Title: A Coffin for Dimitrios
Author: Eric Ambler
Ambler, Eric (1939, 1996). A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers
Date Updated: April 16, 2015
An English writer tries to trace the trail of a Greek spy found dead in Istanbul. Ambler, who began his writing career in advertising, is credited with not only modernizing the spy novel but also realistically writing about the bleak and definitely nonglamorous world of twentieth-century espionage.
For those not familiar with his work, Ambler was to the modern British spy novel what Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were to the American detective novel. Ambler transformed the spy novel from a simplistic black and white world of perfect good guys versus nefarious bad guys into a far more realistic world where sometimes the difference between good and evil is not all that great.
Typically, Ambler would take an unassuming, unsuspecting spectator and immerse him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre-WW II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carrè, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. A Coffin for Dimitrios is one of Ambler’s best known works. (It was made into a movie starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.)
The plot is relatively easy to follow. Charles Lattimer is a British University professor who retired from academia once he discovered that writing mass market detective stories was far more lucrative. While on holiday in Istanbul he makes the acquaintance of a Turkish police inspector who is an admirer of Lattimer’s work. Lattimer is invited to the policeman’s office where he is provided with ideas for a book the police officer is writing. While there he is invited to join the officer in viewing the body of a master criminal, Dimitrios, who has just been fished out of the Bosporus.
Lattimer, fascinated by sketchy but lurid details of Dimitrios criminal career, decides to trace Dimitrios steps in the hopes that he will obtain new material for future detective stories. Lattimer travels from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland and France in search of background information. Of course, anyone seeking such information in the corridors of the criminal underworld immediately becomes the object of attention, some of it quite dangerous. The story of Dimitrios’ life is peeled away like an onion. Bits of information are revealed at each stop. Lattimer discovers that Dimitrios’ actions sometimes had a sinister political connection. As the novel reaches its climax the final bits of information needed to complete the puzzle that is Dimitrios are revealed.
A Coffin For Dimitrios made for an excellent read. Some readers may find it a bit quaint. Some may find Ambler’s prose a bit old-fashioned. But when one considers that Ambler’s books were written about 70 years ago I don’t think it particularly fair to harp overly much on a writing or prose-style that doesn’t quite match that of a le Carrè or Deighton.
A Coffin for Dimitrios and most of the rest of Ambler’s works have been re-issued in new paperback editions by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Press. They are in print and readily available.
 Ambler, Eric ( 1909-1998) was a British thriller author credited with producing a harder-edged spy thriller, especially the 1939 A Coffin for Dimitrios.