The Light of Day (Eric Ambler)

Winner of the 1963 Edgar Award for best novel this is an enjoyable crime/espionage vehicle typical of the era: crooks with scruples, the beautiful but unobtainable beauty & the luckless hero in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second half, with its collection of various misfits planning a heist, I found overlong and the stakes not high enough. Its hard to feel that Arthur, our hero, is in any genuine danger either (obviously because the first-person narrative guaranteed that he lived beyond the outcome of the plot) and everything was a little too languorous to be compelling. But the book has aged well even if Arthur’s character hasn’t. 

Eric Ambler specialized in plots in which ordinary men fell into extraordinary situations and somehow managed to cope. Arthur Simpson was such a man, although he was more anti-hero than hero, because he was quite simply a small-time crook. Ambler’s “hero” is your average overweight sociopath with no apparent problem with completely trashing people’s lives because of some imagined slight, or maybe just to get some spare cash. He really comes to life and seems like he could be like any person passing you on the street. And then, to top it off, the author manages to make this guy look sympathetic by mixing him up with a bunch of characters who are far, far worse. This is a neat trick to win most readers over.

The novel is narrated by Arthur Abdel Simpson, a small time thieving taxi driver who makes a living by hustling tourists on their arrival at Athens airport. As the story opens, Simpson is recounting the tale of how he got mixed up with Harper, a man who turned out to be more dangerous than he appeared at first sight: “It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.” It’s a good opening, one that pulled me into narrative – you know from the start that something bad has happened to the narrator, and he holds Harper responsible for it.

When Simpson first spotted Harper at the airport, he marks him out as someone seemingly unfamiliar with Athens, reasonably well off and thus a suitable target for one of his petty scams. He offers to act as the visitor’s driver and guide to the city, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Harper agrees. But unfortunately for Simpson, Harper has him all worked out from the get-go. Catching Simpson in the act of stealing travellers cheques, Harper blackmails him into playing a part in his own shady plan. Simpson must drive a high-class American car from Athens to Istanbul, no questions asked – it’s either that or Harper will turn him over to the police. Even though Simpson suspects the car may be carrying illicit goods (drugs, jewellery, money or suchlike), he knows he has to go through with it. To sum up this book then, I’d say there is enough flair and unexpected twists within these pages to keep most readers happy.

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