Invisible Ink 3: Eric Ambler & Neville Shute
While neither of these classic authors is truly forgotten – in the UK at least – their words have faded to a faintness only discerned by loyal fans, and most modern readers would be hard-pressed to recall them. Reprints are available and second-hand copies lie in Oxfam shops, but both have been caught out by the passage of time.
Neville Shute (below) wrote wartime aircraft adventures and Eric Ambler (above) produced sophisticated Europe-set 1930s thrillers, but what links them (apart from the fact that their paperbacks tended to sit side by side on second-hand bookshelves) is their ability to tell 20th century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care about, linking events into larger political settings. This basic storytelling skill lately seems to have become buried within vast self-important volumes, so it’s a shock to note the brevity of most Shute and Ambler novels. Like their heroes and heroines, the authors get in, do the job well and get out.
Nevil Shute’s actual surname was Norway. Like many writers in the twenties and thirties, he was fascinated by flying, so his heroes are often independent pilots. In the fifties, he switched his locations to Australia and wrote his two most famous books, the post-apocalyptic ‘On The Beach’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’, in which a young Englishwoman and an Australian cattleman survive starvation and torture during the war in Malaya, and later found a new outback town. Uncomplicated novels about fundamentally good people are unfashionable now, and Shute has become a minority taste.
Ambler came from a London music hall family and toured as a comic, but became more politically aware than the Oxford-educated Shute. A committed anti-Fascist, his novels reflected the growing ideological complexity of his time, and his taut thrillers, like ‘The Mask Of Demetrius’ and ‘Journey Into Fear’ came early in his career. His heroes often get out of their depth in the cynical, murky world of European espionage. ‘What else could you expect from a balance of power,’ asks one of his characters, ‘adjusted in terms of land, of arms, of man-power and of materials: in terms, in other words, of money?’
A later novel, ‘The Light Of Day’, adopted a lighter tone and concerned jewel thieves trying to rob the Istanbul museum. It was filmed as ‘Topkapi’ and subsequently parodied in ‘The Pink Panther’. Ambler moved to Hollywood and scripted ‘The Cruel Sea’ which secured an Oscar nomination, and ‘A Night To Remember’, about the sinking of the Titanic. The Shute and Ambler paperbacks have evocative covers and have become collectable of late.