Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

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.

Bronze head said to be of Demetrius I of Macedon, Prado Museum

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.

23 thoughts on “Disintegration and deception

  1. I like the sound of this. I read ‘Cause for Alarm”, my first Ambler, recently and admired his skill. This one sounds more complex – just looked it up and was surprised to find it came out the year after ‘Cause For Alarm’ . Sounds like quite a leap forward.

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    1. I don’t know anything about Cause for Alarm, perhaps I need to acquaint myself with it! This one was well-written and turned out to be be a page-turner after the first couple of chapters, presumably those skills you admired in his earlier work, Gert. So many books…

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    1. I can see why Bond might read it, with that murky underworld and unholy network of politics, crime and instability. The innocent abroad is an excellent ruse to draw in the reader, to get them to use empathic skills to imagine what they might do in similar situations—should they by the slimmest chance be caught up in that underworld!

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        1. Ah, perhaps an incentive to read FRWL: “Ah, Mr Bond, we meet … for the first time.” (Though, aged eleven or so, I skimmed through my parents’ copy of Casino Royale with no idea what was going on.)

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  2. Your review is perfect, and perfectly timed as well. I just started rereading this novel, and had come to the realization that my current WIP could be an updated version of Ambler’s great thriller, although I’m not sure I dare to take that approach. Yet it’s difficult to ignore the overlapping themes — especially, as you quote Mazower, with “the criminal … as ‘a unit in a disintegrating social system'”. A dystopia is nothing but a disintegrating system, and I’m happy to take inspiration wherever I find it.
    And I definitely recommend the film, one of my favorite noir classics from the 1940s.

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    1. Thanks, Lizzie! I’ve not seen the film — yet — but from the trailer it seems to be relatively true to the original novel (apart from the change of name, I suppose to accommodate Lorre’s distinctive Austro-Hungarian accent).

      I do hate it when novels are updated or adapted for modern sensibilities or to make them more understandable, as though readers are too weak minded to cope otherwise. Especially as such criminality is always current, and always relevant.

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    1. I’d like to think you’ve ‘moved away’ rather than ‘outgrown’ the better examples in this genre—I don’t normally read spy fiction and thrillers, especially of the sensationalist sort, but this one seemed more true to life (particular as drug-smuggling, people trafficking, ethnic ‘cleansing’ and political assassination are woefully still in vogue) and thus as relevant as ever.

      While the film noir clip may be distancing, and even evoke a bit of nostalgia, people are still suffering and dying from the injustices perpetrated by individuals like the ones portrayed, as the news informs us daily.

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  3. This sounds very good, both the plot and the setting. Must look for a copy. I wish TCM hadn’t stopped services here, then I might have found the film on TV one or the other day. Anyway, I shall look that up as well- I may even have seen it at some point but I don’t remember.

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    1. I think YouTube might have the whole film posted up by some contributor, Mallika, worth checking if it’s available for your area should you not mind watching on your laptop or other device. But maybe read the book first? 🙂

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    1. There were a whole spate of such films in the decade around the war, weren’t there, Jean, stylish even if done on the cheap (all those varied camera angles!) and chilling even as the war and its aftermath were fresh in the mind. The Third Man is one that always springs to my memory.

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    1. Thanks, Ola! I’ve recently finished Kate Atkinson’s excellent Transcription which is another spy novel, though rather different in being set in Britain during the war and after rather than just before.

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