Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was a British author, and screenwriter, best known for his thriller/spy novels. In many of his novels, the protagonist is rarely a professional spy, a police officer, or a counter-intelligence operative; he is, instead, an amateur who finds himself haphazardly and unwillingly in the company of criminals or spies with real threats to his life. This is very much the approach of The Mask of Dimitrios (first published in 1939) which is often cited as one of the best of Ambler's novels. test

It may be the time (1930s), or the place (mainly the Balkans, Greece, Turkey), or the structure of the story, or even an off-hand comment, but I found that various parts of the novel often triggered thoughts of other books. These digressions may seem unconnected, or even a stretch, but I offer them for interest and as portals into other interesting reading.

The Mask of Dimitrios

Charles Latimer is an academic turned crime novelist, which he finds a more lucrative and more interesting pursuit. Travelling in Istanbul, he makes the acquaintance of a police officer who is a fan of Latimer's novels. Colonel Haki offers Latimer the opportunity to visit the police morgue to see the corpse of a criminal just fished out of the Bosporus. This is Dimitrios, known to the police in a number of countries and wanted for murder, drug dealing, trafficking in women, money laundering, and pimping. Colonel Haki sheds no tears over the violent death of Dimitrios, nor is he even remotely interested in pursuing the case any further. But Latimer is intrigued. He has never seen the body of a murder victim. The murders and plots and justice in his novels are all nicely packaged, not like this battered corpse that raises more questions than answers. Taking what little information the Colonel can provide, Latimer sets outs to reconstruct the life of Dimitrios, searching out public records and private knowledge, not anticipating for a moment the degree to which others may not welcome such probing into criminal activities.

[Digression: using public records and trying to find people who knew him, Latimer seeks to fill-in the jigsaw puzzle of Dimitrios's life. This brought to mind the real-life reconstructions that characterize the novels of the French writer Patrick Modiano, especially his book, Dora Bruder, in which he traces, and explores, and tries to reconstruct as much as he can of the life of this French teenager murdered in Auschwitz. It is a deceptively simple but very moving account of the destruction of one life.]

Ambler lays out a philosophy of life in the first lines of the novel:

"...the unpleasant truth that chance plays an important, if not predominant, part in human affairs....Inevitably, chance does occasionally operate with a sort of fumbling coherence readily mistakable for the workings of a self-conscious Providence." And later, "The situation in which a person, imagining fondly that he is in charge of his own destiny, is, in fact, the sport of circumstances beyond his control, is always fascinating."  The life of Dimitrios is said to be an example of these 'truths' but the same can be said of Charles Latimer who, in trying to untangle the wed of the Dimirtrios's life, finds his own in danger within his own web of circumstances.

The novel is set in 1938, but the reconstruction of Dimitrios's life spreads from 1922 forward, in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Ambler had never been to the Balkans before he wrote the novel, but he captured well the political and historical tensions and currents that beset the region based on his own readings and extensive conversations with emigre Turks and White Russians in Nice where he was living for a period. [Digression: A more detailed and complex novel set in the same time and place but with a much stronger sense of the advent and progress of the war in Europe is Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. This is a fine, engrossing historical novel that traces the lives of a young British couple working out their new marriage in the context of encroaching war and the fraying of British global influence. Further Digression: The political, cultural, and national tensions of the Balkans of course provided the backdrop to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that provided the impetus to World War One. An excellent book in this regard is, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher. A British reporter from the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, Butcher set out to try to situate and understand the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, by walking from Princip's birthplace in a tiny hamlet in what is now western Bosnia to Sarajevo and across the border into Belgrade. Along the way, he develops an understanding of the pressures and beliefs that could have led Princip to embrace assassination, and he observes the ethnic and political tensions still prevalent one hundred years later.]

In the novel, Ambler creates a shady role for something called the Eurasian Credit Trust that Latimer suspects funded some of Dimitrios's criminal activities. [Digression: In his excellent non-fiction book, In The Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Erik Larson recounts the experience of William Dodd, US Ambassador 1933-1937. In this connection is the fact that in his briefings in the State Department before he went to Berlin, it was made very clear to Dodd that his number one priority as Ambassador was not assessing the geopolitical situation in Europe and its possible effect on American interests, nor the burgeoning authoritarianism in Germany. It was pressing the Germans to meet their commitments from WWI for reparations to be paid to American banks.]

Ambler himself was a staunch anti-fascist and he leaned to support of the Soviet Union, but his faith was shattered with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 over which he fell out with a number of leftist colleagues. Ambler saw broader moral decline in the drives and goals of modern society; Latimer express these thoughts, to himself. as he contemplates what to think about Dimitrios:

"...it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler's Mein Kampf."

At one point in his travels, Latimer hooks-up, in Turkey, with a Russian emigre named Muishkin who is helpful because he can access old police records about Dimitrios and can translate the old Turkish script. Over wine in Smyrna, Muishkin talks about his life: "Odessa, 1918. Stambul, 1919. Smyrna, 1921. Bolsheviks. Wrangel's army. Kiev." A not untypical history for thousands of Russians tossed about Europe by the Russian Revolution. [Digression: There are many Russian memoirs of this time, but one of the most interesting is by the Russian woman who wrote under the name of Teffi; she was well-known in pre-revolutionary Russia. She ran afoul of the Bolsheviks and had to flee her home in Saint Petersburg. Her book, Memoirs: From Moscow to the Black Sea, details her journey 1917-1918 to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Novorossiysk, Constantinople. A wonderful book that captures the horrors, the happenstance, and even the humanity of the times.]

Finally, there is reference to the years it took for Dreyfus to obtain his acquittal and reinstatement. [Digression: An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, begins with the conviction and imprisonment of Dreyfus, and then details the efforts, initially of one man, against enormous political and social pressures, to press for redress for what he considered to be a miscarriage of justice. The story is well-known in outline, but Harris provides the details in an exciting, page-turning account.]

The Mask of Dimitrios is well-written, well-paced, and well-plotted; it illuminates well times and places that continue to reverberate in the modern world. Latimer lives a bit on the edge of reality. He makes his living packaging murder and mayhem and justice, but is a little lost when he tumbles into the real, often unsavoury, thing and its possibly dire effects. He is comfortable contemplating the big social movements and directions; he has no experience with the nitty-gritty of the criminal world, but the journey with him is fun and entertaining.

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