The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Reviewed by Annabel

Light of DayAmbler was one of the great British thriller writers and his works are ripe for reappraisal. They had gradually become out of print until Penguin brought out five of his earlier novels in their Modern Classics livery a few years ago, and now the British Library is adding one of his later books to their crime classics series. I’ve only read The Mask of Dimitrios before – but absolutely  loved it, so was really looking forward to The Light of Day, published in 1962.

You may be more familiar with the alternative title of the novel – Topkapi – named after the palace in Istanbul. The novel was filmed as Topkapi too in 1964, starring Maximilian Schell, Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov, who won Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Arthur Simpson, the taxi-driving small-time crook who manages to get mixed up in a big-time job.

The original novel differs from the film, though, as it is totally narrated by Simpson, who, in classic Ambler style, starts off in a position in which he thinks he is superior, but rapidly becomes a fish out of water. We don’t get the big picture as in the movie, we only find out what’s happening as Simpson does.

As the story opens, Arthur Simpson, ‘British to the core’, but without a passport to prove it, is at Athens airport with his car, looking for a rich tourist to hustle – and he sees Harper:

I thought he was an American. He looked like an American – tall, with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who has lived in America for a long time. Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American; plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. I didn’t see his passport.

… I really did not suspect that he was not what he seemed.

Simpson persuades Harper to let him be a tour-guide for him, unaware that Harper is letting him set up a front for him. Later, he is presented with an irresistible opportunity to steal a few of Harper’s traveler’s checks:

People who leave traveler’s checks about deserve to lose them.

I took just six checks, the bottom ones from the folder. That made three hundred dollars, and left him fifteen hundred or so. It is a mistake, I always think, to be greedy; but unfortunately I hesitated. For a moment I wondered if he would miss them all that much sooner if I took two more.

So I was standing there like a fool, with the checks right in my hands, when Harper walked into the room.

Simpson has played completely into Harper’s hands. Faced with being handed over to the authorities or doing a job for Harper, of course Simpson agrees to the latter course. Harper makes Simpson sign a confession which he will keep for insurance until the job’s done.

He is to drive a luxury American car from Athens to Istanbul on behalf of its owner, Elizabeth Lipp. Harper tells him that once in Istanbul, Lipp may want him to drive her around in Turkey, and possible drive the car back too. He’s sure that there’s something hidden in the car, he searches the car once underway but he can’t find it. Then, disaster happens – he reaches the border post. The Greek side waves him through, but the Turks upon discovering that his passport is slightly out of date won’t admit him, and don’t believe his story about the car. Simpson’s searches didn’t open sealed compartments, not wanting to risk damage to the expensive vehicle. The Turks aren’t so cautious – the customs man hands the post Commandant a report:

He said something quickly in Turkish. Suddenly the security man locked an arm round my neck and ran his free hand over my pockets. Then he shoved me down violently onto a chair.
I stared at the Commandant dumbly.
‘Inside the doors there are’ – he referred to the paper in his hand – ‘twelve tear-gas grenades, twelve concission grenades, twelve smoke grenades, six gas respirators, six Parabellum pistols, and one hundred and twenty rounds of nine-millimeter pistol ammunition.’ He put the paper down and stood up. ‘You are under arrest.’

Simpson is thus handed over to the Turkish Secret Service, who tell him that he must become their agent, find out where the arms are destined for and report back. Thus he is forced into an even more dangerous double-game and is set on his way by Major Tufan. Eventually he gets to deliver the car to Miss Lipp:

Some men can make a good guess at a woman’s age just by looking at her face and figure. I never can. I think that this may be because, in spite of Mum, I fundamentally respect women. Yes, it must be that. If she is very attractive, but obviously not a young girl, I always think of twenty-eight.
… Miss Lipp made me think of twenty-eight. In fact she was thirty-six; but I only found that out later. She looked twenty-eight to me. She was tall with short brownish-blond hair, and the kind of figure that you have to notice, no matter what dress covers it. She also had the sort of eyes, insolent, sleepy, and amused, and the full good-humored mouth which tell you that she knows you can’t help watching the way her body moves, and that she doesn’t give a damn whether you do so or not; watching is not going to get you anywhere anyway.

Simpson does his best to make himself indispensable to Lipp, Harper and their other cronies; all the better to a) recover the ‘insurance’ letter from Harper, and b) to get his passport back by spying for Tufan.

The intrigue and tension creep ever upwards towards the end-game. Arthur has to keep playing along, gradually uncovering what Lipp, Harper and co are planning. He may be a small-time crook himself, but as he is the underdog, you are always on his side. Initially thrust into a classic fish out of water situation, he is resourceful and resilient – a typical Ambler hero.

The Light of Day is a pacy novel. So much happens, but there are no wasted words – Ambler pulls off a complex plot full of detail, character development and description in just over 250 pages, something many of today’s thriller writers seem unable to do. I loved Simpson’s noirish, even Chandleresque description of Miss Lipp quoted above too – the humour in Simpson’s narration was a unexpected pleasure in this novel.

By the time The Light of Day was published in 1962, Ambler’s career was well established. His fifth and most lauded novel, The Mask of Dimitrios was published in 1939 and Ambler was also a successful screenwriter – he adapted The Cruel Sea in 1953 for instance. The Light of Day is another great novel in his great body of work and Ambler is fast becoming my favourite thriller writer.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and is tickled to know that Ian Fleming has James Bond read Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios in From Russia with Love!  

Eric Ambler, The Light of Day (British Library Crime Classics, 2016). 978-0712356503, 256 pp., paperback.

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