Category Archives: Thrillers

Goodwill oozed from him like sweat.

The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler

The Mask of Dimitrios was first published in 1939. It portrays a Europe in which politics, crime and big business are inextricably intertwined; one in which real power is often exercised out of sight and the news the public reads is never more than half the story.

How far we’ve come!

Latimer, a reasonably successful English crime writer, is on holiday in Turkey when he meets the slightly sinister Colonel Haki of Turkish intelligence at a party. The Colonel asks Latimer to call upon him the next day and it turns out that like so many people Latimer meets he has an idea for a book that he wants to pitch.

The book idea is terrible, but in the course of the conversation the Colonel mentions how real crime is so much messier than literary crime, and to illustrate his point he takes Latimer to the morgue and shows him the body of a murdered man. That man is Dimitrios, stabbed in the stomach and pulled dead from the sea.

The death of Dimitrios allows the Turkish police to close their file on him – a file which includes allegations of murder, political assassination and a host of other crimes. Dimitrios has been sought after for years but eluded all attempts at capture. Now he lies on a slab with nothing to his name but an identity card sewn into his cheap suit.

Latimer is intrigued and decides as a sort of hobby project to discover more about Dimitrios. He sets out to retrace his steps, learn about his life and in doing so perhaps understand what forces and experiences create such a man.

I often say that any book is allowed one “gimme”. In Mask it’s that Latimer pursues this pet project far longer than is remotely sensible. It’s a device; you just have to accept it.

Latimer’s investigation takes him across Europe, from Istanbul through Athens, Smyrna, Sofia, Geneva and Paris. Along the way he meets an aging brothel-keeper, a retired Polish spy, various journalists and criminals and most notably a man named Mr Peters. Peters joins Latimer on a train journey, seemingly by accident. Here Ambler describes Latimer’s first impression of Peter’s face:

There was the sort of sallow shapelessness about it that derives from simultaneous over-eating and under-sleeping. From above two heavy satchels of flesh peered a pair of pale blue, bloodshot eyes that seemed to be permanently weeping. The nose was rubbery and indeterminate. The lips were pallid and undefined, seeming thicker than they really were. Pressed together over unnaturally white and regular false teeth, they were set permanently in a saccharine smile.

Peters is a sanctimonious sort full of cod-theology and long-winded rhetoric. He makes a tedious train companion but at least once you get off you’ve no reason ever to see him again. So Latimer thinks anyway…

As he pursues the trail of Dimitrios, Latimer finds himself slowly piecing together both the man’s history and his world. It’s a kind of twisted mirror-Europe to the one Latimer thought he inhabited. A world in which banks such as the Eurasian Credit Trust hire assassins to fund coups so as to serve their own business interests. It’s a world in which a lot of people still seem very interested in Dimitrios.

As for the Eurasian Credit Trust by the way, we never meet anyone directly employed by it and yet there’s a sense that it’s the real villain in this story:

‘It is registered in Monaco which means not only that it pays no taxes in the countries in which it operates, but also that its balance sheet is not published and that it is impossible to find out anything about it. There are lots more like that in Europe. Its head office is in Paris, but it operates in the Balkans. Amongst other things it finances the clandestine manufacture of heroin in Bulgaria for illicit export.’

When it works Mask works very well indeed. The problem is that it starts very slowly. The framing device isn’t that interesting and Latimer is intentionally something of a void since his only function is to be a viewpoint character introducing the reader to Ambler’s Europe.

Colonel Haki is fun and so are the rest of the supporting cast, but it takes a while before you meet most of them and in the early stages there’s an awful lot of Latimer travelling to places, looking up records and digging out information from vaguely unhelpful clerks. I found that part of the story reasonably interesting, but it’s fair to say that the pages weren’t exactly turning themselves.

Once you hit the half-way mark it picks up considerably, not so much in pace (almost all the book is basically a paper chase into events that happened years before) but in depth. Dimitrios’ life starts to emerge from the shadows and the impact he had on others becomes increasingly apparent. Peters recurs and Latimer starts to realise that information which to him is a matter of quixotic curiosity might be something that others would be willing to steal or kill for.

Ambler has a nice turn of phrase and I enjoyed the at times very English tone of the novel. Here for example Latimer reflects on one of his increasing number of potential enemies:

A person who searched rooms, brandished pistols, dangled promises of half a million franc fees for nameless services and then wrote instructions to Polish spies might reasonably be regarded with suspicion.

So they might.

As Mask draws to its conclusion Latimer becomes increasingly disillusioned. You can’t look behind the curtain and continue to believe in the wizard after all. He reflects:

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.

But of course the lesson of Ambler is that the truth is always murkier than we think. The world is complex, underlying causes are often obscure, and whenever something significant is happening someone, somewhere is probably making money from it.

One more quote before I wrap up, here mostly to illustrate quite how well Ambler manages to evoke his fractured Europe:

From the balcony outside the window of his room, he could see over the bay to the hills beyond. A moon had risen and its reflection gleamed through the tangle of crane jibs along the quay where the steamers berthed. The searchlights of a Turkish cruiser anchored in the roadstead outside the inner port swung round like long white fingers, brushed the summits of the hills and were extinguished. Out in the harbour and on the slopes above the town pinpoints of light twinkled. A slight, warm breeze off the sea had begun to stir the leaves of a rubber tree in the garden below him. In another room of the hotel a woman laughed. Somewhere in the distance a gramophone was playing a tango. The turntable was revolving too quickly and the sound was shrill and congested.

Isn’t that lovely? And yet, there’s that slight sour note at the end there which cleverly undermines the beauty of the rest of the passage. That’s Ambler, showing us the sour note at the heart of Europe.

Mask had been described to me by some as Ambler’s best novel. It certainly has its moments and the back half is very enjoyable, but the front section does drag at times and I think this does have some structural issues. Persistence does pay off but for me while it was definitely worth reading it’s not as strong as Uncommon Danger and I don’t think the villains are quite as memorable either.

Other reviews

None that I’m aware of in the blogosphere. However, I did see a comment by John Self of The Asylum against an Amazon review where he mentioned he only got 60 pages into this before abandoning it. It’s not a review, but it does suggest he also found the front section a little slow to get going.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Spy Fiction, Thrillers

It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.

Uncommon Danger, by Eric Ambler

It was John Self of The Asylum who alerted me to Eric Ambler through his review of Ambler’s Journey into Fear. I’m not a fan of the thriller genre, but I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré and Deighton and Ambler is something of a precursor to both of them.

From late September through October this year I was exceptionally busy at work. I needed a book that would be fast moving and easy to read but gripping even when I was tired. I reached for the Ambler that had sat on my shelves for the five years since John’s review. It was a good choice.

uncommon-danger

Uncommon doesn’t leap straight into the action. Instead it features a brief prologue set in a London-based oil company boardroom. The CEO wants access to Romanian oil fields, but needs political change to achieve it. He calls in a Colonel Robinson, who despite his name is quite clearly no Englishman…

The story then shifts to Kenton, a freelance journalist who’s just blown his savings in an ill-judged card game. Desperate, he buys a ticket to Vienna on the Orient Express hoping he can borrow some money from an old acquaintance once he gets there. Like most decent thriller writers Ambler is strong on description, and particularly on description of luxury:

He had been waiting for three-quarters of an hour when the Night Orient Express from Ostend came in, flecked with melting snow. Behind the steamy windows of the coaches, braided waiters hurried towards the first class restaurant car. He heard the clatter of dishes and the clink of glasses. From where he stood out of the wind he could see a destination board on the side of one of the sleeping cars – Wien, Buda-Pesth, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul. The Orient Express looked warm and luxurious inside and he was glad when it moved out. At that moment it seemed to epitomize all the security and comfort – bodily, financial and gastronomic – that he craved. He wallowed in self-pity.

Evocative isn’t it? Kenton finds himself sharing his carriage with one other traveller, Sachs:

His face was narrow and he had the kind of jowl that should be shaved twice a day, but isn’t. He wore a dirty starched collar with a huge grey-flowered tie and a crumpled dark-striped suit. On his knees rested a limp American cloth attaché-case from which he was extracting paper bags containing sausage and bread. A bottle of Vichy water stood propped against the back of the seat beside him.

Kenton hasn’t eaten so he’s grateful when Sachs shares his food, but for all his generosity Sachs doesn’t seem wholly trustworthy and as they approach the border he becomes increasingly nervous. Soon Sachs asks Kenton if he minds carrying a package over the border for him. He’ll pay well now and more on the other side. Kenton knows it stinks, but he’s desperate so he takes the deal.

It’s no spoiler to say that Sachs doesn’t survive long. Kenton finds himself on the run suspected of Sachs’ murder and pursued both by Russian intelligence and by the sinister “Colonel Robinson”, who is quickly revealed to be the notorious professional assassin and agent-provocateur Saridza.

Ambler doesn’t mess around and by about page 26 the broad outlines of the plot and the key players are all fairly well set out. There are details to be filled in (quite why the photos Kenton discovers in Sachs’ package matter so much), but even those you can take a pretty good guess at. The package is a classic McGuffin. The real interest is in the chase.

Uncommon Danger does have some great characters. Kenton himself I found a bit bland, but I loved the main Russian agent Zaleshoff who “rarely said what he really thought without making it sound like a clumsy attempt to dissemble. Passionate conviction was with him a sign of indifference to the point at issue.” Zaleshoff is aided by his beautiful sister, Tamara, and naturally a romance starts to bloom between her and Kenton (though it feels a bit tacked on to be honest, but at least Ambler doesn’t spend much time on it).

On the other side of the equation Saridza makes a convincing adversary, even if he does at one point literally leave Kenton and Zaleshoff to apparent certain death after gloating to them both about his plans. Quite why he didn’t just shoot them was never entirely clear to me, save that if he had the book would have ended there…

Saridza is assisted by the brutal and sadistic Captain Mailler, formerly of the black-and-tans. While Saridza’s in it for the money Mailler seems to like working in the shadows because of the freedom it gives him to hurt people. There’s a definite element of Bond villain and henchman here which surely must have influenced Fleming (not least when, for a second time, someone gives key information to Kenton on the basis that it won’t matter now as there’s nothing he can do to stop them…)

As well as all that there’s gunfights, tense escapes past border-guards, thrilling chase sequences, all the sorts of things you’d expect. The ingredients are pretty familiar but Ambler puts them together well (and, to be fair, helped make them the standards that they are today).

What’s less usual here is the politics. Later writers draw on the Cold war and conflicts of nations. Governments are the key actors. For Ambler governments are as much puppets as Kenton himself. The real power is big business.

Saridza is working for a UK oil company. His goal is to destabilise Romania and he plans to do this by leaking Russian secrets to them (again, all by page 26). The Russians are reactive. Without corporate interests none of this would be happening and for Ambler that’s true of the whole shadow game:

One end of the game was played in the rarified atmosphere of board-rooms and weekend shooting parties; the other was played, with persons like Sachs as counters, in trains, in cheap hotels, in suburbs of big cities, in murky places away from the bright highways dedicated to the rosy-cheeked goddess of tourisme.

There’s an appealing and for me fairly persuasive cynicism here. In Ambler’s Europe those at the top take decisions without looking too closely at how they’ll be implemented, then men like Saridza take whatever steps are necessary to make those decisions happen. Saridza isn’t so stupid as to report back his methods, and his bosses aren’t so stupid as to ask him. The world goes on, possibly with fewer people in it, and profits are made. As Ambler observes “The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules.”

Plus ça change. Uncommon Danger was first published back in 1937 and you would think that would date it. In fact, despite the use of elements such as the Orient Express, Soviet agents and the now distant pre-war setting Ambler’s exploration of corporations as drivers of conflict makes it more timely than you might expect and perhaps more relevant than the later fiction he helped inspire.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Spy Fiction, Thrillers