- 'He needed, and badly, a motive, a neat method of committing a murder and an entertaining crew of suspects. Yes, the suspects must certainly be entertaining. His last book had been a trifle heavy. He must inject a little more humour into this one.
- As for the motive, money was always, of course, the soundest basis. A pity that wills and life insurance were so outmoded. Supposing a man murdered an old lady so that his wife should have a private income. It might be worth thinking about.'
The Mask of Dimitrios, or A Coffin for Dimitrios as it is known in America, is the first novel I've read by Eric Ambler. It will not be the last.
It's hard to summarise the novel without giving away massive spoilers so I'll keep it short and sweet: our protagonist, Charles Latimer, is an author of detective novels who decides to trace the history of the notorious criminal Dimitrios, who was recently found murdered. The search takes him across Europe, reveals many secrets, and reaches a somewhat dangerous climax in a building in Paris.
For a mystery/thriller there is very little action in this novel, but it did not feel lacking in this respect. Aside from the brilliantly crafted characters, there was something about exploring 30s Europe and the simmering unrest that propelled the novel forward until a point when action became necessary. This is an intelligent novel that slowly reveals startling elements of Dimitrios's history - it twists and turns and does the odd backflip, until everything suddenly slots into place.
Perhaps my favourite thing about the novel is the fact that Charles Latimer is an author of detective novels. It makes him a touch arrogant as he seems to think that he knows how these things work - as if the real world truly resembles fiction. He ends the novel (as the above quote demonstrates) planning a straightforward novel which follows a reassuring structure, where there is a believable motive, a 'neat' murder, and entertaining suspects, because life is possibly just too heavy. I think his background adds something particularly special to the novel, making a story that is quite understated gripping and brilliant.
In three words: intelligent, understated, gripping.
Have you read any Ambler?
I received a copy of this novel for review purposes - thank you.