Eric Ambler; Literary Father of the Modern Spy Thriller

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Eric Ambler, the pioneering author of modern thrillers who was also an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, has died, his agent in London said Friday. He was 89.

Ambler had been ill and died at his London apartment Thursday, agent John McLaughlin said. McLaughlin did not announce a cause of death.

Ambler pioneered the notion of creating realistic stories about espionage operations. In books such as “Epitaph for a Spy” in 1938, “The Mask of Dimitrios” in 1939, “Journey Into Fear” in 1940 and “The Schirmer Inheritance” in 1953, he established believable worlds that were shabby, gritty and threatening. All, however, were compelling and without the false depictions of spies that had been found in thrillers up until his time.


“He took the spy thriller out of the gentility of the drawing room and into the back streets of Istanbul, where it all really happened,” said Frederick Forsyth, author of “The Day of the Jackal.”

At a luncheon in London honoring Ambler some years ago, John le Carre said that Ambler’s novels “were the well into which everybody had dipped,” while Graham Greene cabled a greeting: “To the master from one of his disciples.”

In “Whodunit,” H.R.F. Keating’s handbook of crime and suspense fiction, Ambler is singled out as the creator of “a new phase in the history of the spy story . . . choosing as hero not an operative with right and the establishment on his side, but a person caught up in the machinations of the great powers who was himself of the Left, a doubter and an innocent.”

In Ambler’s fifth book, “The Mask of Dimitrios,” he wrote of an unassuming academic caught up in the murderous espionage battles of the Balkans in the 1930s.

The novel, the first to bring him international recognition, was made into a film by Warner Bros., starring Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott and Peter Lorre.

Ambler, born in London in 1909, had studied engineering at the University of London and later worked in advertising. He served in the Royal Artillery during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He also wrote educational and training films for the British army. While heading a British army film unit in Italy, he worked on John Huston’s famous documentary “The Battle of San Pietro.”

Ambler lived in Los Angeles and wrote screenplays in the 1950s, the most noted being the adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel “The Cruel Sea,” for which he received a 1953 Oscar nomination. Others were the Titanic saga “A Night to Remember” in 1958, and “Wreck of the Mary Deare” in 1959.

His book “The Light of Day,” which was filmed as “Topkapi” by United Artists, won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel in 1964. The association made Ambler a Grand Master in 1975.

Queen Elizabeth II honored him in 1981 as an officer of the Order of the British Empire.

He had no children. No funeral plans were announced.