Wednesday 16 July 2014

Eric Ambler - guest blog by Peter Lewis

Peter and Margaret Lewis have been good friends of mine for more than 25 years. They have a distinguished track record in academe, and have both written some fiction, but are best known for their books about other writers - Margaret, for instance, wrote a super book about Ngaio Marsh. They also ran Flambard Press, and published Dancing for the Hangman. Today, I'm delighted to host a guest blog by Peter about a book which I can strongly recommend. 

"Once upon a time I was commissioned by Continuum Publishing in New York to write a book about Eric Ambler, with the emphasis on his literary achievement, originality and influence. Not, then, a conventional  biography. This arose after I was awarded an Edgar (Edgar Allan Poe Award) by the Mystery Writers of America for the best non-fiction mystery title of the year published in the US: my book about John le CarrĂ©.

Eric Ambler was very much alive at this time and back in London after many years in Hollywood and Switzerland, so I approached him via his literary agent in the hope that he would be willing to discuss the proposed book. In reply, he cautiously expressed interest in it and suggested that we meet to see how he could help. That successful first meeting set the pattern for quite a few more in the late 1980s: an extremely leisurely lunch in Mayfair, always involving an excellent Chablis. Because of his reputation as a writer of that supposedly lowest of  literary forms, the thriller, he hadn’t attracted much in the way of academic interest, and was obviously keen to discover what an academic like myself was making of his oeuvre, especially his eighteen novels. My book about him, published as a hardback in 1990, was to be the first full-length critical evaluation of his fiction. I wrote it on an Amstrad, which still lurks in a corner of the attic. A museum piece. I didn’t have the advantage of the internet when working on the 1990 book, whereas I benefited enormously from it in preparing the new version.

Eric was not writing a great deal in his later years, and his final novel, The Care of Time, came out in 1981. Even so, he lived for almost a decade after my book was published, and it could hardly be described as a definitive study. It was bound to seem incomplete. I thought about revising and updating it, but didn’t get round to it until Endeavour Press expressed an interest in publishing the original version as an eBook. I wasn’t in favour of simply reissuing  it as it stood, and persuaded Endeavour to publish a revised and slightly expanded version to complete what seemed incomplete. Still a work in progress.

I continued to see Eric in London occasionally after my book was published, but neither he nor his wife, Joan Harrison, was in good health in the 1990s, and Joan died in August 1994 after a long illness. The most surprising thing that happened in that decade was the first American publication in 1990 of his debut novel, The Dark Frontier, more than fifty years after its British publication in 1936. Early on, Eric had lost the US copyright. It was thanks to Mysterious Press in New York that the novel finally surfaced in the US, and Mysterious Press soon followed this in 1991 with Waiting for Orders, subtitled The Complete Short Stories of Eric Ambler. This contains the eight stories he had published in a writing career of almost sixty years, indicating that he was much less at home with the short form than with the novel. Eric was to write one more story: ‘The One Who Did for Blagden Cole’. This longish narrative was commissioned for a fiction Festschrift, The Man Who . . . , to honor the distinguished English literary scholar, critic and writer Julian Symons on his eightieth birthday in 1992. The book, containing thirteen stories by prominent crime and thriller writers was edited by H.R.F. Keating on behalf of the British Detection Club and published in London by Macmillan.

After The Care of Time, Eric’s London publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson encouraged him to write his autobiography in the 1980s, and in 1985 he published one volume covering the years up to the late 1940s, Here Lies,  with its teasing title printed above his name on the jacket to produce the startlingly ambiguous HERE LIES ERIC AMBLER. A second volume was expected in the 1990s but did not appear. Eric’s final book with another teasing title, The Story So Far: Memories & Other Fictions, was published in 1993 and is an unusual medley. It contains all nine of his published stories, the eight collected in Waiting for Orders plus the new one he wrote for The Man Who . . . in a slightly modified form, but these are interwoven with four sections of autobiography, ‘Beginning’, ‘End of the Beginning’, ‘Middle’, and ‘To Be Continued’. It is typical of Ambler’s fondness for irony that the fourth and final section  is not called ‘End’ but ‘To Be Continued’, although it seems clear that he had no intention of continuing with his autobiography. By the time of his death on 22 October 1998 aged eighty-nine Eric was at last receiving the serious academic attention he deserves for his major literary achievement. Books by the American scholars Ronald Ambrosetti, Peter Wolfe and Robert Lance Snyder followed in the wake of mine. It is a pity that Eric did not live long enough to see the Swiss scholar Stefan Howald’s monumental and magisterial Eric Ambler: Eine Biographie (2002). At long last Eric was being celebrated as a major novelist."


pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I like Eric Ambler very much, I like the books of Peter Lewis even more. Nice to read this. THE BLACK HOUSE would be near the top of the list of my favorites.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Patti. Thanks - though I'm wondering if you might be thinking of Peter May and the very successful Lewis books rather than Peter Lewis?