Eric Ambler's "A Coffin For Dimitrios," by L. Proyect

Gilles d'Aymery aymery at
Mon Aug 4 15:42:51 MDT 2003


Eric Ambler's A Coffin For Dimitrios
A Book Review by Louis Proyect
August 4, 2003

Eric Ambler, A Coffin For Dimitrios, Vintage Books, October 2001;
ISBN: 0375726713 - 304 pages.

Until recently, the name Eric Ambler meant about as much to me as it
probably did to most people. He was just a spy novelist from the
1940s and '50s who had lapsed into obscurity. You might see one of
his works on your aging uncle's bookshelf or in a bed-and-breakfast
parlor sitting next to a regional bird-watching guide, but nobody
actually read them anymore.

An article by Edward Rothstein in the August 17, 2002 issue of The
New York Times prompted me to take a fresh look. Written in the
context of Vintage Books' plan to republish a number of Ambler's out-
of-print works, Rothstein revealed that:
Ambler once said that during the 1930's he was a "very far left wing
socialist" and "ready for the barricades." The hero of two novels is
actually a Soviet agent who refers to the "so-called democracies
France and England" and argues that the regnant authorities had
become "the Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's 'Mein Kampf.'"
So while novelistically the books try to evoke ambiguity and explore
the dangers of misinterpretation, ideologically a rigid and distorted grid
is imposed. For Ambler, the essential battles of 1930's Europe are
between fascistic capitalism and Soviet socialism.
Spurred on by this disclosure, I read A Coffin for Dimitrios, which
coincidentally was touted by Alexander Cockburn as one of
Counterpunch's favorite summer novels. If Ian Fleming or Tom
Clancy comes to mind when spy novels are mentioned, you are in for
a big surprise when you enter Ambler territory, where the only
dashing hero serving the national interest is likely to be taking his
orders from the Kremlin. Serving various western interests, the
eponymous Dimitrios Makropolous is a rat and a mercenary who
exemplifies Balzac's dictum that behind every great fortune there is a

The hero and narrator of A Coffin for Dimitrios is Charles Latimer, a
self-effacing British economics professor who has launched a new
career as a spy novelist. While on vacation in Istanbul, he meets the
ingratiating but sinister Colonel Haki at a party who is anxious to
make the acquaintance of one of his favorite authors. After they have
lunch the next day, Haki invites Latimer to his office where he poses
the question: "I wonder if you are interested in real murderers, Mr.

That serves as the introduction to the late Dimitrios Makropolous,
whose corpse has just been fished out of the Bosporus Straits. Haki
describes him as "A dirty type, common, cowardly, scum." A lengthy
rap sheet reveals his first crime. Joined by an accomplice named Dhris
Mohammad, they rob a moneylender and 'Deunme' (Jew turned
Muslim) named Sholem, whose throat Dimitrios then slits. In a pattern
that is repeated throughout his career, Dimitrios betrays his partner to
the police and makes his getaway. His criminal career involves
pimping, heroin peddling, assassination and spying for the highest


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