Alan Furst, in the May 29, N.Y. Times Book Review, says the best spy novel ever written "would have to be Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios." I'm very fond of Furst--he has that atmospheric style I'd love to achieve, and I'll probably buy and read his latest, Midnight in Europe. So I had to re-read Ambler's Dimitrios.
A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book. As Furst says, it "has an anti-fascist antihero, a writer of mystery novels, set amidst gangsters and secret police in an eve-of-the-war setting, moving from Istanbul through the cities of Europe." The idea of the protagonist being a writer of mystery novels appeals to me. But it's not as simple as that. The writer, Charles Latimer, is as much an old-fashioned narrator, the author's voice, as he is a protagonist, though almost by default he is the protagonist, too. He's an ordinary man, out of his depth in a world of political intrigue, assassination, and drugs from Istanbul to Paris, much like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is an ordinary man in over his head.
But there is considerably more action in N x NW. A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book, and a tale strangely told, too. The plot is not so much based on the criminal career of Dimitrios, or on Latimer's wanderings, but rather it's a skillful interweaving of those two threads into a cause and effect yarn. Most of the story comes to us in the conversations and some correspondence that Latimer conducts with a loosely connected bunch of journalists, spies, and heroin dealers whom he meets on the trail of Dimitrios, whom he believes he saw in a morgue in Istanbul. Intrigued to unravel the arch-villain's story, Latimer traces Dimitrios back to Smyrna in 1922, to Sofia, to Belgrade., Twice he encounters a threatening and mysterious fat man, "Mr. Peters," who has unexplained knowledge of Dimitrios. Peters sends Latimer to a retired spymaster in Switzerland, after which, he is invited to meet Peters in Paris re: an unspecified proposition that Peters promises should profit them both.
All along, Latimer tries to convince himself he doesn't really care, and he's wasting his time, but he's somehow hooked. A creator of murders in art, Latimer is fascinated to learn about this real murderer--"a dirty type, common, cowardly, scum. Murder, espionage, drugs–"
The book is slow at times, dense with dissemblers telling Latimer their stories, at length. But it has the atmosphere of danger and fear in dark nights, in shadowy places in European capitals between the wars. What motivates these people to tell Latimer their stories? Do they all hate Dimitrios? Fear him? Or does he have some hold over them as he has attained over Latimer?
The book comes to a surprising but inevitable conclusion in Paris. Latimer retains the high moral ground throughout. (After all, he's an Englishman.) Though Ambler writes in a friendly, accessible style, parts of Dimitrios were difficult reading, as much of the political world is no longer current--gone forever--and one struggles to understand the layers of meaning, not to mention motivations. On the other hand, and sadly, much of the political world still exists, and is playing itself out again.
I also have Eric Ambler's Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm and Journey into Fear, which like Dimitrios, I have read before. Maybe it's time to look at them again.