Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Cause for Alarm

Rate this book
Nicky Marlow needs a job. He’s engaged to be married and the employment market is pretty slim in Britain in 1937. So when his fiancé points out the Spartacus Machine Tool notice, he jumps at the chance. After all, he speaks Italian and he figures he’ll be able to endure Milan for a year, long enough to save some money. Soon after he arrives, however, he learns the sinister truth of his predecessor’s death and finds himself courted by two agents with dangerously different agendas. In the process, Marlow realizes it’s not so simple to just do the job he’s paid to do in fascist Italy on the eve of a world war.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1938

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Eric Ambler

110 books412 followers
Eric Ambler began his writing career in the early 1930s, and quickly established a reputation as a thriller writer of extraordinary depth and originality. He is often credited as the inventor of the modern political thriller and John Le Carré once described him as 'the source on which we all draw.'

Ambler began his working life at an engineering firm, then as a copywriter at an advertising agency, while in his spare time he worked on his ambition to become a playwright. His first novel was published in 1936 and as his reputation as a novelist grew he turned to writing full time. During the war he was seconded to the Army Film Unit, where he wrote, among other projects, The Way Ahead with Peter Ustinov.

He moved to Hollywood in 1957 and during his eleven years there scripted some memorable films, including A Night to Remember and The Cruel Sea, which won him an Oscar nomination.

In a career spanning over sixty years, Eric Ambler wrote nineteen novels and was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award for Passage of Arms in 1960. He was married to Joan Harrison, who wrote or co-wrote many of Alfred Hitchcock's screenplays - in fact Hitchcock organized their wedding. Eric Ambler died in London in October 1998.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
325 (22%)
4 stars
663 (45%)
3 stars
422 (28%)
2 stars
52 (3%)
1 star
7 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 145 reviews
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,191 reviews1,816 followers
June 3, 2021

Questo è il primo tentativo della Warner Brothers di trasformare il leggendario “Casablanca” in una teleserie: siamo nel 1955, Eric Ambler firma la sceneggiatura di un episodio, Charles McGraw veste i panni di Rick/Humphrey Bogart, il personaggio di Ingrid Bergman sparisce, lo sostituisce Anita Ekberg, che interpreta Trina invece di Ilsa. Nel 1983 ci riprovarono e David “Hutch” Soul prese il ruolo di Rick/Bogart.

Era davvero da tanto che non leggevo un romanzo di Eric Ambler.

A suo tempo mi deliziò con Epitaffio per una spia, Topkapi-La luce del giorno, La maschera di Dimitrios, il cui film aveva la carta geografica a tutto schermo attraversata dalla locomotiva (molto prima dell’aeroplanino di Indiana Jones) – e quell’altro film, sul furto al Topkapi, con Melina Mercouri e Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell e l’Akim Tamiroff che ha partecipato a diversi splendidi film di Orson Welles (chiaro, i film di Orson Welles sono tutti splendidi)

La maschera di Dimitrios di Jean Negulesco, 1944. Qui l’indimenticabile Peter Lorre, che partecipò a così tanti film fondamentali – solo per citarne qualcuno: M, il mostro di Düsseldorf, Casablanca, L’uomo che sapeva troppo, Il mistero del falco, Arsenico e vecchi merletti, Il giro del mondo in 80 giorni, la serie di Mr Moto…

I libri di Ambler e la sua scrittura sono pregni di cinema, ogni pagina ne gronda.
Non solo per i film che ne sono stati tratti, ma per quel mondo, quell’immaginario che ha contribuito a costruire, con le strade dal selciato bagnato immerse nella notte, illuminate da una luce improvvisa di fari, e ombre distorte e grottesche che si allungano per terra e sui muri finché si accartocciano al passaggio dell’auto scura che porta il pericolo – con le sue storie di gente comune che finisce avviluppata in macchinazioni internazionali e in giochi di spie, tra frontiere attraversate in tutti i modi, Balcani e Turchia...

Maximillion Schell e Peter Ustinov in Topkapi di Jules Dassin, 1964, tratto da “The Light of Day”.

Non stupisce che Graham Greene lo definisse senza dubbio il miglior scrittore di thriller, e per John Le Carré fosse la fonte dalla quale tutti noi attingiamo.
Neppure che Hitchcock lo ammirasse e ne fosse influenzato.
Così come Orson Welles.

Hotel Reserve del 1944 tratto da “Epitaffio per una spia”. Nella foto un giovane James Mason.

Qui colpisce la descrizione dell’Italia fascista, violenta e repressiva, corrotta e marcia sin da allora, l’OVRA e i suoi metodi.
E la descrizione dei rapporti Italia–Germania all’insegna della reciproca sfiducia di fondo, un’intesa nata per non durare, l’asse Roma-Berlino pronto a spezzarsi.

Colpisce come Ambler sia tagliente nel ritratto dei connazionali.

Colpisce la scelta dei nomi, così evocativi: il protagonista si chiama Nicholas Marlow, e Philip Marlowe apparirà per la prima volta l’anno dopo, nel 1939 – e Zaleshoff, sua sorella Tamara, il generale Vagas, che si imbelletta il viso, e si fa servire dal suo cameriere vestito come ai tempi di Casanova...

Un ritorno a casa di un amico fidato.

”The Way Ahead” di Carol Reed con David Niven, 1944.
Profile Image for Jeff .
912 reviews707 followers
July 9, 2015
Three and half stars rounded down.

Eric Ambler was one of the granddaddies of the spy novel. Both Graham Greene (no slouch in this department) and Alfred Hitchcock sing his praises on the cover of this edition. His Journey Into Fear is one of the best books I’ve read in this genre. So how was this one?

This book was written in 1938 and Ambler wears his leftist leanings quite comfortably on his sleeve. Two of the major characters are thinly disguised Soviet agents and the whole Commie solidarity thing even gets the protagonists out of a tight spot. Of course, in 1939, Stalin gave the international solidarity movement a swift kick in the nuts when he signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and then proceeded to carve up Poland with the Nazis and invaded Finland. So, to say its politics are dated would be a gross overstatement.

The espionage stuff is pretty well done. An English engineer gets sent to Milan to work in a weapons machine design office. He ends up being run through the paces by the aforementioned Soviet agents, a Nazi agent who fancies make-up, and the Italian OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police. As with a majority of these books, the crap hits the fan and he’s force to flee the country. This is where the book kicks into high gear, as our hero desperately tries to dodge the Fascist black shirted government thugs. Ambler ably ramps up the tension as their methods of escape are taken away one by one.

Between working for NASA and Chippendales I took a European vacation, riding the rails from country to country. When the Eurorail train entered Germany, it stopped, the door at the opposite end of the car, opened and two black suited, leather booted, armed German police made a beeline straight to me, ignoring everyone else. Nearly wetting myself, I let them examine my passport. Okay, I wasn’t a master criminal on the lam, but that was scary for all of two minutes. Whew!
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
May 24, 2012
Cause for Alarm has all the ingredients of a typical WWII British espionage novel. Think John le Carre, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Jeffrey Archer, etc. There are plenty of those British writers who specialize on spy novels during that time in Europe and I could have easily given this at least a 3-star rating. Not only because I like spy novels but also because they are about World War II in Europe. I am a sucker for anything about Hitler, Fascism, Nazi, etc.

But I am giving this only a 2-star because I was expecting this to be better than the usual ones. Why? This novel has been among the books included in the 1001 Books from 2006, 2008 up to 2010 and so when I picked this up, I thought that I would be blown away. I was not. Maybe there is an editor in the Boxall's selection committee who read this in 1938 and liked it so much and that he now insists that this should not be dropped from the list. This is the same reason why one of my friends here in Goodreads still insists that Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is an excellent novel. The reason is that it was his the very first novel that he read from cover to cover when he was in high school. Now that he is a voracious reader, he will always give the credit to that Coelho book even if in reality, the novel is nothing but mediocre. At least for me, my first novel in high school was Nabokov's Lolita and there is nothing mediocre about it.

Is there anything different from this novel compared to let's say Le Carre's opus, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle? Nothing. These two books are even superior than this. The reason for that is Le Carre in Spy portrayed the protagonist as vulnerable and with weaknesses like a normal human being which is different from the usual James Bond who is confident, virile, smart and all-knowing. On the other hand, Follett in his most famous spy novel Eye is noteworthy because he incorporated treachery within a family living in a small isolated island with WWII as a backdrop and not being in the midst of the region's power political struggle.

Here in Cause for Alarm, the story revolves around Nick Marlow (yes, similar to the surname of that guy who ranked the human needs) who losses his job in London because of global recession. The timing sucks because a day prior to his layoff, he proposed to his fiancee. Without a job, he postponed the wedding and his job has brought him to Italy to work in a company that manufactures and supplies materials for ammunition. As you know, Italy was an ally of Germany during the war and it is against France, England and Russia. So, for an Englishman in Italy during that time is already not right in the first place and yet Marlow (because of his needs?) goes there to work. All for the name of love, I guess.

Also, unlike the novels of Le Carre and Follett, the plot of the book is thinner and the climax seems not to have reached its peak at the end. It is almost like a monotone song. The scene in the train while Nick and his American friend Zaleshoff (who I thought should have been given an American name like Smith or Brown so it would not be confusing) are fleeing Italy on their way to Yugoslavian border is supposed to be the climax but I did not feel scared for them. There was no gripping edge-of-your-seat scene not typical of your other favorite spy novels. The angle of the separated lovers trying to prepare for the wedding could have been used to its advantage in terms of thickening the plot a bit by let's say having the main office of the company in London abduct the girlfriend in order for Taylor to surrender and turn himself to the Italian police. You see, if your target audience is composed of the hardcore spy-novel readers/lovers, you can concoct anything as long as it is engaging and plausible and you will make this type of readers happy.

Although the book is readable and uses straight, guy-friendly "no-frills" narration, the plot is just so typical and there is nothing extraordinary about it.

My cause for alarm is if this book is retained in the 1001 list when Boxall releases its new edition this year, 2012.
Profile Image for Kim.
584 reviews13 followers
June 9, 2023
"Cause for Alarm" is a novel by Eric Ambler first published in 1938. Set in Italy in the same year, the book is one of Ambler's classic spy thrillers. For a person who isn't a big fan of spy thrillers, classic or otherwise, I sure end up reading a lot of them. This one I enjoyed. I looked up Eric Ambler and found that he was a British author of spy novels who used the pseudonym Eliot Reed for books co-written with Charles Rodda. I wonder why he did that, and I also wonder why Charles Rodda didn't get any credit. Maybe he did, I'll have to go look him up too---I have just spent ten minutes looking for Charles Rodda and have found nothing so far (poor guy) so I decided to return to the book and the man who wrote this book and I'll continue my search later.

I thought it was interesting that Ambler's parents were entertainers who ran a puppet show. It isn't very often I find an author that was born into a puppet show, I wonder if that was a fun childhood. Ambler helped with the show when young but eventually studied engineering, wrote plays, and was a copywriter at an advertising agency. In the 1930's One of the things I read about Ambler was that he was "a staunch anti-Fascist and regarded the Soviet Union as the only real counterweight to fascist aggression – which was why some of his early books include Soviet agents depicted positively and as sympathetic characters. "Cause for Alarm" didn't seem to have any positive and sympathetic Soviet characters running around in it, so I guess it came after he changed his mind about the Soviet Union. That change was caused by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, although come to think of it, that was a year later than the book was written. Another mystery for me to figure out. Now that I have all kinds of interesting things to look up - I do seem to get off track at times - I will try to get my mind back to the book.

Ok, let's see if I get this right. On the very first page we have a mysterious man (of course) standing in the shadow of a doorway stamping his numb feet on the damp stones. It's cold and this is one of those people who don't like the cold so he stands there thinking awful things while he waits. After thinking of how cold and damp it is, with fogs rolling in from the rice fields type things, so much fog rolling in that also brings in the smoke from the factories. He starts wishing that they would have just let him kill this "Englishman" easily and quickly.

"A knife under the ribs, a slight twist of the wrist to let the air inside the wound, and it was done. No fuss, no trouble, practically no noise."

He stands in the doorway and when a stray pedestrian comes along he shrinks back into the shadows, but of the policemen he takes no notice, the police deliberately avoid looking his way. "That was one advantage in working for Them. You didn't have to worry about the police. You were safe." A second mystery, who are They? Finally, a man comes out of the office building across the street, stops to "light a cigarette" - remember that - and steps into the street where is he promptly run over twice by the same car. So the mystery guy in the car has just killed the mystery guy in the office building, I don't know what the mystery guy in the street was doing, and now the Prologue is over and we move on to the first chapter. I wonder why prologue is pronounced nothing like it is spelled, like bologna - I always have to do the Oscar Mayer song in my head to spell bologna. Anyway, on to the story.

The first paragraph says this:

"One thing is certain. I would not even have considered the job if I had not been desperate."

Hmm....now that I see that it doesn't seem like "One thing is certain" is an entire sentence, but I'm not an English teacher. Anyway, our main character, a production engineer named Nicholas Marlow has just lost his job "owing to circumstances beyond the control of the Board" - business is slow and labor is too expensive so near London, so the book says anyway. What makes it worse, other than starving to death without a job, is that Nick has just proposed to Claire - I can't remember her last name at the moment, but she is a surgeon which is good for the stopping the starving to death possibility. After over two months of looking for another job, he responds to an advertisement by an English engineering company, the "Spartacus Machine Tool Company". He is offered the post of the firm's representative in Italy. The company's main sales are of the "Spartacus Type S2 automatic" which according to the book is:

"a high-speed automatic machine for shell production."

Making these things and selling them to Italy doesn't seem like the most brilliant thing for an company from England to do, but Nick needs a job so he takes it. He is told that the man who had the job before him was killed while walking home on a foggy night - he was hit by an automobile and the driver didn't even stop, a "very sad affair".

Once he gets there he runs into all kinds of interesting people. There is the American man he meets in the building where he works who wants him to spy on another man who is Russian but may be German, for that matter the American may be Russian. There is an English man spying on the Italians and Italians spying on the Germans and Germans spying on the Italians, even though the countries are friendly they still spy on each other. Oh, and there are the Fascist Italian secret police, they follow everybody. In this book if you aren't spying on someone you certainly are getting spied on, perhaps you're doing both. It was very entertaining and I enjoyed it.

Now on to the two things that stood out to me. Remember I told you to keep "light a cigarette" in mind. Here are some quotes:

"He felt in his jacket pocket, lit a cigarette, rebuttoned his overcoat and started to walk in the opposite direction."
"I offered him a cigarette. We went on talking."
"I put the paper down, finished my tea and felt in my pocket for a match to light my cigarette."
"I went for a short walk, smoked a couple of cigarettes, sat down and replied to both letters."
"I yawned and wondered whether to turn the bath on right away or smoke a final cigarette."
"He got out a bottle of cognac, half-filled two wine glasses with it and pushed a box of cigarettes towards me."

Ok, I'll stop with the cigarettes, I just thought that these people couldn't move without having a cigarette and I'm not sure how they breathed actual air with them. Then there is this:

"He got out a bottle of cognac...."
"He found a table near one of the heating stoves and ordered a caffe latte and a Strega. The spirit he drank at a gulp."
"Her father gave me a whiskey and soda....."
"He sniffed at his cognac and I saw his lips twist into an expression of wry distaste."
"A glass of champagne? "Thank you."
"Brandy Mr. Marlow? "Thank you."
"Whisky?" "I got a bottle in specially."
"You'd better take the brandy."

Ok, once again I'll stop. Whenever anyone had a conversation with a spy or a possible spy they had a drink (and a cigarette), the same thing to relax, the same thing to stop relaxing and get to work. I was a little puzzled as to why everyone was so worried about what everyone else was doing or what government they may be working for, with all the smoking and drinking they should soon all die of one disease or another anyway. Either that or get run over. I liked the book go ahead and read it.
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
900 reviews39 followers
June 20, 2020
One of the reasons why I took to the Night Soldier books by Alan Furst is because I was ready for his every man versus the fascists escape reads by reading Eric Ambler. Like others I tend to agree that Cause for Alarm could be better and in particular there is so much detail building to a not so much ending.

Cause for Alarm is a version on the 39 Steps/North by Northwest spy plot. An unsuspecting person, in this case a British depression era, out of work engineer, takes a job that sends him into Mussolini’s Italy. There he is to promote the sales of and support the customers of a new machine for making shell casings. He is reluctantly drafted into machination between people and probable causes wherein he has little and no particular sympathies. There are several sides to this international skullduggery and he has little reason to like any of them. There is only the personal style of his competing puppet masters. And to make it fun, his host nation has no great love for either of the competing calls for loyalty and they have secret police ready to murder for their own reasons. Once in it is interesting that he realizes that however much he resents being forced into certain decisions, they were likely the one he would have chosen absent his involvement in the plots and counter plots.

Overall Cause for Alarm is suitable if slow moving thriller for a trash/beach read. Our hero can be an aggravating ninny. The All-American, if possibly communist spy can be a tad too slick at problem solving. The ending, coming after a way too long chase is rather pat. There is no sex or James Bond flashy cars, cards or gizmos and almost no violence. Cause for Alarm is a fair few hours of mental down time.
Profile Image for Silvia.
170 reviews10 followers
March 3, 2023
3.5 per una spy story d'atmosfera ambientata nell'Italia fascista; scrittura raffinata, rimanda ad una sceneggiatura cinematografica, più che ad un romanzo.
Profile Image for Thomas.
214 reviews118 followers
September 27, 2020
I've read about 16 Amblers at this point, and this is in my top three. I particularly like these early ones.
Profile Image for Kimmo Sinivuori.
92 reviews14 followers
March 11, 2015
"My dear Mr. Marlow, you already are a spy."

Eric Ambler's Cause for Alarm is one of the best suspense novels I have read. It tells the story of an Englishman Nick Marlow who gets involved in a high stake game of espionage in Fascist Italy just before the Second World War. Marlow is an engineer who is made redundant from a London factory and due to the great depression finds it impossible to land a new job in England. Out of desperation he accepts a job as a Milan based sales representative of a British company that makes machinery for the manufacture of grenades.

Ambler writes in a classic hardboiled style that is very appealing to me. His sentences are short and they move the story forward like a steamroller. The style and especially the dialogue remind me of the great hardboiled masters Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Maybe the only major difference to Chandler and Hammett is that Ambler is a bit more serious writer. That must be because he was British and his subject matter was the lead up to the Second World War. The situation in Europe at that time was a bit more serious than it was in California. It would be interesting to know whether Chandler had read Ambler and this book in particular as he named his hero Marlowe.

The first two thirds of the book build up the suspense as Marlow gets tangled in the web of deception and corruption of German and Soviet spies and the Fascist Italian secret police. The atmosphere of the moist and foggy winter months of Milan is beautifully captured. However, it is the escape from Milan through the North Eastern Italy to safety in Yugoslavia, after the Italian authorities discover the plot that Marlow is mixed in, which forms the best part of the book. The escape is told in such a gripping way that one's own heart races along with the protagonist and it is difficult to keep one from skipping the pages just to find out how it will all end. It ends well of course but there are some really hair-raising moments on the way to safety which make this a gripping suspense story.
Profile Image for Nuala.
403 reviews49 followers
December 5, 2021
A good, solid spy story. It gets straight to the point, moves along at a great pace, and has all the expected levels of danger, intrigue, and humour. This book also features Zaleshoff, who's one of my favourite characters in spy literature and is always brilliant. This is a good old-fashioned escape story, and there's plenty of tension and suspense to keep things interesting.

Something that's quite remarkable about this book is the fact that the main character is a bit of an ass. He is narrating the events himself and openly admits that he didn't always act in the most flattering of ways: some of this isn't his fault, as he's a man thrust into an environment he has no way of understanding, but at the same time he seems incapable of learning from past experience and often comes across as overtly stubborn and idiotic. The fact that the narrative both acknowledges this and he is consistently inconvenienced and judged for it is quite refreshing; I love a flawed main character who is actually flawed. Despite these less than savoury characteristics, it's very easy to root for him, which is the mark of a good writer.

This book has reminded me that I need to check out more of Ambler's work, which always speaks of a good book.
Profile Image for George.
2,308 reviews
April 7, 2021
3.5 stars. An engaging, interesting spy thriller fiction novel set mainly in Italy in the mid 1930s. Nicholas Marlow, an engineer, through no fault of his own, loses his job and after being unemployed for ten weeks and still with no work available, is forced to accept a post in Milan, Italy, working for Spartacus Machine Tools. He learns once he has arrived in Milan that his predecessor was murdered. His passport goes missing, his mail is being opened before he receives it and that he is being followed. Marlow gets caught up in spying activity unwittingly, during a time when events are leading Europe to war.

Ambler was very popular thriller writer in the late 1930s and 1940s. His characters are very well developed. They are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. John Le Carre described Ambler as ‘the source on which we all draw’. Whilst I found this novel a satisfying reading experience, I prefer and highly recommend Ambler’s ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’.
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,318 reviews438 followers
February 12, 2015
What fascinated me most about this was it's publication date of 1938. The Axis of Germany and Italy had recently been established - the villain of this piece was one German in particular, and also the general fascist movement in Italy. The protagonist is an ordinary Englishman, an engineer. Not surprisingly, characterization is not the primary draw, though not just awful either. The prose is perhaps not quite literary quality, but more than acceptable. The plot and its development good.

This is one of Ambler's earlier pieces. Ambler was an early writer in the spy/thriller genre and influenced the now better known Graham Greene and John Le Carre. While I read thrillers infrequently, Eric Ambler is one I hope to turn to again.
1,272 reviews42 followers
December 10, 2020
Follows the usual Ambler motif of unsuspecting amateur gets drawn into a sticky situation drawing upon reserves of pluck they never knew they had. In this particular case it’s a newly engaged engineer who’s search for work leads him to selling armament machinery in Milan. Dastardly and not so dastardly rogues pull him into high stakes shenanigans.

It’s a shot of sepia tinted joy, the literary equivalent of watching those old Hitchcock thrillers, perfectly suited for a foggy winters evening.
Profile Image for Bevan.
184 reviews
May 31, 2018
Eric Ambler was a great writer of spy thrillers, and a great writer, period. His books are well-written, humane, intelligent, and subtle.
Profile Image for Scott Head.
157 reviews8 followers
September 17, 2019
Partial spoilers present:

Ambler is the father of the literary spy novel. That much is long settled by the testimony of masters with well-known names like Graham Greene, John LeCarre, and Alan Furst. Sadly, his body of work in the espionage and political thriller genre spans only five books, and depending on how you count up later novels, maybe a few more. The rest seem more like political dramas set post WWII. "Cause for Alarm" was written in 1937. Ambler is keenly aware of the political climate in Europe in those tension-filed years. Yet, being 1937, some of our modern hindsight may need to be shelved, for we simply have too much knowledge of what came of it all. If we can place our minds in a pre-war Europe, we will benefit and gain much insight into the hopes and anxieties of a Europe plunging into a dark, violent six-year bloodbath.

Ambler drops us into the brewing hostilities from the perspective of laid-off English engineer, Nicky Marlow, who desperately needs a job. His fiance, a doctor herself, is a more robust soul than Marlow. She encourages him to take a job with an English munitions firm who’s Milan office has experienced an untimely vacancy. The previous manager was the victim of an unfortunately placed automobile. He was run over. Twice.

Marlow takes the job, its a temporary position in his mind, only to get back on his feet. Arriving in Milan, he bumbles into a world of bribery, mistrust, blackmail and espionage. Almost frustrating the reader with his lack of perception, Marlow never really grasps the depths of his predicament until the story is two-thirds over. Steamed open mail, people following him, and everyone interested in making shady deals with him never quite form up in his mind. He is dismissive of shadiness, unaware of danger, and that leads him into the dark.

Some have criticized the book’s portrayal of Mussolini and the fascist’s un-committed stance toward the political polarity of the day. That pesky hindsight tells the modern reader that Italy was in fact committed to the Axis, though in 1937 this wasn’t in all the daily papers so blatantly. However, the author's presentation of the fascists leaves no doubts about their ugly face. Still, the plot depends on a suspicious state of outwardly friendly diplomatic and business relations between Italy, England and Germany. Marlow's business involves Italian purchases from his employer, Spartacus Machine Tool, Co., who happen to be a munitions tool supplier. As the point man in Milan, Marlow's business is immediately of interest to a shady bunch of people who really want to know what’s kind of production is going on. We are introduced to the chief antagonist quite soon.

He is a creepy, effeminite, oozing Yugoslav general, and has a financial arrangement waiting for Marlow. The ballet-loving, monacled General Vagas insists that his arrangement is benevolent; that his offer advances a common patriotic cause in light of the coming war. "There’s a nice chunk of money involved, by the way." Marlow, being a naive and regular guy, sees nothing more than morally disagreeable business practices in the General’s makeup-enhanced grin, but sees no political shadiness.

No sooner does he try to reject the disagreeable offer, he is approached by a burly American business owner with a curiously Russian name, who warns him of the General’s nefarious activities. The American, Zaleshoff, has his own sort of questionable arrangements brewing. Zaleshoff is hard to dislike. He seems to know things before being told. He has a plan for every instance. But neither the morbid Vagas or the upbeat Zaleshoff seem to be who they present themselves to be. The supporting cast of characters are also painted vividly, making the whole plot rich and zesty.

The story adds the OVRA (the Italian equivalent to the Gestapo), who are keenly interested in the whole mess. Yes, there are goons in the shadows, cloaks and fedoras, smoking men lingering outside too long. The tension grows, and Marlow becomes ensnared in a shifting, shady world of espionage, against his will and better judgment, and finds his life is in grave danger.

The strength of the story is the descriptive prose and the dialogue. I can see a British-accented, young Jimmy Stewart as Marlow, naive and outraged at every turn: “Now see here! By Jove, I'm English! The authorities will hear about this! Good day, sir!” The evocative writing is delicious, and carries the tale even when the plot slows. I find this kind of writing to be rewarding and enjoyable, the opening few pages form a well-baited hook.

Marlow eventually realizes his predicament when he is soundly beaten to a blubbering, bloody mass in a dark street. There is an awakening and resolve that comes about slowly in his mind. Being somewhat timid, he is propelled mainly to the story’s conclusion by the bold Zaleshoff, who provides for Marlow the will to move forward and the practical skills to do so in a hostile environment. The slimy and odiferous Vagas, like the perversely saccharine Mr. Peters in "Coffin for Dimitrios," is a memorable and colorful opponent who persists to the end and lingers in the mind of the reader. I enjoyed the final escape process, the trains and small town cafes, that some other readers have criticized.

This is not Ambler’s most popular spy novel, though in my experience, its in the top three. If you enjoyed this one, read Coffin for Dimitrios, the finest Ambler novel of them all. First rate, classic noir-style reading, and recommended.
Profile Image for Pamela.
1,355 reviews
December 20, 2021
I have discovered over the last few years that I really like espionage novels, a sub-genre of crime that I’d previously overlooked. From the master John le Carré to Charles Cumming and Stella Rimington, I’ve really enjoyed the mix of mysterious double dealing and thrilling action. Now I’ve finally read one of the earliest and finest authors of this type of book, Eric Ambler, and I was not disappointed.

Set in 1937 as tensions increase in Europe, genial Englishman Nicky Marlow finds engineering jobs in short supply, and takes up a management role for the Spartacus manufacturing company, based in Milan. He soon realises that the company’s main product is being used for munitions, that his predecessor had died in a suspicious accident and that his incompetent subordinate appears to be following his movements.

Following encounters with the grotesque General Vagas and the ebullient Zameshoff, Marlow realises that he has fallen into a deadly game of espionage where he will have to tread carefully to avoid compromising himself and his employers.

I found this a gripping story that had a visual cinematic quality, especially in the parts where Marlow runs the gauntlet of Fascist militia or flees his pursuers. Ambler shows prescience about the nature of Mussolini’s Italy and the tensions with Germany, Russia and Britain. Like many writers of the time, he demonstrates some sympathy with the Socialists working against Fascism although his views are quite restrained (and in fact he later became disillusioned with Left politics in the post War era).

Marlow is a likeable protagonist, slightly naive and stubborn, but definitely overshadowed by the villainous Vagas (I loved every scene he featured in) and by the momentous events that are on the horizon and overshadow all the petty efforts of one man. I’ll definitely be reading more from Ambler.
Profile Image for John McCaffrey.
Author 5 books41 followers
June 3, 2019
Ambler always delights me in his tried and true formula for spinning the spy thriller. In Cause for Alarm, he trots out again his successful theme of the average guy swept into something profoundly not-average. This time the guy in question is a recently unemployed engineer, Marlow, who accepts a position in Italy for a firm that builds machines that make bullets. Thrust into a job he knows little about, in a country sliding toward Fascism, he soon realizes his predecessor was not only selling secrets to a rumbling Nazi Germany, but was also murdered because of it. It's a fast read, and a fun one, but the end, for my liking, comes a little too fast.
Profile Image for Ian.
885 reviews
September 10, 2013
Enjoyable espionage story of a young Engineer in need of a job who takes a posting to Milan in the shoes of someone whose death was suspicious, and finds himself out of his depth in a world of corruption and intrigue as the European powers jockey for position in the run up to World War II. May suffer from a lack of violence and gunfire for modern tastes, but the tension is maintained efficiently - being stuck between Fascism and Communism - and Ambler is notable as the bridge that connects the gung-ho patriotism of John Buchan to the world weary Cold War tradecraft of John LeCarre.
711 reviews4 followers
June 29, 2018
Probably 4.5 stars but I will have to round it down, as it isn't a five star read.

Some other reviews compare it unfavourably with Le Carre and refer to Ambler's leftist tendencies. I can't quite agree with these as you have to remember that this book was published in 1938. It is the equivalent of a spy story set amongst the Brexit negotiations or within the power plays of Trump's USA, Putin's Russia and Xi's China with North Korea the focus of their plotting.

Ambler is warning his readership against the scheming of the Nazi's and the Facists as represented by the scheming Vargas and the untrustworthy Bellenetti. And of course he was right. The probable Soviet spy Zaleshoff, is given a much easier ride but his motives are always questioned. No doubt Ambler was later horrified by the Nazi-Soviet pact but he was also correct in that it was the USSR that led to the downfall of Nazism, paying a terrible price to do so.

But at the heart is Marlow, the engineer caught up in politics and danger when all he wants to do is sell his company's machines. Of course, you might think of Chandler's creation, but I think there are more likely references to Christopher (a spy in Tudor times) and the narrator of Heart of Darkness, another story of an innocent faced with evil he cannot comprehend. Up to this point, the nearest to the spy story would have been Richard Hannay, ex military and more than capable of handling any situation or any foreigner. Ambler put ordinary people into extraordinary situations, helping set up the genre that Le Carre would make his own 25 years later.

And it is still a pretty good read 80 years later. It certainly feels a lot more contemporary than that.
Profile Image for Joan Kerr.
Author 2 books4 followers
November 20, 2018
It’s an oldie (1938), but a goodie, as they used to say on the radio when they played an old song. Oh for the days when the hero and his fiancée sat in the back row at the pictures holding hands. As that hero Nick Marlow might say, it’s a rattling good yarn, with an extended manhunt worthy of Richard Hannay in 'The Thirty Nine Steps'.

A severe manufacturing downturn in Britain leads Nick to take a job running the Milan branch of a British company that makes armaments for Mussolini’s government. Nick’s an engineer, not a moral philosopher, so he doesn’t let himself worry about the Mussolini angle too much:

'I am merely the agent. I did not create the situation. The responsibility for it is not mine. There is a job to be done. If I do not do it, someone else will.' (91)

Good old straightforward Nick of course walks into a hotbed of corruption, double-dealing and competing spies. There’s a creepy German who wears pancake makeup and claims to be Yugoslav, and a bluff American who might perhaps be a Russian spy. There’s bribery and blackmail and bashing-up in the street. Whether he likes it or not, Nick finds himself making a choice on behalf of others and not just himself. And that’s where the manhunt comes in as he tries to escape across the border, walking by night, jumping freight trains, stealing other people’s clothes and trying to walk calmly under the noses of the armed state thugs hunting him.

Ambler is said to have influenced Le Carré and Deighton with his stories of “ordinary people thrust into political intrigue they were ill-prepared to deal with”. His clean, energetic style is a pleasure to read. Jolly good show, Eric old man.

Profile Image for Al.
1,471 reviews43 followers
January 14, 2009
I guess when you write as many books as Eric Ambler did, you tend to fall into a pattern. Cause For Alarm is definitely formulaic, which is both good and bad. It has the usual realistic and beautifully rendered locations, and the typical cast of nysterious characters; these are good things. I do wish that the usual naive English protagonist would eventually wise up, or at least realize what he is getting into. But if he can't do that, could he please spare us the all-too-frequent outbursts of injured pride and indignation when things aren't going his way? Well, no, I guess he can't, so we'll just have to take the good with the bad. Mr. Ambler figured these protestations were necessary to his plots, but I just wish we could dispense with them and get on with the story.
As an aside, it's so interesting to realize these books were written from 1937 to 1940 -- mostly, then, before the war had fairly begun -- but Mr. Ambler clearly foresaw what was coming. The impending menace of the war in the books is palpable. Too bad the free European governments didn't recognize it and take some corrective action before Hitler consolidated his power.
Profile Image for Procyon Lotor.
650 reviews100 followers
January 27, 2014
Particolare e plausibile spy-story ambientata a Milano sul finire degli anni '30 con triplogiochisti e autorit� corrotte.. Situazione classica ambleriana dove un Signor Simplicio, nonostante l'acutissima fidanzata che da lontano - senza troppi elementi a far confusione - capisce tutto assai meglio di lui che c'� in mezzo, finisce incastrato in uno schema. Notevole la ricostruzione degli ambienti e metodi dell'OVRA ed in genere del cot� fassista. Ambler aveva evidentemente fonti serie a disposizione. Incredibile come un inglese (e non tra gli impiegati del Foreign Office) avesse gi� allora inquadrato correttamente i rapporti di vicinanza ideale mista a repulsione e terrore tra Italia e Reich. Di quella complessit� se ne parla diffusamente in Italia da non pi� di vent'anni e solo per i veramente interessati. Peccato per il finale fatto di rincorsa e col terrore di non riuscire a chiudere il cerchio.
Profile Image for Arukiyomi.
382 reviews73 followers
March 13, 2018
"...while the central character is as realistic as you or me, the storyline is still completely implausible, which is after all what readers of spy novels want."

Dear me, this hasn't aged well at all, and I couldn't wait to get to the end of this one. According to Wikipedia, Ambler is known for his thrillers. I can't say I was thrilled at any stage while reading this lame account of a particularly pathetic British engineer who ends up the victim of espionage agents in pre-WW2 Fascist Italy.

Apart from wanting to punch the "hero" in the face on virtually every page, the storyline is utterly predictable with the only twists being ones where the plot gets lost in some kind of bog while you wait for anything remotely thrilling to happen. The somewhat ironically named Marlow - ironic because he's the complete opposite of Chandler's Philip Marlowe - spends the whole time acting like a paranoid tourist with the backbone of C3PO. Quite how Zalashoff, the Russian agent who effectively saves him, manages to resist putting a bullet through his head is beyond me.

What Ambler's done here is what others, such as Buchan, failed to do: create a thriller with a hero who lacks any of the heroic characteristics that were obligatory for thrillers in Ambler's pre-WW2 era. Now, while this may have been a bold move and undoubtedly influenced the realism embodied in titans such as George Smiley, the fact that the genre was suffering from malaise at the time meant that Ambler got away with it. But while the central character is as realistic as you or me, the storyline is still completely implausible, which is after all what readers of spy novels want.

So, as with many writers who influenced those who have become household names, you're probably better off reading those they influenced and learning about their legacy from their Wikipedia posts. I won't be adding any more Amblers to my TBR list anytime soon.

Profile Image for Monty Milne.
876 reviews47 followers
November 8, 2020
I enjoyed this, although I didn’t quite buy into the creepy villain who purportedly works for the Yugoslav secret service but is really the spider near the centre of the Fascist web. This is hardly a spoiler: all the baddies are obviously Fascists just as all the goodies turn out to be Communists, and this is I think the weakest aspect of the book. One of the Fascist baddies tries to justify his lack of moral scruple thus:

“If you thought that the state which you worshipped…was endangered by the life of one insignificant man, would you hesitate to have him shot? It doesn’t matter whether the means are bad if the ends are good!”

Ambler means us to be appalled by that remark but the trouble is that Lenin said something almost identical. Ambler’s positive portrayal of Soviet Communism is therefore naïve at best, and at times very hard for me to stomach.

There are however a couple of factors which allow me to cut the author some slack and award the book four stars (well, really three and a half rounded up). First of all, many of us, had we lived through the 1930’s, might well have been so convinced of the looming evil of Fascism that we could easily have remained as blind as Ambler was to the many evils of Communism (and he did at least see the light and repent in the fullness of time). Second, the atmosphere and flavour of 1930’s Italy feels exactly right, and is very well done. And third – and most importantly – this is a thriller, and in this it does not disappoint – it brims with menace, excitement, espionage and intrigue. The lengthy chase in the final part of the book is edge of the seat stuff, and introduces a very intriguing and totally unexpected character in the shape of the strange mathematical scholar. I’m very glad I read it.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,164 reviews24 followers
December 29, 2017
The story in this novel falls in to halves. In part one we meet Nick Marlow, a young engineer ,who in 1937 has lost his job and having just become engaged he takes a job in Milan for a company that manufactures shells in a very volatile Italy. In the prologue we has seen market's predecessor murdered by suspicious baddies. In Milan Marlow is drawn into a political situation where forces seek to undermine the Rome-Berlin axis and Marlow becomes the innocent fall guy.
The second half is an exciting escape story as he and the mysterious Zaleshoff try to escape to Yugoslavia, with a well plotted tale that had me at times at the edge of my seat.
I felt the book was on a level with the best of modern thrillers but the aspect I most enjoyed was the picture of intrigue and politics as the second world war approaches. An Increasingly militant fascist Italy and a suspicious Germany cause everyone to look over their shoulders as the secret police use casual violence as a tool of control. A really interesting period piece and clearly a forerunner and influence on future writers. I will definitely be exploring Eric Ambler's other books.
Profile Image for Tina Tamman.
Author 3 books99 followers
August 8, 2023
The last 30 pages tested me sorely. I should have read this book years ago when I had not yet understood that there are books written to the formula: a youngish chap finds himself in an awkward situation that he can't cope with, acquires an ally, is accused of murder/spying, flees, there are all kinds of obstacles but also a happy end. This book really bored me. Not a patch of "The Levanter" that I enjoyed very much.
185 reviews12 followers
January 16, 2015
I love reading espionage fiction. One of my favourite writers of the form is Eric Ambler, whose novels started to appear in the 1930s. His work has an air of realism about it that seems to me to be missing from the more gung-ho stories of his predecessors such as Sapper, John Buchan and Dornford Yates. In fact, Ambler started a trend for engaging, historically and politically aware, credible spy fiction that has since given us such wonderful writers as John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Charles McCarry, Charles Cumming, Edward Wilson and (perhaps Ambler's closest modern equivalent) Alan Furst.

'Cause for Alarm' may not be its author's best book (of those I've read 'The Mask of Dimitrios' is perhaps his most effective thriller). But it's nevertheless a reasonably good read that, for the most part, bears many of Ambler's trademark qualities: a fascinating plot; a page-turning readability; excellent characterisation; and a strong sense of time and place. 'Cause for Alarm' is a novel that you are likely to want to gobble up as quickly as possible because it hooks you from the outset. Its only disappointing feature is the rather weak dénouement (of which more later).

It would be unfair to reveal too much of the plot. In brief, the story features a young unemployed Brit, Nicky Marlow, who takes a job at an overseas arm of a British armaments producer, in Italy, in the late 1930s. While in Milan, he becomes inadvertently embroiled in the underhand activities of pro and anti Fascist activists. So, as in several of Ambler's other stories, the basic premise is that of an ordinary guy who finds himself caught up in extraordinary events that test his survival instinct.

What I particularly like about 'Cause for Alarm' is its political astuteness. The relationship between Germany and Italy - the Rome-Berlin axis that was formed in the latter half of the 1930s - provides a backdrop to the plot and there is a tangible sense of the looming war that would shatter Europe just a few years later. The central character, Nicky Marlow, is one that most readers will warm to. He's a plucky, naive and slightly vulnerable young man who almost immediately finds himself involved in a series of events that are quite beyond his control. There's a smattering of offbeat humour too. One of the more sinister characters in the story is described as having an effeminate voice and a penchant for wearing rouge on his cheeks!

Unfortunately, the novel has one major flaw: its conclusion. The last third of the book, in which Marlow attempts to evade Italian police and secret service officials who are trying to arrest him, is unbelievably silly and quite out of keeping with everything that precedes it. I was simply not convinced by it. And it disrupts the balance and ethos of the story. What had been a quietly effective, thoughtful and intriguing spy yarn morphs into some sort of formulaic Hollywood film script for a closing chase scene. At one point when on the run, while having a drink with his accomplice in a cafe, Marlow even gets to hear a radio newsflash about himself and the fact that he is wanted for questioning by the authorities! He also takes refuge with a slightly unhinged mathematics professor who is obsessed with the issue of perpetual motion. All very silly! It's a great shame that what had up until then been a riveting read loses its way in the final 100 or so pages.

Eric Ambler had a knack of writing in a way that makes you turn the pages avidly, eager to know what happens next. There are many modern writers who need to learn that particular skill. Ambler's stories satisfy the yearning we all have for a good story, well told. The ill-judged ending apart, 'Cause for Alarm' exemplifies its author's finely-honed storytelling skills. Despite the poor dénouement, I liked it. 6/10.

Profile Image for Laurence Westwood.
Author 3 books18 followers
April 26, 2020
Written in 1937, the plot of Cause for Alarm revolves about a naive English engineer, Nicky Marlow, who, in need of work, takes on a job for an engineering company as its agent in Milan, Italy, selling machines used in the manufacturing of armaments. After leaving his fiancee behind, Nicky Marlow, travels to Italy, discovers that the previous incumbent in his position had been murdered, and that both Nazi agents and Soviet agents are very interested in the work he is doing. Somehow he is going to have to extricate himself not only from the job but also get himself out of fascist Italy before he loses his own life.

Okay, first off, I have really enjoyed all the other Eric Ambler novels from this period. But this novel I did not like at all. In fact, I pretty much hated every part of it. None of it made that much sense to me. There were a lot of words and yet not much happening. Nicky Marlow was more dense than naive. And for the most part the novel seemed nothing but an exercise in Eric Ambler venting his political views of the time. He had treated Soviet agents sympathetically in other novels. I have no problem with this. There were many in the 1920s & 1930s who could not see the Soviet Union for what it was. But there was something about this novel that really left a bad taste in my mouth. There was just far too much talking; far too much socialism is good, capitalism is bad, nonsense. But even that could have been forgiven if the story had been more tightly told, if Nicky Marlow had had a little more wit about him, some real agency of his own. Maybe Eric Ambler chose to make him nothing but a puppet on purpose to make a wider point, pushed from side to side by the great political forces of the time, and by the people who represented those forces. But if Nicky Marlow had been hit by a car by the end of Chapter 3, and the real spies had spent the rest of the novel slugged it out between them, then that might have been better for all.

Not for me!
Profile Image for John.
Author 339 books166 followers
August 2, 2014
Machine engineer Nicky Marlow finds himself out of a job and, in a time of recession, can't find another . . . until the Spartacus company hires him to take over their Milan office following the tragic hit-and-run death of their previous manager there. Before the rather naive Nicky properly knows what's going on, he's up to his ears in international skulduggery, with his life very much at risk . . .

As soon as I started reading this I recognized it, and recalled thoroughly enjoying it; I must have read it many years ago, because I never knew what was coming next but found each scene familiar as I lived through it again. After I'd finished the novel, delighted to have made the reacquaintance, I realized how very simple the plot actually is: you could probably tell the whole tale quite adequately on one side of a sheet of paper. It's part of Ambler's great mastery that, even so, he kept me entirely engrossed throughout. The sense that everything is just about to come crashing down around Europe's ears is very strong (in this the book's prophetic; it appeared in 1938), as is the depiction, through the often infuriating figure of Nicky, of English complacency in the face of the storm that was building.

Much recommended.


Although originally published in the UK in 1938, this came out in the US in 1939 and thus just squeaks in as a candidate for Rich Westwood's 1939 Challenge on his Past Offences site.

My other contribution to the Challenge is a piece on the 1939 Powell & Pressburger movie The Spy in Black at my Noirish site.

Profile Image for David.
55 reviews1 follower
March 13, 2023
A really enjoyable late 1930s thriller. I have to admit a bias - I'm a big Eric Ambler fan, but this I think is the best of his I've read. It's quite similar to a couple of his others in themes: an up-tight, somewhat pompous Englishman gets involved in shady goings-on and is soon out of his depths in the pre-war Europe of fascism's rise.

What I like about Ambler is that he's a great observer of human nature. His characters are flawed and believable. There are no nonsensical super-heroes that you get in modern thrillers (hello Jason Yawn, sorry Bourne): running and gunning their way out of every tight squeeze, seemingly impervious to fear or harm.

He's also a solid writer - the style is spare and unsentimental, but with flashes of perfect observation here and there. It's no surprise that he was also a successful movie screenwriter; the style is very movie-like in it's dynamics. Occasionally in this novel there are lapses into expositionary monologues by a couple of characters, as the plot involves a lot of real-world political intrigue which needs to be explained one way or another I suppose.

Despite the fact that compared to modern thrillers there's very little "action" (i.e. violence), somehow it manages to be incredibly compelling. And the final third, the third act if you will, when Marlow's chickens come home to roost and he has to figure out how to extricate himself is just page turning stuff. Brilliant.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 145 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.