For years I have been meaning to read Eric Ambler, often mentioned in connection with the great spy novelists of the 20th century as their progenitor. His novel, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1937), is usually held up as his masterpiece and on every short list of the greatest spy and suspense novels. For good reason – it is excellent.
The protagonist of the book is Latimer, an Englishman, a former lecturer in economics on his second career as a mystery writer. By chance, he makes friends with a colonel in the Turkish police and is exposed to the dossier of Dimitrios, a career criminal whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer takes an interest in Dimitrios and spends the rest of the novel tracking the dead man’s career, from the 1920s Balkans along a refugee trail to Belgrade, where Dimitrios dabbles in the dark side of politics, to France, where Dimitrios was once involved in a heroin ring.
I’m leaving out the significant twists that follow, because, even though they are entertaining as suspense, the best parts of the novel, the cream of it, for me are the prose (of course), the flavor of internationalism and history in the story, the depth of the characters and, not the least, the rich motive of the protagonist.
Latimer left a career in economics unsatisfied at its ability to explain the world to him. He finds mystery writing little better – the opposite, in fact, because it fits humanity and its crimes and passions into easily reconcilable boxes. His quest to fill in the gaps in Dimitrios’ dossier is his journey into the heart of human nature, a confrontation with the realpolitik of evil. Latimer wants to know where Dimitrios comes from and what drove him to be a con man, cut throat, drug dealer, pimp… and spy. He’s still an economist, but now he’s trying to determine the workings of a much different marketplace, one that traffics in human souls.
Having lived through a great war and standing on the brink of another, Latimer wonders, is there such a thing as evil in 1930s Europe? If so, is Dimitrios it?
But 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 Michael Angelo’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.