|A Coffin for Dimitrios
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A chance encounter with a Turkish colonel with a penchant for British crime novels leads mystery writer Charles Latimer into a world of sinister political and criminal maneuvers throughout the Balkans in the years between the world wars. Hoping that the career of the notorious Dimitrios, whose body has been identified in an Istanbul morgue, will inspire a plot for his next novel, Latimer soon finds himself caught up in a shadowy web of assassination, espionage, drugs, and treachery.
- A Little Too Improbable To Completely Satisfy
In this engaging classic mystery set in pre-WWII Europe an English writer of mysteries happens upon an interesting story of a Greek career criminal recently found dead. To amuse himself and procrastinate from beginning his next book, he decides to attempt to reconstruct this criminal's path across southern Europe over the previous 15 years. He soon discovers that his idle exercise has elicited the attention of a mysterious man, who is apparently also interested in the career of this criminal. The path goes back in time to such lurid things as political assassination, white slavery, heroin rings, and blackmail. There is a big surprise late in the book (which shouldn't be much of a surprise at all) and a satisfying ending. While the plot is high on the improbable scale it is considered one of the fathers of the modern spy novel and is worth reading for that reason alone....more info
- Suspense in Every Page!
When I picked up "A Coffin for Dimitrios," I had no idea that the suspense level of a 60+ year old book would be so high. Needless to say, Ambler's book was a welcome surprise.
Charles Latimer is a British writer of detective stories who, pretty much due to boredom, finds himself hanging out in Turkey in the 1930's. While in Turkey, Latimer hears from a Turkish official the story of an elusive, shifty criminal called Dimitrios. Partly to gather material for a new novel, and partly out of personal curiosity, Latimer attempts to trace the movements of Dimitrios during the past several years. In doing so, the writer learns that the career of Dimitrios includes much criminal activity including murder, blackmail, white slavery, and much more. The more Latimer learns, the more he must know. Latimer's journey takes him to many different and dangerous locations as he learns that knowledge of Dimitrios can itself be a very deadly thing.
This is the first Eric Ambler book I have read. I hope it is not the last. Ambler has the ability to write about exotic locations and different cultures in a way that makes them come alive. The characters are believable and colorful at the same time, without becoming comic. I think I can honestly say that Ambler packs more suspense in every page than most thriller writers today can place in an entire book. The book is not a flashy story with lots of gimmicks, but a real well-thought out suspense novel that deserves to be read by anyone who enjoys a good suspense story....more info
- Foundational work in the genre: episodic but intriguing
Although over-rated and ultimately implausible, this "seminal" thriller begins and ends well (in the realm of crime). The middle (in the realm of espionage) is less satisfying. Dimitrios's career of violence and his connections to a financial cartel are plausible, but that a British professor turned mystery writer could learn so much so easily strains my credulity. That is to say, that his finding the pieces of the puzzle is contrived (and the ending is not very surprising).
For me, the "seminal" British spy thriller is John Buchan's _The 39 Steps_. Although episodic and less taut, _Coffin_ contains some vividly and economically drawn characters and credible local color in the ever-seething Balkans....more info
- Fine early spy novel
A writer of detective fiction becomes fascinated by the sketchy details surrounding the life of a real criminal and decides to learn the truth for himself as a professional, intellectual exercise. He will learn far more than he bargained for. Though it builds slowly, lacking a real sense of danger for much of its length, Eric Ambler's fine writing and deft character work held my interest, as did his abilities as a guide through Europe on the eve of World War II....more info
- Simply the Best
An average of four stars for this classic is ridiculous, although today's reading audience, saturated with blood, guts, and improbable plots, may perhaps be forgiven for not recognizing this novel for the masterpiece that it is. Nothing quite like it had been written before. It stands alone in its bleak background rendering of a Europe on the brink of war and, in its characterizations, of the juxtaposition of innocence and evil. Published in 1939 in England as The Mask of Dimitrios, here as A Coffin for Dimitrios, this book set the bar for those -- like le Carre, Deighton, and Furst -- who would follow. It has no hero; it is not a police procedural, an adventure or detective story, or a spy novel: it defies characterization, and therein lies its uniqueness. And its literacy will come as a shock to many of today's readers. ...more info
- historically interesting
OK, this is a little creaky for a modern audience- making a guy a professor-turned-mystery-writer and explaining his nosiness with this simply won't fly- but clearly this book is a direct ancestor of the modern political thriller- certainly Graham Greene must have read it before writing "The Third Man". It's very well done and its picture of 30's Balkan politics is very enjoyable. It's perfect airport reading....more info
- Almost perfect
Despite its reputation as a masterpiece of the genre, this is more than just a spy novel. It is part espionage, part murder mystery, part criminal intrigue, and part political allegory. While it succeeds on the first three counts, it fails on the fourth. Fortunately, this failure is easy enough to forgive.
The story is taut and engrossing. Ambler skillfully weaves detailed back story and historical context with plot twists and moments of suspense as he pushes his protagonist, Charles Latimer, across interwar Europe in a quest to uncover the mystery of the dead criminal Dimitrios. In the process, Ambler deftly blurs the line between professional espionage and ordinary criminality. As Latimer eventually discovers, Dimitrios's world, like his demise, is sordid and dishonorable. His sins--murder, greed, betrayal--are not new. He is merely fortunate to have been born into a time when the base human instincts he embodies can be so easily rewarded. He is at once an asset and a liability: The same governments that pursue him within their own borders are more than happy to employ him against their rivals. In an amoral world, vices are virtues.
It is here that we find Ambler's message: Dimitrios is a product of Europe's political and economic order, and thus a symbol of its moral failings. As one character tells Latimer, "Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he [Dimitrios] typified.... [W]hile might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain."
Coming from someone like Ambler, who had grown up in the aftermath of World War I, this is an understandable sentiment. (He would later describe himself as having been a "very far left wing socialist" during the 1930s.) The attempt to maintain the balance of power in Europe had brought unimaginable slaughter while doing little if anything to change the nature of interstate rivalry in the 1920s and 1930s. In Ambler's Europe, nations pursue their interests by any means necessary, but there seem to be no real victories, only casualties. Thinking back on the saga of Dimitrios, Latimer comes to the conclusion that Good and Evil had become "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.'"
But this simplistic dichotomy between the ruthless, capitalist European "jungle" and some unspoken, though probably Communist, alternative was about to be made obsolete by the very different conflict roiling the Continent. Fascism barely registers in the novel, and plays no role whatsoever in the plot. Indeed, the only mention of Hitler is in the passage above, where Nazism is implicitly equated with capitalism. Thus, there can be no distinction made between Nazi Germany--with its poison gas and the shattered bodies that would be left in its wake--and liberal democracy. Yet in 1939, the year Ambler's novel was published, it was capitalist, democratic Britain that stood alone against Hitler, while Stalin made his separate peace and betrayed the workers of Poland. By the time America and the Soviet Union were drawn into the fight, it would become clear that the great war to be fought was not over capitalism but totalitarianism. Here was real, transcendent Evil in his midst, and Ambler can only lecture us about stock exchanges.
At the very least this was a remarkable lack of foresight on Ambler's part. But it's hard to let him off so easily, given his demonstrated acuity on the subject of human nature and his knowledge of European history. One can't help but notice that the reality of the coming conflict is incompatible with the homogeneous and morally equivalent Europe on which his novel (and perhaps his ethos) depends.
This is all a shame, but Ambler's aptitude for story-telling more than overcomes these flaws, so it's quite possible to enjoy the story despite them. Even the most politically sensitive should be able to pass over them with a roll of the eyes. If not, there's always Alan Furst....more info
- Classic thriller by the genre's best
Eric Ambler and Graham Greene are my favorite airplane reading, and I do a lot of traveling. Luckily, both were prolific (especially Greene). While Greene remains popular, I have discovered that Ambler is hard to find in stock at most book stores. This is the best of his I've read yet, one of his great classics. Written and set in pre-WWII in the Balkans and Paris, with a tight, gripping plot of an accidental tourist tracking the past of a notorious villain. I couldn't put it down. Highly recommended....more info
- Top notch spy/mystery work.
All of Eric Ambler's novels are worth reading, if you like the genre, and Coffin for Dimitrios is one of his best. The story is compelling and stangely believable and very enjoyable. Ambler was an engineer b/f turning to fiction and many of his books draw upon this expertise.
He is right up there with Graham Green's and Somerset Maugham's thrillers.
In his "Cause for Alarm" if you can get it as an audio book it will provide superb pleasure to overcome eight hours of driving!...more info
- Crime & Intrigue From the 1920's-30's
This book was originally copyrighted in 1939. The central character was Charles Latimer,35 years of age, a college lecturer and mystery novel author. While visiting Istanbul he first heard of the mysterious criminal Dimitrios from Turkish Colonel Haki. Latimer's interest was aroused and he decided to follow the trail of Dimitrios from Turkey thru Greece,Bulgaria, Switzerland and France. Murder for money, political assasination, white slavery,drug dealing, money laundering and some interesting personalities were encountered along the way. Well written, a good read....more info
- A true classic...
Classic suspense/espionage novel by one of the masters of the genre.
A mystery writer becomes enthralled with the career of the mysterious Dimitrios, whose body is discovered in a morgue in Instanbul. A Turkish colonel who just happens to like detective novels draws the writer into the tangled web of Dimitrios' world, and things get more convoluted and dangerous, to the point that the book becomes one of those that you can't put down, and will keep you up late wanting to finish it....more info
- A brilliant tale of international intrigue.
Charles Latimer is the unlikely protagonist in this classic work by legendary spymaster Eric Ambler. Latimer is a university professor turned moderately successful crime novelist. While visiting Istanbul, he learns quite by chance that the body of a career criminal named Dimitrios has recently been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer becomes fascinated by the extent and international flavor of Dimitrios' "rap sheet" and takes it upon himself to retrace the archcriminal's travels over the preceeding 16 or so years.
This project takes Latimer from Turkey to Greece, from Greece to Bulgaria, from Bulgaria to Switzerland, from....well you get the idea. At each stop along the way more disturbing information about Dimitrios is revealed. Before long both Latimer and the reader come to appreciate what a sinister, ruthless snake Dimitrios must have been. To reveal anymore might spoil the fun.
Written with understated wit, A Coffin for Dimitrios is well crafted, entertaining and, dare I say it, educational. Originally published 65 years ago, it holds up remarkably well. This is one novel of international intrigue you will not want to miss....more info
- A great read!
This is my first Ambler novel and I am definitely hooked. The writing style is crisp, the plot development stylish, the characters real, and the novel itself is nicely complex! I liken Ambler to Patricia Highsmith in certain ways, except that I find Ambler's plot lines and characters to be much richer and real-life, without the obvious ethical/moral ambivalence that marks Highsmith's writing.
As others have written before me, it is indeed difficult to believe that Ambler wrote this so long ago. At times, the reader feels the era of the 1930s but mostly the story could as easily be set in the modern era, too.
This is a great read and one that can go quickly if you have several days to spend with one book. I highly recommend A Coffin for Dimitrios and am looking forward to my next Ambler novel!...more info
- 1930's Vintage Noir!
This is a quite wondeful little book. It is hard to believe that a book that was written so many years ago could still be thrilling and exciting today. I now understand why Ambler is thought to be the father of the spy novel. It would be difficult to find a writer today that could build up this kind of suspense and intrigue. I couldn't help thinking as I was reading it that it would make a great black and white movie, and then I found out that it actually was made into a movie in the 40's. Peter Lorre and Greenstreet starred in it. It would be nice to see this old movie now that I've read the book. The book is set mostly in the Balkans, but Ambler takes the reader to Athens and Paris too. The story is about a mystery writer's curiosity to trace the life of a criminal that he first sees dead on a slab in Turkey. Charles Latimer gets pulled into all kinds situations while he pursues the truth. The story is action-filled right to the end. This has to be one of the best books from the 30's (at least in this genre)....more info
- An excellent read
If you are a reader of mysteries and haven't read any Eric Ambler, start with this one. It combines a compelling story with a tight plot and very interesting characters. The writing is top notch as well....more info
- Classic but flawed
You respect a 1939 Packard as a classic for its pioneering technlogy but you might prefer to drive a new Toyota. I feel the same about this brilliantly innovative 1939 spy thriller. I can see flaws in it which a modern writer would have ironed out. The plot is carried forward by unlikely letters and long speeches at times. Latimer is driven by his need to investigate the career of Dimitrios, and lands in trouble, but, until the taut final scenes in Paris, there seems nothing to compel him to keep going. He lacks plausible motivation. Promising characters in the earlier episodes drop out of sight. The whole thing needs tightening up and editing to bring it up to current standards.
The atmosphere of Turkey, the Balkans, Switzerland and Paris in the twenties and thirties is vivdly coveyed and there are patches of wonderful prose like the description of Madame Preveza....more info
- a thinking person's detective story
One of the absolute best and most original
crime/espionage novels. Ambler creates fascinating
characters and wonderful color. The plot is
intricate and nicely paced. Ambler is one of the
few people in this genre who actually writes
good sentences, in the way one might say of that
F. Scott Fitzgerald. To be sure, he is not quite
in that league, but he remains leagues above the norm.
The book also manages to be something very unique:
a form of popular entertainment that has a serious
socio-political point to it. This subtext is woven
seamlessly into the narrative so it never sounds like
preaching...at times I wish it was actually a little
less subtle. All in all, an wonderful book (especially
grand if you can read it on a train travelling
across Europe--a feeling it is highly evocative of)....more info
I read in a piece on Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler's claim that "Ian Fleming should be read as literature." The writer of the piece then added that this was high praise since, "Eric Ambler may be the greatest thriller novelist of them all, with A COFFIN....his finest." So I had to check COFFIN out. And it was not even close to the finest thriller I've ever read. The plot is thin, and strung together. Granted, the writing itself is good, but it didn't accumulate into a satisfying whole. Not nearly. I'll stick to Frederick Forsythe thrillers....more info
- Classic Espionage: Realistic, Vivid and Noir!!
To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly clich¨¦-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to A Coffin for Dimitrios. During the pre-World War II era, it was common for ordinary citizens to be pressed into espionage activities, whether knowingly or not. Many people rate A Coffin for Dimitrios to be the greatest novel built around that theme. Almost everyone agrees that it is Mr. Ambler's best novel.
Charles Latimer began his career as a lecturer in political economy at a minor English University and wrote three scholar volumes. Suffering from depression from his studies of the Nazis in the third volume, He wrote a successful detective story and was soon launched on a career as a writer that took him away from academia. A chance trip to Turkey after an illness in Athens causes him to meet a real policeman, Colonel Haki, who is a fan of his stories. They meet for lunch to discuss the colonel's literary ambitions. Casually, the colonel shares the dossier of a criminal, Dimitrios Markropoulos, to make the point that "the murderer in a roman policier [is] much more sympathetic than a real murderer." The dossier is filled with probable crimes with lots of gaps in time and knowledge between locations and crimes. Latimer learns that Dimitrios is now lying dead in the morgue, and develops an odd compulsion to see him. The colonel complies and Latimer decides he wants to know all about the dead man. The bulk of the story relates to finding the man behind the dossier through talking with his former associates. As the detection follows, new mysteries appear and Latimer finds himself in the middle of something much larger than himself.
For those who like complicated plots, this book is a delight. Each stage of the search for Dimitrios is like a separate short story that asks and answers a piece of the mystery. Some will undoubtedly see the links from one of these short stories to the next as sometimes being on the flimsy side. That's intended, rather than being a flaw. The larger theme of this book is about the weird appearance of the hand of Providence in our lives. But it's Providence viewed with a sense of humor. As the book begins, Mr. Ambler notes that "if there should be such as thing as a superhuman Law, it is administered with sub-human efficiency. The choice of Latimer as its instrument could have been made only by an idiot."
After you finish enjoying the delightful story, please consider where else you are comfortable reading books set in the past for their observations about that past that are universal and timeless. For instance, does King Lear, or Hamlet speak to you today even though their settings are long since gone?...more info
- a calming thriller
Ambler's novel is a beautiful departure from modern espionage thrillers and 30's pulp. While being a fan of both genres, I was pleasantly absorbed by this fine work which wove together a subtle yet haughty English timbre with a materialist, "lost-generation" kind of bent. As a reader stated above, the characters are wonderful, real yet absurd. The plot roves along with plenty of movement, not action mind you, but movement. This work is not terribly exciting, or overly political, or action packed, or hard-boiled. It falls through the cracks of genre labelling beautifully, and is a fine book in all aspects that a book can be....more info
- The Real Deal - A spy novel that is smart and fun
Ambler's book traces the story of Charles Latimer's, a British professor who writes detective novels in his spare time, descent into the world of international espionage and greed. Ambler is wonderful at recreating the recollections of an earnest and somewhat simple man who is hopelessly out his league as his follows the life history of a corpse he's been shown for laughs in a Turkish morgue.
This is the real deal in terms of mystery/spy novels. It's a delightfully intelligent and engaging page turner by the author who invented the modern spy genre. The roiling, ethnically and politically complex Europe of the 1930 is nearly another character of the novel, but unlike the work of more contemporary authors, the reader never feels bludgeoned over the head with historical trivia.
This is a fun, interesting, page-turning thriller. Great beach reading, but intelligent enough not to insult the serious reader of literature....more info
I'm a big fan of the novels by Alan Furst, and he is often compared to Eric Ambler. I purchased A Coffin for Dimitrios because Furst himself recommends it. Sorry. The novels of Furst are far better. By comparison, Ambler's prose lacks color and lyricism. As mystery novels go, this one is okay, but just okay. Lots of plot twists, which are not quite believable. A weak ending....more info