And now for something almost completely different. It’s British, but I think that’s all it has in common with Persuasion. Eric Ambler apparently took the rather silly and shallow spy/thriller and single-handedly made it respectable. At least, that seems to be the gist of a number of peoples’ reasons for praising him. I have no reason to doubt this, but see no reason to read the silly ones that came before simply to gain an appreciation for Ambler. One person said it’s post-modern, but written 75 years ago. Well, I don’t think I like post-modern.
A Coffin for Dimitrios is the American title of the book whose protagonist Charles Latimer is a fairly successful novelist of crime novels. On a visit to Istanbul he meets a fan, Colonel Haki, who offers him a plot for a novel the colonel is too busy to write, and then discusses with him his own work: they’ve just found the body of a criminal they’ve wanted for a long time, named Dimitrios. In 1922, he slit the throat of a moneylender and got another man hung for it. He hasn’t improved in the 16 years since. Blackmail, drug trafficking, human trafficking, assassination attempts, anything goes, really. He’s a repulsive human being. Latimer is fascinated. And here is where Latimer and I just don’t see eye to eye. This dead man is a formerly successful thug, not an interesting person. But Latimer decides to play detective. Out of curiosity, he wants to fill in the gaps in Dimitrios’ dossier.
So off he goes to Dimitrios’ starting point, Izmir, formerly Smyrna. In 1922, the Turks ran the Greeks out of the country and Dimitrios went, too, his first couple deaths under his belt. Latimer follows the trail and somewhat incredibly manages to unearth information on Dimitrios. Nothing that makes him interesting, likable, complex or remotely worth the trouble of investigating him. Latimer’s search itself is not uninteresting and the Sydney Greenstreet (I’m guessing) character is entertaining, and everyone is very clever and highly pleased with their own cleverness until the end when Latimer, who’s sometimes a dope, and Greenstreet who, okay, he’s s dope sometimes too (what was he hoping to find in the toothpaste?), make a tremendous, bone-headed error and I might have thrown the book across the room except it was an ebook. I’m left with the idea that 1) this book was so much better than those that came before and 2) so influential in the genre that this gives it a status I think unwarranted by the book itself. Okay, your hero isn’t really a hero, he’s generally morally inclined, but no swashbuckling save-the-day type. His project is dubious and taken up for almost no reason at all which he acknowledges. There is a villain, but all the victims are pretty much past help. It’s a lot like life in that some people do bad stuff and they don’t pay the price and there is no happy ever after – but if I want that, I read the news. Which I suppose means I should not be seeking out modern classics as that’s pretty much all they want to do.
I think I’ll use this for one book set anywhere but the U.S. or England. While Latimer is British, the book takes place in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Switzerland and France. Not sure if I want to try more Ambler or not.
Interesting article on Ambler from 2009: