Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1939) by Eric Ambler

This is a slight re-working of a review I wrote and posted in 2001 and thought apropos to re-post now. Someone was very recently talking about A COFFIN FOR DEMETRIOS (Tracy, was it you?) and I thought I'd dredge this up to see what I'd thought of the novel. I'm thinking it's time for me to reread Ambler. Especially JOURNEY INTO FEAR which remains one of my other favorites of his.

I liked the first line of DIMITRIOS though apparently it is the comment of an omniscient narrator whom we, somehow, lose along the way. But no matter:

A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

The book takes a few beats to get going and that's my only quibble, -other than that it's a pretty perfect sort of spy story - revealed layer upon layer, picking up speed as it goes along. I haven't seen the film (I think it stars Zachary Scott one of the wierdest actors - in my view - that Hollywood has ever produced), but I think I just might watch it after this.

(Note: Never did get to watch the film.)

Here's the basic story:

Mystery writer Charles Latimer (I've always been fond of the name Latimer) is exhausted; after writing a string of relatively successful books, he goes on holiday to Turkey, hoping that taking it easy for awhile might refresh him. It is an uneasy time, war is fermenting in Europe and without doubt exotic travel will soon be curtailed.

Latimer is a noticing sort of man as most writers are. He is also a curious man and it is this inchoate curiosity which gets him into trouble once he arrives in Turkey and, typically, gets invited here and there for drinks and other sophisitcated social niceties. At one of these social events, he meets the oddly voluble Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and lover of British thrillers. He casually draws Latimer into a mystery telling him of the dead body dredged that very night from the river.

The murder victim has been identified as Dimitrios Makropoulos - a known criminal type whom no one will mourn. On an impulse, Latimer asks to see the body, reasoning that it wouldn't do a mystery writer any harm to see an actual victim of violence. 

Once he's viewed the body, Latimer, usually a reserved English gentleman, decides then and there to try and fine out more about the victim. What caused this particular man to be stabbed to death and thrown in a river? What were the vicissitudes of fate that wound up costing Dimitrios his life in such a brutal manner? Bit by bit, the more Latimer finds out, the more intrigued he becomes, the more he wants to know about Dimitrios Makropoulos who was not, obviously, just a petty sort of criminal but a mastermind, an international gangster of the most vile sort.

One of the things I like most about the story is how Dimitrios is shown from various perspectives, as Latimer searches out and interviews past acquaintances. There is no softening of his criminality, except a mention that Dimitrios' early life was hard - but not everyone with a hard life turns to crime with such ease. No, Dimitrios appears to have had an enormous affinity for it.

And of course, this being a novel of sinister machinations and dark doings, there will be a not too surprising revelation which will confront Latimer in his quest to get at the truth, a revelation which will almost cost him his life and teach him a hard-earned lesson about indulging curiosity.

This is all revealed in a kind of non-theatrical, pragmatic sort of way. There's not much unnecessary explanation of the criminal mind, and evil is discussed with a kind of rational resignation:

Three human beings had died horribly and countless others had lived horribly that Dimitrios might take his ease. If there were such a thing as Evil, then this man...

But it was useless to try and explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than Baroque abstractions. Good business and Bad business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange...and Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Good writing, that. It brings to mind the current view of and rationale for the most hideous acts in a supposedly even more enlightened age. Don't we view evil in the same way even now? Business is still all, it seems to me - what with corporate America's hold on government actions stronger than ever and the widening dominion of social  media and a seemingly smitten, indulgent press which more and more abdicates its charge to ferret out the truth unless it means higher ratings.

 New theology, indeed. Look at the upcoming election and the charlatan running for office. Trump's vile exploits are explained away as 'business' as if that, in and of itself, is explanation enough. 

At any rate, if you care to read one of the true masters of the spy genre, pick up Eric Ambler and indulge in his very well written, often prescient, novels. These guys from the past are called great for a reason.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 


  1. Yvette,

    Interesting review. I haven't read, or at least don't remember having read anything by Ambler. Perhaps it's time to take a look at him. Any particular work by him that you would recommend?

  2. I would highly recommend JOURNEY INTO FEAR first, Fred, then A COFFIN FOR DEMETRIOS. After that it's up to you. Unfortunately there aren't that many Ambler books that I'm aware of.I mean, there are a few, but it's hit or miss where you can pick them up.

  3. Yes, Yvette, we did discuss A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS when I did a post on BACKGROUND TO DANGER. I do like Ambler's writing and I like that every book is different, not written to a formula. I haven't read JOURNEY INTO FEAR yet, I am going to have to get to that soon.

    1. Oh, don't miss that one, Tracy. I'm due for a re-read myself. But I want to own the Ambler books. Last time out, my local library had them. Not the library down here though.

  4. I read this long long ago, so long ago it took your review to bring the gist of the story to the surface for me. I think it was one of my dad's paperbacks in the little livingroom bookcase among his Erle Stanley Gardners, Mignon G. Eberharts and Mickey Spillanes. I was definitely pre-adolescent at the time. Now I want to read it again!

    1. Then it's definitely time for you to read it again, Mathew. Ambler is too good to be forgotten. I'm not a big spy book reader, but now and again, I do like a good well written spy tale that is clever and not all gloom and doom.

  5. New author for me. Thanks for the review.

    1. You're welcome, Mystica. I hope you'll be able to find a copy. Ambler is really excellent if you like a good spy story every now and then.

  6. Wonderful review as usual Yvette. This was my first Ambler and I really loved it. I think, till date, I have read 5 books of Ambler and all have been more or less good.

    1. Thanks so much, Neer. See - you live all these thousands of miles away and yet we share a love of Eric Ambler's work. I really do believe he should be much better known. I've never read much spy stuff, but I believe it would be hard to top Ambler.

    2. I too don't like spy fiction much but I think that the only person who can challenge Ambler is Graham Greene whose THE HUMAN FACTOR is one of the most moving spy fictions I have ever read.


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