It seems odd to class Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios as a Forgotten Book. It is widely acknowledged as one of the great espionage thrillers of the 20th century, and it was the basis for a film (which I haven’t seen) as well as influencing writers of a subsequent generation such as John Le Carre. Yet I’ve not seen much discussion of it in recent years.
I read it in youth, because Michael Gilbert, a super judge, said it was a masterpiece, but when I was 13 or 14, the subtleties of the story eluded me. I appreciated it much more on a recent re-reading while on holiday. And I loved Amber’s device of taking a writer of Golden Age fiction, Charles Latimer, and making him come face to face with real villainy.
Latimer’s quest for the mysterious Dimitrios is a strange one. He’s become fascinated with the man after being shown his dead body in a morgue in Istanbul. He wants to find out what made him tick, and Ambler tells much of the story in flashback. Yet somehow he maintains pace and suspense throughout – a remarkable feat of writing. All the more remarkable because he produced this book when he was just 30.
I think it’s fair to say that there is a widespread consensus that, despite his later successes, Ambler never wrote a more powerful or more atmospheric book. (Though I haven’t read many of the later books, and two did win CWA Gold Daggers.) He lived another 60 years, and the left wing views that gave this book such energy faded as he became disillusioned first with Russia and then with the domestic politics. In due course, he became a tax exile in Switzerland, along with his second wife, who co-wrote the screenplay for Rebecca. But he deserves not just to be remembered, but to be celebrated, as a master of his craft. If you haven’t read The Mask of Dimitrios, you have a treat in store.