The Mask of Dimitrios. Eric Ambler. Hodder and Stoughton, RRP £9.99
First published in 1939 by Hodder and Stoughton The Mask of Dimitrios is considered Eric Ambler’s most praised book and widely acknowledged as one of the great espionage thrillers of the 20th century.
The intelligence, authenticity and engrossing story telling that established The Mask of Dimitrios has been copied by Le Carre, Deighton and Ludlam amongst others, but possibly not surpassed.
Ambler was a classic suspense writer who wrote great thrillers. His books were often characterised by an innocent abroad stumbling into trouble, not particularly difficult in the volatile and hostile 1930s Europe. His fast-paced spy novels influenced Hitchcock (North by Northwest) and Graham Greene (The Third Man) with a more intelligent, possibly socialist, approach to 1930s European politics rather than the old fashioned English style ineptly copied by John Buchan imitators. Certainly he revitalised the British thriller.
The Mask of Dimitrios is frequently cited as a Haycroft Queen cornerstone of detective and mystery fiction. Howard Haycraft originally published a complete checklist of ‘The Definite Library of Mystery Fiction’ in his 1941 landmark book Murder for Pleasure. The list was subsequently updated and broadened by Ellery Queen and became a standard amongst dealers and collectors everywhere. The list included books published between 1748 (Voltaire) and 1952.
In The Mask of Dimitrios an English novelist Charles Latimer is travelling in Europe looking for material for his next book. He makes the acquaintance of Turkish police inspector Colonel Hakis in Istanbul. It is from the colonel that he first hears of the mysterious Dimitrios – an infamous master criminal, long wanted by the law, and whose body has just been hawled out of the Bosphorus. Fascinated by the story Latimer decides to retrace Dimitrios’ steps across Europe to gather material for a new book. However he gradually discovers more about his subject’s shadowy history. Fascination becomes an obsession. In entering he criminal underworld inhabited by Dimitrios Latimer realises that his own life may be in danger.
The book was published in the USA entitled ‘A Coffin For Dimitrios’ and was made into a successful film in 1944 with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. It is the book Ian Fleming took with him to Istanbul when researching for ‘From Russia With Love’ in 1957, and James Bond is seen reading a copy on the plane in his journey to the same city. This may require corroboration from James Bond aficionados.
Ambler’s ambition was to be a playwright. He was born in Southeast London to parents, who were music hall artists. He won a scholarship to study engineering at Northampton Polytechnic in Islington, but after the general strike became a trainee at Edison Swan Electric Company as an advertising copywriter. He joined the army at the start of the second world war, and was drafted into a film unit. He wrote the script for The Way Ahead (1944) directed by Carol Reed and starring David Niven. He shot propaganda films with John Huston and socialised with Bogart. After the war he was a scriptwriter for a number of movies including The Cruel Sea and A Night To Remember. Hitchcock was a good friend and organised his second wedding, and was to some extent indebted to Ambler’s fiction for films such as North by Northwest (1959).
At the time of his death in 1998 his books were out of print, but several books including the Mask of Dimitrios were released as Penguin Classics in 2009.
First editions (first printings), particularly with intact dust jackets, are very rare with only single figure numbers for sale. German bombing destroyed the majority of copies of the first edition while in storage in Hodder’s London warehouse, where they were awaiting further distribution. Perhaps this outrage contributed to Ambler joining the army. The book’s scarcity has made first edition copies very expensive ranging for £5000 to £12,000. However, cheaper copies can easily be purchased.
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