The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

It is a poor story, isn’t it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools.
Or do I mean only fools? (p.236)

Eric Ambler’s fifth spy thriller is told in the third person. The lead figure is Charles Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who takes to writing detective stories which are so successful that he is able to resign and go live in Athens as a professional writer. For the winter he moves on to Istanbul with letters of introduction which lead him to a high-class party where one of the most dashing guests is a Colonel Haki of the secret police who invites him to his office, ostensibly for an anodyne discussion about a roman policier which he, Haki, has been working on.

The conversation moves on to the difference between the neat crimes of fiction and the messy records of real crime and, in order to demonstrate the latter, Haki reads out the dossier of one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious criminal whose stabbed body has just been fished out of the sea.

Bitten by curiosity, Latimer decides on a whim to see if he can fill in the gaps in the dossier, whether he can, in effect, research and write the adult biography of this international criminal. He copies down the details of Dimitrios’s career of crime and sets off to visit Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris in pursuit of this will o’ the wisp.

It would be an experiment in detection… (1978 Hodder & Stoughton Large Print Edition, page 36)

The novel will turn out to be a series of interviews with people connected with Dimitrios’s criminal career, each of whom has memories which they retell in flashback.

According to his autobiography, The Mask of Dimitrios had the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France went to war with Germany, September 1939. (p) Throughout the writing Ambler’s working title was A Coffin For Dimitrios, but the publisher and then Hollywood studio preferred the word ‘mask’. (p.149)

Flight or pursuit

In two of Ambler’s previous novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause For Alarm, the protagonist is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and forced to go on the run, a price on his head as he scrambles across inhospitable terrain. They are examples of one of the basic thriller typologies, the flight of the wanted man, as exemplified by Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) or Buchan’s 39 Steps (1915) or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mask is the opposite: the pursuit of an elusive mystery figure, whose life and existence have to be pieced together via scattered evidence and testimony. The Third Man (1949) springs to mind and the protagonist of that movie and novella, too, is a writer in search of a missing person. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) revolves at great length around a missing person everyone is seeking.

Dark Europe

Ambler’s novels are distinctive for all being set abroad in the troubled Europe of the late 1930s, mostly the dark and turbulent east of Europe. The quest for Dimitrios takes us east to what is new territory for him – Istanbul, Athens, Sofia – but is also new in the way it incorporates real historical events into the story.

This character Dimitrios is involved in some of the nastiest episodes of post-Great War history: the Turkish army’s sacking of the city of Smyrna and the flight of over 800,000 Greek refugees across the sea to mainland Greece. Later Latimer discovers his connection with the assassination of the Romanian Prime Minister in 1923. Then, in Paris, Dimitrios’s involvement with the rise of the white slave trade and the explosion of illegal drug trafficking.

In fact, Dimitrios becomes a gauge for political turmoil and social chaos in the post-war period, allowing Ambler to show just how chaotic and bloodthirsty, how corrupt and vicious, 20th century European history has been.

But it was useless to try to explain [Dimetrios] 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. (p.337)

Characters

It is noticeable that Ambler’s way of describing a character has changed since his first novels: it is now much shorter, more focused, zeroing in on the salient or distinguishing features. It reminds me of the ability to focus on one or two tell-tale aspects of a character which Graham Greene had from the start.

The Greek was a dark, lean man of middle age with intelligent, rather bulbous eyes and a way of bringing his lips together at the end of a sentence as though amazed at his own lack of discretion. He greeted Latimer with the watchful courtesy of a negotiator in an armed truce. He spoke in French. (p.91)

Ambler’s style has become tauter and crisper in the course of writing these novels. Now it really is lean and to the point, clear like water, with almost no dated locutions or verbal oddities to remind you that it is 75 years old.

Strewn about the floor in utter confusion were the content of his suitcases. Draped carelessly over a chair were the bedclothes. On the mattress, stripped of their bindings, were the few English books he had brought with him from Athens. The room looked as if a cageful of chimpanzees had been turned loose in it. (p.150)

The Absurd

But if Ambler has one message it is that the world is always more complex than we think; or, we fool ourselves if we think we understand what is going on. The disjunction between our own (simple, optimistic) interpretation of the world around us, and the actual (random, often nasty ) reality of that world, produces Absurdity. Is the Absurd.

Ambler’s notion of the Absurd is not developed with anything like the thoroughness of the French writers who were thinking along the same lines, at exactly the same time (Camus: Betwixt and Between (1937), Nuptials (1938), The Stranger (1942); Sartre: Nausea (1938)). He is a novelist not a philosopher, and so the opening pages of the book which dwell a little on simple ideas about chance, coincidence and absurdity are merely a rhetorical prologue to the drama, a form of throat-clearing.

Still. The mood of his novels and their message that the political structures of the Western world between the wars have failed, that the system is collapsing, that humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that nothing makes sense, these are part of the same Zeitgeist and have much in common with the continental writers.

I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (p.103)

The Absurd in practice

Like all Ambler’s other protagonists, Latimer soon realises that he is caught up in something much deeper than he originally thought, for in the lens of his investigations Dimitrios grows steadily into a kind of legendary figure of the underworld, involved in a cruel cross-section of post-War criminality.

Fine. But the book itself is not thrilling. The Dark Frontier, Uncommon Danger, Cause For Alarm, they all plunge the hero into serious peril and include chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, imprisonments and daring escapes. Unlike them, Dimitrios is an essentially calm, civilised travelogue, as Latimer criss-crosses Europe meeting people who help fill in the details of Dimitrios’s career. Thus:

  • the Polish spy Grodek tells – at length – the story of the job he carried out to blackmail a petty official in the Italian Marine Ministry into handing over charts of the deployment of mines in the Adriatic, and Dimitrios’s key role – and betrayal of – the scam
  • the affable drug gangster Mr Peters (aka Pedersen) describes at length his career in Paris, firstly running a night club, then accepting white slave women from Dimitrios, then moving into wholesale drug trafficking – heroine and cocaine – for Dimitrios
  • in part two of his long account Peters goes into detail about how one member of the drugs gang Dimitrios betrayed – a violent man named Visser – emerges for prison determined to track Dimitrios down and take his revenge, a quest which brings us right up to the present moment!

It’s a collection of fairly interesting stories and full of social history interest – but thrilling, it ain’t! And it’s not a spy story. Some of the people Latimer meets have been spies, but it is essentially a piece of detective work about a criminal who happens to have done some occasional espionage work on the side.

The protagonist’s slow and methodical approach makes for a slow and steady read, right up to the last twenty or so pages when the book does – finally – arrive at a tense but rather predictable climax, a standoff between the bitterly vengeful Petersen and the sleekly terrifying man himself.

Two lives hung by the thin, steel threads of self-preservation and greed. (Penguin 2009 paperback edn, p.206)

Anti-capitalist

The book contains Ambler’s by-now-familiar rhodomontades against Big Business and the jackals it hires to do its dirty work (cf the mercenary Colonel Robinson in Uncommon Danger). In two of the other books these ‘analyses’ of the sins of Western society come from the mouth of Zaleshoff the KGB agent; here they’re expressed by the cynical Greek (presumably communist) journalist Marukakis. For him, the Big Business man keeps his hands clean; he believes in Law and Order; he is very respectable; he knows the best people and has a beautiful wife; he attends the opera and gives to charities; and when someone or some group are an inconvenience to his business, then word is passed from the Board Room down through layers of underlings until it reaches the criminal underworld, the social scum, ‘that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of an old society’. Men like Dimitrios.

He himself has no political convictions. For him there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. He believes in the survival of the fittest and the gospel of tooth and claw because he makes money by seeing that the weak die before they can become strong and that the law of the jungle remains the governing force in the affairs of the world. And he is all about us. Every city in the world knows him. He exists because big business, his master, needs him. International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!’ (p.118)

Finally, in a satirical stroke it turns out that Dimitrios had become so successful as a criminal that he had achieved the acme of respectability: he had got himself appointed to the Board of the Eurasian Credit Bank which the hero knows was earlier involved in commissioning the assassination of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. It is a Brechtian fable. The criminal so successful that he is allowed to join the ranks of the real criminals – the international bankers.

Conclusion

The Mask of Dimitrios fails to live up to its promise. Ambler tells us this man is a symptom of the times; the variety of his crimes, across so much of Europe, are presumably intended to make him appear a kind of Everycriminal figure; at some moments of the pursuit, when Latimer is talking to various interlocutors, this legendary almost-mythical figure acquires real imaginative power.

But the pace of the novel never really picks up and the climax of the book – a shootout in a squalid attic – is anti-climactic, an unimaginative conclusion to a spirited pursuit which really demanded something much bigger and more emblematic to match the scale of the story’s mythical ambition.

Related links

Movie

The novel was turned into a classic Hollywood noir movie in 1944, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, familiar from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s not a classic like them, but still well worth a watch.

Latimer is played by the diminutive Lorre and so is renamed Leyden and made Dutch to explain the foreign accent. Fat Sidney Greenstreet plays Peters, the avenging member of Dimitrios’s gang in Paris. Dimitrios is played by the gorgeous, moustachioed Zachary Scott.

The noir style of director Jean Negulesco is all shadows and menacing foreign actors. The movie is very faithful to the book, which means it is relatively static, a series of half a dozen sets in which Leyden interviews people and they tell him their relationship to the Master Criminal. It has that odd noir thing where half the time characters are pointing guns at each other and half the time wisecracking friends. It’s impossible to watch Greenstreet and Lorre without warm memories of their performances in their two more famous films.

There are two significant changes: the book has a long chapter about the activities of the Paris gang Dimitrios leads, namely their forays into trafficking women for prostitution and their drug smuggling. This is cut. And at the end of the book Peters and Dimitrios both die in the shootout. In the movie Peters (Greenstreet) survives and, as he is hussled off by the police, remains remarkably cheery, giving the movie an ironically uplifting moral when he says, ‘You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.’

Ambler tended not to like the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he says watching this movie gave him severe stomach cramps (Here Lies, p.225).

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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