Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Eric Ambler Moves Us Even Closer to Evil

My consumption of Eric Ambler novels continues with The Schirmer Inheritance, an excellent novel. Ambler's gifts seem to include detailed knowledge about various places in Europe and their tangled history. In Schirmer, he is covering some of the same ground as his classic Coffin for Dimitrios in that his protagonist, a stable, unextraordinary attorney, is attempting to unravel what happened to specific people during a time of upheaval and war. In this case he is on the trail of a German paratrooper that went missing in Greece during the last stages of World War II and may be the inheritor of a large American fortune. He is, but he's also the inheritor of something else - a bloodline of strength, mercenary ability and moral ambivalence.

I like many things about this. First, I love that Ambler is moving us closer to evil; he takes someone from an ordered world and immerses him in the chaotic. As with Dimitrios, his protagonist is attempting not so much to impose order on the lawless world of war and crime - for then this would be a more standard police novel - but simply to understand it, to describe it, to give it the option of revealing itself. This makes these novels as much about character as plot, about plumbing the depths of a human heart involved in political machinations and consequences - the stuff of first rate spy fiction.

Second, his protagonist, the attorney George Cary, I described as "not extraordinary." He's not, but he's also not a wimp or a patsy, nor simply a device to reveal his opposite. Cary is in fact a survivor of World War II like so many 1950s men, an aviator. But Ambler makes the analogy that while Cary has always experienced danger and destruction, it was from far away, from the safety - comparative safety - of a bomber. He clearly draws the distinction between one who flies, Cary, and one who jumps from an airplane into the thick of things, his prey, Franz. He holds these up to us as juxtapositions so that evil can be more clearly illuminated. My point is by making Cary as complex a character as Franz, Ambler sidesteps a silly convention.

Last, there's a major female character as well, Maria, George's interpreter, that hides all of her characteristics and at which the reader's brain picks like a loose tooth. She surprises in the end with troubling implications. The truth is, I'm not sure what to do with what Ambler's given me there - Maria succumbs to evil and despises herself for it; is it because her life has punished her and twisted her so that she can only worship strength? Her humanity is one of the concealed casualties of war and politics and again we should be grateful that Ambler shines his light on it, however grotesque. Didn't see that aspect of the ending coming and was sort of disgusted when it came. Regardless, more Ambler in my future.

1 comment:

Dylan said...

I was similarly bewildered when I finished this book. It felt a little like a cheap romance novel told from the point of view of a secondary character who thought they were in an entirely different kind of book. I don't know if that's at all what Ambler had in mind, but that what settled in my head.

I did find it a worthwhile read.