Eric Ambler

Eric Clifford Ambler OBE (28 June 1909 – 22 October 1998) was an influential British author of thrillers, in particular spy novels, who introduced a new realism to the genre. He also worked as a screenwriter. Ambler used the pseudonym Eliot Reed for books co-written with Charles Rodda.

Eric Ambler
Eric Ambler
BornEric Clifford Ambler
28 June 1909
London, England
Died22 October 1998 (aged 89)
London, England[1]
GenreThrillers, spy novels


Ambler was born in London into a family of entertainers who ran a puppet show, with which he helped in his early years. Both parents also worked as music hall artists.[2] He later studied engineering at the Northampton Polytechnic Institute in Islington (now City, University of London), and served a traineeship with an engineering company. However, his upbringing as an entertainer proved dominant and he soon moved to writing plays and other works. By the early 1930s he was a copywriter at an advertising agency in London. After resigning he moved to Paris, where he met and married Louise Crombie, an American fashion correspondent.

At that time, Ambler was politically a staunch anti-Fascist and like many others tended to regard the Soviet Union as the only real counterweight to fascist aggression – which was reflected in the fact that some of his early books include Soviet agents depicted positively and as sympathetic characters, the undoubted allies of the main protagonist.

Like numerous like-minded people in different countries, Ambler was shocked and disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. His post-war anti-Communist novel Judgment on Deltchev (1951), based on the Stalinist purge-trials in Eastern Europe, caused him to be reviled by many former Communist Party and other progressive associates.

When World War II broke out, Ambler entered the army as a private soldier. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1941. He was soon reassigned to photographic units. He ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel and assistant director of the army film unit. After the war, he worked in the civilian film industry as a screenwriter, receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1953 for his work on the film The Cruel Sea, adapted from the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. He did not resume writing under his own name until 1951, entering the second of the two distinct periods in his writing. Five of his six early works are regarded as classic thrillers. He created the 1960 American detective TV series Checkmate.

Ambler divorced Crombie in 1958, marrying British-born film producer, screenwriter and longstanding right arm of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock, Joan Harrison the same year. The couple moved to Switzerland in 1969 and back to Britain 16 years later. Harrison died in 1994 in London. Ambler died in 1998.

In 2008, his estate transferred all of Ambler's copyrights and other legal and commercial rights to Owatonna Media. Owatonna Media sold these copyrights on to Coolabi Plc in 2009, but retained a master licence in radio and audio rights. These rights are commercially licensed in the UK and abroad.

Writing career

Ambler's best known works are probably The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) (published in the US under the title A Coffin for Dimitrios), which was made into a film in 1944, and The Light of Day (1962), filmed in 1964 as Topkapi. He was also a successful screenwriter and lived in Los Angeles in his later years. Amongst other classic movies based on his work are Journey into Fear (1943), starring Joseph Cotten, and an original screenplay, The October Man (1947). He wrote the screenplay for A Night to Remember about the sinking of the Titanic, along with many other screenplays, particularly those concerning stories and adventures at sea. He published his autobiography in 1985, Here Lies Eric Ambler.[1]

In contrast to most other spy novels, Ambler's protagonist is rarely a professional spy, policeman or counter-intelligence operative but an amateur who finds himself unwillingly in the company of hardened criminals, revolutionaries, or spies.[3] He seems out of his depth, a bumbling anti-hero, who nonetheless eventually manages to surprise himself as well as the professionals by a decisive action that outwits his far more experienced opponents. This plot is used, for example, in Journey into Fear, Epitaph for a Spy, The Mask of Dimitrios, The Night-Comers/State of Siege, Passage of Arms, The Light of Day, Dirty Story, and Doctor Frigo.

A number of Ambler's characters feature in more than one novel: Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara in Uncommon Danger and Cause for Alarm, Charles Latimer in The Mask of Dimitrios and The Intercom Conspiracy, and Arthur Abdel Simpson in The Light of Day and Dirty Story. Zia Haki appears as a Colonel Haki of the Turkish secret police in The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear, and is mentioned as a General Haki in The Light of Day.



Short stories and non-fiction

  • The Ability to Kill: and Other Pieces (1963). Published with a chapter on John Bodkin Adams removed because of libel concerns.
  • To Catch A Spy (1964). An anthology of stories.
  • Here Lies: An Autobiography (1985). Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work, 1987.
  • Waiting for Orders (1991). Contains eight stories mostly written in 1939–40 while Ambler awaited his call to military duty:
    1. "The Intrusions of Dr. Czissar". Six ingenious detective stories featuring Dr Jan Czissar, a refugee Czech detective formerly of the Prague police.
    2. "The Army of the Shadows". A suspense story about an English surgeon travelling in the Swiss Alps who becomes entangled in the intrigues of pre-war anti-Nazis.
    3. "The Blood Bargain". A suspense story about a Latin American dictator who cleverly gains his release from insurgents but then finds exile extremely dangerous.
  • The Story so Far: Memories and Other Fictions (1993). Nine autobiographical stories covering different periods of Ambler's life.

Short stories (first publication)

as Eliot Reed (with Charles Rodda)

  • Skytip (1950)
  • Tender to Danger (1951), also published as Tender to Moonlight
  • The Maras Affair (1953)
  • Charter to Danger (1954)
  • Passport to Panic (1958)



  1. ^ a b Pace, Eric (24 October 1998). "Eric Ambler, Thriller Writer Who Elevated the Genre to Literature, Is Dead at 89". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Eric Ambler, Here Lies.
  3. ^ See, for example, his own introduction to the anthology To Catch a Spy.


  • Ronald J. Ambrosetti: Eric Ambler. New York: Twayne Publ. u.a. 1994. (= Twayne's English authors series; 507) ISBN 0-8057-8369-5.
  • Peter Lewis: Eric Ambler. New York: Continuum 1990. ISBN 0-8264-0444-8
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "Eric Ambler's Revisionist Thrillers: Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and The Intercom Conspiracy." Papers on Language & Literature 45 (Summer 2009): 227-60.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "'The Jungles of International Bureaucracy': Criminality and Detection in Eric Ambler's The Siege of the Villa Lipp." Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate 20.2-3 (2010/2011): 272-88.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "Ethnography, Doubling, and Equivocal Narration in Eric Ambler's The Levanter." The CEA Critic 77.1 (2015): 58-70.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "Transforming the Thriller: Narrative Deferral and 'Second-Wave Terrorism' in Eric Ambler's The Care of Time." South Atlantic Review 82.2 (2017): 136-53.
  • (in German) Eric Ambler, edited by the Filmkritiker-Kooperative. München: Verlag Filmkritik 1982. (= Filmkritik; Jg. 26, 1982, H. 12 = Gesamtfolge; 312).
  • (in German) Gerd Haffmans (ed.): Über Eric Ambler. Zeugnisse von Alfred Hitchcock bis Helmut Heissenbüttel. Zürich: Diogenes 1989. (= Diogenes-TB; 20607) ISBN 3-257-20607-0.
  • (in German) Stefan Howald: Eric Ambler. Eine Biographie. Zürich: Diogenes 2002. ISBN 3-257-06325-3

External links

A Kind of Anger

A Kind of Anger is a novel by British thriller writer Eric Ambler, first published in 1964. Like many of Ambler's post-war novels the thriller plot is laced with elements of comedy.

Background to Danger

Background to Danger is a 1943 World War II spy film starring George Raft and featuring Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.

Based on the novel Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler and set in politically neutral Turkey (an atmospheric studio version), the screenplay was credited to W.R. Burnett, although William Faulkner and Daniel Fuchs also contributed. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

The film was designed to capitalize on the runaway success of Casablanca, which had also featured Lorre and Greenstreet. The Russian operative positively portrayed by Brenda Marshall shows an exaggerated degree of cooperation, and the film has a slight pro-Soviet bias akin to Warners' Mission to Moscow from the same year.

Cause for Alarm (novel)

Cause for Alarm is a novel by Eric Ambler first published in 1938. Set in Fascist Italy in that year, the book is one of Ambler's classic spy thrillers.

Checkmate (TV series)

Checkmate is an American detective television series created by Eric Ambler, starring Anthony George, Sebastian Cabot, and Doug McClure. The show aired on CBS Television from 1960 to 1962 for a total of 70 episodes. It was produced by Jack Benny's production company, "JaMco Productions" in co-operation with Revue Studios. Guest stars included Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Lee Marvin, Mickey Rooney and many other prominent performers.

Gold Dagger

The Gold Dagger is an award given annually by the Crime Writers' Association of the United Kingdom since 1960 for the best crime novel of the year.

From 1955 to 1959, the organization named their top honor as the Crossed Red Herring Award. From 1995 to 2002 the award acquired sponsorship from Macallan and was known as the Macallan Gold Dagger.

In 2006, because of new sponsorship from the Duncan Lawrie Bank, the award was officially renamed as the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, and gained a prize fund of £20,000. It was the biggest crime-fiction award in the world in monetary terms. In 2008, Duncan Lawrie Bank quietly withdrew its sponsorship of the awards. As a result, the top prize is again called the Gold Dagger, and the monetary award has been slashed from £20,000 to £2,500.From 1969 to 2005, a Silver Dagger was awarded to the runner-up. When Duncan Lawrie acquired sponsorship, this award was dropped. After the sponsorship was withdrawn, this award was not reinstated.

The Crime Writers' Association also awards a biennial CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction and several other "Dagger" awards.

Highly Dangerous

Highly Dangerous is a 1950 British spy film starring Margaret Lockwood. The screenplay was written by Eric Ambler.

It was released in the US as Time Running Out.

Journey into Fear (1975 film)

Journey into Fear is a 1975 Canadian thriller film directed by Daniel Mann, and based on the novel of the same name by Eric Ambler.

It stars Sam Waterston, Zero Mostel, Yvette Mimieux, Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence, Shelley Winters, Stanley Holloway, Joseph Wiseman and Ian McShane.The film is a remake of Journey into Fear, a 1943 version of the novel starring Orson Welles.

Journey into Fear (novel)

Journey into Fear is a 1940 spy thriller novel by Eric Ambler. Film adaptations were released in 1943 and 1975.

Passage of Arms

Passage of Arms (1959), by Eric Ambler, is a fast-paced thriller about the discovery of a cache of arms, abandoned by Communist insurgents in the Malayan jungle, and the later transfer of the arms via Singapore to Indonesia. The title is a double reference to the novel's plot and the expression a "passage of arms". The novel is structured as three connected stories. The outer, framing story is that of Girija Krishnan, the Tamil plantation clerk who finds the arms cache and sells it to raise money to fund his bus service company. Krishnan′s story of business ambition leads to the story of an entrepreneurial Chinese trading family who arrange the transferring of the arms. The central, third story features an American couple, Greg and Dorothy Nilsen, who are tourists of the Far East used to legitimize the transaction, and so find themselves in great danger — the recurrent theme of ″innocents abroad″ that characterizes the novels of Eric Ambler.

As a novel, the narrative of Passage of Arms combines high and low humor, political and social suspense, and military action populated by vivid characters acting in ″exotic″ locales.

Rough Shoot

Rough Shoot, also known as Shoot First, is a 1953 British thriller film starring Joel McCrea and Evelyn Keyes, and featuring Herbert Lom, Marius Goring and Roland Culver. It was directed by Robert Parrish and written by Eric Ambler, based on the 1951 novel A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household.

The Card (1952 film)

The Card is a black-and-white film version of the novel by Arnold Bennett. Entitled The Promoter for its American audience, it was adapted by Eric Ambler and directed by Ronald Neame. It was released in 1952. It starred Alec Guinness as Denry Machin, Petula Clark as Nellie Cotterill, Valerie Hobson as the Countess, and Glynis Johns as Ruth Earp. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound.It is mainly faithful to the novel, omitting some minor incidents.

The Care of Time

The Care of Time (1981) is the last novel by British spy fiction writer Eric Ambler. It deals with the theme of international terrorism, using alleged hither-to-unpublished memoirs of the Russian terrorist Sergey Nechayev as a plot device.

There is a TV movie adaptation also titled The Care of Time (1990), directed by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon as Robert Halliday and Christopher Lee as Karlis Zander.

The Dark Frontier

The Dark Frontier (1936) is Eric Ambler's first novel, about whose genesis he writes: "... Became press agent for film star, but soon after joined big London advertising agency as copywriter and "ideas man". During next few years wrote incessantly on variety of subjects ranging from baby food to non-ferrous alloys. Have travelled in most countries of Europe, been stranded in Marseilles and nearly drowned in the Bay of Naples. Decided, on a rainy day in Paris, to write a thriller. Result was The Dark Frontier."

Based on the development of weaponry in the year 1936, The Dark Frontier was one of the first novels to predict the invention of a nuclear bomb and its consequences. Ambler evidently had no knowledge of what producing an atomic bomb may involve (even professional physicists at the time had only a vague idea). The book makes no mention of uranium or any other radioactive material, and makes instead the assumption that setting off an atomic bomb would involve a considerable electric charge. Still, Ambler could be credited with having become aware, before many others, of this coming weapon which was to have such a profound effect on the entire world, and his depiction of scientists in a secret hideout building such a bomb could be considered a preview of the Manhattan Project – and he correctly surmised that refugees from Nazi Germany might get involved in such a project.

The Intercom Conspiracy

The Intercom Conspiracy is a novel by British thriller writer Eric Ambler, first published in 1969. It was also published as The Quiet Conspiracy.

The Mask of Dimitrios (novel)

The Mask of Dimitrios is a 1939 novel by Eric Ambler. In the United States it was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios. It has been adapted as a radio play and made into a feature-length film, The Mask of Dimitrios.

The New Lot

The New Lot is a 1943 British drama film directed by Carol Reed and starring Eric Ambler, Robert Donat, Kathleen Harrison, Bernard Lee, Raymond Huntley, John Laurie, Peter Ustinov and Austin Trevor, with music by Richard Addinsell. It is a short training film made for the Army Kinematograph Service, which follows five new recruits from different background and their experiences as they join the army.The film was later expanded and remade as The Way Ahead, co-written by Ambler and Ustinov, directed by Carol Reed, and starring David Niven.

The October Man

The October Man is a 1947 mystery film/film noir starring John Mills and Joan Greenwood, written by novelist Eric Ambler, who also produced. A man is suspected of murder, and due to the lingering effects of a brain injury sustained in an earlier accident and after intense police investigation, he himself begins to doubt whether he is innocent or not.

The Wreck of the Mary Deare (film)

The Wreck of the Mary Deare is a 1959 Metrocolor (in CinemaScope) British-American thriller film directed by Michael Anderson and starring Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston, and featuring Michael Redgrave, Cecil Parker, Richard Harris and John Le Mesurier. The screenplay by Eric Ambler was based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Hammond Innes.

Uncommon Danger

Uncommon Danger is the second novel by British thriller writer Eric Ambler, published in 1937. In his autobiography, Here Lies, Ambler explains the original title was Background To Danger, but his British publisher disliked the word 'background', so it was published in all English-speaking countries except the US as Uncommon Danger.

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