Moira made the inspired choice of 1939 for my reading challenge this month, a bit of a vintage year which includes four of the CWA top 100 list, including this title, which was sitting neatly on my TBR pile.
Our hero, Charles Latimer is an academic-turned-crime-writer in the classic mould. His books A Bloody Shovel, ‘I,’ said the Fly, Murder’s Arms, and No Doornail This have been successful, and he has been able to move his career to the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean.
During a stay in Turkey he meets the flamboyant Colonel Haki, some kind of secret policeman (‘There was something about torturing prisoners’), who is keen to give Latimer his innovative idea for a country-house murder mystery:
‘Lord Robinson is discovered in the library sitting at his desk – shot through the temple. The wound is singed. A pool of blood has formed on the desk and it has soaked into a paper. The paper is a new will which the Lord was about to sign.’
The policeman’s plot outline (the butler does it, by the way) fails to inspire Latimer, but his day-job does. By chance a report arrives on Haki’s desk that a notorious assassin and drug-dealer known as Dimitrios has been found floating in the Bosphorus. Haki invites Latimer along to view the corpse and tells the writer what is known about Dimitrios’s inglorious career.
… here was *real* murder: not neat, tidy book-murder with corpse and clues and suspects and hangman, but murder over which a chief of police shrugged his shoulders, wiped his hands and consigned the stinking victim to a coffin. Yes, that was it. It was real.
Inspired to dip his toes into real-life crime, Latimer begins his own investigation, a biographical study of a career criminal who has been a murderer, a drug-smuggler, and a political assassin in his time. His research takes him from Turkey to Greece, then to Bulgaria, Switzerland and finally France. His tour of the seamier side of Europe is guided by various friends of friends: A lachrymose Russian translator, a Greek Communist journalist in Sofia, an animal-loving Polish spymaster in Switzerland. In a vaguely Victorian fashion, letters of introduction play an important part in his travels, and he drifts from friend-of-a-friend to friend-of-a-friend.
His principal ally (although never friend, Latimer finds him personally repugnant) is a philosophising bore called Peters who clearly operates on the same side of the law as Dimitrios.
A person who searched rooms, brandished pistols, dangled promises of half a million francs for nameless services and then wrote instructions to Polish spies might reasonably be regarded with suspicion.
This sentence makes Peters sound dashing and colourful, but he is elephantine and essentially irritating, as Latimer repeatedly points out. Reading about the differences between the book and the film of Dimitrios, this seems to be a big difference between the two – no bond develops between Latimer and Peters.
You can read plenty of articles about the significance of The Mask of Dimitrios in the history of thriller-writing, but I was interested to see if it was representative of 1939 in any way. Although the year is never mentioned, we are certainly in the late 1930s – Latimer has flirted with, but renounced, fascism, and Hitler is mentioned.
This is Europe red in tooth and claw. Displaced populations, massacres, corruption and political violence are the order of the day. People have to present their papers to policemen in cafes. Nobody can carry on a conversation in a single language. Many of the characters have histories of violence or of witnessing violence on a horrific scale.
I picked that man out of the gutter, Messieurs. That was in December. Dear Christ, it was cold. In the eastern provinces people were dying quicker than you could have machine-gunned them – and I have seen people machine-gunned.
Dimitrios is a heartless killer, but he rose out of the ashes of Smyrna (torched by the Turkish army in 1922, between 10,000 and 100,000 dead). This is definitely a Europe where nobody will be surprised by yet another bloodbath. There is one interesting little aside:
G. says that ‘the experiences of the 1914-18 conflict’ showed that in a future war (that sounds so beautifully distant, doesn’t it?)…
And in fact the book ends with hints of a conflict to come, although it is in the Balkans rather than on the borders of Germany.
Latimer is an everyman hero, fascinated by the ugly history of Dimitrios, but managing to skate over the top of it for most of the book. His Englishness seems to act as a buffer between him and the underworld, as it does between him and the recent history of Eastern Europe. He is essentially a tourist.
Thomas Jones in the Guardian argues that ‘Latimer is the least engaging of Ambler’s prewar protagonists: it’s hard to have patience with a man who so wilfully gets himself into trouble […] Latimer’s a bit too much of a fool.’
I don’t buy that argument; I read him more as a sensation-seeker slighlty akin to people who slow down to gawp at traffic accidents. And at the end, he pretty much drives away and forgets about the whole thing.
Still, this is a fun read, and I couldn’t have picked a more 1939-y book if I had tried. You should especially read it if you enjoyed The Third Man.
Final destination: A keeper