Latest second-hand shop acquisition — The Ability to Kill, by Eric Ambler. Ambler is my favourite spy writer, a bit like Graham Greene, whose mode he anticipated, but without the booby-trapping with Catholic allegories and wildly depressing bits. Ambler wasn’t brilliantly served by the movies, though Welles produced JOURNEY INTO FEAR and Walsh directed BACKGROUND TO DANGER based on his novels. Jules Dassin’s sprightly TOPKAPI is probably the best.
But Ambler also worked as screenwriter, chalking up the odd classic like A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and a few decent programmers like THE OCTOBER MAN.
The Ability to Kill is a collection of non-fiction — several of the pieces are reportage on true murder cases, and they’re quite fascinating, but there’s also humorous essays on spy-spotting. The true professional spy, says Ambler, can be identified by the singular quality of loucheness, and he further claims that loucheness itself can be measured on a sliding scale of 1 to 10.
1. I wonder who pays for his/her clothes.
2. But I thought that he/she came with you.
3. There is something about him/her that I don’t quite like.
4. That mouth of his/hers is quite peculiar.
5. I wouldn’t trust him/her farther than I could throw him/her.
6. This one’s straight out of the woodwork.
7. Thank goodness he/she is three tables away.
8. Better feel to see if my passport’s safe.
9. I feel I ought to warn some authority about him/her at once.
10. I must get to a telephone.
Ambler also recounts an amusing story about Bangkok which I hope is true. His point is that Bangkok is a strange place, and prolonged residence can give rise to a specific neurosis:
“A slight fever is followed by mild dysentery. Then, after a few days, you find yourself adopting a sort of Dali-esque attitude to life that is not far removed from whimsicality. This is the tertiary stage. Not only occidentals become infected.
In the Garden of the British Embassy in Bangkok there is a life-sized statue of Queen Victoria. When the Japanese army entered the city in 1942, they took over the embassy as a military headquarters, and the local Japanese commander gave orders for the statue to be boarded up. But after a few days in Bangkok, he found that something was troubling him. It was the statue. Queen Victoria it had been who, at the turn of the century, had recognized Japan as a great power. Japanese history books approved of her. No disrespect ought to be shown to her effigy. And yet, the political situation made it difficult. In the end he compromised. The boarding would remain, but in order to cause Her late Majesty the minimum of inconvenience, he gave orders for two small eye-holes to be cut in the boarding so that she could look out.”
Finally, in a piece called The Magic Box of Willie Green (reminding me that Ambler also scripted THE MAGIC BOX, about cinema pioneer William Friese-Green), Ambler discusses the plight of the screenwriter, and it’s some of the wisest stuff on the subject I’ve ever encountered. He goes into the various pitfalls that can render a writer either unemployable and embittered, or a worthless hack, as well as sketching the way he can navigate the perils and emerge with self-respect intact. I confess I didn’t fully understand this last part, because I guess I have to find my way there myself. From that serene pinnacle, once achieved, I hope to look back and fully grasp Ambler’s analysis of the problem.