This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
In the run-up to the Second World War, fictional spy heroes were rarely professional spies, rather they were ordinary men caught up in the madness of a continent on the brink of war. Eric Ambler definitely follows in this vein. The hero of The Mask of Dimitrios (1939, in the States A Coffin for Dimitrios) is the very ordinary Charles Latimer, a British mystery writer on holiday in Istanbul.
Through a chance meeting with Colonel Haki, head of the Turkish secret police and a fan of crime fiction, Latimer becomes enthralled with the enigmatic Dimitrios Makropoulos. A career criminal and assassin, Dimitrios had racked up charges for drug dealing, slavery, assassinations and espionage. He had been chased by police over continents for decades, yet now his body had turned up suddenly in an Istanbul morgue.
Latimer is fascinated with the idea of Dimitrios, both as a real-life murderer and as a real-life murder victim, and falls into a casual investigation of his own. At least, that’s what he tells himself. Latimer’s quiet fascination turns into an obsessive need to follow the trail, and this leads him straight into a dangerous world of corruption, subterfuge, murder and political intrigue. Telling himself all the while that he can quit when he wants to, Latimer’s amateur detecting takes him across Europe in search of the shady associates of the dead criminal.
For the most part, the story is much more interesting in terms of what it achieves within the genre than as a story in and of itself. Ambler once said in an interview that thrillers:
really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.
I think this is already apparent in his works. Ambler was a working class leftist with a high sense of morality and had equal interest in human sociology as well as human psychology, and felt he was more attune to the sentiments of ordinary Britons than those ‘running the system’. As Britain entered the Second World War, it was becoming more and more apparent that the working and lower classes felt the old rules didn’t apply. This is certainly reflected in the way Ambler seems to abolish old conceptions of the hero/villain dichotomy. Before him the heroes were British, mostly upper class, mostly conservative gentlemen, who put up a patriotic fight in the face of dirty foreigners. Ambler largely ignores national differences as an indicator of trustworthiness and makes a point of leaving ‘villain’ relative and ‘hero’ incidental.
To a certain extent, I rather feel that this is his most lasting legacy. Ambler, in humanising his heroes and villains, made them harder to distinguish. Indeed, these days villains are very often more interesting than the hero, and often incite a horrified sympathy from the reader, who recognise themselves in the darkest villain.