Journey Into Fear

Journey Into FearGraham, the main character in this 1940 novel by Eric Ambler, is a British engineer who works for a armaments manufacturer. His work frequently requires him to travel, and as this book begins, he is on his way home from a mission to Gallipoli when, during a stop in Istanbul, he is shot at by an assassin. Colonel Haki, a Turkish security agent, decides that the train Graham intended to take home is no longer safe, so he books him a place on a cargo ship whose passengers have all been carefully vetted.

This being a spy novel, even the most careful vetting is inadequate, and soon Graham finds himself on a ship with the very man who shot at him and no clear avenue for escape. Complicating matters are his fellow passengers on the ship, who include a dancer who want Graham to join her in Paris for a romantic assignation, the dancer’s husband and partner, a German archaeologist, a Turkish businessman, and a French couple.

After a slow start (slow not in terms of action, but in terms of interest), this novel becomes a gripping tale of an ordinary man coping with an impossible situation. Graham is a smart man, but he’s not an intelligence agent. He never expected his work to put him in mortal danger, nor did he expect that he might have to carry a gun himself. Much of the novel is occupied less with the assassination attempt than with Graham’s reaction to it—how his fear changes the way he sees everyone and everything. He’s not prepared for this situation, but he’s intelligent enough to strategize, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. He wants to be a good man, but he also wants to preserve his life. What might he do when those ideals come into conflict? Josette, the dancer, suggests that goodness is a product of circumstance:

“José [Josette’s husband] says that if a person really needs to do something he will not trouble about what others may think of him. If he is really hungry, he will steal. If he is in real danger, he will kill. If he is really afraid, he will be cruel. He says that it was people who were safe and well fed who invented good and evil so that they would not have to worry about the people who were hungry and unsafe. What a man does depends on what he needs. It is simple.”

The notion that people’s ideals can change with circumstance appears in multiple ways. It’s not just about murder, but also about infidelity and political convictions, among other things.

I appreciated the level of complexity in the plot. It had plenty of twists, but not so many that you’re likely to lose track of who is who and what is going on. The characters on the ship are especially well handled. One of my gripes with a lot of classic locked-room-type mysteries is that we’re given thumbnail sketches of a huge cast all at once, and then we’re expected to hold all that information in our heads for the entire novel. Here, we get to know the characters as we need to, and I had no trouble. (The fact that the cast is small helps.) Seasoned readers of spy novels might find it predictable, but I’m not sure that matters. The pleasure here is not in figuring out (or not) what’s going to happen but in seeing an ordinary man deal with an extraordinary situation.

This entry was posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Journey Into Fear

  1. cbjames says:

    While I don’t read as much spy fiction as I used to, Ambler was always one of my favorites. He wrote pulp, but there was always more going on than first met the eye.

  2. gaskella says:

    I’ve only read one Ambler so far (The Mask of Demitrios) which I really enjoyed – and it featured an ordinary man drawn into a difficult situation too – must be a speciality of his. I have another four on the shelf though as I bulk-bought when Pengui Mod Classics brought out new prints a couple of years ago.

  3. Sounds fun. I’m also not well-versed in spy novels as a genre, but I’d like to be. I at least am fond of the idea of spy novels, although I may be getting my ideas about what they are like from very very dated sources. (Like PC Wren. He was from long ago.)

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not particularly well-versed in spy fiction either. From what I can tell, a lot of spy fiction–like John LeCarre and Alan Furst–is slow-paced and meditative. Ambler is not like that; there’s not tons of action, but it’s not slow.

  4. I like that old school, zero technology spy thriller, especially if there’s lots of slow, difficult travel as well, so I really like Ambler’s ordinary bloke out of his depth books (yes, they are all pretty much the same!). Have you read Maugham’s Ashenden – another spy in Europe in a tricky, earlier political era?

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.