A Coffin for Dimitrios


Eric Ambler


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

September 6, 2004

his book was written in 1939, and it shows its age, but I mean that in a good sense. The book is great for portraying life in Europe between the World Wars. People are multilingual. They make appointments and then a few days later are received by a charming host who offers a aperitif, they get picked up by chauffeurs, and they write letters to each other. They smoke incessantly. The violence is low key but believable, the menace is equally restrained - for some reason this reminded me of The Maltese Falcon.

The novel begins when Latimer, our hero, encounters the chief of Turkish police when he is at a party. Latimer is a British writer of detective story, and the Turkish chief fancies that he has a great idea for a detective story. Latimer is not interested in the police chief's idea, but the conversation brings up the story of Dimitrios, a villain who has turned up dead - knifed and dumped over board. The Turkish police chief shows Latimer the body in the morgue, and the police dossier. Latimer is intrigued by the story of Dimitrios, and decides to investigate further, attempting to do some genuine detecting, rather than just writing about it.

Since Dimitrios was born in Greece, Latimer begins his investigation there - is Smyrna a Greece province or a Turkish one? Apparently there was horrendous massacre there (I consider myself reasonably well read, but I never heard of it. But during Eric Ambler's day, apparently the fate of Smyrna was common knowledge.) A web search reveals this:

"In September of 1922, Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk), the victorious revolutionary leader of Turkey, led his troops into Smyrna (now Izmir) a predominantly Christian city, as a flotilla of 27 Allied warships -including 3 American destroyers- looked on. The Turks soon proceeded to indulge in an orgy of pillage, rape and slaughter that the western powers anxious to protect their oil and trade interests in Turkey, condoned by their silence and refusal to intervene. Turkish forces then set fire to the legendary city and totally destroyed it. There followed a massive cover-up by tacit agreement of the Western Allies. By 1923 Smyrna's demise was all but expunged from historical memory." (This quote taken from Amazon.com review of the book Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City)

Isn't the web a wonderful thing? Any way, Dimitrios commits a murder to steal the treasure of Sholem the Jew, and frames another man for the crime. He escapes the chaos of Smyrna as a refuge. Dimitrios is next heard of in Bulgaria, where he is involved in an assassination attempt, so Latimer boards a train for Sofia. On board the train he meets "Mr Peters", a man who offers more questions than answers. Of course, the meeting is not accidental.

Any way, Latimer continues his investigation, interviewing various people through out Europe until he ends up in Paris for the climax of the tale.

A Coffin for Dimitrios is apparently Ambler's most famous work. It is fine story, but seems leisurely compared to the style of today, and this low key approach keeps the book from developing into a non-stop page turner. I like the 1930s feel to the story, and I like the story within the story, where the retired ex-spy master reveals how he stole the location of the Adriatic mine field from the Yugoslavian navy. This is a 3 star book, quite readable.