Cause for Alarm (novel)

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First US edition cover
(Alfred A. Knopf)

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.

Plot summary[edit]

Nicholas Marlow, an English engineer engaged to a young doctor, one day, out of the blue, loses his well-paid job. After several months of sheer desperation, he responds to an advert by an English engineering company, the Spartacus Machine Tool Company of Wolverhamption. He is offered the post of the firm's representative in Italy. Although the firm does not itself make weapons, its main sales are of the "Spartacus Type S2 automatic" boring machine, which is used for shell production. Able to speak some Italian, Marlow gladly accepts, secretly deciding that he will quit the job again as soon as possible to go back to England and get married.

On arrival in Milan, he realizes that there is a huge backlog at his office, and that both Bellinetti, his personal assistant (male), and his secretary (female) are highly inefficient co-workers. What is more, a lot of his time is diverted by the Italian authorities, to whom he has to report on a regular basis and who eventually inform him that they have misplaced his passport so that he is temporarily unable to leave the country.

There is growing uneasiness on Marlow's part when he happens to notice that his private correspondence with his fiancée has been steamed open. When he makes friends with Andreas Zaleshoff, an American businessman of Russian descent whose office is in the same building, he learns from the latter that Bellinetti is an agent for the OVRA and watching each and every step Marlow takes, and that his predecessor's accident—he was run over by a car in a dark and foggy street of Milan—was in fact cold-blooded politically motivated murder. On top of all that, Marlow is contacted by a General Vagas who informs him that he has no choice but to work as a Yugoslav spy.

There is no way Marlow could legally leave Italy, especially after an arrest warrant has been issued for him by the authorities. Assisted by Zaleshoff, he succeeds in making his escape from Milan. Together, the two men embark on a several-day-long odyssey through the North of Italy—by train and on foot—until they finally, in the midst of a snowbound forest, reach the Yugoslav border. (Their flight takes up more than one third of the novel.) From Zagreb, Marlow can safely travel home to England.

The final episode before the escape is a particularly excoriating attack on the repressive behaviour of the Mussolini State. This novel, together with Uncommon Danger/Background to Danger and The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin for Dimitrios comes from Ambler's 'Popular front' period when he was plainly sympathetic to the Left and the USSR. One of Marlow's English work colleagues, an obviously decent and intelligent sort, is sympathetically identified as a 'socialist'. Marlow escapes capture on one occasion thanks to the selfless intervention of a former Communist railwayman, who has been cunningly identified as a one-time Comrade by Andreas Zaleshoff.

Context[edit]

The charming, humorous, resourceful and courageous Zaleshoff and his beautiful sister Tamara - also a Soviet agent - are the only characters to feature at length in two Ambler books. Both also play a significant role in Uncommon Danger, where the English journalist, Kenton, blunders into a major intelligence operation and finds himself working for Moscow against agents of cynical capitalism and National Socialism. In an essay on Ambler, James Fenton argued that Ambler said a decisive farewell to his left-wing period in his post-war thriller Judgement on Deltchev, which revolves around a show trial in an unidentified Communist country somewhere in the Balkans.