The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

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The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A definite period piece, this crime-come-spy thriller from the 1960s holds up well. Sharp writing, deft characterisation and a craftsman’s plot. There’s not a word wasted, and many a smile along the way.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: March 2016
Publisher: The British Library Publishing Division
ISBN: 978-0712356503

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If he hadn't been arrested by the Turkish police, he'd have been arrested by the Greek police… and of course it's not his fault. Not at all. Nothing ever is. Arthur Abdel Simpson is one of those people who bumble idly into trouble, never of their own making, naturally. He's also one of those people with an eye for the main chance, so although – taking a generous view – you might even agree with him that but for the actions of others he'd never have been in that position in the first place, once there, he's unlikely to let an opportunity slip by untaken.

As his story unfolds, we'll discover no end of such circumstances strewn across his path from his earliest childhood, but the one that concerns us here was his stumbling into the path of Harper. Harper looked like an American. Or at least like a German who'd lived in America for a long time. His luggage for instance was American: plastic leather and imitation gold locks. What Simpson really means is that Harper looked like a 'target'. A tourist, who might hire him as a private driver for a few days, which would give him not only some legitimate income, and a few kickbacks but, who knows, maybe a few opportunities for other gain.

The first two concepts are fine, but when Simpson tries his luck on the third he finds he's met his match and walked into something far more complicated.

Who is Harper and what is he up to? Whatever it is, Simpson finds himself ever more deeply embroiled with his gang of armed foreigners. As if that wasn't bad enough, along the way he's also found himself to be an agent of the Turkish secret police.

Finds himself, found himself, these are appropriate expressions to use of Simpson, because so little of what he does is by conscious design. He goes through life reacting to circumstance, with little thought for consequences. At heart he is British to the core, as British as an Arthur Simpson could possibly be, but it's complicated by that Abdel middle name, granted by the fact that his mother was Egyptian. Brought up in Egypt and England he's not as totally British as he believes himself to be.

He is in fact a wonderful chaotic mix. There is a touch of the Arab about him – and I mean that in no way disrespectfully – but also the arrogance of the English public school system, a touch of the backstreets of both countries. What we get of his character is ours for the making for it is Simpson that tells the story of The Light of Day. It's written as a confessional, and comes over as if spoken rather than written. The voice is sustained throughout.

I suppose it's possible to view him differently. It's entirely possible to read him as a self-deluding, whingeing, minor crook. All I can say, is that I didn't. To me he came across not quite as bumbling as Mr Bean, but certainly naïve. A bit of a twit, but the kind of twit that one can warm to, despite oneself. Then again, only "a bit" of a twit. The other side of him is knife-sharp. He can react to a situation with imagination and creativity. He is far from stupid. His interpretation of what might be going on is just as plausible as the official theory.

The New York Times describes the book as a comic thriller. I wouldn't emphasise the comic. It's comic in the sense that a crime-caper movie starring Michael Caine would be comic. There's a touch of ironic humour threading its way through, but it's not the main event. The main event is the whole 'what is going on' set-piece mystery.

It is a set-piece. We have the gang. We have the lone hero/anti-hero. We have the secret police. Are the gang up to what the police assume they are up to? Will they get away with whatever it is, they're up to? Will our hero/anti-hero end up on the right or the wrong side – will he be found out – will he get away?

None the worse for that. It is elevated by Ambler's writing. He maintains Simpson's voice throughout. Sharp. Simply. Observational. Conversational. He allows him to slip back into memories as a device for underlining the character trait that's leading him to do what he's now doing, but also because that's what people do when they tell a story. They meander off point. Then something brings them back to focus.

As highlighted in the blurb, The Light of Day won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1964. It is of its time. The Suez Crisis was recent to readers of the day and would need no explanation, so none is given. The 'realpolitik' of the region was as much a part of the news then as it is today, even if we've forgotten all of that in the meantime. The cover blurb goes on to say that Ambler was described by Le Carré as "the source on which we all draw". He was also an Oscar-nominated Hollywood scriptwriter although it wasn't he who adapted this one for the film Topkapi. I haven't seen the film, but the research suggests that it is told from a completely different viewpoint, which I feel undermines the point of the book.

The only caveat for readers of this British Library edition of the book is to leave the Introduction aside. It gives too much away. If you can avoid reading the blurb on the back, I'd recommend doing that also, for the very same reason. This one is best enjoyed coming to it cold and letting Simpson tell his story, in his own time, in his own way.

You'll enjoy that.

…and if you did enjoy it and want more crime from Turkey we can recommend River of the Dead by Barbara Nadel or to stay with the spy-master period pieces, another classic is Call for the Dead by John le Carre.

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