This post follows up on my earlier discussion of “lost” or unpublished spy novels.
Eric Ambler is widely known as one of the early masters of the espionage novel.
His The Mask of Dimitrios, published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the US, is one of the best thrillers ever written and Epitaph for a Spy set the standard for the “man mistaken for a spy” plot. Between 1936 and 1940 he wrote six books that would become classics and influence every subsequent writer in the thriller genre.
The outbreak of World War II at the height of his popularity led to his serving in the army and an eleven year hiatus between the publication of his sixth and seventh books.
It was a surprising break for someone who’d been having as much success as Ambler had. According to Peter Lewis in his book, Eric Ambler, after Ambler’s six years in the service it took a while to rediscover his muse. When he first started in the thirties he found his motivation for writing in socialism and the politics leading to WW II. With the war over and facing a changed political landscape Ambler needed to find a new reason to write apart from his passions as a young author. When he finally did, in 1951, he went on a run that continued until his last release in 1985.
In 1966 he was working on a novel set in the Caribbean and Central America, a setting he hadn’t explored before. Tentatively titled either Gentleman from Abroad or Blood Bargain, the book had been basically completed before Ambler for some reason decided on a complete rewrite. Something must have gone badly in the rewrite process because he scrapped the project. He did this even with a signed contract and a publisher expecting a finished manuscript within the month.
Although never released we can see a hint of what the novel might have looked like. Ambler later repurposed the first chapter as a short story, The Blood Bargain. It first appeared in UK collection called Winter’s Crimes 2 with later appearances in Ellery Queen Magazine and the collection of Ambler’s short stories Waiting for Orders.
If there was one thing you could count on with Ambler, it was his ability to put together a great opening. Here’s the first paragraph from The Blood Bargain –
Ex-President Fuentes enjoys a peculiar distinction. More people would like to kill him now that he is in retirement than wanted to kill him when he was in power.
TBB details the actions of Fuentes, described as an “engaging scoundrel,” when confronted with a coup d’etat of his government and it gives a taste of what we might have seen in the full novel. Ambler later took up some of the themes he explored in TBB in his 1974 novel Doctor Frigo which also involved leaders in a Caribbean nation planning a coup.
Talking about the unreleased book in his story collection, Ambler wryly observes that the short story “is an episode from a failed novel. It was written before the invention of the home shredder and after California brushfires could safely be relied upon to retrieve such indiscretions.”
The manuscript for Gentleman from Abroad is currently avoiding shredders and brushfires with the rest of Ambler’s papers in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. If anyone has or does read the novel there, any information you can offer would be great.
An email to the agent of Ambler’s written estate revealed they are aware of Gentleman from Abroad and are looking into possibilities for its release. Even if it isn’t a polished gem, with the right introduction and afterwords it would be an interesting release. It could be especially interesting if it offers an opportunity to compare it to his later work on a similar theme, Doctor Frigo.
Perhaps if enough people read this post and ask for the book to be published it will finally see The Light of Day.
Much of the research for this post came from Peter Lewis’ Eric Ambler, an essential resource, and Ambler’s own Waiting for Orders. Additional thanks to Jeremy Duns, who in his post here, brought this “lost” manuscript to wider attention.
Currently, at EricAmblerBooks.com, you can receive free ebook copies of two of his novels, one of which is “Doctor Frigo,” mentioned earlier and has been called his best work. It’s a great offer and introduction to a essential spy novelist.