A Coffin for Dimitrios
Eric Ambler (Vintage Crime)
304 p. 
This is the first of Eric Ambler’s books that I have read. Apparently he is regarded as an eminent early writer of spy novels, thrillers, and other genres that were destined to wax greatly and overwhelm airport book shops. I am told that he was an influence on later practitioners of the craft like John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum. Being, as I am, almost entirely ignorant of the work of those gentleman, that connection does not explain my interest in Ambler. In fact, my interest in Ambler has no explanation that I can identify.
A Coffin for Dimitrios (which is published in the UK under the less ominous title The Mask of Dimitrios) has an amusing premise: our fictional narrator, just like our real narrator, is a successful author of crime novels. One day, while lounging about in Constantinople, he hears about a recently murdered master criminal — Dimitrios — and becomes intrigued about the man’s past. He decides to take a break from writing in order to indulge in a bit of detection himself, trying to piece together Dimitrios’ history. The project takes him from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and France, and with each step he becomes entangled, quite unwittingly, in the lives of those who knew the man. It is not long before he finds himself well over his head in the criminal underground, and unsure how to escape. There are some superb plot twists along the way, which I shant reveal here lest I spoil the book for others.
Ambler writes in a brisk, no-nonsense style. It’s the sort of style that doesn’t broadcast itself as a style: steady tempi and a cool emotional temperature, with clearly-drawn, interesting characters and a briskly developing story. The sequence of exotic locales obviously reminds one of a James Bond story, but the resemblances don’t go much further. Ambler writes better than Tom Clancy or John Grisham, who might also reasonably be considered his literary heirs. Because I was there myself not too long ago, it was particularly interesting for me to read about Sofia in the 1930s, before the Soviets moved in. I will admit that I was a little disappointed when our hero did not stay in the same hotel that I did. (On the other hand, if he had he might have stayed out of trouble, and that would have made for a dull read.)