Friday, July 15, 2022

the last book I read

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler.

Nicky Marlow is having a day of mixed fortunes; tears and laughter, light and shade, sausage and mash, that sort of thing. No sooner has he persuaded his lady friend, Claire, to agree to marry him than he gets a summons from the boss of the engineering firm for which he works to tell him that they're letting him go. No reflection on his work and all that, old chap, but times are tough and the company needs to make some savings.

Getting married is great and all, but it's taking on an extra mouth to feed, this being the mid-1930s and there being no chance of Claire taking on the role of main breadwinner. Sure, there are upsides, like getting your shirts ironed and easy access to eye-watering acts of unspeakable sexual depravity, but a regular income is essential. So Marlow has to get out there and find a new job, and it's not easy. Having been rebuffed by various firms he's starting to despair when Claire, a level-headed and resourceful sort of girl, hands him a newspaper cutting advertising a job which, while it's for a British company, is based in Milan. Fortunately Marlow speaks near-fluent Italian, having (rather implausibly) learnt the language from an Italian bloke he once shared a flat with, and - slightly reluctantly - applies for and gets the job.

The firm in question - the Spartacus Machine Tool Company Limited, based in Wolverhampton - turns out to manufacture armaments, or more accurately the machines required to turn them out, and has a lucrative contract with the Italian government to supply them and ensure their upkeep and maintenance. This being the mid-1930s that government is the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a man who's becoming increasingly pally with that Hitler chap over in Germany. But I expect that won't cause any complications at all.

So Marlow heads off to Milan and almost immediately discovers that things aren't going to be quite as simple as just making sure the books are in order and solving any practical engineering problems that might arise. Firstly it turns out that there was only a vacancy because his predecessor, Ferning, died in mysterious circumstances. Furthermore when Marlow is offered Ferning's former lodgings these turn out to be absurdly luxurious and way beyond what Ferning's salary could plausibly have supported. And a few of the staff in the Spartacus office don't really seem to do anything much, but nonetheless the local foreman Bellinetti seems sensitive about any suggestion that they could be let go. 

Things start to come into focus when Marlow is visited by a General Vagas, apparently a former contact of Ferning's. Marlow assumes that he must be a former business contact of Ferning's but after a couple of meetings Vagas makes a suggestion: for a discreet fee, payable directly to Marlow and outside of any business relationship with the company, he, Vagas, would be interested in details of orders for Spartacus' products: who, when, how much, etc. All information that the general could acquire by other menas without bothering Marlow, but who has the time? And how much more efficient to get it from the horse's mouth, and ensure adequate, nay generous, reward?

Marlow begins to see how Ferning was paying his hotel bills, but his pesky British sense of fair play makes him balk at accepting the offer. He has every intention of refusing Vagas' offer when he comes into contact with his new neighbour, Zaleshoff, an American also trying to run a business in Milan. Zaleshoff, it turns out, is already acquainted with Vagas and urges Marlow to cultivate a relationship, accept his offer and then feed Vagas bogus information that he and Marlow can cook up between them. Zaleshoff also lets slip that he believes Vagas to be an agent of Nazi Germany, and Vagas in turn (when he and Marlow next meet) accuses Zaleshoff of being an agent of Soviet Russia. So who should Marlow trust? And what happens if the Italian authorities find out?

Well, we get to find out the answer to that question fairly quickly, as Vagas' treacherous wife denounces everyone to the rozzers and a warrant is issued for Marlow's arrest. Fortunately his new best friend Zaleshoff (and his mysterious sister, Tamara) is on hand to help him escape in thrilling style by jumping from moving trains, walking miles across country in the dead of night and eventually trekking the last few miles to the Yugoslav border in the snow, with a bit of help from a batty old mathematician and his daughter who put them up for the night and guide them towards the border crossing and safety. It only then remains for Marlow to have a final confrontation with Vagas (who has also escaped from Italy) in Belgrade, and then make the journey back to England to Claire and a new and less dangerous job.

It's interesting to compare Cause For Alarm (published in 1938) with, say, The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915): Richard Hannay is a slightly aristocratic rugged outdoorsman, endlessly resourceful, ruthless when the situation demands it and by handy coincidence an explosives expert, something that comes in handy at least once. Nicky Marlow, on the other hand, while certainly no fool, is just a regular middle-class guy, slightly naïve in imagining that business and politics can be kept separate, especially when the business in question is manufacturing weapons that will be used to kill people, perhaps even British people. The main difference, though, is the overall tone and general flavour of the authors' respective political sympathies, something neither John Buchan nor Ambler made much attempt to hide. Buchan's are generally right-wing and authoritarian, whereas Ambler is clearly coming from a perspective of being much more sympathetic to left-wing causes. It's notable how sympathetic the character of Zaleshoff is, despite it being transparently obvious to everyone, Marlow included, that he is not American at all but a Soviet agent. In that sense (i.e. left-wing leanings, spicy moral ambiguity) it's quite a modern novel for 1938, much more so than, say, its rough contemporary Rogue Male, which was closer to The Thirty-Nine Steps.

This is the first Eric Ambler novel I've read, but he was apparently very highly-regarded by people like Graham Greene and John le Carré and I found his economical and drily humorous prose style to be very readable. Only a couple of minor criticisms: the little interlude towards the end where Marlow and Zaleshoff hole up in what turns out to be the house of elderly and previously eminent mathematician Carlo Beronelli who (on discovering Marlow's familiarity with some of his earlier work) gives Marlow a sneak preview of his new work, some utterly barking ramblings on the subject of perpetual motion, is perhaps a little odd, and breaks up the momentum of the narrative a bit. And the final showdown with Vagas doesn't really resolve anything in an especially dramatic way, other than by confirming that he definitely is a Nazi spy. But it's very good, and my tidy 2009 Penguin Modern Classics reissue was less than a pound in the St. David's Hospice charity shop just round the corner from our new house, which was nice. 

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