Cover image of "A Coffin for Dimitrios," a classic spy novel

First published in 1939, A Coffin for Dimitrios is widely regarded as one of the very best of the classic spy novels. That reputation is richly deserved. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole what may be Eric Ambler‘s most accomplished work as merely an espionage novel, as it features few of the familiar devices of that genre—which may be why it’s so highly regarded. However, A Coffin for Dimitrios can be best seen as an historical novel that depicts Europe between the two World Wars, and does so masterfully.

The novel is structured as an account of a wide-ranging investigation into the life and death of a notorious international criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos. After surviving one of the gruesome massacres of Armenians and Greeks undertaken by Kemal Ataturk, the legendary founder of modern Turkey, Makropoulos is said to have participated in assassination plots in at least two countries, engaged in espionage as a freelance agent, and murdered several men. The unlikely investigator is Charles Latimer, “a lecturer in political economy at a minor English university” who has left behind the academic life and become a successful author of formulaic detective novels.

In Istanbul on a trip to research a forthcoming novel, Latimer stumbles across the head of the Turkish secret police at a party. The two hit it off, and the policeman, apparently showing off to an author he admires, introduces the novelist to the secret Turkish files on Makropoulos. He even takes him to view the man’s body in the morgue. Out of fascination with the criminal’s remarkable story and caught up now in an obsession, Latimer halts work on a novel and sets out to investigate Makropoulos’ life, traveling from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and France as clues turn up in unlikely places.

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939) 309 pages ★★★★★

As Latimer’s obsessive quest proceeds, his views of Makropoulos become more nuanced. To the novelist, “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 the 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 [developed in the US following World War I] and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town.” To judge from both the histories and the literature of the era, this sentiment aptly reflects the pessimism pervading Europe during in the 1920s and 30s.

For anyone who fancies historical fiction, detective fiction, or espionage novels, A Coffin for Dimitrios will be a delight. In fact, this novel, and many other classic spy novels, today’s readers can find more rewards than in most of what has been written in recent years, because they rely less on violence in profiling their heroes.

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