By Bradley Weber—Night Paris Street

By Dave Dentel

When I picked up A Coffin for Dimitrios, I was expecting a light alternative to the nonfiction I had been plodding through.

Having seen the 1940s movie version, and being a fan of between-the-wars detective thrillers, I was all set for author Eric Ambler to sate my palate with an easily consumed tale of trench-coated protagonists tracking down international rogues and bringing them to justice.

Turns out the novel is not so much a cozy detection story as it is an examination of crime and intrigue as real and disturbing phenomena. In short, it aspires to literature.

Dark Journey

Don’t get me wrong. A Coffin for Dimitrios is certainly moody and, in its own way, engaging.

The story centers on an English professor-turned-mystery-writer who attempts to uncover the history of the notorious criminal Dimitrios Makropolous. The twist (it is a thriller, after all) is that Dimitrios turns up dead in Istanbul at the beginning of the novel.

Tracing the criminal’s misdeeds through Eastern Europe, Professor Latimer falls in with a former colleague of Dimitrios—a disgustingly sanguine ex-con named Peters. (Think Sydney Greenstreet, who epitomizes the character in the film.)

Peters believes that uncovering more of Dimitrios’s past could lead to a big payoff. Latimer reluctantly continues the quest, at times unsure of what he stands to gain by exposing past episodes of murder, betrayal and extortion—other than providing background for some future book.

As I said, this is not Miss Marple setting things aright at the vicarage. Ambler’s novel delves into some pretty seedy stuff.

Antebellum Novel

But it is also a product of its time. It was published in 1939, the year the Second World War broke out. Set before the start of hostilities, A Coffin for Dimitrios nevertheless exudes a melancholic milieu that seems less for the sake of art as it is to honestly depict Europe as a society that has lapsed into darkness and disfunction.

This puts the book in good company, reminiscent of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire and James Hilton’s strange but prescient Lost Horizon.

Consider this passage describing Latimer’s reflections on the true nature of Dimitrios:

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”

These morbid musings aside, the story does avoid descending into complete cynicism.

Reason for Hope

Latimer emerges from the demimonde of professional crime, but decides that experiences gleaned from there are of little value. He determines to stick with writing comfortable, country house murders.

No doubt Ambler meant this conclusion to be a swipe at the naivete then permeating much of Europe. But it also overlooks a fundamental aspect of human nature.

To illustrate, allow me to sketch out a scenario.

It’s 1940. France has fallen, and now Nazi bombs rain down on Great Britain. Stout Londoners sheltering in the subway tunnels also take mental solace in the preferred reading material being stocked in their makeshift refuge—mystery novels.

Even during the blackest of times, it seems, people want stories that reinforce their belief that evil can be identified and kept at bay. The best fiction writers never lose sight of this fact, or the truth that despite evidence to the contrary, human nature still clings to one profound hope.

That ultimately, justice will prevail.

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