Friday, January 18, 2013

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Ambler, Eric. A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

(This book was originally published in 1939.)

"Yet another one of those forgotten mystery writers of the early 20th century. Ambler is caustic in a way I like, and there was a very good surprise at the end. It's a great vacation read, and I'll probably read more of his at some point."

That's what my brief review of this book on Goodreads says, which I wrote after I read it back in July of 2011. I was thrilled when it was chosen as this month's book for the Connecticut mystery book group, because (even though this is the only book of his I've read thus far), I think it's high time the world rediscovered Eric Ambler, who was recommended to me by a friend who never steers me wrong. If you look him up, which I did last time I read him, you'll find he's described as a writer of "spy novels." I suppose I need to read more by him, because I wouldn't describe this book as anything other than an ordinary old mystery, even more so because our "hero" isn't a spy. Yes, we encounter espionage, but our protagonist Latimer is a former professor turned full-time mystery writer. To get an idea of Ambler's wry sense of humor, you hit it on the second page of the first chapter in this description of Latimer:
A Bloody Shovel was an immediate success. It was followed by 'I,' said the Fly and Murder's Arms. From the great army of university professors who write detective stories in their spare time, Latimer soon emerged as one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport. (p. 10)
I was hooked the moment I read not only that line about the army of university professors, but also those book titles. The book titles become even funnier when Latimer (who has settled in Turkey when we're first introduced to him) meets the Turkish Colonel Haki, whose common language with Latimer is French, and has to spend "some time trying to explain in French the meaning of 'to call a spade a bloody shovel.'" (p. 15)

But let's get back to the notion of a "spy novel." This is the second book I've read for the CT mystery club whose author is generally known as a writer of that genre. Maybe I need to redefine that genre for myself, because I expect it to be technical and (despite all the "page-turning" claims) boring, which I noted when we read John Le Carré. Neither this nor Call for the Dead could be described as technical or boring. I will say that if I'd just read a description of the two books side by side, and had been told to pick one, I would have chosen this one for the fact that it was written before the Cold War, a topic I find tiresome. 

Funny, though, I did find similarities between the two books, and not just because they both involved spies. It had more to do with the matter-of-fact writing style of the two authors, although based on these two books, I'd say Le Carré was the more sentimental of the two. Le Carré has more of a sense of longing for the good old days and wanting everything to be right and in its place, whereas Ambler seems to be laughing at human desire for such things (sorry. These are just feelings I have, and I can't really back them up with any examples or clues as to why I have them. Maybe someone else in the group, having read the two books I have, can identify why I might feel this way?). The other author Ambler brought to mind, strangely enough, was Somerset Maugham. There's this wonderful old-fashioned style of writing that's gone completely out of vogue these days, probably because editors and publishers don't think anyone has the attention span to tolerate it, in which a story's narrator likes to give his or her opinion, an opinion which is usually philosophical in nature and often involves quoting others' opinions. It may be out of style, but I love it when I come across a writer who likes to express his or her feelings about things. In fact, I probably lied when I said I was hooked from the moment I read the aforementioned quote. I was probably hooked from the very first line of the book, "A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence." (p. 9). We have both a quote and an opinion about it in one sentence, not to mention something to mull over ourselves: are chance and Providence the same thing? I read that, and I'm smiling.

That's what there is to love about this book, because, apart from it, the plot was pretty straightforward. We knew who the "bad guy" was from the beginning, and it was just a matter of figuring out everything he'd done and how he'd done it. Latimer takes on this "what and how" as his task, and we follow him from country to country, all over pre-WWII Europe, not sure whom, exactly, we can and can't trust. There is the huge surprise when you near the end of the book, which I mentioned on Goodreads, as well as the standard fear-for-your-protagonist's-life plot device incorporated in almost every mystery I've ever read (always a little more nerve-wracking when the book isn't told in the first person, which this one isn't), but there's nothing extremely original plot-wise, here, to those who've been in a mystery book club for something like five years. 

Bottom line: I enjoyed it immensely and still intend to read more Ambler. I might even read other authors defined as writers of "spy novels." But I can guarantee an early death (and don't accuse me of murder) if you decide to hold your breath waiting for that to happen. 


litlove said...

I've been wondering about trying Eric Ambler - I might just give him a whirl one of these days. As for spy writers, I have recently discovered Helen MacInnes and she is fab! (McInnes? Macinnes? I should have checked before beginning this!). The quote on the front of the novel I read by her said she could 'hang her cloak and dagger up alongside Eric Ambler', which I really liked as an endorsement!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, I'm quite sure you'd like A Coffin for Dimitrios. Funny about Helen MacInnes. Two of my colleagues convinced me to read her last summer. Glad the two are keeping company on the cover of at least one book (that's a fabulous quote).