Change a few details and Eric Ambler’s thriller The Levanter, published over 40 years ago in 1972, could well have been written today. The story, set in Syria in 1970 with most of the Middle-East still in turmoil less than 30 years after the creation of the state of Israel, deals with a Cypriot business man who gets himself caught up in a terrorist plot hatched by a Palestinian splinter group–the kind of terrorist plot that might well be keeping the 24 hour news channels as busy, if not busier, than an oil field raid and hostage taking. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Once again Ambler builds on his patented plot device where an ordinary citizen finds himself thrust into a cloak and dagger world where spies, terrorists and agents, secret and otherwise, ply their trade, a world very much outside his normal experience. As early as Ambler’s very first venture in the genre, The Dark Frontier, when he had used the device to parody the thriller genre, Ambler had been enamored with the possibilities created by the idea of the novice in danger. By the time he gets to The Levanter, some 14 novels into his career, it is a device he has perfected. Essentially, it gives the reader a protagonist with whom he can identify, even as there is some reasonable question about his ability to handle the situation. The superhuman heroes like James Bond and Jack Reacher may inspire wish fulfillment, but there is rarely any question about their success. The more realistic protagonist lends the narrative his realism and creates greater suspense about the possible outcome.
Michael Howell has been effectively running a variety of family businesses based in Syria, but reaching throughout the Levant, the Middle East. He is well versed in the baroque bureaucratic chicanery necessary to conducting business. He understands the practicalities of the situation. He knows which palms to grease, which egos to pump. In other words he knows how to get things done. One evening, after his office manager and mistress Teresa reports some questionable purchases at one of his enterprises, he discovers that his factory is being surreptitiously used by members of the Palestinian Action Force to produce detonators to be used in a bombing raid in Israel. To his horror, not only does he find himself unable to stop them, but he finds himself and Teresa forced to join with the terrorists, and use his business acumen to move their plot forward.
In a fast moving first person narrative–mostly from Howell attempting to explain and justify his actions, but also from an outside journalist and one section from Teresa to lend some further credibility to his story–Ambler manages to keep up the kind of infectious excitement that gets readers joyfully turning pages. Interestingly, sex is nearly absent from the story, and violence is minimal. There are lessons here for the modern thriller writer. Suspense is possible without pages of gore. The threat of violence left to the imagination is often more terrifying than its literal description.
Readers familiar with the work of Ambler will welcome The Levanter’s new release in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series, as they would welcome an old friend. Readers unfamiliar with his work will find it an opportunity to meet with one of the truly great masters of the thriller genre.