Ambler & The Pink Thief

The Arts


The talents of many 20th century writers were tempered in the heat of conflict. Aldiss, Asimov, Ballard, Heinlein, Heller, Vonnegut, Mailer and Nevil Shute were just a few of the novelists shaped by wartime experiences. Many were not adversely affected and produced fiction that was almost nostalgic for combat.

Eric Ambler came from a London music hall family (lucky man! What a home life he must have had!) and went on the touring circuit as a comic. His serious side surfaced in his thrillers. 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.

Ambler’s 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?’

Ambler inevitably moved to Hollywood and scripted ‘The Cruel Sea’, which secured an Oscar nomination, and ‘A Night To Remember’, a rather better film about the sinking of the Titanic than that gaudy one with all the 3D CGI that now looks a bit dated.

His novel ‘The Light Of Day’ adopted a lighter tone and concerned a petty thief who is discovered stealing from a hotel room. His victim turns out to be a criminal in a league above his own, and the petty thief is blackmailed into smuggling arms into Turkey for use in a major jewel robbery. The big set piece occurs when the jewel thieves try to rob the Istanbul museum. It was filmed as ‘Topkapi’ and was, of course, subsequently parodied to perfection in ‘The Pink Panther’.

6 comments on “Ambler & The Pink Thief”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I’ve read three Eric Ambler “Silver Penguins”: Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm and The Dark Frontier. I suppose they could be regarded as early examples of the “literary thriller” genre, contemporary with Graham Greene, and taken up later by John le Carre, Robert Harris etc. Quite a tricky genre to pull off successfully as it’s difficult to rise above the shallow Alistair Maclean/Jack Higgins level, and blend the political/social/psychological layers with the action/suspense layers. When reading his books you tend to see them in your mind as gritty black and white Film Noir movies, the sort of thing they show on Talking Pictures TV.

    I recently read Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute. It was very different and also far better than I expected. Basically set in one day in Australia in the 1950s, it consists mainly of flashbacks to WW2 and the later 1940s and is a very profound study of the psychological effects of war. Thoroughly recommended, and I will definitely read more of his books.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Back to Neville Shute Norway I see. He had a strange mystic streak that turns up in some but not all of his books. I haven’t decided how I feel about that. His book about the designing of the R101 and the disaster that ensued is very good and written by an engineer.

  3. Steveb says:

    Hi Chris
    Thanks a lot for writing this. I like both Shute and Ambler a lot. I dont know if I like the term literary thriller or not, when I read books my first thing is enjoy or not enjoy or sometimes, didnt enjoy as such but was nevertheless really impressed.
    So with Le Carre, obviously the first two Smiley books are very much in the tradition, though in the second we learn the most about Smiley’s past as i remember. Then obviously le Carre found his own voice and wrote Spy Who… But I would say going on to Tinker Tailor it is very well written but much more back to the first two books just with stronger more memorable characters.
    Eric Ambler in my impression alwaysknew what he wanted to write and just did that very well. He wrote an essay the ability to kill which is reflected in his books. Simplicity can be deceptive.
    Anyone interested in british films should try wreck of the mary deare which is actually based i think on a hammond innes book. And clouded yellow is a kind of sub 39 steps but still worth a watch.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    I agree with Steveb that “literary thriller” is a bit crass, but the word “thriller” on its own brings to mind (for me at least) the sort of meritless adventure story for grownups which is visible a mile off because of the plain white covers with a photo of some combination of a gun, bullets and dagger. Fortunately this type of book seems to be deeply unfashionable these days, but we need a way to distinguish it from more serious works.

    (btw, if you really want a genre to hate, or just laugh at, Waterstones used to have a “Chick Lit” section!)

    I am very surprised at Eric Ambler’s background; it certainly does not come through in any of the books I have read. It’s just as well I didn’t know before I read any as I probably wouldn’t have bought them. The idea of “comedian has a bash at writing a thriller” is enough to put anyone off!

  5. Brian Evans says:

    The Clouded Yellow, mentioned above, is rather a good film with strong cast. But be careful buying the DVD. There are two versions out. An earlier release had cuts, but they re-released a later version without the cuts.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    The thriller is still around, Clive Cussler is still popular. I keep meaning to take the plunge with ambler and Shute, I’ve heard the radio version of On the Beach, should really read it as well.


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