” Ingenuity is never a substitute for intelligence. ” (Ch.15, p.292)
After finishing A Coffin for Dimitrios, a spy fiction set in the beginning of World War Two, one can see that Ambler’s mix of swift pacing, believable protagonists, and thrilling locales proves an untold influence on those who took up spy-story pen in his wake. The book, originally published in 1939, really holds up as a startling, elegant masterpiece of espionage fiction.
The story is simple but intriguing. Chance encounter with a Turkish colonel in Istanbul leaves writer Charles Latimer mesmerized at a mysterious, elusive personality, Dimitrio Markopoulos, whose body was pulled out of the Bosphorous. Curiosity piqued, and burned with a desire to account for this person, Latimer conducts his own investigation into Dimitrios’s life and death, putting him into a world of political maneuvers, assassination, espionage, and drug trafficking. He’s in contact with a colorful cast of shady characters across Europe who are not so much ruffians but as victims and confidents of Dimitrios.
Even though Ambler spends the bulk of the book poking fun at his protagonist’s idealized concepts of murder and philosophizing about human nature, the story-telling itself is engaging. The prose is light-footed and solid despite the complexity of the international intrigue it depicts, from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, France and Germany. Underlying the protagonist’s probe of his notorious subject is also a picture of the shifting allegiances leading to World War Two.
The Dimitrios emerged from Latimer’s investigation is a man of many faces, identities, and facets. By no means he’s good: he has used people’s dim wits, has played upon their religious fanaticism, has taken advantage of their simplicity with a skill that’s sophisticated and terrifying. He is a murderer, a robber, a drug peddler, an assassin, a pimp, a thief, a spy, a white slaver, a bully, and a financier. Dimitrios is not evil, he’s only logical and consistent in a world on the brink of belligerency. He curries the favor and works to his own benefits. He polishes the fine arts of survival. Equally intriguing is the writer-cum-amateur investigator. Ambler takes an ordinary man of a writer and drops him in the middle of extraordinary events beyond his imagination that will put him in danger, test his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.
304 pp. Vintage Crime. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow] Read in Pattaya, Thailand