The Mask of Dimitrios – Eric Ambler
Published in 1939, this book, acknowledged by those who claim to know these things as Ambler’s finest, is known to American audiences as A Coffin for Dimitrios. I haven’t read enough of him to judge but I was astonished how deep the book was, exploring themes that you wouldn’t expect to appear in what at first blush appears to be a page-turning piece of disposable entertainment. Indeed, for a thriller, there is remarkably little direct action, save for the ending which, as the genre might suggest, is exciting and thrilling.
Charles Latimer, a former academic and now a successful writer of English detective fiction, is in Istanbul researching his fifth book. He is introduced to and meets the head of the Turkish intelligence, Colonel Haki, we have met him before in Journey into Fear, an aficionado of detective fiction. Haki shows him the body of a murderer, Dimitrios Makropoulos, and lends Latimer a dossier detailing what the Turks had deduced about the felon’s career. Somewhat bizarrely, Latimer decides to turn his hand to real detective work and reconstruct the biography of Dimitrios. There is a distinct Conradian theme to the book, Latimer’s search resembling that of Marlow’s to find the real Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
Inevitably, Latimer discovers that Dimitrios is not what he seemed. Rather he is a much more sophisticated individual whose actions are logical and consistent, “as logical and consistent in the European jungle”, Ambler observes, “as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town”. In his travels around central Europe on the trail of Dimitrios’ former associates and enemies, Latimer comes to realise that he was the sort of cold-blooded enforcer that modern-day capitalism in the shape of politics and shady multinational businesses needs to cement its hold on society, taking on the tasks that “civilised men and women” decline to do. There is a very modern feel to the book, the crimes involving people smuggling and drugs with murky financiers in cahoots with corrupt public officials pulling the strings.
Latimer enters the seedy demi-monde of pre-Second World War crime and espionage as he slowly works his way to the truth. Ambler uses lengthy dialogues, principally, in truth, monologues and exchanges of letters to furnish Latimer and the reader with the details necessary to reconstruct Dimitrios’ past. This means that the pace of much of the book is relatively stately but as a reader you find yourself sucked in, wanting to know what Latimer discovers and realising that he too is beginning to put himself into danger. Each character has their own axe to grind and none of them are all that they seem.
Perhaps the most fascinating character is Peters aka Petersen, a Dane who was part of Dimitrios’ gang but was stitched up and served time in jail. He wants his revenge on Dimitrios and his share of the loot that the drug running operation. Realising that Latimer holds a vital piece of information that will unlock the real identity of Dimitrios and his whereabouts, Peters skilfully inveigles the naïve Latimer into helping him in a dangerous enterprise, causing, at the same time, Latimer’s moral sensibilities to wobble.
The book builds up to a thrilling crescendo, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say it makes up in action what the earlier portion of the book lacked. It also gives a fascinating insight into pre-war Europe. Well worth taking a copy with you on holiday.