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The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

When I saw that Penguin were reissuing five of Ambler’s novels in their Modern Classics series, the choice of which to read first was easy – I picked The Mask of Dimitrios. Apart from having been published during the same year as Chandler’s The Big Sleep, this novel is famous for being the one that Ian Fleming nodded to, having Bond read it on a plane to Istanbul in From Russia With Love:

Bond unfastened his seat-belt and lit a cigarette. He reached for the slim, expensive-looking attaché case on the floor beside him and took out The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler and put the case, which was very heavy in spite of its size, on the seat beside him.

The Mask of Dimitrios is a classic spy story. A mild-mannered crime novelist, Charles Latimer, is travelling in Europe and makes the acquaintance of Colonel Haki – an inspector in the Turkish secret police. Haki has read Latimer’s novels and has an idea for a plot for him, however Latimer finds real life to be much more fascinating.

Out of professional interest, he goes with the Colonel to the morgue to see the body of a notorious criminal, who had ended up stabbed to death. Dimitrios was wanted all over Europe in connection with murders, assassination attempts and more, but had been too clever to be caught. Latimer’s interest is piqued and he feels that to do some real detection work into Dimitrios would be helpful to his novels. Haki tells him what he knows, and off goes Latimer, not knowing that he will become obsessed in his quest or that he is, as you might expect for an amateur detective, sailing into dangerous waters.

His journey takes him across Europe, making contacts and filling in the jigsaw puzzle piece by piece. In Sofia, he meets the translator Marukakis, who takes him to a club where the Madame knew Dimitrios:

She possessed that odd blousy quality that is independent of good clothes and well-dressed hair and skilful maquillage. Her figure was full but good and she held herself well: her dress was probably expensive, her thick, dark hair looked as if it had spent the past two hours in the hands of a hairdresser. Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern.

But others are also interested in Dimitrios. On one occasion after having been confronted by an intruder with a Luger, Latimer rues that he didn’t use force against the man; “That,” he reflected, “was the worst of the academic mind. It always overlooked the possibilities of violence until violence was no longer useful.” This sums up Latimer neatly – in the best tradition of the gentleman amateur sleuth.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It has much in common with those who followed – although Fleming, Robert Ludlum, and John Le Carré each take the espionage novel in differing directions. I liked the multiple locations around Europe; travelling between them is made easy by train. There is some tension generated by the political undercurrents and the general situation in the eastern Mediterranean countries – although not much is made of them here – WWII is yet to happen. The cast of shady supporting characters introduces much complexity, but sometimes, the long episodes when Dimitrios’ back-story is recounted slow the pace. Latimer however proves an amiable companion in this novel that is not quite a full-blooded thriller. As a lover of spy novels, I’ll be back to Ambler.

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