"Journey Into Fear"
posted to www.marxmail.org on July 12, 2003
Eric Ambler's 1940 "Journey Into Fear" has been re-issued by Vintage as part of an ongoing project to make this great writer's work available to the general public once again. It would be an excellent introduction to his work. Ambler's taut plot moves along relentlessly with an ensemble of memorable characters, sparkling dialogue, dry wit and social commentary. It is the story of Graham, a British engineer for an arms manufacturer who is trying to elude fascist assassins. If they can kill him, it will effectively postpone the delivery of new guns and torpedo tubes to Turkey.
Graham is the quintessential Ambler hero, who would never dream of getting into a life-or-death intrigue. He has a wife, a pleasant home and enjoys golf and other small pleasures. Like Tolkien's hobbit, this character is plucked from his normal, settled existence and thrown willy-nilly into a fight for survival. Unlike the hobbit, his antagonists represent the evil of a dying capitalist society rather than dark, supernatural forces.
In Istanbul to iron out the terms of the contract with the Turkish government, Graham is shot in the hand while entering his hotel room late at night. After taking another two shots at him through an open window, the assailant flees into the darkness.
When Colonel Haki of the Turkish Secret Police tells Graham that an attempt was made to kill him in order to thwart the arms deal, he insists that the culprit had to be a burglar and nothing else. After being persuaded by Haki that his life is actually in danger, Graham tells himself:
On the rare occasions when matters concerned with insurance policies had been under consideration on which Graham had thought about his own death, it had been to reaffirm the conviction that he would die of natural causes and in bed. Accidents did happen, of course; but he was a careful driver, an imaginative pedestrian and a strong swimmer; he neither rode horses nor climbed mountains; he was not subject to attacks of dizziness; he did not hunt big game and he had never had even the smallest desire to jump in front of an approaching train. He had felt, on the whole, that the conviction was not unreasonable. The idea that anyone else in the world might so much as hope for his death had never occurred to him. If it had done so he would probably have hastened to consult a nerve specialist. Confronted by the proposition that someone was, in fact, not merely hoping for his death but deliberately trying to murder him, he was as profoundly shocked as if he had been presented with incontrovertible proofs that a2 no longer equalled b2 + c2 or that his wife had a lover.
In order to throw off his assassins, Graham agrees to take a boat back to France rather than the train he was booked on. From that point on, he would be relatively safe from the two men who Haki had identified as the potential murderers. One was Moeller, a German agent. the other was Banat, a Romanian veteran of the fascist Iron Guard who had already tried unsuccessfully to shoot Graham through the hotel window.
Most of the action in "Journey Into Fear" takes place on the "Sestri Levante", a boat filled with a cross-section of European society, including Moeller and Banat who have learned of Graham's change of plans and a Turkish agent who has been assigned to protect him. As one might expect in this genre (Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" is another example), the enclosed space acts to bring if not force characters into one dramatic encounter after another.
One is Mathis, an elderly Frenchman who has become a socialist despite his petite-bourgeois origins. He explains his conversion to Graham as the result of disillusionment with the Great Patriotic War:
"Have you heard of Briey, Monsieur? From the mines of the Briey district comes ninety per cent, of France's iron ore. In nineteen fourteen those mines were captured by the Germans, who worked them for the iron they needed. They worked them hard. They have admitted since that without the iron they mined at Briey they would have been finished in nineteen seventeen. Yes, they worked Briey hard. I, who was at Verdun, can tell you that. Night after night we watched the glare in the sky from the blast furnaces of Briey a few kilometres away; the blast furnaces that were feeding the German guns. Our artillery and our bombing aeroplanes could have blown those furnaces to pieces in a week. But our artillery remained silent; an airman who dropped one bomb on the Briey area was court-martialled. Why?" His voice rose. "I will tell you why, Monsieur. Because there were orders that Briey was not to be touched. Whose orders? Nobody knew. The orders came from someone at the top. The Ministry of War said that it was the generals. The generals said that it was the Ministry of War. We did not find out the facts until after the war. The orders had been issued by Monsieur de Wendel of the Comite" des Forges who owned the Briey mines and blast furnaces. We were fighting for our lives, but our lives were less important than that the property of Monsieur de Wendel should be preserved to make fat profits. No, it is not good for those who fight to know too much. Speeches, yes! The truth, no!"
Mathis eventually supplies Graham with the pistol he needs to defend himself against Moeller and Banat in the exciting final chapter of "Journey Into Fear". While the primary purpose of this novel is to entertain, it also has the merit of dramatizing resistance to fascism even if carried out on the individual level. Although Ambler's novels would be the last place to find collective forms of struggle, they are part of the artistic legacy of the progressive movement that this generation needs to rediscover.
Even a figure as unlikely as Alfred Hitchcock could make this connection, who wrote in the introduction to a 1970 collection of Ambler novels that included "Journey Into Fear":
The reader identifies himself with Mr. Ambler's heroes in still another way. His heroes suffer precisely the sort of emotions that you yourself would suffer in similar circumstances. Journey into Fear is the story of a man afraid. He is afraid because someone took a shot at him for no reason that he could readily grasp and he was now informed that the same man would take another shot at him and this time he would try not to miss. The following one hundred and forty-five pages compose a hypnotically fascinating study in fear. If you were that manan engineer with an attractive wife and a pleasant home and a low handicap at golfyou would be afraid too. But do you realize that in the traditional spy novel you would not be afraid? You would be very busy trying to turn the tables on your unknown assailant-and, of course, the result would be a trite story with no genuine suspense.
So much for Mr. Ambler's "heroes." Consider the subsidiary characters. The "villains" are a strange and motley crew indeed. There are big business men and bankers; the cheap scum of the low cafés of the ancient Continental cities; the professional, suave, well-heeled gangsters whom we have learned to recognize as the incipient chiefs of Gestapos and fascist conspiracies. In brief, they are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time. And the wise men the clever ones, the ones who solve or help to solve the riddles in these stories-they are not the traditional old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence. In two of these novels they are Soviet agents operating in Italy and Austria just before the outbreak of the war; in the other two they are Turkish political police. Again, people you can believe in above all, the kind of people who really were clever in the corrupt and stupid years of the past decade.
Which leads to a consideration of the kind of material that Mr. Ambler deals with. It is the material of reality. The crimes grow out of fascist intrigues and the greed of big business; they grow out of a Europe run down, decadent, dirty, rotten, ripe for war and revolt. Mr. Ambler is a young man who knows his Europe, understands the politics and the finance of that Europe. His stories ring true: you read them and you say to yourself: "Why, this is the kind of thing that happens all the time."