Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

I always feel a little uncomfortable when I read a review which calls a book (something like) “not great literature, but a good thriller.” I’ve probably done it myself. Why the defensiveness? Hardly anything is great literature, and we can judge everything else on how well it meets its intentions, or surpasses its limitations. In addition, thinking a book might be ‘just a good thriller’ can helpfully lower expectations. So it was when I read Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940), recently reissued by Penguin Modern Classics along with four other early novels, to coincide with the centenary last month of Ambler’s birth.

Eric Ambler: Journey into Fear

Journey into Fear seems almost a self-parodic title for a thriller, but it’s perfectly apt: the first two-thirds of the book is all about the fear rather than the facts. Mr Graham, an engineer for an armaments manufacturer, is about to return to England from Turkey when he is injured. Returning to his hotel room, he finds an intruder, who fires shots at him as he escapes, grazing Graham’s hand.

He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.

Graham is informed by the local intelligence chief that this was no botched burglary, but an attempt to kill him: he is told that the Germans want him dead so that his company’s work on Turkish army equipment will be delayed. Graham is incredulous (he has “the growing conviction that he was involved in a nightmare and that he would presently wake up to find himself at his dentist’s”) – as is the reader. Is there a threat to Graham’s life or not?

He told himself that he was behaving like a schoolboy. A man had fired three shots at him. What difference did it make whether the man had been a thief or an intending murderer? He had fired three shots, and that was that. But all the same, it did somehow make a difference…

This was my favourite aspect of the book – the acute understanding of how awareness conditions our response to a situation.  (To quote Terry Pratchett, perhaps for the only time on this blog: “One problem is that I’ve got Alzheimer’s.  The other problem is that I know I’ve got Alzheimer’s.”)  Graham, as the archetypal ‘man caught up in’, is inactive and reactive until forced to do otherwise.  Ultimately the effect of the fear is almost as dramatic as any physical threat to him, though the latter does surface more directly in the last third of the book, when the plot and more traditional thriller elements take over.  In some cases what seem to be conventions of the genre were newly-minted when Ambler presented them here.

Beside this, Journey into Fear has some bold – given the year of its publication – anti-establishment views fed through characters, from a prescient retort to the high status of bankers and financial institutions, to unexpected sentiments for wartime such as “when a ruling class wishes a people to do something which that people does not want to do, it appeals to patriotism. And of course, one of the things that people most dislike is allowing themselves to be killed.”  Ambler even has room for some unexpectedly nihilistic words when Graham is under immediate threat:

To suppose that the lopping of thirty years or so from a normal span of life was a disaster was to pretend to an importance which no man possessed. Living wasn’t even so very pleasant. Mostly it was a matter of getting from the cradle to the grave with the least possible discomfort, of satisfying the body’s needs, and of slowing down the process of its decay. Why make such a fuss about abandoning so dreary a business? Why, indeed! And yet you did make a fuss…

Journey into Fear is both satisfying as a thriller and surprising enough to draw in readers – like me – who didn’t know they liked that kind of thing.  Penguin have reissued four other Amblers from the late 1930s: Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, and The Mask of Dimitrios (US title A Coffin for Dimitrios, and said by some to be his finest novel).  A decent gap before revisiting is probably called for, but I will definitely be returning to Amblerland.


  1. I generally don’t read thrillers, but a few years ago I started reading Graham Greene, and within the past few years, I’ve probably read ten of his books, and he is one of my favorite authors. Haven’t read Eric Ambler yet.

  2. given the year of its publication – anti-establishment views fed through characters, from a prescient retort to the high status of bankers and financial institutions,

    This must be present throughout his early work, in one way or another, from when he was still a bit of a Commie, as his second novel, Uncommon Danger, which I read recently, sees big business as the bad guy. Interesting for a spy novel, given that I’d always thought of the genre, to some degree, as being a bit crap, probably because my first port of call in reading a spy novel was Ian Fleming’s first couple of Bond novels, which I found rather pedestrian.

  3. It’s very interesting to see Penguin Modern Classics (and indeed Waterstone’s in their 3f2 shelf offer) have decided to promote Ambler so strongly. Over a year ago I ordered a couple of Ambler titles on a whim, stuck them in the crime section and when I checked on them a couple of weeks later both had sold – the bookseller’s equivalent of feeling a tug on the line. Ordered them back in and added a couple of US imports – they sold as well within a month. Clearly there was a market out there.

    I had picked Ambler on the back of The Intercom Conspiracy, which I thought was a really good evocation of what it’s like to work on the fringes of power in a cosmopolitan city (the book is set in Geneva; my experience was of working in Brussels). Though I never to my knowledge came across any spies – though I did meet a few military intelligence people who were quite open about what they did – it was not hard at all to believe in the creeping dread which Ambler describes so effectively, as his protagonist begins to see hints, indications, shadows of what might be going on. As with what you say about Journey Into Fear, much of the drama is internal until later in the book – I wonder if it was a structure which agreed with him?

    I also wonder if we will be seeing reprints of Desmond Bagley. He used to sell by the sackload.

  4. These reissues have sent me on an Ambler binge: I’d read ‘Journey into Fear’ and a couple of others two years ago, and very much enjoyed them. But this time round it was ‘Uncommon Danger’ that I started off with, and I’m now on my fourth Ambler in about a month.

    I particularly like the cynically perceptive view of world politics of the five re-issues, all written between 1937 and 1940(?), as the international situation got worse and worse.

  5. Hi. I won five Eric Ambler books in a competition run by Penguin. They are sitting pristine on my book shelf but your review is tempting me to read them.

  6. Well, I think you should, Sandra! I can certainly recommend Journey into Fear as a good place to begin.

    the silver eel, thanks for the background to Ambler’s sales – no doubt these are things taken into account by Penguin when they reissue an author, particularly when they ‘blitz’ us with five novels together. I will probably pick up The Mask of Dimitrios next. And will have to look out for Desmond Bagley, whom I’ve never heard of!

    Tony, Ambler is certainly more to the ‘entertainment’ side of Greene – I wouldn’t compare this novel with Greene’s major works such as The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair. I’m a Greene fan myself though, so it’s good that you’ve been enjoying him too.

  7. Sounds pleasingly Hitchcocky.

    I’m still not convinced by these new modern classics designs, though. I got a Borges silver spine through the post the other day, the first I’ve bought in a while, and I remembered how good-looking they are. These new ones still seem to evoke 1970s airline adverts, rather than a good classic read.

    1. I’m coming to the same conclusion, Rob. Certainly some of the new series look very handsome, mostly those of a certain period and setting (F Scott Fitzgeralds and Evelyn Waughs seem to work well). Others are uninspired including, in my view, this Ambler cover and some other recent reissues such as Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. More often the silver spined Modern Classics had better covers because the image itself, standing alone, had to be striking. I won’t be too sad when these new versions are themselves replaced.

  8. With this and Stewart’s recent review I’m definitely going to have to order some Ambler, when done well the thriller can I think be a genuinely interesting and intelligent genre, it’s just that I think the number of writers who’ve done it well likely don’t reach double figures (Le Carre, Deighton, Furst, Greene whom I adore, Ambler evidently, I’m out though I’m sure I missed a couple).

    What appeals is the engagement with broader political and economic issues that one finds in the clever exponents of the genre, coupled with a sort of claustrophobia and intensity of emotion. Greene was a master of that, it sounds like Ambler though more to the entertainment end as you say has the same trick, which makes him a weclome new discovery. Thanks John, I’ll bump him up my tbr pile.

  9. What appeals to me anyway. I’m missing words out all over the place tonight. That was meant to be a personal remark above about my taste, rather than the somewhat sweeping generalisation it turned into.

  10. I was travelling over the weekend John and this was the perfect accompanyment. It motors along nicely, but the fairly obvious plot developments are not what satisfy. As you point out, it’s Graham’s predicament and the asides that Ambler fleshes out things with that are what make the book interesting.

    Startling to think this was written in 1940, when the likely outcome of matters was looking uncertain (to put it mildly). I’ll pick up more Ambler after this – did you ever fit another one in?

    1. Not yet, leroyhunter, though I do have The Mask of Dimitrios and am not reading anything at the moment, so… (Plus, a thriller might be just the ticket in my current brain-fogged five-hours-sleep-a-night condition.)

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