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August 2018: Espionage > A Coffin for Dimitrios--Eric Ambler (5 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments So surprising for me to find this early spy novel to be among the best for tapping into the heart of the “Game” that nations have plied against nations to stay ahead. I read that Ambler finished this work at the perilous time when the Nazis were invading Czechoslovakia in 1939. The lead character Charles Latimer is a novelist who like Ambler himself, gets inspired about international intrigue from the multicultural society he experienced in Istanbul. As a teenager I made the trip he took by boat from Piraeus to Istanbul and experienced the otherworldly sense he got from arrival by water to the bustling harbor of that ancient city with its skyline dominated by famous mosques in their architectural splendor. This parallel hooked me from the beginning.

Latimer milks his contacts to get invited to a party of aristocrats, diplomats, and ex-patriates of various exotic places. Bored by the boozing, the chatter, and decadence (some guests are playing strip poker), he perks up with a conversation with one Colonel Haki, who claims to admire his murder mysteries and offers him plot ideas. It turns out he is the head of the Turkish secret police and has just identified the body of a man fished out of the Bosphorus who was killed by stabbing. A French visa sewn into his jacket indicates him to be Dimitrios Makropoulos, whom Haki has sought since 1922 for the robbery and murder of a Muslimized Jew in Smyrna (Izmir) during the time of terrible slaughter between Greece and Turkey.

From their common interest of making art out of crime and intrigue, Haki challenges Latimer to see anything romantic or noble about the life of Dimitrios. He treats him to a viewing of the body at the morgue:

“Here is a real murderer. We have known of his existence for nearly twenty years. …This man is typical. A dirty type, common, cowardly, scum. Murder, espionage, drugs—that is the history. There were also two affairs of assassination.”
“Assassination! That argues a certain courage, surely?”

Haki denies that. No, this type of man does none of the risky dirty work himself:
They are the professionals, the entrepreneurs, the links between the businessmen, the politicians who desire the end but are afraid of the means, and the fanatics, the idealists who are prepared to die for their convictions.
As far as I know, no government has ever caught him and there is no photograph in his dossier. But we knew him all right, and so did Sofia and Belgrade and Paris and Athens. He was a great traveler, was Dimitrios.

In preparing to dispose of Dimitrios decaying body, Haki hooks Latimer with the idea of filling in the huge blanks in his dossier:
But there must be people who knew of Dimitrios, his friends (if he had any), and his enemies, people in Smyrna, people in Sophia, people in Belgrade, in Adrianople, in Paris, in Lyons, people all over Europe, who could answer them. If you could find those people and get the answers you would have the material for what would surely be the strangest of biographies.
Latimer’s heart missed a beat. …If one did it one would begin with, say, Smyrna, and try to follow one’s man step by step from thjere, using the dossier as a rough guide. It would be an experiment in detection really. …Not that any man in his senses would dream of going on such a wild goose chase—heavens no! But it was amusing to play with the idea and if one were a little tired of Istanbul …

And so Latimer takes up the harmless task of asking questions about this mysterious and notorious figure to satisfy his literary curiosity. But soon, his questions draws the attention of others with an interest in Dimitrios’ secrets. Latimer has to figure out who are Dimitrios’ cohorts who want the secrets to stay that way and who are his enemies and maybe want revenge or money he might have hidden away. Either way, the answers could be dangerous to Latimer. As an average kind of man with a lack of defensive skills, he experiences reasonable trepidations. But he finds he has become obsessed with his pursuit and can’t stop. The suspense drew me on as he makes his rounds with a colorful set of characters as sources in exotic locales of seedy bars and nightclubs in various cities in the Balkans, Paris, and Greece.

Despite a minimum violent pyrotechnics common to modern spy thrillers, this tale entertained me well with its slow unfolding of secrets and atmospherics. It also had a very satisfying surprise ending. It sits well among my old favorites of the genre set during the Cold War by Deighton and le Carre. After that beginning decades ago, I have long been disappointed with the horde of novelists I’ve tried in their wake.

message 2: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6895 comments This sounds like a good find.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments I bet you'd like the skipping among exotic locales in the 20s.

message 4: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6895 comments Michael wrote: "I bet you'd like the skipping among exotic locales in the 20s."

I'm sure I would.

message 5: by Sushicat (new)

Sushicat | 805 comments I can’t remember which books by Ambler I’ve read, but I remember his name fondly along with Len Deighton from the 80s when my reading was mostly thrillers.

message 6: by Theresa (new)

Theresa | 8433 comments I love thrillers, read this and other Amblers years and years ago, and in fact have been known to re-read Ambler set in locales I vacation.

Have mostly been disappointed with most of the contemporary writers of "thrillers", in fact find most of them little more than formulaic potboilers, if not downright unreadable (I put DeMille, Cussler, Silva, Ludlum et al. here). There have been exceptions - I do enjoy Furst and Kanon, and there have been some specific thrillers I rank very highly - like The Hunt for Red October and Gorky Park, and even the very first Jason Bourne, but unfortunately it seems like those authors were almost one hit wonders, because the subsequent novels deteriorate steadily.

message 7: by Michael (last edited Sep 05, 2018 05:40PM) (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments I encounter so few on GR that dabbled in Deighton, Sushicat. So much like noir, where malevolence and corruption are so pervasive it seems in the air you breathe. His hero Bernie so downtrodden, but like George Smiley, keeps a heart alive and shows great courage and resilience in his hidden efforts to clean out the moles.

Theresa, I am almost a completist with Martin Cruz Smith as well. Renko even more downtrodden and deserving of our empathy.

True thrillers tend toward nonstop action. Love a lot of the art in juggling so many dangers at every turn. Like the early Ludlum, Die Hard, etc. So Ambler isn't really there as a thriller, but more like an internationally expanded mystery of the puzzle type. Like Maltese Falcon in some ways.

message 8: by Theresa (new)

Theresa | 8433 comments Michael wrote: "True thrillers tend toward nonstop action. Love a lot of the art in juggling so many dangers at every turn. Like the early Ludlum, Die Hard, etc. So Ambler isn't really there as a thriller, but more like an internationally expanded mystery of the puzzle type. Like Maltese Falcon in some ways.

And I like both - the ones with lots of action, but also the ones that are more puzzles or mental chess games, that have more stillness, atmosphere, character based.

I'll never forget discovering Hammett in my early 20s and absolutely devouring all of him. Gave me a whole new appreciation of the detective which until then had been fed (after Nancy Drew and Hardy boys) on Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Mary Roberts Rinehart. Then there was Alistair MacLean and Helen MacInnes whose better works still hold up for me.

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