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.
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.