Literature / A Coffin for Dimitrios
Originally published in Britain in 1939 as "The Mask of Dimitrios". A classic spy novel
by Eric Ambler of the "stale beer" type. It tells of British mystery writer Charles Latimer going on vacation to Turkey and learning about Dimitrios, a notorious criminal, whose corpse has just been found. Through the course of his extremely shady life, Dimitrios went from a petty crook, to a pimp, to a particularly unethical spy, to finally a member of an international syndicate
engaged in drug-trafficking and other crime. As Latimer researches Dimitrios' past, he begins to be drawn into a world of dark conspiracies.
Adapted into the 1944 film The Mask of Dimitrios
starring Peter Lorre
Contains examples of:
- Black and Gray Morality: Besides Latimer, who is a decent guy, and some of his informants who are likewise, some of the characters who want revenge on Dimitrios are almost as bad as he is.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Colonel Haki, the Turkish Secret Police officer, as part of Obfuscating Stupidity
- The Butler Did It: In Colonel Haki's mystery novel (implied to be bad) that he shares with Latimer, he reveals that he played this trope completely straight.
- Faking the Dead
- Inherent in the System: In a Writer on Board passage, the novel discusses how Dimitrios is a symptom of larger social problems, "But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michael Angelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler's Mein Kampf."
- It's for a Book: Latimer uses this as an excuse to explain his interest in finding out information on Dimitrios. Played straight a couple of times, but most often, the people hearing this think he has a sinister motive.
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else/ The Nondescript: Even people who knew Dimitrios for extended periods of time seem to describe him in a way that's so general it could fit any number of people.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene: A segment of the novel describes the Turkish recapture of the Greek-occupied city of Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey. Dimitrios, half-Greek, half-Turkish, escaped the violence thanks to a fake Turkish passport.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Colonel Haki loves to read English mystery novels, but reads them in French, because he doesn't have much understanding of English and mangles it when he tries to speak it. This originally gives Latimer the impression that Haki is something of a fool. Then, he sees a look of ruthless cunning and intelligence in Haki's eyes, and remembers that the Colonel gained his reputation during the terrible Greco-Turkish War, a conflict marked by massacres and extreme brutality on both sides.
- Pet Rat: Dimitrios was one of these during one stage of his life, working for the Bulgarian government to entrap innocent people into spying and acting as the middleman to assassinate reformist leaders.
- Playing Against Type: Peter Lorre as The Hero and Sydney Greenstreet as an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain
- Reality Subtext: The film was made during World War II, and because many leading men were serving in combat, Lorre got a rare heroic role
- Red Right Hand: Dimitrios is a good-looking guy, but has an unpleasant, raspy voice
- Smug Snake: Dimitrios may be clever, but he's never more than a nasty thug.
- The Spymaster: One of the characters, Grodek, is a retired one who was involved in a lot of dirty dealings.
- Tranquil Fury: While normally a heroic trope, this applies to Dimitrios rather well. He rarely acts angry (although he can be cruel and violent on occasion), but he has a look in his eyes, especially when angry, that makes people who are physically stronger terrified of him.
- Unfazed Everyman: Latimer