Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)
Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.
It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.
Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.
A mask is a disguise, a distraction, a simulacrum not to be trusted. Ambler is a thriller writer writing about Latimer, a crime novelist investigating Dimitrios, a man who invents multiple personalities for himself with surnames including Makropoulos, Talat and who knows what else.
To this whiff of metafiction is added the fact that Ambler (according to Mark Mazower) had never visited Istanbul, gaining his background knowledge from Turkish émigrés in Nice. And while there is a sense of verisimilitude running right through this novel — so much feels as if it reflects reality, as well it might since Ambler completed the novel as the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia — there is the distinct feeling that Latimer would desperately like to retreat back into writing cosies about fictional murders.
Ambler, who knew his classical history, might have had in mind Demetrius of Macedon, known as a ‘besieger of cities’ and a monarch who enjoyed mixed success, rather like the Dimitrios of the the novel. Oddly, the US edition was entitled The Coffin of Dimitrios, which rather eschews the subtle ambiguity of the original title. I have to say I guessed the primary reveal well before the end (though other aspects of the denouement kept their surprises), meaning that I was aware early on of the significance of the masquerade: since a mask in Latin is persona, it wasn’t hard to guess at the truth of the matter, that people — alive or dead — are not who they seem.
Given that the individuals are a generally unpleasant bunch Ambler’s characterisations are quite believable, though Latimer’s motivation in the face of likely mortal jeopardy is often opaque: would a rank amateur really put himself in danger so often? However, there is no doubt Ambler is a master of suspense, justifying the description of this as a thriller. Seedy cafés, isolated Swiss chalets, smoke-filled dives, cobbled Parisian streets at night, all inhabited by femmes fatales, criminals, double agents and an innocent abroad together suggest the uneasy calm before the storm that was to come. Small wonder then that the novel became an atmospheric film noir in 1944 with Peter Lorre as the protagonist (renamed Cornelius Leyden).
It’s a tribute to the book’s power that it still seems relevant today: as Mazower indicates in the introduction Latimer’s instinct is “to see the criminal not as a man but as ‘a unit in a disintegrating social system'” and yet we know that such individuals are the instigators, upholders and beneficiaries of that disintegration: ‘The drug pedlar, the pimp, the thief, the spy, the white slaver, the bully, the financier’. And, one should add, the politician. It’s a scary scenario, one that it’s easy to suspect is playing out, right now, in the world.