I discovered Ambler's Journey Into Fear because James Bond read one of Ambler's books in From Russia With Love. And I'm glad I gave it a shot! I have never read a thriller so.... thrilling. Seriously, Ambler knows how to write, and he can turn what sounds like a been-there-done-that story and plot circles around your expectations.
Journey Into Fear involves an engineer named Graham who is the target of Nazi agents because of his British business connections that may interfere with Nazi operations. I know what you're thinking: it's an Everyman-in-danger story with a Macguffin that's never fully explained and is there just gets the action going. Yes. But it's better than that! Graham is on a ship traveling home. Problem is, the Nazi agents are on the ship, too, and they very much want to kill him. But who is the assassin? We meet a variety of colorful characters, all of them well-drawn and interesting. The conversations develop the story and bring up the issues of the time and suddenly you're not reading a thriller, you're reading well-balanced political opinion and it brings a certain sense of real life to the story that other thrillers totally lack. It's not just kiss-kiss-bang-bang. But when the Nazis catch up with Graham and the kiss-kiss-bang-bang starts, Ambler knows how to get his bang-bang on.
Graham's transformation from Everyman to Action Hero doesn't happen the way you'd expect. It happens when he's finally up against the wall, about to be murdered, and he reacts with brutal animal instincts, and it really rings true. There was not a false note in the final battle and it was as well done as the rest of the book.
Journey Into Fear may not be hard-boiled, per se, but the story overflows with paranoia; the reader, like Graham, cannot trust anybody; somebody pretending to be your friend may actually be the one trying to kill you; it has a certain noir aspect which is why I include it here today. Along with your noir you get nail-biting suspense that's better than any thriller I've read in a long time. It proves that thrillers can have strong themes, realistic characters, and believable action, and that's something any thriller writer (or any writer in general) should keep in mind the next time he puts pen to paper.