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January 14, 2008

Co-Inventor of the Modern Spy Novel - Eric Ambler

If Eric Ambler was not the inventor of the "modern" spy novel - that title must go to the English novelist Somerset Maugham for a single, autobiographical work, Ashenden - he was certainly among the first few authors to establish the boundaries and possibilities for such a genre.

Sporting left-wing sympathies (and, after World War 2, a jaded middle-of-the-road political stance), he brought an iconoclastic sensibility to what had been a hidebound form of popular fiction, either mindless action and intrigue or earnest patriotic adventure. He was also, not incidentally, colorful, insidiously amusing, and ineffably cool.

Ambler, whose first novel was published in 1936, and who was still working in the 1990's, bridged the gap between the old world spy fiction of E. Phillips Oppenheim and his ilk - Riviera casinos, tuxedoed secret service agents, mysterious Balkan border crossings - and the more complex and cynical espionage stories of the cold war and beyond, most popularly represented by the works of John Le Carre. Ambler shared his historical and literary position with fellow Englishman Graham Greene: both writers favoured colorful, exotic settings, anti-establishment heroes, an outsider's perspective, and an atmosphere of seediness. But Ambler was more generous, funnier and less pretentious (feeling no need to label his entertaining books as "entertainments" the way Greene did), and his sharp, lucid prose was just as good.

Born in London England, Ambler also used the pseudonym Eliot Reed for books co-written with Charles Rodda. His best known works are probably The Mask of Dimitrios, which became a classic film noir in 1944, and The Light of Day, filmed in 1964 as Topkapi, and subsequently lampooned in The Pink Panther. He was also a successful screenwriter who, in his later years, lived and died in Los Angeles.

Portions of the first few paragraphs taken from the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server.

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