I read, as I suppose many of my generation did, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy when I was a teenager. They were exciting tales of action in a Europe on the brink of war, with heroes not of the John Buchan mould (I’d read the Richard Hannay books of course) but ordinary men plunged against their will into extraordinary experiences. Journey into Fear, memorably filmed with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, is another prime example. Since my teens, though, I hadn’t read an Ambler novel, but my revived interest in spy fiction, sparked by the huge enjoyment I derived from reading Jeremy Duns’s Paul Dark sequence, sent me back to Ambler.
The Levanter is late Ambler, first published in 1972. It is set a couple of years earlier, largely in Syria, and is concerned with the way in which one of those typical Ambler protagonists finds himself embroiled in a terrorist plot. Reading this novel in 2016 is instructive, if only to realise how depressingly little attitudes in the Middle East have changed in the intervening forty-odd years. The eponymous Levanter is Michael Howell, whose very British name conceals a more complex mixed Armenian, Cypriot and Lebanese heritage. He’s the head of a family engineering company with a long history of business in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and is doing well in the difficult circumstances of the time, negotiating with the one-party Syrian regime with the help of his Italian secretary/lover. But, as is so often the case with Ambler, his relatively cosy world is about to be shattered by the intrusion of some brutal political realities. A terrorist group, the Palestinian Action Force (modelled on one of the many such groups that emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967) has infiltrated the company in order to manufacture bombs to use against Israel. Howell, for reasons carefully explained, cannot simply go to the authorities, and the scene is then set for a tense game of cat-and-mouse as Howell attempts to outwit the coldly sadistic leader of the terrorist cell, Salah Ghaled.
The narrative is split between three first person narrators: Lewis Prescott, an American journalist, who provides the background detail through his account of an interview with Ghaled; Teresa Malandra, the secretary, who offers a wry perspective on her boss; and Howell himself, who carries the bulk of the narrative, mostly attempting to justify his actions since he has been, we glean, vilified by both sides after the events have concluded. Howell is always at pains to show how his actions stem from the best of motives, and his self-deprecating stance helps the reader to identify with him as he becomes increasingly entwined in the terrorist plot. Ambler stresses his ordinariness – he is a successful and enterprising businessman, yes, but as Howell ruefully points out, “when the commodity is violence and the man you are dealing with is an animal” his business skills are of little use. Howell’s narrative is careful and detailed – that attention to detail is one of his character traits, but also leads to the only parts of the story which drag a little. I’m not sure the reader needs to know quite as much about the construction of dry cell batteries as we are given here. That said, the second part of the novel, which concerns the attempted raid by the terrorist group, moves at a fair pace, and the scenes on board Howell’s ship the Amalia as the climax approaches are gripping.
Ambler maintains his usual high standard in this tale, where every character is flawed and no-one completely blameless. In a world stripped of moral certainties, Howell represents a kind of grubby virtue.
Eric Ambler: The Levanter by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.