Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: The Light of Day

Eric Ambler
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

On the surface of it, this book had all the ingredients of a great mystery story. It is set in exotic locations in Greece and Turkey. The main character is a dumpy small-time crook who gets caught up to his neck in international intrigue. The British author, Ambler, who was described on the book’s 1962 cover as “the greatest living writer of the novel of suspense,” had been, among other things, a songwriter, a vaudeville comedian, an ad executive, and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. So I was raring to read it.

The story is about Arthur Abdel Simpson, son of a British father and an Egyptian mother, who lives in Athens and makes a living as a petty thief and distributor of pornography. One day he picks the wrong tourist to scam; his mark turns out to be a member of a ring of spies (or maybe thieves or drug smugglers) who catches Arthur red-handed trying to steal his travelers checks and blackmails him into helping with a major caper.

At first, Arthur’s task is just to drive a car from Athens to Istanbul. It is supposed to be an easy job but he forgets that his Egyptian passport has expired, so he gets stopped at the Turkish border. The car is searched and the customs officials find guns and grenades hidden in the door panels. The Turkish equivalent of the CIA then makes Arthur a deal: they won’t arrest him for possession of the weaponry if he agrees to stay with the gang and provide information about what they’re up to. So Arthur wangles his way into becoming the gang’s full-time driver, lodges with them in their villa outside Istanbul, and generally gets involved way over his head in their scheme.

It’s hard to say sometimes why a book doesn’t quite catch your imagination the way it seems it should. What happened was that I’d often reach the end of a paragraph and realize that I’d spaced out and missed what had happened and had to go back and read it again. I didn’t look forward to picking this book up again after I’d taken a break and would find myself reading other things instead.

It had a heck of a lot of what seemed like unnecessary detail. All distances were exactly estimated: there was an island sixty kilometers from Pendik; a wall was twenty feet high; they had one-hundred fifty yards to go; there was a sheer drop of thirty feet; the roof was thirty-five feet wide. The gang’s preparations seemed needlessly convoluted: they went to garages, resorts, restaurants, museums, and back and forth to Istanbul about fifty times, without anything major happening most of the time. And every move Arthur made was described in excruciating detail even though he seemed to spend most of the time dusting the car and filling it with gas.

The best parts of the book were actually Arthur’s rare flashbacks to his British public school childhood, when he was a loner and a troublemaker and had colorful run-ins with teachers and administrators.

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