Reviewed by Harriet
‘Unquestionably the best thriller writer ever’, says Graham Greene on the cover of this new British Library Crime Classics title, one of three they have recently published by the celebrated Eric Ambler (1909-1998). This is only the second one of his I’ve read, the first being The Light of Day, reviewed by Annabel here, but on the strength of these two I’ve become a great admirer and can’t wait to get my hands on some more of his novels.
A Kind of Anger is narrated by its main protagonist, the Dutch journalist Piet Maas. Piet makes no secret of the fact that he’s a damaged man, a result of events in his not so distant past. When a magazine he started failed, and he discovered his girlfriend in bed with another man, he had attempted suicide, and his mental state remains frail – he’s had electric shock treatments and is afraid to have too many sleeping pills in the house in case he’s tempted to have another go. He now works as a European reporter for an American magazine, and his boss has asked him to investigate an recent dramatic event: an exiled Iraqui general has been found brutally murdered in his Swiss villa, and his mistress, the beautiful Lucia Bernardi, has disappeared. Piet’s task is to find Lucia and get the full story.
Piet’s investigations uncover some dangerous political machinations. The murdered general turns out to have been at the head of a group of Kurdish nationalists who were planning a revolt in Iraq. He had made copious notes of his plans, but Lucia has managed to remove them from the villa, thus preventing his enemies from getting their hands on them. Piet meets Lucia’s former partner Philip Sanger, a suave con man who lives in a grand villa in the south of France, and manages to secure an introduction to Lucia herself. Initially mistrustful, she is gradually won over and the two form a bond, which leads them into some very dangerous but ultimately rewarding wheeling and (double) dealing.
This novel is interesting in so many ways. The plot is exciting, increasingly so as the tension mounts in the last third or so, when there’s much dashing about between secret hideouts, and numerous anonymous phone calls, fake identities, and clandestine meetings. Everyone, including Piet’s employers, is after the couple, and it seems unlikely that they can fulfil all their obligations and still get away scot free. But equally important to the plot are the political aspects: the novel was written shortly after the 1963 overthrow of Brigadier Kassim’s Iraqi government, and the turbulence and unrest in the Middle East that Ambler depicts were extremely topical – as indeed they remain today.
But for me the most intriguing aspect of the novel must remain the character of Piet himself. A flawed protagonist is always the most interesting kind and Piet certainly seems at the beginning to be a most unlikely hero. He’s never engaged in anything illegal before, but he easily slips into the kind of world that Sanger describes to him, and proves to have an aptitude for it. Sanger gives him useful lessons:
‘If you can make the other guy think he’s cheating you, you’re in good shape. So you let him see something he’ll want and try to steal.’
‘Such as your mistress?’
‘Sure. Make him feel guilty or nervous, and he won’t think too clearly about business…..Only the girl’s not for real, of course. She’s just…an element. It’s psychological warfare’.
So the novel really traces Piet’s development from being a curious but highly nervous young man to someone who can be tough-minded, resourceful, and decidedly amoral. When Sanger first meets him, he thinks Peit is impelled by ‘a kind of anger’ against the enemies who are pursuing Lucia, but at the end of the novel he has revised his opinion:
‘Your kind of anger is as old as the hills. You’ve just bottled it up all these years – just like the man who becomes a policeman instead of a crook. Or is that sublimation? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you have a taste for larceny. It agrees with you. Therapy!’ He started to giggle. ‘Instead of giving you all those shock treatments, you know what they should have done? They should have sent you out to rob a bank!’
A perfect combination, then, of mystery, comedy and excitement, with some political machinations to boot, all set in the beautiful French Riviera. What more could you want? Highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Eric Ambler, A Kind of Anger (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356459, 272pp., paperback original.
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