It’s an oldie (1938), but a goodie, as they used to say on the radio when they played an old song. Oh for the days when the hero and his fiancée sat in the back row at the pictures holding hands. As that hero Nick Marlow might say, it’s a rattling good yarn, with an extended manhunt worthy of Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps.
A severe manufacturing downturn in Britain leads Nick to take a job running the Milan branch of a British company that makes armaments for Mussolini’s government. Nick’s an engineer, not a moral philosopher, so he doesn’t let himself worry about the Mussolini angle too much:
I am merely the agent. I did not create the situation. The responsibility for it is not mine. There is a job to be done. If I do not do it, someone else will. (91)
Good old straightforward Nick of course walks into a hotbed of corruption, double-dealing and competing spies. There’s a creepy German who wears pancake makeup and claims to be Yugoslav, and a bluff American who might perhaps be a Russian spy. There’s bribery and blackmail and bashing-up in the street. Whether he likes it or not, Nick finds himself making a choice on behalf of others and not just himself. And that’s where the manhunt comes in as he tries to escape across the border, walking by night, jumping freight trains, stealing other people’s clothes and trying to walk calmly under the noses of the armed state thugs hunting him.
Ambler is said to have influenced Le Carré and Deighton with his stories of “ordinary people thrust into political intrigue they were ill-prepared to deal with”. His clean, energetic style is a pleasure to read. Jolly good show, Eric old man.