Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Coffin for Dimitrios: Eric Ambler

Plot summary and description from The Mystery Lover's Companion by Art Bourgeau:
"In one of the great intrigue novels, a writer delves into the muddy past of a mysterious, international double-dealing spy. The writer of academic detective novels discovers the difference between fiction and reality when he becomes involved in murder."
In that book, the rating is Five Daggers (A True Classic).

When I read a book that is hailed as a mystery classic with so much already written about it, it colors my experience and my enjoyment. No way to avoid this really. I am thinking too much about the book as I read it. Looking for its classic elements, what makes it rise above the rest, rather than just going along for the ride as a new experience.

Did I enjoy A Coffin for Dimitrios? Most of the time, yes.

Does it have a good plot? Yes. My quibble is with the execution, how we get from beginning to end. This is a book that slowed down in the middle for me. I enjoyed the setup in the first few chapters and it had a great ending. But the advancement of plot in between was often told in narration by one character or another, and I was impatient for it to get somewhere. In fact, I think my problem with the book was being too impatient, reading too fast, not savoring the story as it unfolds. This is a book I will reread, and I think I will enjoy it more the next time.

Is the characterization good? Yes and no.  There was not a lot of depth, but true character of some of the players was revealed bit by bit. Were they victims or willing accomplices? What kind of person was Dimitrios?

What I did get into was the picture of evil and depravity.  Telling the story at turns from the point of view of criminals who really don't consider that they have done wrong or that there were other options in their lives was interesting and appalling. And it had a very unexpected ending, and I like that.

I do not know if I have read A Coffin for Dimitrios before. I am fairly sure I have read books by Eric Ambler, but it would have been many years ago. When I was younger (in my teens and early twenties) I read faster, read more, read a lot from the library, and read a lot of classics. But even then I was reading mostly mysteries (Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Patricia Moyes, George Bagby, Allingham, Sayers).

This book and several others by Eric Ambler were written immediately before, during, and after World War II. I enjoy reading books from that time period to get the feel of what people were thinking and experiencing at that time. I recently read two books by Christianna Brand that were written around the same time as this book: Heads You Lose (1941) and Green for Danger (1944). Only Green for Danger was specifically about the war, but the daily events that affected people during and before the war were also mentioned in Heads You Lose.

I am looking forward to reading more Eric Ambler books. He published books from 1936 to 1981. At the top of my list are The Light of Day and Journey into Fear, because I have a copy of those two. Next I want to find other spy fiction, especially set around the time of World War II. There is a movie based on this book, with the same title as the original English title of the book: The Mask of Dimitrios. I would love to see this, but it doesn't appear to be available on DVD.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge


neer said...


I quite liked the book basically because I was intrigued by the fact that we never quite come to know about Dimitrios. Is he really the man in the end? One never really knows.

TracyK said...

Good point. I keep thinking about this book. Which is a good sign.