See other articles in the category ‘Fiction of 1939’ including the Introduction.
Between 1936 and 1940 Eric Ambler wrote a series of remarkable thrillers set in the world of the European dictators during the years leading up to the second world war. The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) is considered his masterpiece. See also The Dark Frontier (1936), Uncommon Danger (1937), Epitaph For a Spy (1938),Cause For Alarm (1938) and Journey into Fear (1940).
Writing for the Sunday Times in his ‘Calendar of Crime’ book review column (August 6 1939), Milward Kennedy wrote: ‘Eric Ambler provides a welcome reminder that, in accomplished hands, the “Thriller” as much as the detective story can rank with the best fiction of any type… Ambler, who has progressed with each book that he has written, is now in the very top class’.
In The Listener (7 September 1939), Edwin Muir described Ambler as an ‘intelligent, wity and honest writer, exciting but not always comfortable to read’. The Mask of Dimitrios was ‘a very unusual kind of thriller. It deals with the sum of mankind as most thrillers do…but it does not deal with them romantically, it makes us realise that such people really live and how they live; it is a description of the waste humanity produced by civilization’.
Ambler’s fictional world is one of hard-edged realism, of crooked business men and financiers, drug dealers, pimps and gun runners, criminal gangs; a world of espionage, assassination, of moral and political decay: Europe on the edge of catastrophe. His main characters are real people with proper jobs; writers, journalists, scientists and engineers who find themselves unwittingly enmeshed in a world of violence and danger.
In The Mask of Dimitrios, Charles Latimer, a former academic turned detective writer, is visiting Istanbul where he meets the local spy chief, a fan of his books and, out of professional curiosity, accepts the offer of seeing a murdered body recently washed up on the shores of the city.
‘Latimer stared at the corpse. So this was Dimitrios. This was the man who had, perhaps, slit the throat of Sholem the Jew…This was the man who had connived at assassinations, who had spied for France. This was the man who had trafficked in drugs…who in the end, had died himself by violence. (p.32-3).
Dimitrios represents the Europe of the inter war years…
‘So many years. Europe in labour had through its pain seen for an instant a new glory, and then had collapsed to welter again in the agonies of war and fear. Governments had risen and fallen; men and women had worked, had starved, had made speeches, had fought, had been tortured, had died. Hope had come and gone…and through these years, Dimitrios had lived and breathed… He had been a dangerous man. Now, in the loneliness of death, beside the squalid pile of clothes that was his estate, he was pitiable’. (p.33)
Latimer embarks on a quest to find out more about Dimitrios, not merely because he is a detective writer:
‘There was an emotional element too. I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary, but a man…as a unit in a disintegrating social system’. (p.82-3)
The journey of discovery takes Latimer to Smyrna, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris and he is drawn into the dangerous criminal underworld of Dimitrios’ former associates. Ambler writes from the left-wing point of view and his characters are decidedly not establishment figures. Big business and International finance are seen as a central element in the decay of Europe between the wars. Dimitrios is one of those undercover men, grafters, ready to use violence, useful to this class of men.
‘He exists because big business, his master needs him. International business may conduct its operations with scripts of papers but the ink it uses is human blood’ (p.92-3).
As Latimer finds out more and more about Dimitrios and his world he is shocked:
‘It is just because I am shocked by him that I am trying to understand, to explain him…everything I have heard about Dimitrios suggest that he consistently acted with quite revolting inhumanity’ (p.204).
His final conclusion:
‘It was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good business and Bad business were the element s of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent in the European jungle…the logic of Michelangelo’s David and Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler’s Mein Kampf’ (p.252-3).
Ambler is now rightly regarded as the originator of the modern thriller, a bridge between the writing of Buchan and Maughan, and Le Carre, Deighton and Furst. Anyone interested in the social and political atmosphere of Europe during the mid-late 1930s will find his novels essential reading.