The English thriller writer Eric Ambler (1909-1998) is undergoing a revival – five of his classic novels from the 1930s have recently been republished by Penguin Classics. Ambler was called “our greatest thriller writer” by Graham Greene, who wasn’t bad at it himself, and Ambler is often cited as the precursor to writers such as John le Carre.
I’ve just read Ambler’s A Coffin for Demetrios (1939) and despite the obvious period touches (people communicating by ‘pneumatique’, for example, whatever that was) it feels very contemporary. The plot – which involves the heroin trade, stateless refugees, people smuggling, political assassinations, corrupt bankers and the sex industry – could have been written yesterday, not 70 years ago. It’s almost like a season of The Wire.
Ambler’s protagonist is Latimer, who is far from a dashing James Bond type. He’s a writer of cozy crime novels who has never been involved in anything dangerous. But when a Turkish army colonel (and crime fiction fan) tells him of a man named Demetrios who has been involved in criminal activities across several countries, and who has just been murdered, Latimer becomes fascinated. Never having met a real murderer, and after viewing his body in the morgue, Latimer embarks on a personal research project to uncover the facts about Demetrios.
His search takes him to Izmir (Smyrna) in Turkey, where Demetrios murdered a Jewish man before escaping from the great fire and massacre of Armenians in 1922, a historical event described by Ambler in horrifying journalistic detail:
“Dragged from their houses and hiding places, men, women and children were butchered in the streets … The wooden walls of the churches, packed with refugees, were drenched with benzene and fired. The occupants who were not burnt alive were bayoneted as they tried to escape.”
Next Latimer goes to Sofia, where Demetrios was involved in the assassination of the Bulgarian President, Stambulisky. This is another historical event - the liberal Stambulisky’s murder by right-wing terrorists in 1923 was a critical moment in the rise of fascism. Latimer goes on to track Demetrios’s progress through espionage in Belgrade, running heroin and people smuggling, before his final incarnation as a member of the board of a powerful European financial house, the Eurasian Credit Trust. During his investigations Latimer comes into contact with several of Demetrios’s former associates, a plausible and sinister collection of criminals and spies. Inevitably, he is drawn far deeper into Demetrios’s dangerous world than he intended.
Ambler’s political sympathies were of the left, which made him unuusal among thriller writers before World War Two – according to Thomas Jones in The Guardian, he “rescued the genre from the jingoistic clutches of third-rate imitators of John Buchan”. The career of Demetrios personifies Ambler’s view of Europe in the 1930s – a corrupt capitalist society in which businessmen, fascists and criminals work together in the pursuit of profit and power. This too may be regarded as a contemporary theme (see for example Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for insight into the workings of “disaster capitalism” today). As one of Latimer’s sources tells him:
“Come now Mr Latimer, be reasonable! The difference between Demetrios and the more respectable type of successful businessman is only a difference of method – legal method or illegal method. Both are in their respective ways equally ruthless.”
Latimer replies “Rubbish!” but observes elsewhere “All the Communists I have ever met have been highly intelligent.” Ambler was sympathetic to communism in the 1930s although later he was critical of the Soviet Union.
If A Coffin for Demetrios did no more than take us on a tour of the political, economic and social climate of Europe in the 1920s and 30s, it would still be interesting, but it’s a lot more than that. Ambler knows how to tell a story and the plot moves at a good pace (although you could quibble about the over-frequent appearance of helpful informants ready to tell everything they know). He’s a good writer, and a sharp political analyst:
"In a dying civilisation, political prestige is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician, but of the man with the best bedside manner. It is the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance."
Ambler’s revival is timely and his work is well worth discovering. The five novels recently reissued are Journey into Fear, Uncommon Danger, Cause for Alarm, The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy.