Graham, 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.