Atkins’ book on the British spy novel has introduced me to a great new (to me) thriller writer, Eric Ambler, the precursor of John le Carré but the first British thriller writer to write about the mundanity and unheroicness of the spying world. So far I’ve read two of his novels: The night-comers, a rather dramatic but taut description of a military coup in a fictitious South-east Asian country, and The Levanter, an excellent thriller about the way a Middle-eastern businessman is blackmailed into helping a Palestinian terror group mount an attack on Israel. The prose is workmanlike, the plots are plausible and intelligent, and the characterisation is perhaps a bit macho but realistic and moving. Ian Fleming paid tribute to him in one of the Bond novels, incidentally – in From Russia with love, Bond whiles away a long train journey reading Ambler’s The mask of Dimitrios. The nice thing about Ambler is that although many of his novels are currently out of print they had long print runs in cheap paperback imprints up to the 1970s, so they are perfect to collect from second hand bookshops and charity shops.
Having discovered him and bought The Levanter from Waterstones (reprinted as a commemorative run celebrating his publishers’ thirtieth anniversary), I came across The night-comers in a second hand bookshop in Elephant and Castle shopping centre in a gaudy retro paperback edition, for 40p.
The Elephant bookshop, called Tlon, is one of my latest discoveries and I’m delighted by it. I’d always passed it by assuming (for some reason) that it was a Bible bookshop. I’m absolutely delighted to discover that on the contrary it’s a proper community second hand bookshop – no collectors’ editions costing pounds, but instead lots of decent quality paperback copies of recent literary fiction and classics, an excellent history and politics section, and everything reasonably priced – a far cry from the Gower Street Waterstones second hand section in which the most unremarkable of Penguin paperbacks is carefully priced to undercut the price of any new edition by only a couple of pence.
I’ve also discovered the Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop, just round the corner from Tas Bloomsbury on Bloomsbury Street, which is another bookshop aimed more at the paperback reader than the collector of exquisite folios. They also seem to do a good line in art and cookery books, although I have my eye on a nice hardback edition of JB Priestley’s Angel pavement, one of my favourite novels and my favourite London novel, priced at three quid. A friend has also recently emailed me his recommendations for second hand bookshops in South East London, so my book purchases may spiral wildly out of control in the next couple of weeks.