Tue 1 May 2012
by Marcia Muller
ERIC AMBLER – A Coffin for Dimitrios. Alfred A. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1939. First published in the UK as The Mask of Dimitrios: Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1939. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback.
Eric Ambler has long been known as a master of international intrigue. His novels typically involve a more or less ordinary protagonist who has blundered into some sinister situation and has become enmeshed in it against his will. He must then extricate himself by appearing to take part in the intrigue, often as a reluctant agent for the authorities.
Ambler’s narrative style is straightforward and economical; his plots, whether simple or complex, are suspenseful; his action scenes are high points in the books.
A Coffin for Dimitrios is the story of a man with an obsession. Charles Latimer, a writer of detective novels, is on holiday in Istanbul when he meets Turkish Secret Police colonel Haki; Haki admires Latimer’s work and, like many policemen, has an idea for a novel, which he thinks Latimer should write.
The idea is old-hat, but the story Haki tells Latimer as an aside — about the criminal Dimitrios Makropoulis — fascinates the writer. Dimitrios, who has been fished out of the Bosphorus, dead of a knife wound, has been involved in murder, an assassination plot, pimping, and drug trafficking; now he lies in the morgue, and Latimer impulsively asks to view the body.
The viewing affects Latimer powerfully, and he becomes determined to trace the life of Dimitrios. His search takes him to Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and Paris. It reveals more facets of Dimitrios’s life than the police dossiers hold, and it throws Latimer into the company of a mysterious man named Peters who seems very interested in the fact that the writer saw Dimitrios’s body in the morgue. So interested, in fact, that he aids the investigation, and Latimer finds himself in a situation stranger and more dangerous than any in his own detective stories.
This is an intriguing and suspenseful novel with an ironic twist at the end that causes us to reflect on how little we really learn from life’s experiences. More or less faithful to it is the moody 1944 film version starring Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, which appeared under the original British title of the novel, The Mask of Dimitrios. The film’s screenplay was authored by another mystery writer, Frank Gruber.
Charles Latimer reappears in one other novel, The Intercom Conspiracy (1969).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.