but who paid for the bullet."
Compact, amusingly cynical little sentences such as the above bubble up throughout Eric Ambler's "The Mask of Dimitrios" and, in fact, throughout most of Ambler's books. That is just one reason why Ambler's books are so enjoyable and have held up so well over time.
For those not familiar with his work, Ambler was to the modern British spy novel what Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were to the American detective novel. Ambler transformed the spy novel from a simplistic black and white world of perfect good guys versus nefarious bad guys into a far more realistic world where sometimes the difference between good and evil is not all that great.
Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-World War II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. The Mask of Dimitrios was one of Ambler's best known works. (It was made into a movie starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.) It is a very entertaining read.
The plot is relatively easy to follow. Charles Lattimer is a British University professor who retired from academia once he discovered that writing mass market detective stories was far more lucrative. While on holiday in Istanbul he makes the acquaintance of a Turkish police inspector who is an admirer of Lattimer's work. Lattimer is invited to the policeman's office where he is provided with ideas for a book the police officer is writing. While there he is invited to join the officer in viewing the body of a master criminal, Dimitrios, who has just been fished out of the Bosporus. Lattimer, fascinated by sketchy but lurid details of Dimitrios criminal career, decides to trace Dimitrios steps in the hopes that he will obtain new material for future detective stories. Lattimer travels from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland and France in search of background information. Of course, anyone seeking such information in the corridors of the criminal underworld immediately becomes the object of attention, some of it quite dangerous. The story of Dimitrios' life is peeled away like an onion. Bits of information are revealed at each stop. Lattimer discovers that Dimitrios' actions sometimes had a sinister political connection. As the novel reaches its climax the final bits of information needed to complete the puzzle that is Dimitrios are revealed.
A Coffin For Dimitrios made for an excellent read. Some readers may find it a bit quaint. Some may find Ambler's prose a bit old-fashioned. But when one considers that Ambler's books were written close to 70 years ago I don't think it particularly fair to harp overly much on a writing or prose-style that doesn't quite match that of a le Carre or Deighton. A Coffin for Dimitrios and most of the rest of Ambler's works have been re-issued in new paperback editions by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Press. They are in print and readily available. I don't hesitate to recommend The Mask of Dimitrios or any of Ambler's works. They are perfect for leisure reading whether at the beach or elsewhere. Last, if you have enjoyed the works of John le Carre, Deighton, Ian Fleming, or Alan Furst, it is worth a trip to Ambler to see one of their literary ancestors in action.
on 2 April 2010
Ambler is perhaps the best thriller writer to have turned his gaze to the problematic era of pre-WWII politics. In the Mask of Dimitrios Ambler manages to expertly recreate on the page the atmosphere of paranoia and confusion that would have dogged people during the 1930's. Like most of Ambler's work the plot revolves around an essentially decent Englishman abroad who through his own inquisitiveness manages to get involved in political intrigue beyond his comprehension and control.
Almost immediately the story grips you and takes you on an exhilarating journey from Turkey into Western Europe via the Balkans. Along the way we meet decent yet arrogant police, political schemers, assassins and other assorted weak men - all the while intrigued by the snippets of information that our hero finds in his seemingly pointless search for the mysterious and apparently dead Dimitrios. If you enjoy your thrillers politically attuned and expertly plotted always look to Ambler - no one has managed to match his scope and stories...yet.
When I saw that Penguin were reissuing five of Ambler's novel in their Modern Classics series, the choice of which to read first was easy - I picked The Mask of Dimitrios. Apart from having been published during the same year as Chandler's The Big Sleep, this novel is famous for being the one that Ian Fleming nodded to, having Bond read it on a plane to Istanbul in From Russia with Love.
"Bond unfastened his seat-belt and lit a cigarette. He reached for the slim, expensive-looking attaché case on the floor beside him and took out The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler and put the case, which was very heavy in spite of its size, on the seat beside him."
The Mask of Dimitrios is a classic spy story. A mild-mannered crime novelist, Charles Latimer, is travelling in Europe and makes the acquaintance of Colonel Haki - an inspector in the Turkish secret police. Haki has read Latimer's novels and has an idea for a plot for him, however Latimer finds real life to be much more fascinating. Out of professional interest, he goes with the Colonel to the morgue to see the body of a notorious criminal, who had ended up stabbed to death. Dimitrios was wanted all over Europe in connection with murders, assassination attempts and more, but had been too clever to be caught. Latimer's interest is piqued and he feels that to do some real detection work into Dimitrios would be helpful to his novels. Haki tells him what he knows, and off goes Latimer, not knowing that he will become obsessed in his quest or that he is, as you might expect for an amateur detective, sailing into dangerous waters.
His journey takes him across Europe, making contacts and filling in the jigsaw puzzle piece by piece. In Sofia, he meets the translator Marukakis, who takes him to a club where the Madame knew Dimitrios: "She possessed that odd blousy quality that is independent of good clothes and well-dressed hair and skillful maquillage. Her figure was full but good and she held herself well: her dress was probably expensive, her thick, dark hair looked as if it had spent the past two hours in the hands of a hairdresser. Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern."
But others are also interested in Dimitrios. On one occasion after having been confronted by an intruder with a Luger, Latimer rues that he didn't use force against the man; "That," he reflected, "was the worst of the academic mind. It always overlooked the possibilities of violence until violence was no longer useful." This sums up Latimer neatly - in the best tradition of the gentleman amateur sleuth.
I enjoyed this novel very much. It has much in common with those who followed - although Fleming, Ludlum and Le Carré Fleming, each take the espionage novel in differing directions. I liked the multiple locations around Europe; travelling between them is made easy by train. There is some tension generated by the political undercurrents and the general situation in the eastern Mediterranean countries - although not much is made of them here - WWII is yet to happen. The cast of shady supporting characters introduces much complexity, but sometimes, the long episodes when Dimitrios' back-story is recounted slow the pace. Latimer however proves an amiable companion in this novel that is not quite a full-blooded thriller. As a lover of spy novels, I'll be back to Ambler.
The Mask of Dimitrios is in many ways an old-fashioned, intelligent thriller, displaying all the craft of disciplined good writing.
The central character, Latimer, is an academic and writer. He has written books on economics, but, latterly, has become successful as a writer of popular, well written detective stories. Travelling abroad whilst he works on finding a plot for his next novel, he happens, by chance encounter, to meet a high ranking Turkish colonel, through whom he gets drawn into hearing the story of Dimitrios, a man who evaded capture across Europe, for over a decade. He was implicated in several murders, political assassination attempts, was some kind of mercenary, and ran a drug ring. In short, he was some kind of personification of the master criminal.
Latimer, almost idly, is intrigued to see, as a writer of detective stories, if he himself can do some detection into all the many gaps in Dimitrios' history.
By making his central character a writer, not a professional investigator, criminal, journalist, policier, secret service agent or political activist, Ambler has found the perfect method for instructing the reader in any background information which is needed, without the novel degenerating into a lecture on policing, the autopsy room, the drug trade, espionage and the like. Latimer, like us, is innocent of these things and will need instruction. Ambler uses an old fashioned, third person narration, which works perfectly well - the author as a cool, cerebral narrator of events. Latimer seeks out various experts along the way who can do things like translate official records written in Bulgarian, explain how spies are recruited and run, and the like. All these experts are also interesting, rounded, individualistic characters, who have unique voices; not just vehicles for information.
What did however strike me forcibly is that what is absolutely missing in the novel is `the personal' None of the characters are given any domestic background. We know nothing about husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings or friends. Everyone is engaged in the business of the central story, and the `wants' and motives are, in the main, greed, money, power. This is a deadly and cerebral crossword puzzle of detection. And utterly successful at that.
Ambler has the reader as feverishly unable to leave the story alone, and desirous of knowing `what happens next' as Latimer himself. And he does this with an incisive writing style, and what is clearly his own urbane sense of wit and humour. This is also given as one of Latimer's engaging qualities, keeping the reader closely engaged with, and rooting for, our central character
A stylish, engaging and pacey thriller, whisking the reader effortlessly through several European countries during the 20s and early 30s
I first read this novel over 30 years ago, and remember being gripped by the pace of the narrative and the twist in the tail that, back then, I couldn't see coming. In many ways, The Mask of Dimitrios was the blueprint for the documentary thriller, and a much harder read than most crime novels of the time. Reading it again now, I can see how much it set the template for the likes of The Day of The Jackal and other docu-thrillers. It's that good.
Ambler's laconic prose and brisk storytelling feels timeless, despite this being written at the back end of the thirties, as Europe headed towards another war. There is a sharp awareness of the seamy-side of life as lived by Dimitrios, and the various crime rackets he engaged in - and once more, the all too contemporary nature of the story comes over stongly, even reading it again in 2011.
Using various devices to move the story along - flashbacks, letters, narrative from incidental characters, reports from the time - you can see how much Ambler succeeded in lifting the spy/crime novel from that of pulp fiction to something rather more worthy. It's certainly still a classic of the genre and thoroughly recommended.
However, prospective Kindle readers should take note that the e-book version is far from perfect. One, it's hopelessly over-priced at £7.99; contains no front cover picture (other e-books do) - and there is no easy navigation through the chapters (again, this is not a problem on other e-books). No access to page numbers either, so this feels like a rushed version made available for the Kindle-hungry reader. Penguin should pay more attention to issues like this - especially when charging a premium price for its Modern Classics range.
To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly cliché-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to A Coffin for Dimitrios. During the pre-World War II era, it was common for ordinary citizens to be pressed into espionage activities, whether knowingly or not. Many people rate A Coffin for Dimitrios to be the greatest novel built around that theme. Almost everyone agrees that it is Mr. Ambler's best novel.
Charles Latimer began his career as a lecturer in political economy at a minor English University and wrote three scholar volumes. Suffering from depression from his studies of the Nazis in the third volume, He wrote a successful detective story and was soon launched on a career as a writer that took him away from academia. A chance trip to Turkey after an illness in Athens causes him to meet a real policeman, Colonel Haki, who is a fan of his stories. They meet for lunch to discuss the colonel's literary ambitions. Casually, the colonel shares the dossier of a criminal, Dimitrios Markropoulos, to make the point that "the murderer in a roman policier [is] much more sympathetic than a real murderer." The dossier is filled with probable crimes with lots of gaps in time and knowledge between locations and crimes. Latimer learns that Dimitrios is now lying dead in the morgue, and develops an odd compulsion to see him. The colonel complies and Latimer decides he wants to know all about the dead man. The bulk of the story relates to finding the man behind the dossier through talking with his former associates. As the detection follows, new mysteries appear and Latimer finds himself in the middle of something much larger than himself.
For those who like complicated plots, this book is a delight. Each stage of the search for Dimitrios is like a separate short story that asks and answers a piece of the mystery. Some will undoubtedly see the links from one of these short stories to the next as sometimes being on the flimsy side. That's intended, rather than being a flaw. The larger theme of this book is about the weird appearance of the hand of Providence in our lives. But it's Providence viewed with a sense of humor. As the book begins, Mr. Ambler notes that "if there should be such as thing as a superhuman Law, it is administered with sub-human efficiency. The choice of Latimer as its instrument could have been made only by an idiot."
After you finish enjoying the delightful story, please consider where else you are comfortable reading books set in the past for their observations about that past that are universal and timeless. For instance, does King Lear, or Hamlet speak to you today even though their settings are long since gone?
on 5 January 2002
Through a chance acquaintance with a senior Turkish police officer in Istanbul, Charles Latimer, a detective story writer and former university lecturer, gets to see the body of a dead man and decides (after being treated to one or two juicy excerpts from the man's dossier) to investigate his history. And so begins a journey that takes him out of his milieu and into a 'real' and dangerous underworld.
I rarely get sucked into reading novels more than once, but this was an exception. Why? Well, I've thought of two reasons.
The first is that, as a story, it's totally spellbinding. Like all good stories, it tells itself. Once Latimer is hooked on his investigation, so are you. We follow him every step of the way. We get to sense all his anxieties, his self-justifications, his decisions that aren't really decisions. And like him, all we can really do is wait for the whole adventure to unreel, which it does at a nicely tense and unhurried pace.
The second reason is that despite having all the tension and excitement of a thriller, that isn't really, or isn't only, what the book is. It's in fact (rather like a 'proper' novel) a study of people, who they really are, who they think they are, and what it is that really motivates them. The characters are deliciously unheroic. They're people who get themselves into messes, which they may or may not be able to get out of. They're intellectually and morally flawed. They're real.
Ambler was young when he wrote this book and you get the sense that in it he is confronting the issue that the world (and everyone in it)is uglier than we are deceived into believing. Latimer, out of his world, becomes a dreamy idealist suddenly scrambling around in the dirt. The conflict is wonderfully perceived and comes with a final 'ironic suggestion' - that the only way to survive such ugliness is to pretend that it doesn't exist. It is this conflict, I feel, that gives the novel the electricity and charm which is absent from Ambler's later work.
There are other early Ambler novels with wonderful sequences but the novels themselves, although in their way just as intriguing, are not so well structured and are not driven by such a powerful narrative. This one, for me, is his masterpiece. It is staggering (and slightly disturbing)to think that until recently in the UK it was out of print.
Charles Latimer, a mediocre English academic now enjoying success as a detective story writer takes a trip to Istanbul. There he meets a Captain of the local police who, as well as foisting his (painful) detective plot on Latimer, also tells him a tale of a real villain, Dimitrios, whose body has recently been fished out of the Bosphorous.
Intrigued by the story of the corpse, Latimer visits the morgue to view the body, and then (bored and listless) decides to dig into the history of Dimitrios, an enterprise that takes him to Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva, and finally Paris - where his amateurish investigations lead to disaster.
It's an unusual book - certainly not a spy story as we know it today, though there is an extended section about Dimitrios' activities as a spy in Albania between the wars. Told in a mixture of Latimer's present and flashbacks of his interviewees, Ambler's writing and style is terse and intelligent, and the detail he provides about the political and economic situation in Eastern Europe in the '20s and '30s convincing.
Charles Latimer, an academic and author of detective stories, makes the acquaintance of a Turkish police inspector while on holiday. Embracing the opportunity to learn more about real police procedurals Latimer tags along when the body of Dimitrios, a criminal with a colourful past, is fished out of the Bosphorus. The Turkish police inspector, seeing the body, shrugs his shoulders - Dimitrios is dead, case closed - but Latimer becomes fascinated with the criminal career of the dead man and so begins a search back through Dimitrios's life, taking in his low-life escapades and making the acquaintance of various people from his colourful past. But why is Latimer being pursued by the flabby, sinister and twistedly-pious Mr Peters? And why does the name 'Dimitrios' continue to instill fear in so many of the people he meets even after the man's death?
The Mask of Dimitrios is a fabulous novel. It rattles along at a terrific pace; contains several brilliant character sketches (Colonel Haki of the Turkish police is a delight with his casual approach to wrapping up loose-ends and Madame Preveza, owner of a nightclub / brothel is a beautiful portrayal of a woman still in thrall to the man who betrayed her) and continually confounds the reader's expectations as to where the plot is heading. The book also has interesting things to say about the nature of crime and also crime fiction. Latimer writes his detective novels in a typically cosy 1930s style with isolated communities in small villages finding one of their number has been bumped off while on a visit to the vicarage. A policeman then turns up and neatly solves the case leaving no curious plot element unexplained. In the real world of Dimitrios and Haki however such cosiness does not exist. The crimes are brutal, drug-fuelled, money-motivated and squalid. The detectives who attempt to solve them are often only one shade of grey lighter than the criminals they are trying to apprehend and even Colonel Haki, a basically decent man, is content to file the case of Dimitrios as solved as soon as the body is identified - mysterious nagging doubts and loose-ends can be dismissed as irrelevant with a casual shrug of the shoulders. There are plenty more live criminals to catch. The dead can keep their mysteries.
Eric Ambler is often compared to John le Carre and Len Deighton but, in terms of his characters at least, the comparison that most frequently sprang to my mind was with Graham Greene. Mr Peters with his religious convictions twisted perversely to meet his own ends; Colonel Haki with his decent but casual approach to crime and death, Madame Preveza with her blousy charms and bitterness and Latimer himself - the small man out of his depth in the criminal underworld - would all be at home in one of Greene's novels. It's a comparison that says much about Ambler's fine qualities as an author. The Mask of Dimitrios is the first of Eric Ambler's novels that I have read but I've already bought a second so as to discover more of his work. Recommended - a terrific novel by an underrated author.
on 24 November 2014
A superbly-written thriller which manages to tell a complex story via a fairly simple plot and with lots of wit. I read it immediately after Graham Greene's 'Stamboul Train' and the two make an interesting comparison - not only because at several points it is entirely possible the characters from both books might be sitting at adjoining tables.
Indeed, 'Dimitrios' reads rather like one of Greene's better 'entertainments' and 'The Third Man' undoubtedly owes a great debt to 'Dimitrios'.
However whereas a Greene protagonist will inevitably wander off into a philosophical/theological digression at some point, Ambler's Charles Latimer - a crime novelist - merely has it repeatedly demonstrated to himself that he is incredibly naive, unobservant, silly and even a little priggish or cowardly. Latimer makes a wonderful alternative to both the Greene introvert and the John Buchan-type hero and the passages toward the climax of the book when he finally realises that he has got himself into a real situation with real and very dangerous people are very convincing.
Supporting characters are brilliantly handled too, from the flamboyant head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, through the brothel keeper Madame Preveza, the journalist Marukakis, an enigmatic Polish freelance spy called Grodek, the wonderfully repulsive Mr Peters and of course Dimitrios himself, who hovers over the whole book like a sinister shadow.
Add in a location list including Istanbul, Smyrna, Paris, Geneva, Sofia and Belgrade plus a few twists (some you see coming, others genuinely surprising) and you have a first-rate thriller. It's not hard to see why Ambler was so influential on other writers such as Le Carre. I am going to find more Ambler as soon as I can.