A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler is a true gem in the spy and mystery genre, though its really not so much a spy story as it is a mystery. It has a spy story within it, and a very interesting one to be sure. An earlier title is The Mask of Dimitrios, the book can still be found with both titles. The tale, first written in 1939, is well reviewed and there are even academic dissertations written about this book. Famed spy novelist Alan Furst wrote the first pages of his Night Soldiers series on the inside back cover of his copy of this novel, and many have been taken away to the locations and situations Ambler so richly describes.
The tale follows a bored British political economist turned detective novelist, Charles Lattimer, on his spontaneous adventure to find out more information about a dead guy. Set in the tumultuous years of the 1920s and 1930s in the smoldering powder keg of the Balkans, the reader gains a sense of the instability and uncertainty of the times. Looking for a change of scenery and some excitement, Lattimer finds himself vacationing in Turkey and enjoying the exotic beauty and international flavor of the Istanbul tourist life. There, nearly bored of it all, he seeks out some changes, some small excitement, some reason not to leave for another city in which to finish his working vacation (during which, very little work gets done). He attends a society party in at the mansion of a minor elite’s wife, uneasy but interested, with a letter of introduction given to him by a friend. He is soon bored by even the life of the socialite, but this party soon sets off an adventurous trek across Europe. Meeting the mysterious, flamboyant Colonel Haki, a Turkish Secret Police officer who also happens to like Lattimer’s novels, he invites our protagonist to have lunch with him to pitch a detective novel plot of his own. Here the topic arises of real crime versus the romanticized crimes found in Lattimer’s detective novels. To illustrate the point, Haki shows Lattimer the stinking corpse of a murdered crook, fished out of the Bosporus, lying in a hot sheet-iron morgue out back. This is, according to the stiff’s passport, the corpse of Dimitrios Makropoulos – a dastardly thug, a spy, a drug runner, a multiple-murderer, a political fomenter, and a slaver, among other occupations and trades. So intrigued and moved by an un-explainable, rather foolish notion of adventure and sleuthing, Lattimer gains all the info he can from Haki, who is more than willing to share the police dossier. Armed with a skeleton outline of information and driven by a morbid sense of curiosity and adventure, Lattimer sets off to follow the trail of discovery to piece together the story of this dead man.
The tale takes him from Turkey, to Athens, Bulgaria, Geneva and Paris, among other stops, and along the way we learn the biography of an evil man during unsettled times. The contrast between Lattimer’s rather naive and timid self and the awful horrors of the events in the life of Dimitrios is strong, and makes the book deeply satisfying as a study in human nature. All of the scoundrels and scumbags we meet have human sides, might even be redeemable people in the eyes of Lattimer. But as the sleuthing turns up more and more data, Dimitrios becomes a myth and legend, a man greater than life, though he surely did not look like it while lying on a slab with a knife gash in his bloated gut.
Along the way, we read some chilling accounts of the Turkish genocide of the Smyrna Greeks in the 1920s, a historical atrocity known to few these days, but well worth remembering. This scene was reminiscent of the slaughter of Nationalists in Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a harrowing description of the ugliness of evil. We also learn about the workings of what we know today as human sex trafficking, and realize it is nothing new. We are introduced to the mechanics of opiate drug running, drug dealing, and addiction. We learn how to manipulate and blackmail unsuspecting saps. We learn where to eat in Sofia in the 1930s, and how they overcharge for champagne. All told with colorful verbal painting richly spiked with a sense of taste and smell.
Many of the sub-plot stories unfold through conversations with new acquaintances and through letters. To uncover these stories, and collect clues about Dimitrios, we go with Lattimer and his guides to visit gritty places, seedy bars, cheap motels, stinking police stations, and rich estates. We take rides through the night on trains with snoring fat men, and drive through the rain on what would later become stereotypical detective-novel mainstays – the misty cobbled roads and bridges where drop offs happen by night. That fat man, Peters, becomes a key player in Lattimer’s game, as he sinks deeper and deeper into the pursuit of the mystery that is Dimitrios.
Character descriptions are fantastically crafted, with paragraphs being so enjoyable that I read them several times. I first appreciated the introduction of Fedor Muishkin, a Russian translator in Smyrna, who has a blubbery lower lip and a particularly abrupt personality. Though a minor character, he struck me as a very interesting little man not to be trusted. But what is a fellow to do when there are no other options? He gives money to a perfect stranger and hopes for the best.
We meet the mysterious Mr. Peters, an off-putting fat man who’s description paints a clear and slimy picture of a sugary smile, wet eyes, and sentimentally gross blather about the will of the “Great One.” He becomes someone to pay attention to, and his mind’s workings are intensely entertaining, being a man of many pasts. He is, though annoying and disagreeable as a person, superbly colorful as a character. He comes off as sickly perverse, but only through circumstantial evidence found in his demeanor and possessions.
I felt the most empathy for poor Bulić and his disgruntled wife. Here is a character who we come to know through a story within a story. He’s a clerk and rather dull drone at the Yugoslavian Ministry of Marine in Belgrade, and is the perfect mark for a deceptive ruse. His boring life is ripe for some sort of windfall opportunity. He is used in an elaborate scheme by a couple of spies to steal copies of submarine minefields in chapter 9. The poor guy was played for weeks, driven into tears, burdened with gambling debt, and given over to a couple of fake business deals, fake friendships, and then betrayed once the submarine mine field charts were in delivered. His tale was a significant display of the lengths to which evil men will use others, and his life is a tragic case. So much tragedy was so casually imposed for such evil ends, it boggles the mind how cheaply lives and dignity are merely currency for others.
The story does not slow down in its pace, though it is not a speedy story. Other Ambler novels I have read have segments that seem to drag on, but this one took the reader from place to place, revelation to revelation, and carried it along with an unfolding plot that finds its first climax with a major twist. I admit, I did not anticipate the twist, though some more familiar with the genre might have seen it coming. It was a pleasurable discovery that changed the entire nature of Lattimer’s idealistic adventure. It made the last few chapters tense with danger.
I truly enjoyed every bit of this book, and look forward to reading it again, which is very rare for me. I suspect I will discover more clues and details along the way, knowing now what I didn’t before. There is a reason this is considered among the best of classic spy and mystery literature, it is a first class tale and one that examines the evil of men without crass profanity and graphic descriptions of sexual activity, though such things are necessarily obvious by a seasoned reader. This is a suitable book for high school aged kids, or rather cynical people like me who have read lots of books that were proclaimed great, but fell flat. This one does not disappoint.