Sunday, June 23, 2019

The story of Arthur Abdel Simpson, or that lying Eric Ambler

How about those book covers? No serious books here!

Dirty Story

I picked up Eric Ambler's Dirty Story (1967) at a charity sale last fall. It's one of the few of Ambler's spy novels I haven't read, and I was happy to find it. It starts in Athens where Arthur Abdel Simpson is a chauffeur, tour guide, and small-time crook. He's got passport trouble, with neither a valid Egyptian passport (his mother's country) nor an English passport (his father's.) The clerk at the English embassy is perfectly well aware of Simpson's criminal record in various countries, and simply refuses to renew his now out of date English passport, claiming his parents were never married. Simpson is left with no choice but to try to buy a fake passport on the docks at Piraeus. For which he doesn't have the money.

His attempt to scheme his way out of this results in various complications that lead to his taking a job as a mercenary in a war between small (fake) African countries over mineral rights.

The exposition was amusing, but took up too much of the novel; the adventure part was compelling and fun, but came a little late in the book, only the last 60 pages.

But it was early in the exposition I realized this was the same protagonist/narrator as in Ambler's The Light of Day, so I pulled that off the shelf.

The Light of Day

The Light of Day (1962) is the much better novel; here Simpson breaks into the hotel room of his client Harper after dropping Harper off at a house of prostitution, and sets himself up to be blackmailed into assisting in some illegal scheme. What is it? Simpson figures it's drugs; the Turkish policeman, Colonel Haki, who detects it almost right away, assumes it's political. The alternate title of the book, Topkapi (also the title of the movie, with Peter Ustinov as Simpson) half gives it away, but I won't say more. Much more thriller, less exposition, with Ambler's signature humor.

I'd read The Light of Day before, a while ago now, and so I didn't realize until I reread it, that Simpson's explanation of his checkered career is almost the same in Dirty Story as it is in The Light of Day. Pretty slack on Ambler's part. It's amusing, but reading them one right after the other is a bit disappointing, but it's the second novel that's the lazy one, of course, not this one.

Here Lies

I've long loved the title of Ambler's autobiography, and when I saw I could get it from the library, I thought, well, now's the time. It dates from 1985, when Ambler was 76, and comes after all of his novels, though he lived on for another thirteen years. It's pretty entertaining.

His parents were puppeteers and performers of musical theater, before his father decided he needed a more stable job during the Depression years. It covers his school years (decent public school education,) his first jobs (manufacturing of electrical equipment--this was full of technical information and often incomprehensible--,) and his war years (mostly with a film unit, writing for Carol Reed or John Huston.) It stops about 1950, but then author biographies often get dull once they're solidly established so maybe that's just as well.

Now I want to see the movie again.

Can't get much more fluffy/summer-y in one's reading than that!

and while I have an unread Orhan Pamuk novel around here, The Light of Day is definitely a Turkey book, so...


  1. I've wanted to read some Ambler for a while. The blogger Thomas @ Hogglestock has sung his praised for a while now.

    I might just start with Light of Day and then rent the movie Topkapi. I find adaptations often interesting in what they leave in and/or keep out.

    1. Light of Day is a very good one, and so is A Coffin for Demetrios, but really I've enjoyed them all. Dirty Story is probably the least of them that I've read.

      Thanks for stopping by!