Tuesday, September 16, 2008

From the Library: Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios"

One of us has just finished reading another excellent novel about a writer: Eric Ambler's thriller, A Coffin for Dimitrios. (Ambler is pictured at right, in 1952. Photo by Elliott Erwitt) It begins like this:

A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

It is one of those convenient, question-begging aphorisms coined to discredit the unpleasant truth that chance plays an important, if not predominant, part in human affairs. Yet it was not entirely inexcusable. Inevitably, chance does occasionally operate with a sort of fumbling coherence readily mistakable for the workings of a self-conscious Providence.

The story of Dimitrios Makropoulos is an example of this.

The fact that a man like Latimer should so much as learn of the existence of a man like Dimitrios is alone grotesque. That he should actually see the dead body of Dimitrios, that he should spend weeks that he could ill afford probing into the man's shadowy history, and that he should ultimately find himself in the position of owing his life to a criminal's odd taste in interior decoration are breathtaking in their absurdity.

Yet, when these facts are seen side by side with the other facts in the case, it is difficult not to become lost in superstitious awe. Their very absurdity seems to prohibit the use of the words 'chance' and 'coincidence.' For the sceptic there remains only one consolation: if there should be such a thing as a superhuman Law, it is administered with subhuman inefficiency. The choice of Latimer as its instrument could have been made only by an idiot.

This opener set this reader a-wondering from the second clause, and kept us interested, amused, and thinking right on through. Admittedly, we were in the mood for this heady stuff when we happened to begin reading it, and would probably not have remained that way if the philosophizing went on for too long; but it didn't.

Here are a few of many other good things about A Coffin for Dimitrios, which are not discernible from the opening passage:

All of the characters are intelligent, and when they seem not to be, we find we have been misdirected. For example, there's this passage where one of the characters is getting into some purple prose, saying stuff like "International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!" -- and just as the character bangs his fist on the table, and the reader begins to get really sick of the character's histrionics, the narrator comes in and tells us that the protagonist, too, "could never quite get over his distaste for other people's rhetoric." We grin. We feel like we are on the side of the good, intelligent character and the wise narrator, and we are all scoffing discreetly together at this blowhard character.... at which point said character says: "Of course I was exaggerating. But it is agreeable sometimes to talk in primary colors even if you have to think in greys." And we are forced to agree, and we see that we have been silly to condemn him.

A Coffin for Dimitrios features an interesting story against a glamorous backdrop, both characteristics we like in novels. What happens is, a writer of detective novels becomes obsessed with an international criminal whose body he has just seen laid out in a Turkish morgue, and he undertakes to trace the criminal's steps across Europe over the past two decades. In so doing, he traverses Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Croatia, and Switzerland before finally ending up in way over his head in Paris. He meets reporters, spies, drug dealers, madames, blackmailers, murderers, and other exciting and unsavory characters. All of these people are constantly saying interesting things to him, and he to them.

Nobody learns any moral lessons. They could, but they don't.

The main thing we dislike about A Coffin for Dimitrios is that Ambler wrote it when he was 30 years old. This makes us jealous, and diminishes our own sense of personal accomplishment. The next time we read an Ambler novel, which will probably be soon, we resolve to pretend that he was 55 when he wrote it, or possibly 80. And the next novel we write, we will pretend that we are Eric Ambler.

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