Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

In need of a change from all the translated fiction I’ve been reading lately, I turned to Eric Ambler’s 1962 crime caper, The Light of Day (also published as Topkapi). A good decision as it proved to be hugely enjoyable, just what I was looking for at the time.

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The novel is narrated by Arthur Abdel Simpson, a small-time thief who makes a living by hustling tourists on their arrival at Athens airport. As the story opens, Simpson is recounting the tale of how he got mixed up with Harper, a man who turned out to be more dangerous than he appeared at first sight. As Simpson looks back on past events, here’s how his story begins:

It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

I thought he was an American. He looked like an American – tall with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who had lived in America for a long time. Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American: plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. (pg. 1)

It’s a good opening, one that pulled me into narrative – you know from the start that something bad has happened to the narrator, and he holds Harper responsible for it.

When Simpson spots Harper at the airport, he marks him out as someone seemingly unfamiliar with Athens, reasonably well off and thus a suitable target for one of his petty scams. He offers to act as the visitor’s driver and guide to the city, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Harper agrees. But unfortunately for Simpson, Harper has him all worked out from the get-go, and when Simpson tries to steal a few travellers cheques from his wallet, Harper catches him red-handed.

He turned and stared at me. All at once his face was neither old-young nor young-old. It was white and pinched and his mouth worked in an odd way. I have seen faces go like that before and I braced myself. There was a metal lamp on the writing table beside me. I wondered if I could possibly hit him with it before he got to me.

But he did not move. His eyes flickered towards the bedroom and then back to me. (pg. 21)

Having discovered Simpson’s scam, Harper blackmails him into playing a part in his own shady plan. Simpson must drive a high-class American car from Athens to Istanbul, no questions asked – it’s either that or Harper will turn him over to the police. Harper, on his part, claims he is doing a favour for the daughter of a business associate, Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, the car’s registered owner. Even though Simpson suspects the car may be carrying illicit goods (drugs, jewellery, money or suchlike), he knows he has to go through with it. Harper has already strong-armed him into signing a confession for the purposes of ‘insurance’.

Once he is clear of Athens, Simpson stops, takes a good look inside the car and finds nothing. But on his arrival at the border with Turkey, he gets stopped by the Turkish police. A more thorough search of the car is conducted, arms and explosives are discovered, and Simpson is placed under arrest. His position is further complicated by the fact that his passport is out of date. The Egyptian government has refused to renew it, revoking his citizenship in the process; in effect, Simpson is stateless. Having discovered the arms, The Turkish Secret Service is convinced that they must be destined for some kind of political attack. As a result, they force Simpson to act as their agent, coercing him into reporting on Harper’s every move along with those of his associates.

As he continues his story, we learn more about Simpson as a character, particularly his mistrust of authority figures which stems from his days at an English public school. Here he is on the people who run counter-espionage groups, men like Major Tufan, his contact from the Turkish ‘Second Section’. He considers these men to be ‘suspicious, unbelieving, […], petty’ and ‘inhuman’.

With them, it is no use having just one story; and especially not a true story; they automatically disbelieve that. What you must have is a series of stories, so that when you they knock the first one down you can bring out the second, and then, when they scrub that out, come up with a third. That way they think they are making progress and keep their hands off you, while you gradually find out the story they really want you to tell. (pg. 49)

Once he re-establishes contact with Harper, Simpson must take one risk after another in order to satisfy Major Tufan’s demands for information. He has to get as close to Harper’s gang as possible without blowing his cover in the process. In this scene, Simpson realises he’s being sounded out by Miss Lipp, Harper’s glamorous companion, in all likelihood the true brains of the operation.

I couldn’t help glancing at her. She was watching me in her amused, considering way, but there was nothing sleepy about her eyes now. They were steadily intent.

And then I got the message. I was being sounded, either to discover what I had made of the setup and if they had left any shirt-tails showing, or to find out if I could be trusted in some particular way. I knew that how I answered would be very important indeed to me; but I didn’t know what to say. It was no use pretending to be stupid any more, or trying to avoid the issue. A test was being applied. If it failed it, I was out – out with Harper, out with Tufan and his Director, out with the Turkish customs, and, in all probability, out with the Greek police as well. (pg. 113)

Before long, Simpson finds himself embroiled in Harper’s plot, which isn’t quite the political attack the Turkish authorities are anticipating. Caught between a rock and a hard place, our narrator has little option but to play the game. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the story, but this is a hugely entertaining, well-paced escapade with plenty of action, especially in the closing stages.

This is my first experience of Eric Ambler’s work, and I hope it won’t be the last. As far as I can tell, several of his novels feature fairly unsuspecting civilians, often short of money, who find themselves caught up in some conspiracy or other. Despite his failings and previous brushes with the law, Simpson is the underdog in this scenario – he’s an eminently likeable character, and I found myself rooting for him all the way. As he recounts his narrative, Simpson goes over his actions, highlighting his thinking and the options open to him at the time.

My thanks to Scott (of seraillon) and John (of Noirish) for recommending Eric Ambler and this classic novel in particular. In 1964, the story was filmed as Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin, starring Peter Ustinov in the role of Simpson, Maximilian Schell as Harper and Melina Mercouri as Elizabeth Lipp. It’s been a while since I watched it, so it’s time for another look.

Topkapi – The Light of Day is published by House of Stratus. Source: personal copy. Book 10/20, #TBR20 round 2.

44 thoughts on “Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I wonder if he’s due a revival off the back of some fairly recent reissues – I noticed The Mask of Dimitrios in Waterstones Book Club a few months ago. Good to hear you enjoyed The Levanter, Stu – I’ll keep an eye out for it.

      Reply
  1. crimeworm

    I bought an Eric Ambler – The Mask Of Dimitrios – after reading a review on Lady Fancifull’s blog, as I love spy fiction, and it sounded great – as does this! Must dig it out and read it – I’m just in the mood for some skullduggery!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! I have The Mask of Dimitrios, too. It does sound terrific – just the thing when you want to have fun with a book. As for Topkapi – In the Light of Day, Arthur Simpson’s a great protagonist, and you’re always on his side even though you know he’s a bit of a chancer.

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    I’ve just bought my first Eric Ambler thanks to John Gray whose recent Sunday morning essay on Radio 4 used The Mask of Demetrios to illustrate parallels between 1930s and today’s Europe. Like crimeworm, I haven’t yet read it yet but after reading your review I think I should.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very interesting, Susan – I’ll see if I can find John Gray’s essay on the iPlayer. The Mask of Dimitrios is on my bookshelf, so it’ll probably be my next Ambler. :)

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sometimes you just need something relaxing, and I usually turn to crime too! I don’t read that many straight thrillers but I’m feeling I should, and Ambler is very highly regarded. I’ll keep an eye out after your review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed, sometimes you just want a bit of escapism. I really enjoyed this, not just as a crime caper, but as a character study too – Arthur’s quite charismatic despite his failings. And there’s some interesting stuff about the ordinary man getting caught in the system and trying to make a stand against authority figures. On the evidence of this, I’d say it’s definitely worth giving Ambler a go.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have Dimitrios, too (although my Penguin edition is titled ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’). I get the feeling it’s a bit different to Topkapi/The Light of Day. A little closer to Graham Greene territory, perhaps. It does sound excellent.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s definitely worth revisiting, especially if you enjoyed his work when you were younger. It’s nice to see a range of his novels back in print, and the Penguin Modern Classics editions are always hard to resist.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s perfect for the film treatment: an engaging central character, a ‘visual’ story and a cinematic location. All the elements are there. It’s been such a long time since I saw the movie, so I’m looking forward to another viewing.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! Well, I’m glad to have introduced you to Eric Ambler. And if you enjoy this one, another of his novels (The Mask of Dimitrios) also features a Turkish setting. I haven’t read it yet, but it comes highly recommended by a couple of bloggers.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Just like you I often turn to crime fiction when I get a little jaded with ‘serious’ literature (though I don’t often review them). Ambler seems worth a try. I recently read a very good contemporary thriller you might like, The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris (my attention was drawn to it by John Self’s comments on its opening).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sometimes it’s hard to review something like this without revealing too much of the plot, but I wanted to write about this novel as it was such a fun read! Ambler’s definitely worth considering, and I think you might like him. I have another — The Mask of Dimitrios — in the TBR, which looks very interesting indeed.

      I’ll take a look at The Hollow Man – thanks for the tip! I’m curious to hear more about John Self’s comments on the opening. Has he reviewed it?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very filmic, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the movie to see how it compares with my impressions of the novel.

      I enjoyed The Two Faces of January when I saw it earlier this year – a good old-fashioned story, a great location, and beautiful cinematography, too. I can see why it came to mind!

      Reply
  5. Annabel Gaskell (@gaskella)

    Splendid review! I’ve only read one Ambler – that was The Mask of Dimitrios which was brilliant. I’ve been planning to read more Ambler for ages – I got all the ones Penguin reissued a couple of years ago, but haven’t got round to them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel! I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed The Mask of Dimitrios as that’s the one I have on my shelves – phew. It does sound fab. Those Penguin reissues are very covetable. I find it hard to resist anything with a monochrome cover so I can see myself falling for the whole set at some point. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a coincidence! I’m hoping to watch it next week. Jules Dassin is one of my favourite directors – his noirish heist movie, Rififi, would make my all-time top ten. Topkapi is somewhat lighter as far as I can recall so I should be in for a fun night.

      Reply
  6. litlove

    I’m glad you reviewed this as I’ve recently become interested in Eric Ambler but can’t decide where to begin with his novels! This sounds most intriguing, and certainly encourages me to try him very soon! Lovely review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wonder if Ambler’s been enjoying a little bit of a revival in recent years as quite a few readers seem to be interested in his work. The Penguin reissues are lovely, and I noticed some new ebooks from Ipso the other day.

      As for the best place to start with his fiction, I’m not sure if I can offer any help there. I can certainly recommend Topkapi – The Light of Day, but there’s a lot of love for The Mask of Dimitrios, too. Whichever one you chose I hope you enjoy it!

      Reply
  7. realthog

    I’m so glad you enjoyed your first encounter with Ambler! He’s one of those authors whose books I deliberately space out, so I’ve still got a few to go — The Light of Day being in fact one of them. I’m about due for another Ambler, so this may be it.

    Many (if belated) thanks for the shoutout!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, John. Oh, I think you’ll enjoy this one very much, especially given the film connection. (I’m hoping to revisit Dassin’s Topkapi next week.) And The Mask of Dimitrios is on the bookshelf, so I know I’ve got another winner to look forward to. :)

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    “Godspeed, Arthur Simpson.” What a delightful review of a delightful book, the basis for one of my favorite films. I like how Ambler shifts the reader’s sympathies away from his chief investigator to the bumbling Simpson – caught up, as you note, in the conspiracy, and an appealing “underdog.” I’ll be curious to know what you think of the film after reading the novel; it’s something of a departure, though Peter Ustinov mines the possibilities of the Simpson character beautifully (and won an Oscar for his performance). Just as you’re tempted to go back and see the film again, I’m now tempted to go back and read the novel again. I noted in a bookshop the other day that Ambler’s books had come out in new editions; did yours contain the map and blueprint of the palace?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it! Thank you for a tip-top recommendation, it was just the ticket after a long run of translated fiction. Arthur Simpson is such an endearing chancer, isn’t he? I was rooting for him pretty much all the way, especially once he got sucked into Harper’s shady enterprise. All those exchanges between Simpson and Major Tufan were priceless, too! The film is scheduled for later this week, so I’ll let you know how I find it. I’m sure it’ll be a delight.

      As for my copy – yes, it did include the map and layout of the palace. The latter came in very handy towards the end, as it made it fairly easy to visualise the relevant scene in my mind.

      It’s good to see a bit of a revival of interest in Ambler in recent years as I’d be up for reading more of his work. I noticed some new re-issues from Ipso Books just the other day, but they I’ve a feeling they were e-books. It sounds as though you’ve spotted some new ‘physical’ editions – I hope so, as that’s definitely my preferred format for reading.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, please do! I just looked it up – possibly more of a spy story than this one, but it sounds terrific. I’m sure it won’t be long before I try another of his novels.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Pingback: Review: The Light of Day (1962) by Eric Ambler – A Crime is Afoot

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