Eric Ambler

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Eric Ambler
Eric Ambler.jpg
BornEric Clifford Ambler
(1909-06-28)28 June 1909
London, England
Died22 October 1998(1998-10-22) (aged 89)
London, England[1]
GenreThrillers, spy novels
Louise Crombie
(m. 1939; div. 1958)
(m. 1958; died 1994)

Eric Clifford Ambler OBE (28 June 1909 – 22 October 1998) was an English author of thrillers, in particular spy novels, who introduced a new realism to the genre. Also working as a screenwriter, Ambler used the pseudonym Eliot Reed for books cowritten with Charles Rodda.


Ambler was born in Charlton, South-East 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 in 1939 married Louise Crombie,[3] an American fashion correspondent.

Ambler was then politically a staunch antifascist 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 included Soviet agents depicted positively and as sympathetic characters, the undoubted allies of the protagonist.

Like numerous like-minded people in different countries, Ambler was shocked and disillusioned by the German-Soviet Pact of 1939. His postwar anticommunist 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 the Second World War 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 an assistant director of the Army Film and Photographic Unit.

After the war, he worked in the civilian film industry as a screenwriter, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work on the film The Cruel Sea (1953), adapted from the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. He did not resume writing under his own name until 1951, when he entered the second of his 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 May 1958[1] and married the same year British-born Joan Harrison,[3] a film producer, screenwriter and associate of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. 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, which sold the 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[edit]

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. Other classic movies based on his work include 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 published before his, the protagonists in Ambler's novels are rarely professional spies, policemen or counterintelligence operatives. They are usually amateurs who find themselves unwillingly in the company of hardened criminals, revolutionaries or spies.[4][5] The protagonist usually begins out of his depth, a bumbling antihero surprised to find himself facing extreme danger, who nonetheless eventually manages to surprise himself as well as the professionals by a decisive action that outwits his far more experienced opponents.

That 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, The Levanter, and Doctor Frigo.

Another recurring plot element is statelessness and exile: characters who are exiled from their homelands or who face the danger of being exiled and not granted residence in any country.[6]

Reception and influence[edit]

Many authors of international thrillers have acknowledged a debt to Ambler, including Graham Greene, Ian Fleming,[7] John le Carré, Julian Symons,[1] Alan Furst,[8] and Frederick Forsyth.[4]



Short stories and non-fiction[edit]

  • The Ability to Kill: and Other Pieces (1963). Published with a chapter on John Bodkin Adams removed because of libel concerns.[citation needed]
  • To Catch A Spy (1964). An anthology of stories.
  • Here Lies Eric Ambler: 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)[edit]

as Eliot Reed (with Charles Rodda)[edit]

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

Film screenplays[edit]


Film adaptations[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d 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. ^ a b "Obituary: Eric Ambler". The Independent. London. 23 October 1998. Retrieved 27 December 2021.
  4. ^ a b Neil Nyren (21 September 2018). "Eric Ambler: A Crime Reader's Guide to the Classics". CrimeReads. Retrieved 12 October 2021.
  5. ^ See, for example, his own introduction to the anthology To Catch a Spy.
  6. ^ Lassner, Phyllis. Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
  7. ^ Bennett, Tony; Woollacott, Janet (1987). Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero. London: Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-416-01361-0.
  8. ^ Sarah Breger (6 July 2016). "Alan Furst Will Always Have Paris". Moment Magazine. Retrieved 12 October 2021.


  • 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.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. Eric Ambler's Novels: Critiquing Modernity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020.
  • (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
  • Bernhard Valentinitsch,Historisch-politische Hintergründe in Eric Amblers Politthriller 'The Levanter'.In:JIPSS(= Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies).1/2013.Graz 2013,p. 7–23.

External links[edit]