#1936 Club: The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler

The time is the mid-1930s. The moment when Robert Oppenheimer would declare grandiosely: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is still a decade away. A young man writing his first novel, however, envisages the atomic bomb becoming the most coveted weapon of destruction and unscrupulous men fighting to get hold of it.

Professor Henry Barstow, Phycist at Imperial College, is working on some secret milittary project of the British Government. Almost burnt-out by this daily grind, he is advised by his doctor to take a long holiday. With some vague idea of travelling around, Barstow reaches Royal Crown Hotel at Launceston. As he is relaxing over a cup of coffee, he is accosted by a white-haired man who introduces himself as Simon Groom, a Director of Messrs. Cator & Bliss Ltd., a British armament manufacturer. Groom tells the professor that a brilliant scientist by the name of Jacob Kassen has already invented the atomic bomb in his native country, Ixania. Barstow laughs it off. Ixania is a poor, resource-less country, it wouldn’t even have the money to fund such a project. Groom is insistent: Kassen had been humiliated, despite his genius, both at Bonn and Chicago. He has returned to his native country, licking his wounds, and determined to have his revenge at those who laughed at him. And then Groom makes a proposition to Barstow: he’d travel to Ixania along with Groom as the technical advisor of Cator and Bliss and acertain whether the secret formula of the bomb (which Groom would get by hook or crook) is authentic or not.

Barstow rejects the proposal indignantly but later on keeps on thinking about it and how such a destructive weapon could cause havoc all around. Who can thus save the world which seems to be on the brink of extinction? By chance, his eyes fall on a book left there by its owner, chronicling the adventures of a super hero-spy by the name of Conway Carruthers. He is the one we are all familiar with – the white man who saves the world in the nick of time. Barstow becomes engrossed in reading the yarn before the owner of the book arrives and takes it away. Barstow continues with his journey but in an over-wrought state has an accident. When he regains consciousness he, Carruthers, is determined to save the world. Carruthers travels to Ixania along with Groom under the alias of Henry Barstow. There he has to do many things: destroy the formula; foil the plans of Groom and Company; bring about a revolution, topple the aristocratic government and bring the peasant party to power [lest we have forgotten our history, a bust of the last Czar of Russia is put at an opportune moment in the narrative]. In this he is helped by an American reporter, Bill Casey, who narrates the second part of the novel. The two heroes face insurmountable odds and often find themselves on the wrong end of the gun but always they come up trumps because isn’t Carruthers the saviour of the world?

In a 1989 introduction to the novel, Ambler wrote:

“I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.”

Whatever Ambler’s intentions might have been, I found this book problematic (and not in a good way). For all his grandiloquence of saving humanity and the world, there is also a sub-text that runs through out the novel which basically assumes that under-developed and poor nations have no right over such technology because they will always use it for their personal benefit. Only the rich and powerful nations have a right over such weapons because they will behave with the kind of responsibility that comes with great power!

So I could understand the Countess of Ixania when she tells, Carruthers and Casey that:

“Ixania, is a small nation. You do not belong to a small nation, Professor, nor you, Mr. Casey,” she added, acknowledging my presence for the first time; “therefore you do not know what that means. Without colonies, without natural resources, without money to buy more than a bare livelihood, we struggle for existence….The time has come when Ixania must take what she wants by force or starve. A miracle gave us the means. You, the member of a state that has always taken what it wanted by force….”

These words ring true because Barstow in his own words was involved in the manufacture of some highly sophisticated weaponary for the British government:

I am, by profession, a physicist and, during the four months preceding April 17th, my services had been retained by a British government defence research department to make a feasability study of a set of proposals for a new weapon system employing an ultra-high explosive. The matter was highly secret and my task of the utmost urgency.

The difference between Kanses and Barstow seemed to me only of degrees and not of kind. Would Barstow have stopped his own government from manufacturing the bomb? I also felt sad about the decision to eliminate Kanses because didn’t the same thing happen to an Indian scientist?

But even if these are questions that have no easy answers and not intended to be asked by Ambler and the other writers whom he was parodying, the melodramatic twist of making the Super Spy fall in love with the Countess was so fatuous that I had difficulty in continuing to read the novel. And the last scene between the two was cringe worthy:

Carruthers dropped on his knees beside her and raised her head. The light from the burning car shed a terrible light on the scene… Slowly, Carruthers drew a wad of papers from the pocket of her travelling-coat and held them up to me.

“Burn them, Casey,” he said in a curious voice.

I took them and started towards the car. Something made me look back when I was halfway. Still on his knees, Carruthers was raising Marassin’s gun to his head. A few strides brought me back to him. Snatching the gun from his hand, I flung it away into the shadows.

“Coming back?” I said.

He raised a face stained with tears and contorted with misery. He looked at me for a moment. Then he climbed painfully to his feet. I handed him the papers. He looked at them in a dazed fashion.

“Better burn them yourself,” I said.

His shoulders hunched, he stumbled towards the blaze and threw them into the heart of the flames.

I am just grateful that this wasn’t the first Ambler I read. Had I done so, I wouldn’t have picked up any other book of his. Now at least I can dismiss it as inexperience of a first time writer. Have you read it? What are your views?


First Line: The events in this book comprise, I am told, an account of my life during the period April 17th to May 26th of last year.

First Published: 1936

Other Opinions: Books and Boots; Seattle Pi, tbdeluxe

Other books read of the same author: (Among Others) The Schirmer Inheritance

26 thoughts on “#1936 Club: The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler

  1. I’ve read some of Ambler, Neeru, but I haven’t read this one. And based on your discussion here, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve never cared for the ‘White Man’s Burden’ subtext, and I think that would put me off. And that relationship strikes me as unnecessary to the plot. If you found it cringe-worthy, too, that makes it even worse. No, I don’t think this one interests me, although your review is excellent as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Margot. The love angle was totally uncalled for. The author showed a middle-aged mooning over a photo of his beloved with whom he had spent only a few minutes. If it was parody, it wasn’t funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have not read this one, and did not recognize the title at all. I have several more on my shelves unread, so will certainly read those first. And probably avoid this one. I like those covers though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have often wondered why it took so long for an American edition to appear, but now I know. Thanks! (The British one was in 1936, obviously, but a US edition didn’t appear until 1990, when Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press came out with theirs.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am assuming you are saying this because of the atom bomb connect or is it something else? I had no idea about the non-appearance of an American edition. Thanks for visiting.


      1. No, I had no idea about the atom bomb connection. I’m assuming the lack of the US edition for so long was due a lot more to the fact that the book itself is not a very good one.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. People have liked the book, so I don’t know whether its lack of quality (as I saw it) would have stopped American publishers. Perhaps somebody well-versed in American Publishing or Ambler’s writing would be able to answer. Do you blog too? If yes, do leave a link. I’d love to visit.


            1. Oh God! I am very familiar with your blog since I have been following it for quite some time past. It is nice to have finally made your acquaintance. 🙂


  4. I don’t enjoy spy novels much unless written by Ambler (not this one though:), Greene, and Somerset Maugham. Have read only one MacInnes (Neither Five Nor Three) and that one I didn’t like. I have been told though that it’s her weakest so perhaps one of these days I’d pick another one of hers too.


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