The few scholars who have discussed Ambler at length concur that, as World War II approached, he intentionally set out to transform the conventional thriller that had ensured widespread success for such precursors as John Buchan, Dornford Yates, and particularly E.
(120-21) At a time when he was absorbed by the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, what Ambler derogates as "antique fantasies" of "the old secret[-]service adventure thriller" seemed ludicrously superannuated (Dark Frontier xiii).
Although Ambler opined that halfway through the book his original conception went astray (xiii-xiv), he accomplished more than he knew.
(63) Significantly, fewer than twenty pages into his novel Ambler invests The Dark Frontier with seriousness by disrupting its mimetic framework via an interpolated set-piece on warmongering, a maneuver that reveals his authorial struggle against the modernist imperative of "impersonal" narration.
By way of preparing for an analysis of Ambler's three most successful revisionist thrillers, I wish to enlist the aid of Gerard Genette and David Lodge.
Although Ambler's The Intercom Conspiracy (1969), owing to its later composition and his intervening years as a screenwriter, (8) exemplifies such diegetic foregrounding more fully than Epitaph for a Spy (1938) or A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), in all three thrillers he is fond of employing such devices of "indirect" or "oblique" narration as characters' reported speech, false surmises, conflicting evidence, ostensible digressions, extraneous texts, equivocal testimony, and unattributed information in order to force his readers to ferret out what is "true" from what is not.
Two features of Ambler's third novel warrant immediate notice.
By so framing his 1938 thriller, Ambler effectively scuttles the epistemology of mainstream detective fiction.
(Heinberger, like Vadassy, turns out to be a refugee who, having fallen under State proscription, is deprived of autonomous agency.) Diegetically, in other words, Ambler is forcing us to recognize the contingency that stymies his narrator's ability to single out the spy.