Thursday 23 January 2014

The History of Spies, Spying and Spy Fiction: John Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and Michael Gilbert in Eric Ambler's To Catch a Spy (Bodley Head, 1964)

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Like Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies (Max Reindhart, 1967), the second short spy story anthology I'm reviewing this week also boasts a Calder and Behrens story by Michael Gilbert, an Ashenden story by W. Somerset Maugham and a story by Eric Ambler. In this instance, however, the anthology was also compiled by Ambler, who provides a much more thorough introduction than Hitchcock's genially superficial one for Sinister Spies, as well as introductions to each individual tale.

To Catch a Spy was published by The Bodley Head in 1964 under a terrific typographical dust jacket designed by Michael Harvey (which I've added to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page). I bought this copy a year or two ago for £7.50 – not a bad price for a first edition, the only real defects being some light wear on the wrapper and foxing on the page edges. I must admit that as with Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies it was the wrapper that initially attracted me, and I was only prompted to read the book more recently when, in the wake of returning to Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens spy stories, I took a closer look at Sinister Spies and found myself unexpectedly moved by the Maugham story therein: "The Traitor", taken from Maugham's 1928 collection of linked stories Ashenden, or, The British Agent. Realising that there was another Ashenden tale in To Catch a Spy, I headed directly for it.

That "Giulia Lazzari" is every bit as remarkable as "The Traitor" will, I'm sure, come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Maugham's original book. I don't number myself among them – not yet; I'll be rectifying that soon – but the elegance and clarity of the prose is plain for all to see, and the story is at least as affecting as that of "The Traitor", perhaps more so.

We learn a little more about cultured World War I master spy Ashenden in "Giulia Lazzari" than in "The Traitor": that he is a popular and successful novelist and playwright, a useful cover for his covert career working for Britain's secret service; that he runs a network of spies in Germany, paying their wages and forwarding on to R., his British Intelligence boss, whatever information they obtain. R. himself also features more prominently: there's a long scene set in a Parisian hotel where R. briefs Ashenden on his latest mission, during which R.'s imperialist, colonialist, even racist views become clear – views which are hard to stomach not only for the modern reader but seemingly for Ashenden as well.

Of course, whatever admiration Ashenden might have for his intended target – anti-British rule agitator Chandra Lal, an Indian who has allied himself with Germany – is of no consequence; as he tells R.: "He's declared war and he must take his chance." To that end Ashenden attempts to lure Chandra to the French side of Lake Geneva – and thus his doom – using Chandra's Italian lover, dancer and occasional prostitute Giulia Lazzari, as bait. How he does so is a vivid illustration of the heartless nature of the spymaster, who must ride roughshod over the emotions and feelings of those caught in his firing line in order to achieve his aims. As the story unfolds you remind yourself that there is a point to this cruelty, that a war is raging across Europe; but even so, one wonders whether the ends really justify the means.

In his introduction to "Giulia Lazzari", Eric Ambler notes that though the most popular Ashenden stories are probably "The Hairless Mexican", "The Traitor" and "Mr Harrington's Washing", "Giulia Lazzari" " the episode that I most enjoy re-reading. The preliminary scenes with R. are a perennial delight, and Madame Lazzari is so vividly presented that you can almost see the pores of her skin. It is an ugly story, but a highly satisfying one." In his introduction to To Catch a Spy as a whole, Ambler readily admits that his own early books were strongly influenced by Ashenden – "the first fictional work on the subject [espionage] by a writer of stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about" – and "that there has been no body of work in the field of the same quality written since Ashenden" – high praise indeed from such an aficionado, not to mention the author of such notable spy novels himself as Epitaph for a Spy, The Mask of Dimitrios, Passage of Arms and others.

Ambler's To Catch a Spy introduction is fascinating for the way it details not merely the history of espionage writing but the history of espionage itself. He notes: "There seems to have been no period in recorded history when secret agents have not played a part... in political and military affairs. And yet, it is impossible to find any spy story of note written before the twentieth century." (As a reason for this he points to "the Dreyfus case (1894–99)... not so much on its having created a new public appetite or whetted an unfamiliar curiosity, as on the fact that it re-opened a discussion which had been firmly closed for nearly a hundred years.") Drawing a line from Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903) – "the first spy novel" – to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) – "the first attempt by a major novelist to deal realistically with the secret war, with the sub-world of conspiracy, sabotage, double-dealing and betrayal" – to William Le Quex and E. Phillips Oppenheim, Ambler arrives at John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915) and the other authors he has selected for his anthology.

And what a selection: Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Michael Gilbert and Ambler himself – that's one hell of a dinner party guest-list – all represented by some of their best work. Buchan's "The Loathly Opposite" is a fine tale of two cryptographers on opposing sides in World War I, while Ian Fleming steps up with "From a View to a Kill" (Taken from For Your Eyes Only, 1960), in which James Bond untangles a deadly plot to intercept British Secret Service communiques in France. Ambler makes note of Fleming/Bond's "shrewd and constructive... account of the difficulties of deciding what to drink in a Paris cafe" (Bond settles on "an Americano—bitter Campari, Cinzano, a large slice of lemon peel, and soda"), but adds: "Critics rarely remark on how well written the James Bond stories are. I suppose that with a man as civilized and amusing as Mr Fleming, good writing is taken for granted."

Ashenden aside, Ambler reserves special praise for Compton Mackenzie's long-out-of-print The Three Couriers (1929), from which he extracts "The First Courier". Personally I couldn't get on with it; perhaps I simply wasn't in the mood for Mackenzie's brand of, as Ambler puts it "light-hearted... absurdity and farce". Much more to my liking was Graham Greene's succinct "I Spy", which I'd read once before in Greene and his brother Hugh's The Spy's Bedside Book (1957) but which was well worth revisiting – as indeed was Michael Gilbert's excellent "On Slay Down", which I originally read in the Calder and Behrens collection Game Without Rules.

From his own fiction Ambler picks an episode from The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), declaring that "I have never written any short spy stories". I'm afraid I only skimmed over this, for the simple reason that I have every intention of reading the full novel at some point, probably in the edition I'll be blogging about next – another anthology, this time of Ambler's own work, again boasting an Ambler introduction.


  1. It’s always good to see Eric Ambler praised, he was one of the greats who is disgracefully in danger of slipping into obscurity. (Minus points though for admitting you’ve never read “Ashenden” . You’ll be telling me next that you’ve never read Manning Coles’ “Drink To Yesterday”....)

    Ambler’s autobiography isn’t called “Here Lies Eric Ambler” for nothing as it doesn’t reveal much about the writer but I have heard lots of great stories about him from writers who knew him and the son of the woman who was (allegedly) his mistress for many years.

    My favourite is that having made his name with novels published 1939-40 set in Istanbul and Greece,
    he was taken on a publicity tour immediately after wartime service in 1945. He had never let on that he had never been further east than Italy and had written his famous thrillers sitting in a hotel in France. As the boat he was travelling on entered Istanbul harbour at dawn, Ambler stood on deck surrounded by journalists and photographers and pronounced: “Ah, the old place hasn’t changed a bit!”

    Most of his early thrillers were filmed by Hollywood during WWII but as Ambler was on active service in the army (ironically at one point as a liaison officer to American film maker John Huston), he never saw any of the films until he was de-mobbed and back in London after the war ended. He did not, it seems, think much of them but went on to an impressive career in the 1950s as a screenwriter. (Famously on “The Cruel Sea”.)

    He was a big army chum of popular thriller writer Victor Canning and Canning’s 1950 novel “A Forest of Eyes” is clearly influenced by Ambler’s early work and is, I think, one of Canning’s best books.

    Ambler’s agent told him after his first novel was published: “Most authors have second book problems. Some have problems with their third. You’re lucky: you had all your problems with your first!”

    Keep up the good work,


  2. Thank you, Mike. And thank you for the great stories; if you've any more, feel free to forward them: Ethan Iverson is preparing an Ambler piece for his website, Do the Math, so they could be put to good use.

    I'm afraid I haven't read Drink to Yesterday; the only Manning Coles book I have is Let the Tiger Die. I'm planning on reading some Victor Canning quite soon though – and the rest of Ashenden – which I'll be devoting at least one post to – even sooner.

  3. Love anthologies. I've started collecting them in their own right. Incidentally, have you come across "Clubland Heroes"?- John Buchan, Sapper, Dornford Yates, Dennis Wheatley:

  4. Nope, haven't seen that before Luke. Looks interesting!

  5. Now this one I really want. I have looked around and looks affordable in various conditions. Thanks for featuring this.