By Ben Soton
If you ever get a chance, the crime thrillers of Eric Ambler are well worth reading. Many of his novels feature cross-continental travel and are a possible inspiration for modern films such as the Bourne trilogy. The emphasis on travel is in contrast to the Agatha Christie model located in closed settings such as country houses or strange holiday islands.
The Mask of Dimitrios is an Ambler classic. This novel, first published in 1939 and made into a film in 1944, is perhaps his best and certainly the most famous. The Mask of Dimitrios is centred around the discovery of the body of a petty criminal, Dimitrios Makropoulos, on the Turkish shore. The character of Dimitrios is believed to be based on the Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, a real ‘merchant of death’, although Ambler denied all knowledge of him.
A British novelist, Charles Latimer, takes an interest in the criminal’s biography with a possible view to a new novel and indulges in some investigative journalism. Latimer begins to unpick the life of this man as he travels across the Balkans and uncovers his involvement in assassination attempts, espionage, sex-trafficking and the illegal drugs trade. By making the hero a crime writer, Ambler is able to make the story a critique of the typical crime novel of the 1930s, which is exemplified by the stories of Agatha Christie. In Christie’s novels there is a dead body, a several suspects and a detective, and ends when he or she uncovers the murderer. Ambler criticises this format by stating that it simply does not reflect real life.
I myself have often wondered how Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’, an elderly spinster living in a remote village, could have such a wide understanding of the world. Many murders are not solved or are even unnoticed, miscarriages of justice take place, murderers sometimes escape justice and more importantly there is more to crime than just murder. Murder is as much a symptom of criminal activity as well as a crime in itself.
Ambler’s novel is still relevant today with its references to the illegal trade in drugs and sex trafficking. In the 1930s The League of Nations attempted to halt the international sex trade; groups of women were often transported across continents posing as dance troops. The book looks at crime from the perspective of the criminal. In the story a former associate of Dimitrios, known as Mr Peters, explains how the illegal drug trade is more lucrative than the sex trade. Peters goes into detail that when trafficking a group of women across Europe he is forced to keep them entertained in his club at some considerable expense whilst he is concerned that one of the women may inform the authorities. Meanwhile large numbers of single women in a night club would obviously attract the attention of male customers. He goes on to say that heroin can simply be stored in a warehouse at little cost in boxes marked “dates”.
The Mask of Dimitrios shows the distinctly left-wing, progressive and anti-fascist sentiments of the author. In particular, Ambler explores the role of criminal underworld types in the intrigues of fascist plots and inter-imperialist rivalries. Dimitrios, whilst in Bulgaria, was involved in an assassination attempt of a progressive prime-minister and in 1923 the left-leaning government of Alexander Stamboliyski was overthrown by a coup of reactionary army officers. A few years later Dimitrios re-emerges in Belgrade where he acquires military secrets of behalf of France. Meanwhile the book portrays the Greek Communist Marukakis in a positive light, and shows a shows international finance as corrupt and a harbinger of fascism.
Amber was a staunch anti-fascist and many of his novels written in the 1930s also show communists in a positive light. In another story, Uncommon Danger, the hero even collaborates with a Soviet agent.
Ambler unfortunately drifted to the right during the Cold War. In 1951 he wrote Judgement on Deltchev, about a show trial in a fictional eastern European country that right-wing journalist Peter Hitchens, a turn-coat Trot, put on his “top five” list of anti-communist thrillers.
But many of Ambler’s novels written in the 1930s have a distinctly progressive tone, and are a stark improvement on both Agatha Christie and reactionary thriller writers such as Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth.