Saturday, 7 April 2012

Forgotten Book: The Mask of Dimitrios

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.


Miranda James said...

The film is quite entertaining. I have not yet read the book, but it's on my list of books that I really must read.

Martin Edwards said...

Miranda, I think you will like the book. It's really stood the test of time.

Anonymous said...

Eric Ambler was a Austro-German and with WWII his books were removed from shelves and he was deleated from author lists in the U.K. and U.S.

Keep in mind that many American Sym's would not play Beethoven during those years.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to what the above commentator has posted, Eric Ambler was British and not ' Austro-German'.

Brian W. said...

I agree that it is a superb story. I have both read it and seen the excellent film, starring Peter Lorre, etc. (Why the film is not more easily available in the UK, I don't know - it is superb stuff.) I love so many of his pre-war novels about naive 'innocents' caught up in the international intrigues 'beyond their ken' of the time.

MaityVictor said...

I have read this one thrice (when I was 18,25, and 32 respectively )..and each time I loved it and got totally engrossed sand frankly never really noticed that it had any leftist ideas as such .I believe that reducing Ambler to his first 6 books because of those being left leaning or labelling Crofts and Rhode as humdrum is equally unjust .
I have read almost all of Amblers(published as ambler) except the last two and while they vary in quality, all of them are set in exotic places and in turbulent times ,making them attractive .. but I believe there are at least 4 more which is equally absorbing and absolutely realistic with great lessons in history and local colour..
1. Journey into Fear
2. Passage of Arms
3. The Levanter
4. Epitaph for a spy

For lighthearted fun The Light of day is great as well .
I did not fancy uncommon Danger, Schirmer inheritance and siege of the villa lipp .