Author Eric Ambler made his name with A Coffin for Dimitrios and his five other earliest novels, The Dark Frontier, Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm, Epitaph for a Spy and Journey into Fear. Ambler is often credited as the inventor of the modern political thriller where he transforms the old-fashioned detective story into mainstream fiction. Today Ambler’s influence still remains strong and you can read more about his lasting influence here in the New York Times. Published in 1939, A Coffin for Dimitrios was a classic political thriller, and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in September 1939, which was the time period when Germany invaded Poland, touching off World War II. Set when the storm clouds of World War II seem to gather, as nations jostle for alliances, these world events do seem to play a role in certain instances in the novel. Like most of Ambler’s novels, this novel was distinguished by a credible hero, a realistic setting, and vivid political intrigue. Reading Ambler today you get a sense of déjà vu where the cycles of history have brought us back to something not so different from Ambler’s Europe.
Mystery novelist Charles Latimer, a former British professor, begins this intriguing story by vacationing to Turkey in the 1930s. While there he meets Colonel Haki, an official in the Turkish police who winds up to be a fan of Latimer’s novels. It at first seems Haki merely suggests new plots for Latimer’s next book, but the conversation shifts to speaking of real detection and criminals, and that is where Dimitrios Makropolous is mentioned;his body had been found dead by a fisherman. As Haki explains what is known of Dimitrios and his background along with showing Latimer his body at the morgue, Latimer becomes fascinated with Dimitrios and his past. Latimer decides to track down the people who must know what Dimitrios did and uncover his story. In doing so, Latimer ultimately tests the sort of detection he writes about to perhaps be able to write a new story.
Most of the story is told through Latimer’s viewpoint. He’s generally ordinary and believable moving through a world that is depicted in more of a realistic way. Initially he kind of goes along his journey analyzing things through a writer’s perspective, mostly observing his surroundings. However, it’s not like he’s naive because he’s definitely quick-witted. He becomes more savvy as he continues to detect ultimately broadening his perspective on things. He’s not a professional yet the way he handles and adapts the difficult situations he faces is quite impressive. Like most detectives he has no love life throughout the story, and sort of remains detached throughout the story making sure he’s not just blindly trusting anyone. I can say that the entire story is not told through the point of view of Latimer; other characters whom Latimer meets reveal various bits and pieces of Dimitrios’ life and without spoiling anything not all of them tell the absolute truth.
A Coffin for Dimitrios starts as a relatively ordinary mystery novel then transforms into an espionage thriller. The idea of a mystery writer solving actual mysteries is not unique to this book, but it’s interesting to see how as Latimer finds success in the routines he’s written about, he becomes more and more involved in the story and more caught up in Dimitrios’ world. This tale of drug smuggling, assassination, and political intrigue contains the typical hard-boiled elements by being set in an urban areas with plenty of danger. Even though this is a hard-boiled novel there isn’t much profanity featured throughout it. The biggest negative I’d give this novel would be how slow paced it is, it takes a while before the plot of the story really has that “roller-coaster” effect most thrillers have, but at least the plot won’t have you dazed and confused. There’s reoccuring themes of good vs. evil, misconception, false identities and moral ambiguity throughout the story that may have readers who are interested in those larger questions intrigued. The novel also takes place in between those years of the World Wars allowing those world events to play a role in the story.
“The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.” — Colonel Haki (23)
This popular espionage novel was made into a film in 1944 called “The Mask of Dimitrios” starring Peter Lorre¹. The film did not stay entirely faithful to the actual novel, changing around character’s names and so on, and had no where near as much success as the book. You can read a review of the film from New York Times here.²
If you have the time to sit down and really take your time to enjoy the exciting elements of this unique thriller I’d definitely recommend it. Even though the plot takes a long time to develop and become exciting because of how slow paced the read is, the novel’s elements of political intrigue, espionage, and traditional hard-boiled fiction make up for it as you join Charles Latimer on his journey to dig up the past of Dimitrios Makropolous.
1.“The Mask of Dimitrios Trailer 1944 Peter Lorre Sydney Greenstreet.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Cihb4yEYlg.
2.The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D0DE6DC1E30E53BBC4C51DFB066838F659EDE.
3.Ambler, Eric, et al. “A Coffin for Dimitrios.” A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, www.goodreads.com/book/show/46429.A_Coffin_for_Dimitrios.
4.Pace, Eric. “Eric Ambler, Thriller Writer Who Elevated the Genre to Literature, Is Dead at 89.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Oct. 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/10/24/arts/eric-ambler-
5.Ambler, Eric. A Coffin For Dimitrios. 1939.