A Coffin for Dimitrios. Eric Ambler.

Ambler, Eric. A Coffin for Dimitrios. Vintage Crime, New York, 1939. F; 7/17.

This author was identified by a reviewer in The New Criterion as one of the late great mystery writers. Suspense said the reviewer was Ambler’s stock in trade, now poorly replaced by the sex and violence that grinds turnstiles these days. It’s been awhile since I finished this book, but I think the reviewer was right. And it did contain sex (potential or imaginary at least), and at the end of the story a volley of violence worthy of Grand Theft Auto. But we were led gently in the former and with brilliant guile in the latter into both as I guess someone in the late 1930s might have expected and found credible.

Latimer, our protagonist and narrator, is a crime fiction writer. But when his curiosity and handy old circumstance draw him into a real murder Ambler deftly turns the fictional table. Latimer first inwardly laughs at senior Turkish policeman Colonel Haki’s social posing and clumsy crime fiction outline he’s written. But Latimer gets a hard surprise confronting at Haki’s invitation a corpse, fresh-dragged out of the sea, in the city morgue. He feels the shock of how the much-worse fiction writer Latimer is however casually comfortable with murder and intrigue in the real world.

Why does Latimer dog the history of Dimitrios so relentlessly? I’m inclined to the idea that he’s fascinated by the paradox of reality and artistic illusion, but maybe that’s my 60s English lit talking and Ambler, far from rubbing our noses in his creative process, is just a fantastic natural storyteller. Either way a couple of enthralling characters and half a dozen plot twists later Latimer the novelist is up to the top of his plus-fours in murder-and-big-money alligators and our comfortable Somerset Maugham-style narrative has amped up with suspense and spiraled toward a surprise ending.

Written before I was born, this nearly 80-year-old story could have been set in the 1990s or later. Would someone the age of my kids have found it as charming? I like to think so, but maybe I’m dreaming about the intrinsic value of this tale. But with nothing else to go with than my gut I give it a solid B plus. 8.7/8.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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