"The Mask of Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler (published by Penguin Books)

Digging around in the past can be a bad idea

This 1939 book is sometimes rated as the best of Eric Ambler’s novels, which can be taken either as a big plus considering that he wrote 18, or as a very subjective judgement for the exact same reason. Overall, Ambler forged a considerable reputation, and the plentiful action here is enhanced by its wild real-life background and wide European setting.
25. November 2023 5:45

The fictional Dimitrios has much in common with a historical figure regarded as the “merchant of death”, notorious munitions kingpin Sir Basil Zaharoff (1849-1936), a Greek arms salesman who became one of the richest men in the world by selling to both sides in a conflict. As one commentator observed, if you would wish to see his monument, look about you at the military graveyards of Europe.

Ambler further involves Dimitrios in two assassination attempts, and the first of these was based on an actual plot against the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Aleksandar Stamboliyski. He survived the February 2, 1923 shooting but was murdered by right-wing secret police the following June 14 after a successful coup d’etat.

As well as Dimitriov’s involvement in the attempt on the life of “Stambulisky” in Bulgaria that same year, this was followed by his effort against “the Gazi Kemal” in Adrianople (modern-day Edirne, Turkey) in 1924. A gazi is a Muslim fighter. In actuality, there was a failed plot to assassinate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, in 1926.

This is all fertile material for Ambler, then, and in the oft-admired and oft-rereleased “The Mask of Dimitrios”, detective writer Charles Latimer is in Istanbul, where he is buttonholed at a party by the head of the Turkish Secret Police, Colonel Haki, who loves such books and has all the latest romans populaires (popular novels) sent from Paris.

Haki thinks he has dreamed up a great plot of his own that surely Latimer can use (“The Case of the Bloodstained Will”, an English country house murder. The butler did it!). Readers of “The Mask of Dimitrios” may discern that when Haki offers this story to Latimer because he is too busy to write it himself, it is probably Ambler himself rueing that he often meets people who feel that they could write detective stories if they only had the time. A common complaint of many an author, no doubt.

In another sideline of interest regarding the 1939 publication of “The Mask of Dimitrios”, Colonel Haki tells Latimer that he especially likes to read English and American romans policiers (detective novels), and doesn’t think French culture can produce one of the first order. In fact, by now Belgian author Georges Simenon, relocated from Liège to Paris, had written 19 “Maigret” novels, and might disagree! His Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret probably hadn’t yet made a literary name for himself in Ambler’s hometown, London.

Next day, when Haki has Latimer’s attention at a lunch, they discuss the merits of real and fictional murders, and the colonel illustrates his point by regaling his guest with the history of gangster/murderer/drug runner/white slaver Dimitrios Makropoulos, also known as Dimitrios Talat, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus, knifed in the stomach.  At least, a label in the clothes says it is Dimitrios… there is no extant photo of him.

Haki finds a fictional book-murderer to be much more sympathetic than a real-world murderer. In a roman policier there is a corpse, clues, a number of suspects, a detective and a gallows. That is artistic, he says.  The real murderer is not artistic. Dimitrios was a dirty type: common, cowardly. Scum, killer, pimp, thief, bully, financier, drug peddler, spy.

A scoundrel and cut-throat of the worst sort, he stayed on the fringe and never risked his own skin, Haki says. Dimitrios was suspected of killing a man in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) in 1922 and contrived to have another man hanged for it. Dimitrios escaped to Greece. As Haki’s account of the man’s misdeeds grow, Latimer realises that his own cosy English whodunnits are far removed from the real world of such a feral international criminal.

Latimer has never seen a dead person and he persuades Haki to take him to the mortuary to see the washed-up corpse. There, he suddenly has a curious desire to know more about Dimitrios, telling himself that if, for once, he tries doing some detecting himself instead of merely writing about other people doing it, he might get some interesting results.

His curiosity becomes that of the biographer rather than the detective. He will try to fill in some of the gaps in Haki’s dossier on the man, to understand his mind, gathering material for a biography that will never be written when he should be producing a detective story. The trail is some 15 years old. Latimer follows Dimitrios’s footsteps to Smyrna to examine official records, to a sleazy Athens cafe/brothel, then Sofia, a Swiss mountain villa and Paris.

In a neat Ambler analogy, Latimer understands for the first time the inexhaustible enthusiasm of a zoologist friend who took nearly two years to build up the complete skelteon of a prehistoric animal  from a fragment of fossilised bone. Marvelling at such dedication, after Latimer unearths a single twisted fragment of the mind of the international intriguer and master criminal, he then wants to complete the structure.

But he also begins to realise that what might have seemed a fascinating idea in a Turkish mortuary might well, in the bright warm light of a Greek autumn, appear merely absurd. Still, he is beginning to like his experiment and is unwilling to abandon it easily. If it were to die, he would see that it dies hard.

He finally meets shady people who knew Dimitrios: a left-wing journalist, the female cafe owner, a master spy, a human-trafficker, each with a story to tell. It’s not always rivetting reading as one at a time relates lengthy escapades, but they’re compelling enough.

For the first time Latimer finds himself on the business end of a gun, he’s invited to join a blackmail, he’s at the scene of a double killing. His interest has become an obssession and he’s stirred up a still-live hornet’s nest. Of course, there must be a twist or two at the end; not least, is Dimitrios in fact still alive?

In 1939, perhaps the tale of a man tracking down the truth about an infamous character through a series of witnesses and adversaries was still a fairly original storyline. It would be further used in the films “Citizen Kane” in 1941 and “The Third Man” in 1949, for instance.

Still, the plot machinations cover some rich inter-world wars European history, awash with ethnic cleansing, ideological conflict, political assassination, drugs, and the buying and selling of women and state secrets. Immoral types such as Dimitrios grabbed what they could.

It’s only occasionally and briefly but “The Mask of Dimitrios” has the annoying literary habit of using a foreign language, in this case French, without translation. “Je ne suis pas un faussaire,” says someone. “Faussaire” was unknown at the unlettered Budapest Times so we had to look it up: “I am not a forger.” Au fond? Permis de séjour? Dare we say, et cetera?

Dimitrios’s is a metaphorical mask: ”A man’s features, the bone structure and the tissue which covers it, are the product of a biological process; but his face he creates for himself. It is a statement of his habitual emotional attitude; the attitude which his desires need for their fulfilment and which his fears demand for their protection from prying eyes. He wears it like a devil mask; a device to evoke in others the emotions complementary to his own. If he is afraid, then he must be feared, if he desires, then he must be desired. It is a screen to hide his mind’s nakedness.”

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