A Coffin for Dimitrios

by Eric Ambler

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard
Copyright: 1939
Printing: October 2001
ISBN: 0-375-72671-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 304

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Depending on edition, you may see this as The Mask of Dimitrios instead. It's the same book.

Charles Latimer is an English university lecturer turned mystery writer, gone abroad to write in a warmer climate. Restlessness with Greece or the prospects of returning to an English autumn send him to Turkey, where, at a party thrown by an acquaintance, he meets Colonel Haki. Haki is a dashing figure with an unspecified but high position in the Turkish police, probably the secret police. The relationship quickly becomes awkward when he reveals himself to be a fan of Latimer's novels and determinedly attempts to give him the plot for the next one. But Latimer has nothing better to do than indulge him.

Then, business interrupts in Haki's office. A man named Dimitrios, a murderer, would-be assassin, and drug runner, has been found dead. As Haki explains to Latimer what's known of his background and shows him the body in the morgue, Latimer becomes intrigued and fascinated. Soon, he's considering tracking down the details, finding the people who must know exactly what Dimitrios did, to both test the sort of investigation he writes about in his novels and perhaps write a strange sort of biography. And therein lies this story.

A Coffin for Dimitrios starts as something akin to a mystery novel and then becomes more of a thriller. Both genres Latimer approaches from a direction of theoretical fascination and practical naïveté that is fascinatingly effective. The idea of a mystery writer who turns his hand to solving real mysteries is certainly not unique to this book, but Ambler handles the psychology and slow unfolding of Latimer's decisions with remarkable effectiveness. Dimitrios is safely dead, after all, and not someone anyone would miss. He's a perfectly safe if eccentric subject for some amateur sleuthing. But as Latimer has some success at the kinds of routine inquiries that he's previously only written about, he finds himself more and more involved in the story, and more and more caught up in Dimitrios's world.

One of Ambler's greatest strengths here is a deft touch with multifaceted characters, competing motives, and competing perspectives. There's always enough information to guess at what a character may be up to but not quite enough to be sure, leaving the reader's curiosity whetted but unsatisfied just as Latimer's is. Characters often seem ineffective in areas outside their competence while being quite effective within their competence, with both characterisistics revealed in a way that deepens the story's sense of realism. The introduction is a brilliant example: Haki's naïve attempts at offering a mystery plot provoke smiles and a quietly superior attitude from Latimer and from the reader, which sets both up perfectly for the shift that happens when Haki is dealing with a real murder. Those sudden glimpses of depth, of a world or lifetime of experience seen unexpectedly through a knothole in a fence, create much of the suspense and draw of the story and leave the reader with the strong impression that everyone in the story is well-adapted to their daily life. There are no characters here who seem stupid for the sake of the plot. Latimer is no exception; as he admits, the investigation he embarks on is bizarre, unjustifiable, and eventually dangerous, but Ambler has the reader half-believing that we'd do the same thing.

This is one of those beautifully paced, elegantly written books that drew me effortlessly onward. Ambler's style is lean and spare: there are a few wonderful moments of psychological observation, but mostly the writing disappears into the story and the pages turn without notice. Even when I was just rechecking the book for some facts for this review, I found myself reading more pages than I'd planned, and could have easily sunk back into re-reading the novel. I had to do a bit of flipping back and forth in places to remind myself of the basic outlines of Dimitrios's story (bookmarking Haki's initial outline may be a wise move, since it's a useful reference for much of the book), but only rarely did the tangle of events feel confusing. This is high praise for a thriller as far as I'm concerned. Usually, I struggle to keep track of all the plot threads.

I'd recommend A Coffin for Dimitrios just for its surface level, a well-plotted and suspenseful investigative thriller. But Ambler brings an additional level to the story, a clash of preconceptions and world views between the mystery writer and the real world of criminals and schemes, that I found particularly memorable. Latimer comes in with a mystery writer's mentality: horrible things happen, but he's at a remove from them, and his tendency is towards understanding. His thoughts naturally tend towards a biography of this man Dimitrios, an understanding of his motivations as well as his actions. It's not that this is unworkable — Latimer despite his lack of experience in this world turns out to be relatively effective — so much as it's unrelated to the motivations of many of the people he encounters. They simply care about other things, and their attitudes towards life don't fit neatly into Latimer's categories or concepts of character.

This additional depth is subtle and understated, but throughout the book Ambler portrays the clash between a theoretical understanding of crime and actual crime in a remarkably effective way. He does it without dreadful violence or bloody scenes, without any sudden revelations of the repugnancy of men. The other characters in this world simply persistently remain themselves despite how Latimer, and the reader, wants to think about them, doing things that contradict stereotypes and show surprising intelligence. A Coffin for Dimitrios is one of the most effective books I've read at showing that people who do dirty work as their life understand how to live in that world and don't bother to explain their competence to other people. This made the last sections of the book a bit disconcerting for me, I think because they didn't follow the tropes I was expecting, but more effective the more I thought about them.

This is an excellent book, one of the best in its genre I've ever read. I greatly appreciated the recommendation, and I'll pass it along wholeheartedly. Even if mystery or thriller aren't your genre, give this one a try. I don't think you'll regret it. I plan on seeking out more of Eric Ambler's work.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-09-22

Last modified and spun 2017-04-29