with papers for a man he meets on train in Nuremberg.  The man ends up stabbed to death, the cops want Kenton, and Kenton is forced to make a run for it. He is alternately helped and hindered by two soviet spies, the brother and sister team of Andreas and Tamara Zaleschoff.

Tamara is not there simply to provoke romantic thoughts in Kenton. She schemes with her brother and drives the getaway car like Danica Patrick. Andreas is partly stage Russian, with large gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, booming voice, and frankly insincere conversation. He is also a shrewd spy, though prone to jump to conclusions. Practical Tamara reins Andreas in and so does Kenton. Happily for the reader, Andreas and Tamara re-appear in Ambler’s 1939 thriller Cause for Alarm.

Saridza is a sinister character. In the 1943 movie version of this novel, Saridza was played by Sydney Greenstreet – the rotund Gutmann in The Maltese Falcon – so Hollywood casting got it right for once.  But his bully boy Captain Mailler is odious. Ambler, who was a bit of a lefty at that time, gives Mailler a resume worthy of a fascist beast. Mailler was a Black and Tan, a paramilitary unit that suppressed Irish revolutionaries by burning property of IRA men and their suspected sympathizers. Mailler is wanted in New Orleans for murder of a black woman. In a dig at John Buchan’s goody-goody heroes like Richard Hannay, Mailler was the “only professional strikebreaker in the United States that was educated at an English public school.”

In the Thirties, Ambler also produced  Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. All of them are worth reading. During World War II, Ambler served in artillery with thriller writer Victor Canning (The Rainbird Pattern) for a short time.










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