Ambler, Eric: The Mask Of Dimitrios

The proposer had been drawn to reading “The Mask of Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler through seeing the 1944 film version. The film starred Sydney Greenstreet (perfect as Peters) and, less plausibly, Peter Lorre as the hero Latimer.

Latimer was perhaps intended to be relatively insignificant by Ambler, and other Ambler books similarly had anti-heroes. Ambler disliked the swashbuckling heroes of John Buchan thrillers, and had intended his first novel “The Dark Frontier” to be a satire on this type of thriller. Nobody had noticed, and the book was taken at face value and was successful. He thus joined a number of other novelists – Fielding and Austen being other examples – whose first work was a satire of current fashion.

Eric Ambler (1908-1998) came from a theatrical family. Despite training in engineering, he soon turned to writing. After selling film rights to supplement the proceeds of his novels, he moved to France to continue writing, possessing only a suitcase and a bank account. He married there in 1937. The outbreak of war saw him serve initially in an anti-aircraft battery protecting Churchill, and then in a film unit. After the war he was attracted to writing film scripts in Holywood, and did not resume writing novels until 1951.

In becoming a writer in Hollywood after the war he followed a road also followed by Fitzgerald and Chandler, which may have helped their bank balances but not their output as novelists. We noted that – generally – the artistic plaudits for great films went firstly to the director and secondly to the actors. The writer’s role was supporting, and was often highly frustrating for them as they lost control of their screenplay. Some exceptional film-makers were both scriptwriter and director, but there were examples (such as Dennis Potter) where allowing the scriptwriter to act also as director was notably unsuccessful.

Unfortunately there was nowadays only limited interest in Ambler. Five of his early books were considered to be classic thrillers, and “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1939 – originally named “A Coffin for Dimitrios”) was the best known of these. It was much applauded from the outset, and the film rights had earned Ambler 20,000 dollars. For the proposer it was a fascinating book, and a superb example of thriller writing. Both the dialogues and the descriptions (which could be savoured more on a second reading) were brilliant. Other thrillers he had read by Ambler were constructed in a similar way, but less rich in texture and detail.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. It was well crafted and well researched, and you could pick it up and read it straight through or read it in segments with equal pleasure. Some of the issues – such as his account of drug crime and the effect of different drugs – were surprisingly modern in feel. It provided a fine tour of Europe, despite the remarkable fact that Ambler had not visited the Balkans at the time of writing. He picked up his information through a Turkish expatriate group he met in the South of France, and through reading.

The quality of Ambler’s prose came in for particular praise. It was taut and sparse, but capable of poetic rhythm and of evoking a scene, a character or a situation through a few telling details. Again such prose had a modern feel to it.

The book was essentially a thriller. We were not persuaded by the view in Mazower’s introduction to the Penguin Classic edition that the book was a manifesto for a new kind of crime novel, intended to blow up the vicarage whodunit. That was more the objective of Hammett and Chandler.

Some found the structure, with a series of interviews about the past of Dimitrios, lacked real tension and “page-turner” quality” until it emerged that Dimitrios was not in fact dead. Even if that had been predictable, Ambler generated great fear and tension in the last section of the book.

Others did find it a page-turner from the beginning, and were reminded of the structure of Citizen Kane with a picture of the central character emerging slowly through a series of people commenting on him. This was not the only time Orson Welles was to feature in our discussion, as the atmosphere of the book reminded some of “The Third Man”, and Welles did indeed direct the film version of another of Ambler’s books. Both Greene and Le Carré, noted one, had acknowledged Ambler’s influence, although he felt Ambler was perhaps not in their class.

Another note of reservation concerned the “hero” Latimer, writer of conventional detective stories and wanting, like Ambler himself, to do his writing abroad. The plot device of having him decide to explore the past of a real criminal, and criss-crossing Europe to do so, was implausible. Ambler, in the opening passage of the book, was careful to distance himself from his antihero “The choice of Latimer [as an instrument of Providence] could only have been made by an idiot” and he was probably satirising himself to some extent.

Latimer is priggishly old-fashioned. He is not interested in money or women, with his only vice being an interest in drink – provided it is French and expensive. An amusing example of his priggishness was his judgement on La Prevenza:

“Her figure was full but good and she held herself well; her dress was probably expensive….Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern.”

Mr Peters comments: “I have read one of your books. It terrified me. There was about it an atmosphere of intolerance, of prejudice, of ferocious moral rectitude that I found quite unnerving…”

However, suggested one, was not Latimer’s “ferocious moral rectitude” in deliberate counterpoint to the moral chaos that Ambler is depicting on the European continent? Ambler shows Europe lurching from the First World War (and its chaotic aftermath – such as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922) into the next European War. The Balkans teem with all sorts of peoples. For this reader, that sense of Europe in turmoil and the sense of impending war was the most intriguing aspect of the book.

“Nonsense” returned another “it’s simply a thriller written in the thirties!”

But didn’t the writer try to identify Dimitrios specifically with the collapse of the moral order in Europe, with ruthless greed and increasing aggression? Dimitrios’ criminal career as exposed in the book runs from 1922 to 1939, embracing theft, murder, spying, drugs, white slavery, financial chicanery, political assassination and possibly military provocation. He is thus the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong in Europe in the inter-war period.

Latimer reflects towards the end of the book:

“But it was useless trying to explain [Dimitrios] 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 Michelangelo’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…”

And the book ends on a similar note with Marukakis reflecting from Bulgaria on recent border incidents created by agents provocateurs:

“Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that [Dimitrios] typified…all I know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will prevail……My latest information is that war will not break out until the spring, so there will be time for some skiing…”

And wasn’t it the case that genre novels of this kind tend to be at their best, and of most literary value, when struggling to escape the bounds of their genre?

“Hmmm…..well, we can at least agree that the Second World War was essentially a continuation of the First World War, which never really finished…”

The proposer, who had had the advantage of reading Ambler’s autobiography, shed some further light. Ambler had taken unusual care in writing this novel, and other novels of his revealed a particular concern about Germany’s aggression. His brother had married a German, and had had to prove his Aryan purity before being allowed into Germany. Ambler was also a “Communist Fellow Traveller” at this stage, and particularly critical of the role of international finance, where he thought Germany played a dangerous role.

And what of Mr Peters? For some he was the best character in the book. He was richly amusing with his endless self-justification, for example claiming the Great One had seen it fit to make him a criminal. However, one reader was certain that Mr Peters would turn out to be Dimitrios. There were clues that suggested he was Dimitrios, and indeed he would surely have made a better Dimitrios!

(Your correspondent was thoroughly confused. Firstly, it was suggested this straightforward thriller was some sort of morality tract, and now that Mr Peters was Dimitrios).

“Err…” … “So who killed Mr Peters???” (I essayed to clarify matters. But on they sailed, ignoring this razor-sharp intervention …)

“No”, asserted another, “I quickly rejected the hint that Mr Peters might be Dimitrios, because he obviously didn’t have the seductive brown eyes attributed to Dimitrios…” (still confused, because weren’t the eyes of Dimitrios meant to look like those of a doctor about to do something unpleasant to you? I looked cautiously at our medical representative) …But the author was unfairly misleading at the outset in implying that the first dead body was Dimitrios, as opposed to the second dead body ….

These notes are getting too difficult to make much sense out of. Reader, you perhaps think that these discussions follow a neat logical order and that your correspondent merely has to act as amanuensis. To disabuse you of this misunderstanding, and demonstrate the Herculean task your intrepid reporter fearlessly tackles each month, here is an accurate fragment from my verbatim notes prior to processing, a little piece of literary archaeology:

“Ambler’s description of the little-known Greco-Turkish war was gripping ……My uncle was on a boat at the time of the Greco-Turkish war, and tried to separate an Egyptian from his harem……the German definition of nationality by blood not residence is the source of problems…..EU resolves? …..So did Communism – no, not voluntary….. any need for aircraft carriers or tanks?…..what about the Russian solution of inflatable tanks?.….off to Argentina, staying in the Belgrano hotel..…a friend’s son picked up all his girlfriends bar one from tango clubs…..all about agreeing to dance by sign language from the back……not unlike Edinburgh Union dances…..what does “Belgrano” mean?…..beautiful grain….. or beautiful pimple…..did I tell you the one about my water treatment at the hands of two square-headed women in Bulgaria?… Aberdonian headmaster said you should select a woman based on the price of the drink she is holding (go for the cheapest!)… should have heard what my mother got up to in Warrender baths……young Scots are all sounding their “S”s as “Sh”s, it’s the Sean Connery factor..…yes, some of the novel did remind me of a James Bond novel…..”


The surreal quality of the discussion was further emphasised on the way home when the taxi driver claimed just to have been made an Emeritus Professor. Shurely shome mistake?