The Dark Frontier
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The Dark Frontier (1936) is Eric Ambler's first novel, about whose genesis he writes: "... Became press agent for film star, but soon after joined big London advertising agency as copywriter and "ideas man". During next few years wrote incessantly on variety of subjects ranging from baby food to non-ferrous alloys. Have travelled in most countries of Europe, been stranded in Marseilles and nearly drowned in the Bay of Naples. Decided, on a rainy day in Paris, to write a thriller. Result was The Dark Frontier."
Based on the development of weaponry in the year 1936, The Dark Frontier was one of the first novels to predict the invention of a nuclear bomb and its consequences. Ambler evidently had no knowledge of what producing an atomic bomb may involve (even professional physicists at the time had only a vague idea). The book makes no mention of uranium or any other radioactive material, and makes instead the assumption that setting off an atomic bomb would involve a considerable electric charge. Still, Ambler could be credited with having become aware, before many others, of this coming weapon which was to have such a profound effect on the entire world, and his depiction of scientists in a secret hideout building such a bomb could be considered a preview of the Manhattan Project – and he correctly surmised that refugees from Nazi Germany might get involved in such a project.
Outline of the plot
The novel is set in the mid-1930s (1934 or 1935) in Ixania, a small fictional country somewhere in a mountainous region of the Balkans bordering Romania. There, a peasant revolt succeeds in overthrowing the country's dictatorial regime and in establishing freedom and justice for all its citizens. Throughout modern history Ixania, a "God-forsaken country", has preserved its political independence because of its lack of natural resources and, generally, its comparative irrelevance in economic matters. However, due to the defection from Nazi Germany of Jacob Kassen, a nuclear scientist, the Countess Schverzinski and her brother, Prince Ladislaus, who effectively run the country, are in possession of a formula to build an atomic bomb (the "Kassen secret"), a fact they wish to exploit for their country's but also their own personal benefit.
Two groups of people want to prevent exactly that. There is Simon Groom, a representative of Messrs. Cator & Bliss Ltd., a British armament manufacturer, who is sent to Ixania to get hold of the Kassen secret by hook or by crook. He enlists the services of Professor Henry Barstow, an English physicist who is to travel with him to Ixania to determine whether the secret papers whose theft he plans to commission are authentic and worth the money.
However, Henry Barstow seems to be a cover name for Conway Carruthers, a Doc Savage-sque superhero who has realised that the Kassen secret poses "a serious menace to world peace" and who, accordingly, has made it his job to rid the world of that danger by destroying all copies of Kassen's papers. His mission is to prevent the manufacture of the bomb and to "preserve civilization". Carruthers's charismatic authority attracts the attention of William L. Casey, an American journalist stationed in Zovgorod, the capital of Ixania. Originally only interested in a good story, Casey becomes Carruthers's quasi-assistant, a change Casey himself describes as his "transition from newspaper man to desperado".
Siding with the peasant revolutionaries, Carruthers becomes the leader of the operation and thus the de facto leader of the peasants. On several occasions his and Casey's lives are in danger, repeatedly they are "standing in front of the wrong end of a gun", but it is always Carruthers's almost superhuman intelligence and skills that save them. Within only one day it turns out that, with the old government having stepped down, the revolution has been both successful and unbloody. Kassen is dead, and all copies of his secret except one have been destroyed. The one copy that has survived is Countess Schverzinski's, and she is driving her Mercedes at breakneck speed along a dark and narrow mountain road, with the only intention of fleeing the country. However, Carruthers and Casey are following her in Groom's car (which they have stolen), but before they can catch up with her and stop her vehicle she has an accident, is catapulted out of her car, and dies. The wreck of her Mercedes catches fire, so all Carruthers has to do when he arrives at the scene is retrieve the last remaining copy of the bomb-building manual from the Countess's body and cast it into the flames.
It is an obvious fact that Ambler's subsequent novels are quite different from The Dark Frontier—not so much in subject matter but most certainly in style and atmosphere. Critics as well as Ambler fans (and the author himself in an Introduction to the novel) have pointed out that The Dark Frontier was meant to be a parody of the brand of adventure thriller Ambler enjoyed as an adolescent but came to find rather silly when he reached adulthood. In other words, Ambler wrote an intentionally "bad" novel. However, since both the writers and the writing that is parodied have been long forgotten, it is difficult for 21st century readers to fully appreciate the book's intended comic nature. There are, however, some signs in the novel that somewhat elucidate Ambler's intention; for example Carruthers's unrequited love for the evil Countess Schverzinski, which makes him want to put a bullet through his head when he finds out that she is dead, a suicide which can only be prevented through Casey's intervention.
The dualism of Henry Barstow—an eminent professor but a rather bumbling man of action—and the virtually superhuman Conway Carruthers seems to prefigure the Clark Kent/Superman dualism which was to profoundly influence American and worldwide popular culture (the first Superman comics appeared a few years after Ambler's book). Ambler himself, in later books, preferred to have as his protagonists bumbling Barstow-type amateurs, who need to deal with dangerous situations without superhero help.
Triggered by stress, the dualism of Barstow/Carruthers is clinically closer to multiple personality disorder (eg Three Faces of Eve) than the character changing of superheros.
Ambler also anticipates the Cambridge Five: 'Englishman have been more unexpected things [than a Soviet agent]'.
Depiction of the country of Ixania clearly draws on the long-standing subgenre of Ruritanian romance, derived from Ruritania in Anthony Hope's "The Prisoner of Zenda" and finding many followers and imitators in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the time of writing, its popularity was already waning, and Ambler clearly intended a parody, though using many elements of the established genre.