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Cause for Alarm (1938)

por Eric Ambler

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4571041,338 (3.62)65
With an new introduction by John Preston 'The best spy story in a long time'The New York Times Nicky Marlow needs a job. He's engaged to be married and the employment market in Britain in 1937 is pretty slim. So when his fiancée points out the position with an English armaments manufacturer in Italy, he jumps at the chance. Soon after he arrives, however, he learns the sinister truth about his predecessor's departure and finds himself courted by two agents with dangerously different agendas. In the process, Marlow realizes that it's not so simple just to do the job he's paid for - not in fascist Italy, on the eve of a world war. 'Eric Ambler is a master of his craft' Sunday Telegraph… (mais)
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The fact that I read Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler in less than three days indicates my enjoyment of it. It was first published in 1938 and is set in Italy. Mussolini is in power and the country is building its armaments. Italy has an alignment with Nazis Germany and the rest of Europe is aprehensive about the Rome-Berlin Axis. Nicholas Marlow takes the job as Italian representative for an English machine manufacturer that supplies equipment for the production of large bore shells. You might say business is booming.

Naturally, Marlow, an engineer recently made redundant by the closure of his former employer, is new to the world of sales and is unaccustomed to the prevailing habits and practices of business in Italy. This innocent becomes embroiled in matters of corruption and international espionage.

I find the stories from the years between WWI and WWII very interesting. They give a picture of what was happening in Europe in the years before WWII. People are aware of the horrors of WWI and are pre-occupied by the risk of a future war.

Both Graham Greene and John Le Carré said they had been inspired by Eric Ambler's works, and I can see why.

Will I read more works by Eric Ambler?
Most definitely.

Would I recommend this book to others?
Yes.

To whom would I recommend?
Anyone who likes espionage adventure stories. If you like the atmosphere present in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, also released in 1938, or Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, chances are you will like this.

Fans of Graham Greene's work and the stories of John Le Carré should find Ambler's works interesting, albeit slightly less complex than today's tales of espionage.

"The only difference between our obsessions and Beronelli’s is that we share ours with the other citizens of Europe. We’re still listening sympathetically to guys telling us that you can only secure peace and justice with war and injustice, that the patch of earth on which one nation lives is mystically superior to the patch their neighbours live on, that a man who uses a different set of noises to praise God is your natural born enemy. We escape into lies. We don’t even bother to make them good lies. If you say a thing often enough, if you like to believe it, it must be true. That’s the way it works. No need for thinking. Let’s follow our bellies. Down with intelligence. You can’t change human nature, buddy." (from "Cause for Alarm (1938)" by Eric Ambler) ( )
1 vote pgmcc | Apr 5, 2021 |
Eric Ambler once more incorporates his Russian-American brother/sister team, Zaleshaoff and Tamara, into another first rate thriller. Not quite as good as Background to Danger, where another unwitting Englishman is brought under the influence of the brother and sister Soviet spy tandem, Cause for Alarm is nonetheless engrossing on its own merits.

In this story, Nicholas Marlow, a recently unemployed English engineer, takes a job with a British firm in Italy. He does so out of desperation for work and to please his fiance. It is his encounters with the spy Zaleshoff, however, that brings him into danger. Upon Zaleshoff's encouragement, Marlow undertakes to observe and through his efforts with a would be blackmailing German agent sow discord between the Axis allies in Europe. Actual history would reveal just how fruitless this fictional fantasy would play out in real life. But for readers of the mid 1930s, it might have engendered a bit of optimism about containing Hitler and Mussolini as well as supplying a nice mystery.

About the story. As the above description indicates, it is not a particularly complex one. The simplicity of the story, however, gives way to the range of the story's setting, from London to various points in Italy and on through an escape across Italy into Yugoslavia. This latter part of the novel is where events really gain steam. Like many a 1930s novel, the romance of the setting of an espionage/escape story on a train is enough to entice readers. Compound that with a flight across the Italian countryside, crossing railway yards, outwitting militiamen and police, and working a way across windswept snow encased mountains, and you have quite an adventure tale, too. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler is a classic spy thriller that is set in Fascist Italy in 1938. A tale of espionage and counter-espionage, this was an enjoyable read about the political situation that was building up to soon become open warfare. Eric Ambler wrote the book in the late 1930’s and clearly saw the danger in both the Nazi government of Germany and the rise of Fascism in Italy.

Unlike the thrillers of today, I found that the story developed quite slowly. Nick Marlow finds himself out of work and accepts a job with an engineering company to run their Milan office unaware that he will soon be involved in cloak and dagger intrigue. Becoming involved with Russian agents, German spies and suspicious Italian organizations, he soon finds himself on the run across Northern Italy toward the border with Yugoslavia.

I found Cause For Alarm to be a well-written, subtle yet intelligent story. The author’s straight forward narration gives just enough color to the story for the reader to see the desperation and confusion of the amateur caught up in an impossible situation. The author’s leftist leanings are obvious with his sympathetic take on a couple of Russian spies, but of course, this book was written before Germany and Russia signed their Non-Aggression Pact. An interesting look at Europe on the brink of war. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Aug 21, 2018 |
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. ( )
  arukiyomi | Mar 9, 2018 |
I'm told Eric Ambler invented the "normal guy caught up in suspense" story, and that pretty much sums this up. A little slow getting started, but after that a mounting curve of mystery and suspense snowballing to a satisfying conclusion. ( )
  JackMassa | Nov 23, 2016 |
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With an new introduction by John Preston 'The best spy story in a long time'The New York Times Nicky Marlow needs a job. He's engaged to be married and the employment market in Britain in 1937 is pretty slim. So when his fiancée points out the position with an English armaments manufacturer in Italy, he jumps at the chance. Soon after he arrives, however, he learns the sinister truth about his predecessor's departure and finds himself courted by two agents with dangerously different agendas. In the process, Marlow realizes that it's not so simple just to do the job he's paid for - not in fascist Italy, on the eve of a world war. 'Eric Ambler is a master of his craft' Sunday Telegraph

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