Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chasing a Crooked Shadow: Eric Ambler's Dimitrios

Colonel Haki was slowly turning the pages inside the folder, and on his way was a look that Latimer had not seen there before. It was the look of the expert attending to the business he understands perfectly. There was a sort of watchful repose in his face that reminded Latimer of a very old and experienced cat contemplating a very young and inexperienced mouse.



What a way to start the New Year! Right with a BANG!!

I had heard about Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios. It'd crop up on many of those 100 top crime/ mystery/ suspense lists of all time. These lists are not always trustworthy. I have had quite a few disappointments, but in this case, yes the praise is well-deserved.

Combining elements of the thriller with the academic mystery, Ambler writes a gripping narrative of a man's obsession. Charles Latimer, erstwhile lecturer in political economy, and a professional writer of mysteries ("one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport"), is enjoying a short break from his writing engagements at Istanbul, Turkey, when he first hears of a man called Dimitrios. A man who might be in the Turkish Secret Police tells him that a body which had been fished out of the river Bosphorus
might be of a notorious criminal Dimitrios Makropoulos whose litany of criminal activities ranges from Murder, espionage, drugs... to assassination.

Latimer shows an interest in having a look at the corpse. From then on, he embarks on a journey which will take him to the various haunts of Europe: Smyrna, Sofia, Geneva, Paris as he tries to reconstruct Dimitrios' life of crime. Relying on state records, police reports, court proceedings, newspaper articles, interviews, Latimer tries to add flesh and bone to this rather shadowy figure who always remains elusive.

But for a little dragging towards the end, the book is a fast-paced read though it is handy to bookmark the note that Latimer (so obligingly) prepares in chapter 4. As must be clear, I enjoyed the book tremendously. As a reader I too got involved with Latimer in reconstructing Dimitrios' life. And the recreation of the third decade of the twentieth century is marvellous. Europe is both old- having experienced a war - and young -  revolutions, regime changes, shifting population. One meets Greek refugees as well as Mensheviks. Reading about people like Kemal Ataturk not as some half-forgotten historical figures but as coevals added an extra thrill to the reading of the book.


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First Line: A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was 
                a nickname for Providence.

Title: A Coffin for Dimitrios

Original Title: The Mask of Dimitrios

Author: Eric Ambler

Publication Details: New York: Vintage Books, 2001

First Published: 1939

Pages: 304

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Any other book read by the same author: None


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Book(s) with similar theme(s):

Dark brown book cover saying "The HISTORIAN"; then "A Novel" in a shiny gold stripe, then "ELIZABETH KOSTOVA". A few thin reddish streaks stretch from the top almost to the bottom.

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Copies of the book are available on the Net. I was lucky enough to receive this from Bev Hankins @ My Reader's Block after successfully completing the Vintage Mystery Challenge last year. If you want, you can participate in the challenge this year @

http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2011/10/vintage-mystery-reading-challenge-2012.html


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Submitted for the following challenges: AZRC, British Book, European Reading, Find the Cover, Free Reads, Merely Mystery, Mount TBR, Mystery and Suspense, New Author, Unread Book, Vintage Mystery




12 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your review! I'm leery of the Best Of lists as well, but every now and again they're right! Glad to see that this one was worth it for you!

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  2. Thanks Alexia. The lists are extremely subjective and thus unreliable [though it is always fun to go thru them :)]

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  3. Haven't read this one in ages (even longer since I saw the movie too) but I remember liking it, and Ambler, a lot in my youth - soudns like time I got re-acquanited! Thanks.

    Sergio

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  4. Wow! This sounds great! Thanks for posting your review on the European Reading Challenge review page so I could find it. It is right up my alley.

    I am curious, why did you count it as your England book instead of Turkey?

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  5. Sergio
    Hi Sergio

    Thanks for stopping by. Well, it is the first Ambler I have read so along with the pleasure of the book, there was the added excitement of discovering a new author. I'll be looking for more of his books.

    Do get re-acquainted.:)

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  6. Dear Rose City Reader

    Thanks for having a dekko. In the book, the story moves from one European country to another. I wasn't sure of which one to select so went with the nationality of the author.

    Do read the book. Latimer's search is fascinating.

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  7. I'm also participating in Bev's challenge and when I saw you'd posted your review I had to drop by and see what you thought of Coffin. I read this book last year and really enjoyed it, especially watching Charlie's gradual realization that he may just have gotten in over his head. Like you, it was my first Ambler but hasn't been my last. I love his economy of style and the fact that so many of his novels are not about spies but somewhat innocent types who get dragged into some dicey situations.

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  8. Thanks Carol for dropping by. Yes, the gradual realization right from the time Colonel Haki smiles that secretive smile of his is mesmerizing. I too will be looking for more of Ambler's work.

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  9. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! I'm glad I read it last year (it had been on the TBR list for a long tim), although I wasn't as thrilled about it as I thought I'd be. I had anticipated rating it higher than the 2 1/2 stars that I wound up giving it.

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  10. Thanks for this fun review. Sounds like one I'd like to read! I'm enjoying this challenge and the chance to become acquainted with great stories, like this one, that I'm not familiar with.

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  11. This sounds like a book I would really enjoy. I hadn't heard of the author before but I definitely will check him out now. Great review!

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  12. Bev: All thanks to you. Kind of surprising that you didn't like the book. I couldn't put it down.

    Sharon: Thanks for having a look in. I too am enjoying the challenge.

    Literary Feline: Thanks. Do read the book. I love the way he builds up a picture from all those bits and pieces.

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