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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Espionage: Realistic, Vivid and Noir!!, May 26, 2003
This review is from: A Coffin for Dimitrios (Paperback)
To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly cliché-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to A Coffin for Dimitrios. During the pre-World War II era, it was common for ordinary citizens to be pressed into espionage activities, whether knowingly or not. Many people rate A Coffin for Dimitrios to be the greatest novel built around that theme. Almost everyone agrees that it is Mr. Ambler's best novel.
Charles Latimer began his career as a lecturer in political economy at a minor English University and wrote three scholar volumes. Suffering from depression from his studies of the Nazis in the third volume, He wrote a successful detective story and was soon launched on a career as a writer that took him away from academia. A chance trip to Turkey after an illness in Athens causes him to meet a real policeman, Colonel Haki, who is a fan of his stories. They meet for lunch to discuss the colonel's literary ambitions. Casually, the colonel shares the dossier of a criminal, Dimitrios Markropoulos, to make the point that "the murderer in a roman policier [is] much more sympathetic than a real murderer." The dossier is filled with probable crimes with lots of gaps in time and knowledge between locations and crimes. Latimer learns that Dimitrios is now lying dead in the morgue, and develops an odd compulsion to see him. The colonel complies and Latimer decides he wants to know all about the dead man. The bulk of the story relates to finding the man behind the dossier through talking with his former associates. As the detection follows, new mysteries appear and Latimer finds himself in the middle of something much larger than himself.
For those who like complicated plots, this book is a delight. Each stage of the search for Dimitrios is like a separate short story that asks and answers a piece of the mystery. Some will undoubtedly see the links from one of these short stories to the next as sometimes being on the flimsy side. That's intended, rather than being a flaw. The larger theme of this book is about the weird appearance of the hand of Providence in our lives. But it's Providence viewed with a sense of humor. As the book begins, Mr. Ambler notes that "if there should be such as thing as a superhuman Law, it is administered with sub-human efficiency. The choice of Latimer as its instrument could have been made only by an idiot."
After you finish enjoying the delightful story, please consider where else you are comfortable reading books set in the past for their observations about that past that are universal and timeless. For instance, does King Lear, or Hamlet speak to you today even though their settings are long since gone?
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