Background to Danger

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jul 25 14:05:06 MDT 2003

Along with the two other Eric Ambler novels I have already reviewed here 
and "A Coffin For Dimitrios" reviewed in a pending issue of swans online, 
the 1937 "Background to Danger" appears in the 1970 anthology titled 
"Intrigue". All are now available in print once again in the Vintage Crime 

"Background to Danger" incorporates all the themes found in the other 
works. A relatively apolitical British man finds himself pitted against a 
conspiracy of fascist agents and big business. The Soviet spies Andreas and 
Tamara Zaleshoff, who figure in the 1939 "Cause for Alarm" made their 
original appearance here, along with a couple of other Soviet spies, who 
are also fully realized as fictional characters.

"Background to Danger" is the most explicitly political novel that appears 
in the "Intrigue" collection. It opens with an epigraph from a trade 
publication "World Petroleum" that would have brought a smile to the late 
Mark Jones:

"To-day, with Europe assuming the appearance of an armed camp in which an 
incident, unimportant in itself, would be sufficient to ignite a 
conflagration that would consume Europe and perhaps spread to other 
quarters of the globe: to-day, when national security in Europe and perhaps 
elsewhere, depends primarily upon the strength and effectiveness of a 
nation's armed forces, the question of supply of raw materials and 
particularly supply of petroleum is of the first importance."

To drive the point home, the prologue to the novel is set in the boardroom 
of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company where the board is reviewing their 
interests in Rumania. Joseph Balterghen, the chairman, arrives in a 
Rolls-Royce and is described as having a face that had the appearance of 
"putty-coloured grapes". He describes the situation that faces them:

 the developments in the political situation in Europe during 
nineteen thirty-five and thirty-six have suggested that we should look once 
again in the direction of Rumania. The sanctions against Italy taught 
Mussolini one thing at least-that Italy could not safely depend for her 
supplies of oil on the Caribbean. Iran and Iraq were in the hands of the 
British. Russia was in the hands of the Soviets. The Italian fleet was 
oil-burning, the big Italian air force would be helpless faced with an oil 
shortage; so would the mechanised army. There was only one 
solution-Rumania. At the moment Italy is taking large quantities of 
Rumanian oil. She will take more. Her new armament programme-and I speak 
from personal knowledge-is based less on further increases in man-power 
than on the addition of submarines to her navy, heavy bombers to her air 
force, and a new kind of tank to her army. That is important, for in all 
three cases
 Diesel engines are being used."

It is this dimension of the Ambler novel that makes it timeless, for until 
we have abolished the rule of capital, we will find the world of the Ambler 
novel to be recognizable as our own. We are very much in the world of 
Halliburton and the Carlyle Group here. While Ambler's fictional villains 
were drawn from the emerging Axis powers, our real villains are wrapped in 
the stars and stripes.

Kenton is a British journalist on assignment in Germany who has lost every 
penny in poker-dice games with other journalists. On a train bound to 
Vienna he runs into Sachs, a small man with an indistinguishable accent who 
offers him a piece of his garlic sausage. Before long, Sachs spins out a 
story of being a Jewish businessman fleeing from the Nazis and pleads with 
Kenton to carry an envelope of securities for him past the border guards, 
who are supposedly waiting for him.

Although Kenton does not believe the story, he puts himself at Sach's 
disposal. At the very least, he will receive 200 marks for his services. 
Kenton's suspicions were well-grounded for he soon discovers that Sachs is 
really Borovansky, a Soviet agent, and that the securities are photographs 
revealing Soviet military assets that might be deployed against Rumania in 
the event of a fascist takeover and subsequent war. He has agreed to sell 
them to Saridza, a Nazi agent who is also on contract to the Pan-Eurasian 
Petroleum Company.

The plot is wrapped tightly around the efforts of Saridza and his assistant 
Mailler, a sadistic British black-and-tan ex-officer who has served as a 
strike-breaker and is wanted for the murder of a Negro woman in New 
Orleans, on one side and the Zaleshoffs and Kenton on the other to get 
control of the photos.

Two other minor characters round out the cast. In Prague, Kenton and the 
Zaleshoffs operate out of the apartment of Rashenko, a "tall, white-haired 
and stooping" old man, whose eyes were set deep in his head, but "gleamed 
like two pinpoints of light from the dark hollows." Despite the fact that 
White Army torture has left him mute, Rashenko is a strong presence without 
ever uttering a single word. When he gets a phone call from fellow agents, 
he responds with a small Morse key.

Later we meet Smedoff, an old and corpulent woman who wears heavy rouge in 
order to cover the scars she received from a Galician scab who had thrown 
vitriol in her face during the course of a strike. When Kenton asks 
Zaleshoff how old she is, he replies:

"God knows! Getting on for eighty, I should say. She was a friend of Clara 
Zetkin, and she knew Lenin in London. Once she mentioned quite casually 
that she'd met Marx, and said she'd felt sorry for Frau Marx. Marx died in 
the early eighties so that must make Olga well over seventy. She never 
forgets a fact or a face, speaks nine languages and has translated the 
Jobelin of François Villon into modern Parisian argot. There were only 
fifty copies of it printed and they're worth a thousand dollars apiece to-day."

Although Eric Ambler never joined the Communist Party, his heart was very 
much with the popular front. Indeed, the entire subtext of both "Background 
to Danger" and "Cause for Alarm" is the need for Great Britain and the USSR 
to join forces against the fascists. Despite this, there is one thing that 
differentiates him from other artists in the Soviet orbit during the 1930s. 
He did not seem to take the witch-hunt against the Trotskyists very seriously.

After Kenton first meets Zaleshoff, he presses him to fill in the details 
on the men trying to seize the photos. Since Zaleshoff is anxious to 
protect him from further risks, he tries to keep him in the dark as much as 
possible--at least at the start of their partnership. To do so, he 
represents the plotters as being led by a "certain prominent exile from 
Russia" who "seeks once again to taste power". He adds:

"In nineteen-seventeen and eighteen this man rendered great services to 
Russia; but there was in him the taint of personal ambition. He craved 
power. Russia has no room to-day for those who place the service of their 
vanities above the service of the people. He was expelled."

Kenton asks, "Are you talking about Trotsky?"

When Zaleshoff nods "portentously" in assent, Kenton answers that he has 
"never before heard such unmitigated nonsense from the mouth of one man in 
the space of five minutes." To say such a thing, even in a fictional work, 
took considerable courage in 1937. And Eric Ambler was a courageous man 
who, unlike the characters he brought to life, used a pen instead of a pistol.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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