About a month and a half ago, British thriller writer Charles Cumming wrote on this page about Eric Ambler’s magnificent 1940 novel, Journey Into Fear. I have been a follower of espionage fiction for a number of years, and of course Ambler’s work resonates prominently in my mind. But one of his classic novels has taken on more meaning for me lately, what with the daily drumbeat of sour economic news: A Coffin for Dimitrios (also known as The Mask of Dimitrios). It’s been 69 years since that book first reached stores; yet very little has changed when it comes to human nature and our propensity for committing unreasoned and unreasonable acts.
More than a quarter-century has passed since I first enjoyed A Coffin for Dimitrios. However, as I picked up my battered old copy and sat with it under my reading lamp, I marveled once again at how Ambler blended such well-delineated characters within his corkscrew of a plot, its subtext shocking us with its insight. The first thing I realized was how fresh and relevant the story seems today, focusing as it does on the dark side of human nature and reminding us that problems in the Balkans have been part of our history for generations. The second thing I noticed was that this tale offers very little in the way of action (until the end, at least); instead, its appeal is rooted largely in Ambler’s portrayal of 1930s Europe as a volatile and dangerous place, with war clouds massing overhead and the electrical smell of ozone conspicuous. Finally, I understood why this novel has been so influential on both writers and filmmakers.
Let’s start out by considering Coffin’s plot, which at first appears simple and almost clichéd. We have Charles Latimer, a former academic turned detective novelist on holiday in pre-World War II Turkey. Latimer meets Colonel Haki, a Turkish police official (and fan of detective fiction), who wants the Englishman to write a novel in the future featuring a plot he has concocted. These sorts of suggestions are made to crime fictionists all the time, and Latimer’s initial response is to decline gracefully. But his curiosity is piqued when Haki starts telling him more about the discovery of the body of underworld enforcer and master criminal Dimitrios Makropolous, washed up on a beach.
Like the mythical Keyzer Soze (from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects), Dimitirios was an international gangster, murderer, trafficker in women, spy, and assassin-for-hire, who hid behind different names and identities, operating for a shadowy banking group (the Eurasian Credit Trust) and carrying out the dark deeds required by his paymasters. Compelled to learn more about the man who lies dead on Colonel Haki’s morgue slab, Latimer proceeds to trace back through Dimitrios’ life. The journey will change our hero as the trail he’s following snakes from the Middle East to Paris, and drags him through the criminal deeds that so defined Dimitrios in life. However, Latimer must also remain wary of his researches. Can he really trust the recollections of his late subject’s numerous enemies? And how will Latimer’s liberal value system be challenged when he unearths the truth and extent of the evil that took up residence in Dimitrios’ soul?
Dimitrios’ criminal record starts with the murder of Sholem, a moneylender and deunme (a Jew converted to Islam) whose throat was cut. While the slippery Dimitrios fled from that crime scene, his less-quick-witted accomplice, Dhris Mohammad, was caught and hanged by the authorities--thanks in part to Dimitrios’ plotting. Colonel Haki had described Dimitrios Makropolous as “a dirty type, common, cowardly scum.” Latimer, however, sees that Dimitrios was far more sophisticated, and perhaps a man of his times. “Bad business were the elements of the new theology,” Ambler writes at one point. “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.” So Latimer, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow (in Heart of Darkness), begins a journey to find out who and what Dimitrios was.
This is a classic theme, but in Ambler’s skilled hands it becomes something special, something memorable. He makes Dimitrios seem even more sinister by keeping him off-stage until the very end of Coffin, and instead using letters, criminal rap sheets, and the recollections of others to build up the character’s notoriety. I’m convinced that A Coffin for Dimitrios must have influenced Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man (1949), and it surely has had an impact on the fiction of more modern writers, including Robert Harris, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Alistair MacLean, and Alan Furst. As Alfred Hitchcock wrote in an introduction to a 1943 omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels: “[Ambler’s villains] are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time.” And Dimitrios is just that--a psychopath to whom morality, conscience, and international borders mean nothing.
As Charles Latimer pursues information about his subject, he encounters the sinister and obese Dane, Peters (aka Petersen), a former partner of Dimitrios who was double-crossed and sent to prison. Peters is now looking for revenge, as he’s convinced that the master criminal faked his death.
There is a chilling interlude when Peters sends Latimer to meet the retired spymaster, Grodek, who is spending his retirement in Switzerland. Via a series of letters, we learn how Dimitrios and Grodek entrapped a low-level government clerk named Bulic and his wife, who had sought financial and social advancement. This sequence is made all the more chilling by Dimitrios’ matter-of-fact methods. Writes Ambler:
Bulic was kicked in the abdomen and then as he bent forward retching, in the face, gasping for breath and with pain and bleeding in the mouth, he was flung into a chair while Dimitrios explained coldly that the only risk he ran was in not doing what he was told.The end of the journey for Latimer finds him agreeing to join Peters in another sting operation, this one meant to flush out Dimitrios from behind his mask. In a tense and anxiety-inducing climax, the British author and protagonist comes face to face with his quarry, only to realize that Dimitrios is actually the personification of the crises that Europe was facing in their era.
A pivotal novel in the thriller fiction genre, and a remarkable work of existentialist literature, A Coffin for Dimitrios blends politics, espionage, banking, and the underworld together to show how all of those factors are essential to the foundations of modern society. Unfortunately, society seems to require “enforcers” like Dimitrios Makropolous, who will take on the tasks that “civilized” men and women eschew. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, the darkness in our nature is always visible.
I wonder what Dimitrios and Latimer would have thought about today’s economic crisis.