Sunday, April 11, 2010

Journey into an old friend

I've just been re-reading Eric Ambler's thriller Journey into Fear, not in the Penguin Modern Classics edition shown here but in a Fontana edition of 1973. The book itself was first published in 1940, and there are reminders of its vintage in the length of the sentences, the complexity of the syntax, and the fact that the hero and his nemesis discuss philosophy and ancient history at length over a meal rather than have the content of their conversation swiftly summarised by the author. Graham Greene - and I'm now re-reading one of his novels - described Ambler as "unquestionably our best thriller writer", and there are similarities in style between the two writers' work. I found myself vaguely recalling that so-and-so was found dead, and that thingummyjig turned out to be a baddie, but these memories served only to sharpen the suspense, which is that of the skilfully-handled closed environment (in this case a steamer) in which the protagonists must constantly interact.

But the thing that struck me most forcibly while I was reading was the size of the book. Remember when paperbacks used to be small? Little, lightweight things that could be stuffed in a pocket? That you could read in bed without fearing a broken nose should you fall asleep while reading? When did they become large-format tomes with lots of white space and big print? I found I really enjoyed this foray into the past: the yellowing pages and 9-point text seemed suited to the slightly formal prose and the menace of travel in the early part of the war, and I remember my mother telling me that she used to send paperbacks out to Egypt for my father to read. I can imagine a small Fontana book pulled from a battledress pocket in a desert bivvie - but not a fat, glossy, self-satisfied modern edition.

More blasts from the literary past to follow ...


  1. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Hi Christine. I moved into the electronic age with my books, so when I read your bit about how well written Ambler was, it brought back memories of long sentences, longer words and a longing to read him once more, so I bought a copy for my Kindle e-book. I will let you know how i get on.

    Donald McK

  2. How about Ambler's

    The Care of Time
    The Night-Comers
    The Levanter
    The Schirmer Inheritance
    The Ability to Kill
    The Light of Day

    in 1970/80's editions.

  3. Do you have them, AHM? (she asked, ingratiatingly)

    Donald - look forward to hearing how you fare with the e-book format.

  4. which I can add The Dark Frontier, Cause for Alarm, Epitaph for a Spy and A Kind of Anger. I used to have Judgement on Deltchev, but it seems to have gone walkabout. Be ingratiating and... you never know.

  5. Anonymous2:34 PM

    Hi Chris,

    I'll show you when we get to Oban next. It's very simple and you tend to 'forget' the technology

    Donald McK