It is perhaps strange that one of the most influential author of thrillers of the last century, Eric Ambler, should have begun his career with a parody of the genre—his 1936 debut novel The Dark Frontier, but reading it now with the hindsight of all the books to come, it is impossible not to recognize many of the characteristic tropes that were to make his reputation. Republished now along with much of his other work in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series, The Dark Frontier, if not quite Ambler at his very best, it is very good Ambler, and very good Ambler is plenty good enough.
The story begins in England when a talented physicist, Professor Henry Barstow, on his way to a vacation in Cornwall, stops for at a hotel for lunch. He meets a mysterious stranger who represents a large multi-national armaments company and is upset by the stranger’s interest in military uses of atomic energy. He retires to the lounge where he begins to peruse a thriller someone has left behind. The book’s hero is a stereotypical secret agent named Conway Carruthers: “Nothing was beyond the powers of this remarkable man. . . .Free from the fears and the vanities, the blunderings and the shortcomings of ordinary men, he was of that illustrious company which numbers Sherlock Holmes, Raffles, Arsène Lupin, Bulldog Drummond and Sexton Blake among its members.” James Bond and Jack Reacher may be more familiar to modern readers.
As Barstow reaches page 44 the book’s owner returns, and the Professor sheepishly hands it back while musing romantically about the how a man like Carruthers would deal with the likes of the arms representative. He resumes his journey, but his car runs off the road, he is knocked unconscious, and the next thing he knows he is Conway Carruthers. He is pretending to be Professor Barstow working for the mysterious arms merchant. He is on his way to an Eastern European country which he calls Ixania where he hopes to save the world from the peril of atomic weapons.
The book is playfully replete with many of the typical conventions of the genre. There is a beautiful femme fatale, a semi-clueless narrator to marvel at the feats of the hero, and an exotic foreign setting; there are wily villains and thuggish henchmen. Even the idea of an average man forced into extraordinary adventures becomes a well used plot device of the genre. And while much of it is parody, “Carruthers,” the journalist narrator of the second part of the novel explains,” had a way of making you behave and think like a dime novel,” Ambler still manages to fill his tale with excitement aplenty. If The Dark Frontier is lighter in tone than his grittier later work, the tongue in cheek narrative style itself has become a staple of much thriller literature.
Readers of contemporary thrillers may find Ambler’s prose a bit more florid than that of the writers they are used to, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He writes with flair and understands the need for narrative pace. If you haven’t read Ambler, this is a book that will whet your appetite for more, and given that there are books like A Coffin for Dimitrios and Journey into Fear waiting in the wings, The Dark Frontier isn’t a bad place to start.