The Mask of Dimitrios: Eric Ambler

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Golden Age of detective fiction, Greece, Historical, Italy, review, spy story

dimitriosOne of the books I read during the last few weeks of 2015 was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler which was originally published in 1939. It was the third or fourth time I had read this masterpiece, and because it was about a decade since my previous reading I noticed some interesting features in the novel. There is a blurb on the front cover ‘The source on which we all draw” by John le Carre, and it appeared to me that many of the techniques used by Ambler have been taken up by so many crime writers especially the Swedish school.

The Mask of Dimitrios is the story of how an English crime novelist Charles Latimer becomes fascinated, almost obsessed, by the story of  master criminal Dimitrios, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’s steps across Europe hoping to gain material for a new book. The simplicity of this plot device is quite brilliant as it allows the author to include passages about the history of the various locations.

Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight……………….Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake……….

But the main Greek army had escaped by sea…… the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September 1922, they occupied Smyrna.

For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

We have to remember that this was published in 1939. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community, was a sad prediction of what was to happen to so many communities in Europe between 1939-1945, and what is happening to many in the Middle East today. 

The assassination of politicians arranged by corrupt banks, spies, murders and the activities of criminal drug distributing organisations are contained in a narrative that packs more events and details in a mere 226 pages than many of today’s heavy 600 page doorstops. The very detailed slow paced descriptions of how master spy Grodek, and Dimitrios, while working for Italy entrap a Yugoslav civil servant into getting hold of top secret information, and the activities of Dimitrios’s drug gang in Paris, are almost a blueprint for this detailed approach in later novels for example those by le Carre and Stieg Larsson. 

Any discussion of this novel without mentioning the enigmatic loquacious Mr Peters would be unacceptable. He is one of the great characters of spy/crime fiction, and when a movie of the book was made his part was taken by the portly Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet had starred in The Maltese Falcon, as the villainous Gutman, and was an fine choice. He had been accompanied in that movie by Peter Lorre, they made an excellent combination. But someone thought he should play opposite Greenstreet in The Mask of Dimitrios, and so Charles Lambert was changed into Cornelius Leyden to explain Lorre’s central European accent. I thought Peter Lorre was miscast as he was too good a villain to play the hero. But Sydney Greenstreet was the quintessential Mr Peters…..

The fat man spread out large, soft hands on one of which twinkled a rather grubby diamond ring. ‘I am a citizen of the world,’ he said. “To me, all countries, all languages are beautiful. If only men could live as brothers, without hatred, seeing only the beautiful things. But no! There are always Communists, etcetera. It is, no doubt the Great One’s will.”

There is a brooding almosphere of corrupt evil that permeates the narrative, because we are as it states in the introduction in a Europe that is a jungle and its rules set by the Stock Exchange Year Book and Mein Kampf.

Ambler succeeds brilliantly in informing a population that had been fed a diet of cosy country house murders, and village green cricket matches, about the harsh realities of life across the Channel. 

Almost as Ambler finished the book the Nazis marched into Prague in the spring of 1939.     

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Comments
  1. An excellent post on an excellent novel, Norman. So well worth a lot of re-reads…

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I remember being very impressed with this novel when I read it some years ago. I’ll be reading another take on Smyrna in Tatiana Levy Salem’s House in Smyrna (not crime fiction).

    • Norman Price says:

      Marina I read Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton some years ago and it is not a pleasant story.
      I might look up Salem’s House, thanks.

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