Mon 20 Jan 2014
by Marcia Muller
ERIC AMBLER – The Light of Day. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1963. Reprint paperback editions include: Bantam, 1964; Signet, 1968; Ballantine, 1978; Berkley, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.
This Edgar-winning novel is the story of Arthur Simpson, a roguish con man, petty thief, and sometime pornographer who, as the novel opens, is driving a car-for-hire in Athens. He makes his first mistake when he attempts to rob his client of some traveler’s checks and is caught; the man is no ordinary tourist, but an accomplished criminal, and he quickly blackmails Simpson into driving a Lincoln Continental to Istanbul.
Simpson’s second and third mistakes are not searching the car thoroughly and not having a valid passport. (He is half English, half Egyptian, and the problem of his citizenship is a thread that runs through the narrative.)
The border authorities search the Lincoln and discover weapons inside the doors. When Simpson finally admits how he was coerced into driving the car into Turkey, the Turkish police in turn coerce him into getting at the source of the weapons smuggling. Simpson delivers the car, finagles himself a job as guide for the three men and one woman to whom it seems to belong, then spends several tense days trying to find out what they have planned.
As it turns out, all plans go awry — Simpson’s, the authorities’, and the smugglers’. Soon Simpson finds himself enlisted on both sides, in an even worse predicament than he could ever have imagined.
This novel is Ambler at his best, full as it is of double-dealings and harrowing scenes. Arthur Simpson is a likable rogue and a finely drawn character. The reader can get a second glimpse of him in Dirt Story (1967).
A film of this novel, called Topkapi, was made in 1964; starring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, and Peter Ustinov, it is colorful and entertaining and contains riveting scenes during which viewers who are afraid of heights would be well advised to keep their eyes shut. A paperback edition of the novel, also published that year, bears the same title as the film.
Ambler carries out his theme of an innocent man caught up in a web of deceit and intrigue in other novels, notably Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1939), and Epitaph for a Spy (1952).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.