Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler Review

Set (and written) in the late 1930s, Charles Latimer is an English mystery novelist who learns about the roguish life of Dimitrios after he’s taken to view his corpse in the morgue. Murder, slavery, drugs, gambling, prostitutes – Dimitrios had his fingers in a lot of pies! Latimer becomes obsessed with the man’s life and decides to write a biography of the chap, following in his footsteps as he meets Dimitrios’ former criminal associates to build up a portrait of the complex figure. But Latimer’s journey gets the attention of some shady figures with their own interest in “Dimitrios”…

The Mask of Dimitrios (published in the United States as A Coffin For Dimitrios) is described as a mystery thriller overshadowed by the encroaching darkness of fascism in Europe – and it’s none of those things! There’s no mystery to the story. Modern readers will easily see the twist ending of the book looooooong before it comes – I called it in the first chapter and I was right! “Thriller”? The book is largely made up of scenes where Latimer and a character or two sit down before someone begins a 10/20/30 page monologue. And the Germans and Italians possibly starting a war is only mentioned in passing in the last three pages of the book with no strong fascistic presence elsewhere.

That’s not to say I disliked the novel. Eric Ambler’s a fine writer and it’s easy to see how strongly he influenced later novelists like John le Carré as this shows him laying the blueprint for the modern political thriller. But Latimer is a blank slate who is exactly the same at the end as he was at the beginning. I know the story’s not really about him but still, having a semi-interesting protagonist would’ve been nice.

Ambler does create a brilliant character in Mr Peters, an elderly, overweight criminal with watery eyes and a distaste for violence and crime, whose alignment keeps you guessing until the end – is he on Latimer’s side or not? He’s definitely a villain but can he find redemption – does he even want to? We’re kept wondering about this strange fellow. It’s interesting that, in a book featuring Latimer as the protagonist and Dimitrios as the engine, Peters is by far the most memorable character in the story. I suppose that’s due to Peters actually being written as a character rather than as bland audience stand-in (Latimer) or a motivation (Dimitrios).

Though it’s hardly pulse-pounding to hear one character at a time relate lengthy stories about Dimitrios to Latimer, they’re compelling enough for the most part. The guy led an interesting – if despicable - life and hearing about his Scarface-esque construction of a criminal empire from nothing is quite good. But what it builds towards isn’t anywhere exciting. Besides being predictable, the finale is a bit anticlimactic because it’s clichéd and boring.

The Mask of Dimitrios has some good moments here and there, and it’s a decent early, ahem, “thriller” at a time when I’m sure it was considered pacey. But it hasn’t aged that well and, today in comparison and much like Poe and Conan Doyle’s now antiquated detective stories, Ambler’s tricks are quite average leading to an underwhelming story. The Mask of Dimitrios has become a period piece now but still a readable one.

The Mask of Dimitrios

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