The Mask of Dimitrios is one of those books that a good number of people today may not have heard of (I never heard of it until a few years ago), but is an established classic of it’s genre that has inspired the likes of John LeCarre and Alfred Hitchcock. And while Eric Ambler’s taut spy mystery was first published in 1939, it could have easily been written in the last decade it holds up so well.
The story is about a mystery writer by the name of Latimer who is vacationing in Istanbul and happens across a colorful character – Colonel Haki – the former head of the Turkish secret police. Colonel Haki being a bit of a raconteur and a fan of Latimer’s novels, tells the story of Dimitrios, a thief, spy, murderer, who has eluded European authorities for years, but has just that very day washed up dead on the shore. Haki offers to take Latimer to view the body to illustrate how crime and killers is a messy business and never fits into a satisfying story like the mysteries Latimer plots, and quick enough Latimer begins to have a little obsession.
It may have been that I had had a good lunch and was feeling stupid, but I suddenly had a curious desire to know more about Dimitrios. As you know, I write detective stories. I told myself that if, for once, I tried doing some detecting myself instead of merely writing about other people doing it, I might get some interesting results. My idea was to try to fill in some of the gaps in the dossier. But that was only an excuse. I did not care to admit to myself then that my interest was nothing to do with detection. It is difficult to explain, but I see now that my curiosity about Dimitrios was that of the biographer rather than of the detective. There was an emotional element in it, too. 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. (57)
Of course this intellectual curiosity with his desire to “understand” a criminal leads Latimer along a path with twists, turns, and interesting characters living in the shadows, and leading him through the "disintegrating social system" of Smyrna, Athens, Belgrade, Sofia, and eventually Paris. The story has a wonderful tone of unease that reminds me of movies like The Third Man, North by Northwest, and even a little dash of Casablanca.
As Latimer finds out more about Dimitrios, we flash back and forth between their two lives, preserving a bit of the political and criminal machinations of Europe between the two big wars. And as Latimer travels from city to city one cannot help to avoid the thought of where the 1930s eventually headed. Though Hitler is mentioned only once, his long shadow is hard to miss.
I need to mention that the edition I read is a well designed Folio Society production. With wonderfully done illustrations by Paul Blow and an introduction by Ambler expert Simon Winder, if one could, we should all read our books with such aesthetic subtleties that enhance the experience. As an avid Folio Society collector, in the future I plan to have more reviews of their kind. The introduction of this one in particular provides excellent insights into the political environment of Europe of the time and into the nature of the novel itself.
The emerging gap between Latimer’s own vision of himself as an apolitical British straight arrow and the actual nature of his quest from morgue to brothel to flophouse, investigating a dead Levantine petty criminal is brilliantly arranged by Amber. The genre assumption is that Latimer stands for the good deed in a naughty world, the incorruptible Englishman in a world of dodgy Europeans. The Mask of Dimitrios does a marvelous and gleeful job of dismantling any such idea. (xiv)
This gleeful dismantling is evident from the beginning, as the structure of the novel illustrates more of a meta-mystery where the narrator leans towards the ironic without being distant towards its characters or losing any of the suspense. Even the mystery of who killed Dimitrios is cleverly played. Towards the end, I knew that some sort of surprise was on its way, but I didn’t expect the turn that it took and found myself purely entertained with just the right amount of political afterthoughts to occupy my mind after the book was closed.