« Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays | Main | Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón »

The Levanter by Eric Ambler

First published in 1972; published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on December 11, 2012; published digitally by Agora Books on August 23, 2015

Eric Ambler is one of the fathers of the modern thriller. The Levanter was published near the end of his writing career. The novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award.

Lewis Prescott is a foreign correspondent based in Paris. On a trip to Lebanon, he is offered the opportunity to interview a Palestinian leader named Salah Ghaled. The invitation comes from Melanie Hammad, who met Prescott and his wife in Paris. Ghaled leads a splinter group that has been condemned by the PLO, the PFLP, and the governments of Jordan and Lebanon. Prescott worries that profiling him will elevate the stature of a man who is unrepresentative of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, but his editor is curious to know how Ghaled’s group is being financed.

As the interview is being conducted, Michael Howell is in Syria, dealing with his family business, a wide-ranging enterprise that deals in agriculture, shipping and international trade. Howell’s Syrian assets have been frozen. He makes a number of business deals with the Syrians in an effort to recoup his losses. I don’t have a head for business but I enjoyed reading about Howell’s strategies. Ambler adds credibility to the story with details about mundane topics such as ceramic production, the differences between dry and wet batteries, and how to clean barnacles from a large schooner. How Ambler managed to make all of that interesting I can’t explain, but he does.

Howell eventually discovers that his difficulty earning a profit is the least of his problems. Circumstances beyond his control place Howell and one of his factories under the control of terrorist Ghaled. Howell soon finds himself in the middle of a plot against Israel. Whether he cooperates or not, his future does not look bright. The novel’s tension builds with Howell’s frustration as people who should show an interest in helping him appear to be indifferent to whether he lives or dies.

Most of the novel is focused on Howell, a character who finds himself caught in an impossible situation. Prescott’s contribution to the story is to offer an objective view of Howell’s actions, given that Howell’s primary concern (apart from staying alive) is the future of his family business.

The plot is not overtly political but it does take a pointed view of how nations and groups seek to blame each other, and to seek reprisals against nations, for private actions taken by individuals that are not sanctioned by any government. That isn’t fair to anybody and it isn’t useful, but it is how the world worked when The Levanter was written and it remains an accurate view of how the world works today.

The novel’s pace increases steadily as it moves from a story of thought to one of action. I enjoyed The Levanter for its wealth of detail and for its conflicted characters, while the plot stands up nicely given the continuing relevance of stories about terrorism.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.