I was rather surprised, a few hours ago, finding out that Eric Ambler is almost forgotten in my country.
What a strange fate for one of the fathers of espionage fiction, author of novels from which popular movies were made, and he himself an Academy-nominated screenwriter.
Finding out about this strange state of affairs made me go back to the The Mask of Dimitrios, a novel I read in my first year in university, in a well-thumbed used copy I bought somewhere.
I was familiar with the 1944 movie adaptation featuring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, but the novel was quite a discovery.
The novel is set in 1938, while clouds of war gather over Europe.
A mystery novelist, Cornelius Leyden, traveling through Turkey is at first fascinated and then progressively entangled in the story of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a mystery man and adventurer whose criminal activities have been under the close scrutiny of the Turkish police.
Leyden starts his own investigation in the life and times of Dimitrios, patching together the dark story of the man through interviews with his former associates.
But there’s more, hiding in plain sight, and Leyden is possibly just a pawn in a strange game.
The Mask of Dimitrios (that in the USA was called A Coffin for Dimitrios) is equal parts noir mystery and spy story, and it couples an intriguing story with an unusual (at the time) structure, that turns the book into a sort of file with out-of-sequence witness reports that the reader has to patch together.
Like most of Ambler’s works the book is subtly cynical, clearly political and shows a deep perception of human contradictions.
It’s, in other words, quite a good novel.
The exotic locales also play a big part in the story, and Ambler is able to create a real sense of place with just a few well-played phrases.
Ambler was always fascinated by the Levant, and many of his stories take place in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans – another detail I always appreciated a lot.
The movie, while taking minimal liberties with the original plot, manages to keep the story strange and disorienting, and is considered one of the earlier and most influential noir movies.
Both the novel and the movie are worth checking out – and that’s what I am going to do as soon as I post this post: I’ll go and re-watch The Mask of Dimitrios.
Oh, and before I forget: Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet reprised their roles in a radio adaptation of the Ambler novel.