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Customer Review

on June 24, 1999
It's amazing how quickly the books of second-rate writers become dated. I'm partial to thrillers, and my bookshelf groans with stories, set in the Cold War, that I will never read again. Their settings are as strange to me now as the Roman Empire or renaissance Europe. Their time is past. No so Ambler. 'Dimitrios' is based on people, not place. He created so many memorable characters: the Turkish secret policeman, clownish off-duty, ruthless and cold-eyed at his work; the Bulgarian good-time girl, whose head and heart told her different things; the hen-pecked offical in Belgrade, with his greedy wife; the respectable cafe-owner who slides, without resistance, into the lucrative world of prostitution and drug-smuggling; the successful Swiss businessman whose business just happened to be selling secrets. These are not people I have come across in real life, but they all strike me as flesh-and-blood characters. I could imagine having a fascinating conversation with any of them. In terms of place, the end of the Cold War has actually helped Ambler. We (I'm British) seem to have returned to the Europe of the inter-war years: corrupt, amoral, nervy, and prone to occasional outbursts of horrific violence. The significant difference, of course, is that we have no Hitler around now. In 'Dimitrios', Hitler is never mentioned by name, but he is always there, hovering, as it were, just out of the corner of your eye. Ambler's prose is wonderful. He tells a complicated story so well, lingering just long enough to sketch in profiles of people and places, before getting on with the plot. Three passages linger in my memory: the massacre of the inhabitants of Smyrna; the entrapment of the Yugoslav offical; and Peters' description of how intelligent and worldly-wise people become addicted to heroin. Ambler's prose is spare and cynical, yet there is a dash of pity as well. Unlike so many novelists today who give the impression that their characters are no more than specimens on the lab bench, you feel that Ambler saw his characters as people. For a novel whose subject-matter is so dark, the reader finishes it feeling satisfied and enriched. An enjoyable and profitable read.
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