I’d heard of Eric Ambler before, seen his books in second-hand shops, known him as a writer of thrillers, but never read any of his novels. The Mask of Dimitrios begins prosaically by introducing Charles Latimer, the novel’s protagonist, and from whose viewpoint the unfolding events are seen. Latimer is a former university lecturer who now makes a reasonable living from writing detective novels. While staying in Istanbul in about 1938, Latimer is introduced to the idea of Dimitrios Makropolous – a Greek criminal of whom certain things are known or suspected, or even guessed at – who has been lately fished from the waters of the Bosphorus.
Intrigued by the facts given to him, Latimer begins researching the life of this man, feared and hated in equal measure, and travels from Turkey to Greece to Bulgaria and points beyond in his quest. He is aided by an array of characters – friends of Latimer’s, chance-met acquaintances, former associates of the dead man – in his quest, and eventually arrives at no conclusion. Dimitrios wanted money and power, and was ruthless about obtaining both.
Ambler writes with spare economical prose, lightly but clearly sketching scenes and people as a gifted artist can do with just a few lines on a page. The fear which Dimitrios, even dead, can generate is clearly evoked through Latimer’s conversations with others, and the stark words of official reports. Ambler’s account of the sacking of Smyrna, during Turkish independence in 1922 is shocking, evoking nothing so much as barbaric and savage mediaeval destruction. At the back of all the political upheaval, on which Dimitrios traded and with which he was involved, is Ambler’s clear loathing of Fascism and cynical assumption that so-called terrorist activity is fomented by banks and currency traders, simply to make more money – something which resonates even now, with the state of the economy and films such as The International.
Ambler drops a few clues throughout, which may not have been so obvious to a British readership in the late 1930s, and he writes with great skill, creating tension and menace. The Mask of Dimitrios is quite a short book, but it covers a lot of ground, fast-paced but never so breathless as to stun the reader.