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.