Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Coffin for Dimitrios

I was curious about Eric Ambler—he is frequently cited as the first serious spy novelist, one who brought moral ambiguity to the genre. So I read A Coffin for Dimitrios, which some consider his best. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but not exactly what I expected. After LeCarre and Alan Furst, it comes off as fairly straightforward. But perhaps it needs to be looked at in context. Ambler himself is eager to make that very point to the reader. The protagonist, Charles Latimer, is a writer of Agatha Christie—style mysteries, and frequently the book compares the moral clarities and neatly-tied-up plots of a mystery to the messiness of this story.

The funny thing is that in the end, the story isn’t all that messy. Dimitrios is a criminal who has worked for various governments in schemes to steal military secrets or assassinate leaders. In the end, Dimitrios is purely a bad player, always on the wrong side and always betraying his comrades and employers—in addition to his more mundane crimes of murder, drug-smuggling, etc. Latimer, on the other hand, is purely good—tempted with the opportunity to take all or part of a million francs, free and clear, he walks away from it.

Still, Ambler describes how a petty thief from Ottoman Smyrna can, taking advantage of the chaos of Eastern Europe between the wars, could become a master criminal and ultimately a board member of a respectable Monte Carlo-headquartered international bank. Dimitrios’s story is unlikely, but not impossible.

The moral ambiguity, where it appears, is shown by the employers of Dimitrios. At one point, Latimer interviews Grodek, a retired spy who hired Dimitrios on behalf of the Italian government. Italy and Yugoslavia are on the verge of war, and Yugoslavia plans to randomly mine the narrow point of the Adriatic Sea in order to prevent the entry of the Italian navy. The Yugoslavs, of course, will have a map of the mine fields, which will allow them get their navy and freighters in and out. So Grodek and Dimitrios work out a plan to ensnare a morally weak employee of the Yugoslav navy. They create a situation in which this guy owes a small fortune and can only pay it back by stealing the mine map for Grodek and Dimitrios. The fact that this hapless loser will end up jailed or executed is not an issue for the two spies. Dimitrios, of course, is a murderer and without conscience. Grodek justifies his behavior simply by saying that he has no sympathy for a traitor—and the traitor had a choice.

Another interesting thing about the book—he uses the word "holocaust" to describe the massacres of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna by Turks in 1922. The book was written in 1938. The book also explains the difficult position in which Yugoslavia found itself between the wars--it was almost completely surrounded by fascist nations. That makes its status after the war all the more amazing--I believe it was the only country to drive the Nazis out without Allied troops marching in. Thus it was able to avoid being a vassal state of the Soviet Union.

Here is a good quote from the second paragraph of the book:

Inevitably, chance does occasionally operate with a sort of fumbling coherence readily mistakable for the workings of a self-conscious Providence.

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