Ambler: A Coffin for Dimitrios

January 10, 2011

A Coffin for Dimitrios
Eric Ambler (Vintage Crime)
304 p. [1939]

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.)

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7 Responses to “Ambler: A Coffin for Dimitrios”


  1. I’m a bit of a fan of espionage fiction and have read two or three Amblers. I think this was one of them, but it’s been so long (decades) that I’m not sure. One that I read relatively recently and liked was The Light of Day. There was another that I didn’t like and can’t remember the name of now–the story was ok but it was based on a somewhat distasteful sado-masochistic relationship.


  2. Oh, and by the way, LeCarre is fantastic at his best. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are classics of the type. It’s a cliche to say that a genre writer transcends the genre, but he does.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Somewhat distasteful”?

    The only LeCarre that I have, waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf, is The Honourable Schoolboy. I heard that it was a good one. Have you read it?


  4. Well, it was not explicit at all. It was the idea of it that was so distasteful, having to do with the histories of the two people. I’ll explain further if you don’t think you’ll ever read it. I remembered the name of the book: The Schirmer Inheritance. One thing that makes The Light of Day such a good read is that–this is going to sound a little silly–the central character, who if I remember correctly is the narrator–is Bilbo-Baggins-ish in that he proves to be far more resourceful than anyone, including the reader, would think.

    Yes, The Honourable Schoolboy is excellent, as I recall. I’ve read all of LeCarre up to maybe 2002 or so. It seemed to me that he had begun to fall off, and he was also making himself annoying with a lot of hysterical political comments (America-is-going-fascist-type stuff). Some of the books include recurring characters, and in a few the connections among the books are somewhat significant. I mention that because I’m trying to remember to what extent that’s true of Schoolboy….Ok, I just refreshed my memory, and I’d say this is not the best place to start, because it follows closely on the events of Tinker, Tailor. Not that it wouldn’t be intelligible, but I think having read Tinker would make many aspects of it more significant. In fact, Schoolboy is often considered the second of a trilogy which ends with Smiley’s People.

  5. cburrell Says:

    I don’t know that I will ever read that Ambler book — it is probably not very likely, to be honest, but what you say about LeCarre intrigues me.

    I saw a television adaptation of Smiley’s People. The thing I remember most about it was that it was awfully difficult to follow all the developments in the story. I suppose that’s the way it is with spies and subterfuge.

    So the trilogy is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and then Smiley’s People? It sounds good.

  6. Mac Says:

    The Schirmer Inheritance involved a beautiful but distant and “repressed” young woman whose lust is finally unlocked by a Nazi, to whom she becomes completely subservient. I think possibly also her parents had been victims of the Nazis although I may be remembering wrongly. Like I said, distasteful.

    I don’t wonder that it would have been very hard to follow Smiley’s People in the tv adaptation (which is very true to the book, btw) without previous acquaintance with the book. The books can be pretty tricky even when you have time to stop and think and go back and refresh your memory. Worth it, though.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Another problem I have, these days, is that my reading time is mostly confined to right before I fall asleep, when, to put it mildly, I am not at my best. I think that sometimes I read the same passages night after night, only dimly recollecting them. It’s not the ideal way to read hard books!


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