”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.”
In From Russia with Love James Bond reads this book to pass the time on a train.
Charles Latimer, professor at a university, and like many men of his profession also a writer of espionage thrillers, was on vacation in Istanbul when he received an invitation to view the body of a notorious criminal named Dimitrios. This brush with a real criminal starts Latimer on an odyssey to build a file on Dimitrios under the guise of research for a book, but the journey was more about satisfying his own curiosity about the man.
Eric Ambler, a left leaning intellectual, fully expected the Soviet Union to be an ally of Britain and his books from this period have sympathetic Soviet block characters. This book was published in 1939 just before Germany declared war on Poland. Ambler wrote five stellar thrillers between 1937 and 1940 of which this is considered his masterpiece. He continued to write after that, but could not capture the spark of his earlier writing. The must read list:
Uncommon Danger (1937), US title: Background to Danger
Epitaph for a Spy (1938)
Cause for Alarm (1938)
The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), US title: A Coffin for Dimitrios
Journey into Fear (1940)
He influenced a whole host of scribblers that are among my favorite writers including Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, Alan Furst, Len Deighton, and many more.
Eric Ambler the Godfather of the espionage thriller.
Now Latimer is a bit of prig...well... aloof, certainly bordering on self-righteous. Ambler through a host of characters can’t help but poke some fun at Latimer.
”You see Mr. Latimer, I have read one of your books. It terrified me. There was about it an atmosphere of intolerance, of prejudice, of ferocious moral rectitude that I found quite unnerving.”
Another character after a few drinks makes an observation.
”You know,” he said, “you English are sublime. You are the only nation in the world that believes it has a monopoly of ordinary common sense.”
As Dimitrios’s dossier grows Latimer realizes that the books he has been writing are far removed from the real world of an international criminal like Dimitrios. There is nothing in Latimer’s life that would prepare him for his exposure to the feral survival instincts that Dimitrios exhibits when he kills, blackmails, or steals for money.
”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 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.”
The movie version was released in 1944 starring Peter Lorre as the Charles Latimer character. They changed his nationality to Dutch probably because of Lorre’s accent. It remains faithful to the book except for the fact that the relationship between Peters and Latimer is much warmer.
Latimer meets a man named Peters, but he could have been called X or Y or Z because his name is a chimera easily changed with just a swirl of the hand. They form an uneasy alliance. Latimer has his teeth firmly sunk in the story and even though he has reservations about his partner he has to see this through.
Latimer wondered if he had ever before disliked anyone quite as much as he now disliked Mr. Peters. It was incredible that he should believe in this tawdry nonsense of his. Yet believe in it he obviously did. It was that belief which made the man so loathsome. If he had his tongue in his cheek he would have been a good joke. As it was he anything but a joke. His mind was divided too neatly. With one half he could peddle drugs and buy rentes and read Poems Erotiques, while with the other he could excrete a warm, sickly fluid to conceal his obscene soul. You could do nothing but dislike him.”
There is a MURDER in SMYRNA. Doesn’t that roll of the tongue heavy with exotic danger?
The war to end all wars was on everyone’s mind when this book was published. The looming menace of another war that would forever change the name of THE world war to the first world war was beginning to be realized.
”So many years, Europe in labour had through its pain seen for an instant a new glory, and then had collapsed to welter again in the agonies of war and fear. Governments had risen and fallen; men and women had worked, had starved, had made speeches, had fought, had been tortured, had died. Hope had come and gone, a fugitive in the scented bosom of illusion. Men had learned to sniff the heady dreamstuff of the soul and wait impassively while the lathes turned the guns for their destruction.”
I found myself at times muttering to myself that Latimer needed to unbutton his collar, maybe skew his tie, and enjoy this bit of intrigue that he finds himself wrapped up in. For me the story started slow, but built nicely. I can tell this is the type of book that improves with each reading. The pacing once it gets going is nicely maintained. The characters are truly dangerous people and I began to wonder how Latimer was going to continue to ask impertinent questions without losing his nose or his life. Dimitrios is kept off screen ;and yet, his menacing apparition lurks in every paragraph. The grand finale is a pyrotechnical display of heroics, betrayal, and greed.