The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: 3.5***

When a Movie or TV series is made from a book the question always arises whether it is better to read the book before watching the movie? The Light of Day, by Eric Ambler, is one such book. It was released in 1962 and eventually was made into the movie Topkapi by Alfred Hitchcock. I last saw the movie about 10 years ago but I wanted to read the book that it was based upon and I have to admit that of all that Eric Ambler books that I have read  this is the one that has disappointed me the most. Maybe it was because I knew what the plot from seeing the movie, or maybe the characters didn’t appeal to me, but there’s something about this book that just falls flat and is not the typical Ambler thriller.

            The book is narrated by Alfred Simpson, a 55 year old petty criminal living  in Athens who tries to con people into using his services as a driver or tour guide. That is how the plot  begins, after we’re made familiar with his background. You see Simpsons mother was Egyptian and his father was British and he was not really part of either society, nor does he have citizenship in either of those countries. So we are treated to a bit of his background as a child to figure out what makes Alfred tick. That in of itself is fine, but then we fast forward to Athens where after he tries to con someone into using his driving services he then decides to go to the gentleman’s hotel room and nick some travelers checks. Unfortunately for Alfred he is caught in the act by this gentleman named Harper, who it turns out is involved in some shady dealings which we will know nothing about for almost 85% of the book. Nonetheless blackmails Simpson into driving a car from Athens to Istanbul where he will meet up with Harper and some others and his services might be used as a driver and guide in Turkey.

            At the border Simpson is stopped and he has an invalid and expired Greek passport so he is now placed in custody by the border patrol, and when they check the car they find that it is filled with weapons  hidden behind door panels and wheel wells of the car. Despite this the Turkish authorities decide to utilize Simpson to help them crack this case and try to figure out exactly what is going on. The police are convinced that there is a group of terrorists coming into Turkey to help the overthrow of the government, while Simpson (during the time he is assisting the police) is convinced that they are either dealing with a heroin ring or working a giant scam.

            None of these are correct, and the reader really has no idea exactly what’s going on until near the end of the book when it turns out that all the explosive devices and tear gas are being used to cover up a heist at a Turkish royal museum. Until that time we have no idea what’s going on and so Simpson is put into some semi-comic situations by the police in Turkey, and at the very end he becomes an unwitting accomplice for this heist. At the last moment the Turkish authorities are able to retrieve the stolen items, Simpson is released to go back to Egypt and all the thieves get away to who knows where.

Ambler is the father of the espionage thriller but here his usual plotline falls flat because we don’t feel any real sympathy for Alfred Simpson, and the plot to steal jewelry from the Turkish museum is not even discussed until the very end of the book. We’re not part of that and for that very reason I don’t think Ambler has drawn us into the plot, and with Simpson being a none too sympathetic “everyman” character it was just hard for me to enjoy this book. I can’t say that I did not like the book,  but rather would recommend watching  Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Topkapi, a good, and very suspenseful adaptation of this book.

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