Charles Latimer is a former university lecturer turned crime novelist. On a trip to Istanbul he makes the acquaintance of Colonel Haki, the head of the secret police. Haki thinks he has an excellent plot for Latimer’s next book, but the author is more interested in the master criminal, Dimitrios Makropoulos, lying in the local mortuary having been stabbed and dumped in the river. Dimitrios first came to the Turks attention in 1922 after the murder of a jew in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) just prior to the great fire that destroyed what was then largely a Greek settlement. He escaped to Greece and then was implicated in the assassination of a Bulgarian politician, and later spying for France in Yugoslavia, before running a large drugs cartel in Paris. His attention piqued, Latimer decides to construct a biography of Dimitrios, trailing across Europe in search of clues as to his identity and activities. His journey soon mutates from fascination to obsession as he slowly uncovers Dimitrios’ quest for money and power as he works his way from fig-picker, to thief, murderer, pimp, spy, slave trader, drug dealer and eventually financier. It seems, however, that his enquiries have aroused the interests of other parties, and he is soon caught up in a web of intrigue that surpasses the plotlines of his own highly imaginative novels.
Eric Ambler is considered one of England’s finest spy thriller writers preceding the post-war and cold war chroniclers such as Len Deighton, John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury and others. The Mask of Dimitrios has a remarkably contemporary feel, dealing as it does with geopolitical tensions in the Balkans and transnational criminal networks trading women and drugs, and yet it has a historical richness that places it in the late 1930s in which it is set and written. Ambler writers in an assured and economical manner, leading the reader on a well paced journey across Europe and into encounters with a variety of complex characters. The real strength of the book is its plotting and ambiguities. Latimer is neither hero nor victim, but rather an ordinary citizen that finds himself on an obsessive path that veers into a different world and its morals. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that the present master of the ambiguous, everyday spy thriller, Alan Furst, has modelled his writing to an extent on Ambler’s (and if I’d read the book without knowing the author I would have guessed that Furst had written it). There are a couple of plot devices that feel contrived and one of the principal characters, Mr Peters, doesn’t quite feel right (he’s a remarkably sophisticated character in terms of his reading, language skills and conduct, and yet his path through life does make these qualities unlikely). Regardless, Ambler skilfully blends history, intrigue and characters to produce a fine read.