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Authors: Eric Ambler

Waiting for Orders

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Stories copyright © 1939, 1940, 1972, 1992 by Eric Ambler
Introductions and this collection © 1993 by Eric Ambler

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain as
The Story of Us
by Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, London, in 1993.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The stories in this collection are previously published as follows:
“The Army of the Shadows” appeared in
The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross.
London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1939.

The stories in “The Intrusions of Dr Czissar” appeared in various issues of
The Sketch
(London) 1940.

“The Blood Bargain” appeared in
Winter’s Crime 2.
London: Macmillan, Ltd., 1992.

“The One Who Did for Blagden Cole” first appeared in
The Man Who
, edited by H.R.F. Keating, for the Detection Club. London: Macmillan, Ltd., 1992.

Vintage eISBN: 978-0-307-95012-3

Cover design by Peter Quach


Second Thoughts on an Epitaph

years ago, when I was living in Switzerland, George Weidenfeld wrote suggesting that I should do an autobiography. He had just had a great success with such a book written by another of his authors, a playwright. I had been a screenwriter in Hollywood as well as writing a number of successful thrillers. Would I give the suggestion serious thought.

I did give it thought. I had brought myself up to believe that novelists should be read but rarely seen and only occasionally heard. They write fiction and that is where the difficulty lies. It is the same for the popular genre novelist as for his betters in the serious set. The novelist’s readers are often spoken of figuratively as if they were an audience. They are not; the novelist has an audience of one; one person in a collusive relationship with the author through the pages of a book. An autobiography calls for a sudden change in the relationship, and a different kind of attention. It is as if the waiter has suddenly pulled up a chair and become the host. The author, it seems, has things to say about his life and times that cannot better and more engagingly be said through fictional characters. Readers don’t like that; they like the novels you write, not you. Readers like to know where they stand with a writer: is he a storytelling actor, an entertainer, or is he appearing on the stage as himself? Unless he has a life apart from his writing – a life of some sort of derring-do with plenty of names to drop – a popular novelist should keep himself to himself. Autobiography should be left to show-business characters, aging reprobates with beans to spill and the politicos.

When, eventually, a meeting in London was arranged at which the proposed autobiography would be discussed, I went
to it with my mind made up. I was contracted to George for another novel. In due course he would get it.

I found, though, that I was not dealing with George alone. With him at the meeting was John Gross, lately editor of the
Times Literary Supplement
, a journal for which I have always had a profound respect. My objections to doing an autobiography came out more or less as rehearsed, but sounded to me now more peevish and defensive than thought through and sensible. It was Gross who answered them. It had been upon his advice that George had suggested an autobiography.
The Mask of Dimitrios
, he went on, was a bench-mark book that had changed the thriller form for good. It was, in its way, a famous book. Readers on both sides of the Atlantic would be interested to learn how its author came to write it. Was that so surprising? And had I not worked for ten years in Hollywood? Had I nothing of interest to say about that experience?

I should have tried answering that last question first. No, nothing of interest I should have said. All the word Hollywood reminded me of by then was the year of my life wasted trying to rewrite history to accommodate the jejune fantasies of Marlon Brando. Instead, I heard only the flattery. I was used to thesis-writing academic gush about my early work but from a former
editor a measured compliment like that was warming. I should have temporized, promised to think again. Instead, I said weakly that, of course, I would do my best to do the book.

The extent of my folly was not immediately apparent. I found a way of starting the book so that it read almost like a thriller; that was easy, but then I found myself having to describe my childhood and the rot set in; rot in all senses of the word. I began again. Diogenes, my German language publishers, had done a
for my seventieth birthday and illustrated it with old family photographs provided by my sister. I had written captions for them and German readers had found the captions entertaining; there had been a light-hearted touch about them. A touch of some such kind was now badly needed. I scrapped everything and went back to the beginning.

There were more false starts. I ploughed on, writing and rewriting, deleting and abridging, expanding and contracting; I hated the thing; had it been a novel I would have discarded it as unworkable. As the book was supposed to be an attempt to
explain myself there could be two valid reasons for my abandoning the attempt: either the true explanation was too banal for words, or the task of giving it was beyond me. Since I was unwilling to accept either of those propositions I felt obliged to continue. The difficulties of doing so were, no doubt, salutary; they compelled me to think as dispassionately as I could about my limitations as a writer and about the processes at work in a storyteller’s development; but I don’t think I succeeded in explaining myself. At what should have been the half-way point in the book, the point at which I should have described briefly and sensibly the break-up of my first marriage, I brought the book to an end. I had had enough of myself.

Here Lies
was sympathetically received and enjoyed a modest success. Some liked the ambiguity of the title; others, though, were puzzled by the suggestion that the book was an epitaph, a last word, when its contents – in particular the absence of any account of the Hollywood years – suggested a second volume to follow.

At first I simply denied the second volume, saying with some feeling that I had had too much autobiography and wanted no more, of my own or anyone else’s. I was not believed. My account of Hollywood could not be the usual visiting Britisher’s hard-luck story. I had lived and worked there for ten years.

It was true that I had more to say about the writer’s relationship with the film makers, but Hollywood had only a small place in it. What I had been thinking over was a book about screenwriting modelled on C.E. Montague’s
A Writer’s Notes on his Trade.
John Gross would have understood that notion, but he had moved on. When Peter Lewis, who was writing a critical study of my work for an American publisher, asked me about work in progress I could not deny that it had autobiographical elements or pretend that I was back to fiction again. The second volume of
Here Lies
was beginning to have a life of its own. When I telephoned Julian Symons the other day to ask him who, forty years ago, had proposed me for The Detection Club he asked me why it mattered. I tried to explain this book. ‘Aha!’ he said; ‘the second volume at last.’

That it is not. It is a collection of nine short stories, all written during the last sixty years. Hardly a life’s work, and some of
them haven’t worn very well, but collectively they suggest a narrative pattern that I have always found satisfying; that of a Beginning, a Middle and an End.

These stories belong to the places and the times and the circumstances in which they were written. So, instead of trying to repair their deficiencies, I have described the circumstances of the three periods of my working life of which they seem to be parts. If, somewhere in the Middle bit the word Hollywood occurs it refers not only to a suburb of Los Angeles but also to a state of mind that once existed there. That was in the days of black-and-white film, the major studios, the wicked old star system and the writing and directing talent drawn there from Central Europe; all long before the coming of satellite television.


I began earning my living as a writer I did so in the copy department of an advertising agency. Other genre novelists of the period seem to have done the same thing. In the awful recession years of the early thirties a young scribbler with a lively mind could earn more in advertising than he could on the slow promotion ladders of even the liveliest provincial newspapers, and he would much sooner be able to see sentences that he himself had written in print on a published page.

Of course, advertising was in those days considered by serious persons to be a fairly disreputable occupation; novels like H.G. Wells’
Tono Bungay
and Rose Macaulay’s
had seen to that. Its present respectability, with advertising and PR persons to be found among the other semi-secret servants – speech-writers and the like – who steady the hands of those who steer the ship of state, has all the airs to be expected of the successful corner-boy. The boy’s father, the one I knew, may have had sharper suits but his smile was rather more engaging. I was reminded of him recently when I was asked by an old friend whether it was true that in the thirties the copy departments of the big London advertising agencies were hotbeds of communism.

I thought that he must be joking and laughed; but he meant it and began rattling off lists: the Cambridge Marxists, the Oxford Pacifists, Harry Pollitt, John Strachey and the first Left Book Club titles. I remembered then that he was a few years younger than me and unfamiliar with the nether world in which I and most other big agency copywriters had worked. I had to remind him about the National Government of Ramsay MacDonald and the Tyneside hunger marchers, about the fear of losing one’s job, any job, and of not having a shilling for the gas meter.

In advertising at the time, of course, we did not speak of such things. Our economic safety lay in optimism, bigger press advertising budgets, growth. We just looked at the ads in the morning papers; but we read the
Evening Standard.
There, David Low made fun of the politicians, Arnold Bennett reviewed books and W.R. Inge, the Dean of St Paul’s, admonished practically everyone. True, most of us led double lives; that is to say we tried to make second careers for ourselves outside advertising; but I can think of none of us who dabbled in party politics. Of course, these notional second careers were hedges against possible unemployment but they were something more as well. We did not entirely despise our work. Indeed, in the invention and development of a successful campaign to increase the market share of, say, a brand-name baby food there could be a certain satisfaction. If it was the kind of satisfaction a trial lawyer is said to experience when he secures the acquittal of a well-heeled crook, what of it? Our reply to the objecting moralists would have been the same as his. We were hired hands lawfully employed. We were technicians of an artsy-crafty sort, like lawyers or character actors.

Not all of us wanted to write popular novels. In my first copy department there were one or two eccentrics. I was one – I wanted to write avant garde plays like Ernst Toller – another was an apprentice faith healer who was learning the mysteries of the art by working evenings as an assistant to a full-time healer, a woman with a busy practice in the Holland Park area. I have forgotten the man’s name. Of those with literary ambitions Robin Fedden seemed at first the most likely to succeed, but later on he became an architectural historian. Cecil Maiden was our first published novelist and he also wrote short stories for shiny-paper magazines. He was a keen Christian Scientist and devoted to the music of Rutland Boughton. Much of a weekend with Maiden and his wife was spent listening to gramophone recordings of ‘The Immortal Hour’, a depressing work. The agency we worked in was the European off-shoot of an American agency with roots in Chicago and most of our bigger clients were of American origin. We were constantly made aware of trends in American popular taste and were quick to spot and sometimes anticipate their arrival here. One of us,
Gerald Butler, marked the arrival of the hardboiled sex-and-sadism crime story with a novel entitled
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.
The title was a mite more entertaining than the book; Butler had a gift for phrase-making. We had a client who manufactured foundation garments and spent a lot of money advertising in the fashion magazines. With a few artfully chosen words Butler could make a rubber roll-on suspender belt sound like Coco Chanel’s own personal underwear. The oldest among us was Philip Taylor who was in his forties, a shell-shocked survivor of one of the Somme battles with a violent temper and an appalling stammer. I shared an office with him for nearly a year and most of our conversations were conducted by scribbling what we had to say in the margins of newspapers. It was easier for him than endless stammering and I picked up the habit. Once, when in my haste to scrawl a reply I broke the point of the pencil, he seized the paper from me and wrote ‘no need to shout’. Then, to my relief, he laughed. We got on well because we never met outside the office and never discussed anything except the theatre. He was a secret lyricist who wrote ‘point’ numbers and blue patter for nightclub entertainers. His work in advertising was better paid. He was an anarchist perhaps, but not a communist. We had no literary names in that agency. The nearest was Dorothy L. Sayers who worked in the copy department of one of our competitors a few streets away. Her improbable amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey was already widely known in the better lending libraries.

It was Maiden who suggested that I should write short stories instead of rather depressing plays about failed suicides. Unknown playwrights were having a bad time anyway. The short story market, on the other hand, was booming. And by writing short stories I would in due course learn how to write novels.

I knew enough to know that this last suggestion was untrue. The short story was a form on its own, not a preparation for bigger things. I had not tried writing a short story because I saw only the difficulties it presented. In a one-act play I could overcome them. But if you tried explaining that sort of difficulty to Maiden you soon found yourself up against Mary Baker Eddy and walls of cotton wool. Besides, Maiden was a
published author with hard covers to prove it so I took his advice.

What he advised, in effect, was a standard procedure in the copy department. When you were given the job of writing advertisements for a client for whom you had not written before you went first to the ‘guard’ books, or had them brought to you. These were the massive scrap books in which were kept complete records of all a client’s previous campaigns. You saw what your predecessors on the account had done; you then tried to do something slightly, but not too radically, different. This time, however, it wasn’t guard books I wanted from the department that kept them but voucher copies of the popular short-story magazines and pulp periodicals. I was given more than I could carry.

That was the heyday of periodical publishers like the Amalgamated Press. An attempt forty years later to catalogue the AP output in the thirties identified thirty-two separate weeklies selling for a few pence each; this was without counting the paper-bound serials. There were scarcely any crime stories. The dominant theme was Cinderella, but with some differences. Prince Charming tended to have a white-collar or white-coat job; Cinders was a charge hand on a factory floor or in a typing pool and the ugly sisters were personified by a selfish widowed parent who suffered from lower back pain and was a secret drinker. The good fairy could be anyone from a jobbing gardener to the orchestra leader at the local palais de danse.

I did not enjoy wading through this rubbish and I should have abandoned the idea of trying to reproduce it. The skills of a good copywriter were his abilities to say much in little and to say it lucidly; to say it with wit or in a particular style was not necessarily useful. In any case, such skills are not always transferable. But I was caught by the challenge.

I wrote three stories in what I believed to be the manner of the
Home Companion
romance and managed to tell myself that they were pretty good. Maiden thought they were pretty good, too, and decided that he would send them to his literary agent. She would undoubtedly sell the stories for me.

I was encouraged. Maiden’s agent was a senior member of one of the better-known literary agencies of the period. She said she would see me. I can’t remember the woman’s name; I
spent many years trying to forget it and seem at last to have succeeded. There were two literary agencies with offices at the Fleet Street end of the Strand. My appointment was in the smaller of the two. I went to keep it with a light heart.

She was a handsome woman with neatly bobbed hair and long earrings. She smiled at me in a kindly way as I sat down facing her. Then she picked up my three stories from the desk in front of her and dropped them again as if to see if they would bounce. When they didn’t she gave me a thinner smile.

‘Trash I expect you call it,’ she said. ‘Well, that’s as may be. What it isn’t is publishable trash. You make a mistake you clever young men. You think you can write down to the market. You think it’s easy to write trash. You’re wrong. It’s easy to write imitation trash. It’s quite difficult to write the real thing. For that you have to have a knack and, I’m afraid, a certain talent. On the evidence of these stories all you have is the trick of parody. Perhaps you agree, eh?’

‘I was wondering why you bothered to see me.’

‘I was coming to that. You don’t really want to write stories do you?’

‘No, not really.’ Lying seemed easy by then.

‘Good, I didn’t think so. Have you met Cecil Maiden’s wife?’

‘Yes, I have. They asked me for a weekend.’

‘Pretty woman. But she’s too indulgent. The trouble is that Cecil gets these crushes on good-looking young men and tries to persuade them that they have writing talent.’ It was all said with the sweetest of smiles. ‘The Edwardians used to call it literary seduction I believe. I don’t know what it’s called now. Perhaps you can think of something.’ She stopped smiling and held up the three typescripts. ‘Do you want these back?’

‘No thank you.’

She dropped them in the waste-basket by her desk. ‘It was good of you to call. Tell Cecil I thought you showed great promise. He’ll understand.’

But I was already at the door and on my way out. When I was back in the street again I tried for a moment to be sick, then went into a Lyons and had a cup of tea. It was years before I could pass that bit of the Strand without my toes curling at the memory. In the tea-shop I vowed never again to write a short story.

Instead I wrote an anachronistic thriller about a small state in Eastern Europe that succeeds in making an atomic bomb. It was published in 1936. That was the year the Spanish Civil War began, the year that started many of us, even copywriters in advertising agencies, thinking about the nature of a war to come. Suddenly I found myself with something to write about. By the summer of 1939 I had written five thrillers and was living comfortably in Paris. My fifth book was
The Mask of Dimitrios
and it was to be published in London as a
Daily Mail

The month in question, however, was August ’39, not a good month for books, nor indeed for much else in Europe. In those days the only Harry’s Bar of any note outside Italy was the one in Paris. It was on the rue Blanche just down the hill from Bricktop’s, the other friendly night-spot within easy walking distance of the Pigalle Metro. My companion in both places was Louise Crombie, fashion artist, born in Portland, Oregon, divorced and working in Paris to support a young family back in New Jersey. On the night of the twenty-second we were drinking brandy and soda and trying to decide whether to face the complications of an Anglo-American marriage under French law or to go on living together without legal or clerical blessings. There was going to be a war, but what sort of war? Who were going to be the allies against Hitler?

It was to Harry’s Bar that night we went in search of news. There, just after midnight, a man used to come by selling early editions of the morning papers. So, that night, that was how we heard the awful news of the signing of the Molotov–von Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

I can still recall the shock of that moment, and the pang of fear that came with it. I was a man of the Popular Front, that shortlived coalition of the European Left against the spread of Axis Fascism that was jumping the frontiers of Versailles Treaty Europe with the remorseless ease of a medieval plague. I believed, with many others, that the Munich Agreement of the year before had been a humiliating disaster, but I had also believed, also with others, that the Soviet Union would in the end join with the French and British democracies to confront
and contain the common enemy. Now, suddenly, there was light on the stage and the hero could be seen climbing into bed with the villain. We did not know then, of course, that the pact signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop had, as well as giving the Nazis a free hand to take anything they wanted of the pre-1914 German territories, secretly partitioned Poland and ceded the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the Soviet Union; but the fact that Stalin and Hitler had done a deal of any sort was enough. The war, for long inevitable, would now certainly be total.

A few days later we went to London. Our plan was to get married as soon as British law allowed. Louise would then have dual nationality and, if she wanted them, two passports. But several weeks would elapse before the marriage could take place. It was time to think about fighting the war. I was thirty then and if I waited to be called up with my age group I would end up in the army somewhere near the blunt end. Best to volunteer, I thought, and decided to consult a friend who, I was sure, would have contacts in high places. He had indeed, and soon got my name onto a priority list of volunteers for the Navy. All I had to do then was what everyone else on those lists was doing – wait for orders to report for an interview. Everyone, it seemed, was waiting for orders.

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