Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel The Mask of Dimitrios (published in the US as A Coffin for Dimitrios) is a true classic of the crime/espionage genre.
Charles Latimer is a mild-mannered writer of detective stories on holiday in Istanbul. He makes the acquaintance of the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who happens to be a fan of crime fiction. Colonel Haki shows him the body of a real murderer, a mysterious man known as Dimitrios who has been sought by the police in half a dozen countries over the course of the preceding two decades. Latimer becomes obsessed by the idea of doing some real detective work on his own initiative, trying to untangle the truth about the life and crimes of Dimitrios.
Latimer’s amateur detective work takes him to various European cities, where he meets an assortment of shady but fascinating characters who have been associates of the dead criminal. Dimitrios has dabbled in white slaving, drug dealing, robbery, political assassinations and espionage. Latimer’s quest turns out to be more interesting than he expected, but also a lot more dangerous.
Although Dimitrios is dead, he dominates the book, as Latimer slowly pieces together the details of his lively but violent career. Latimer is a great character as well, in a book that abounds in colourful characters like the enigmatic Mr Peters.
It’s a stylish, gripping and highly entertaining tale, brilliantly plotted and executed with tremendous elan. An absolute must-read.