Eric Ambler

A Coffin for Dimitrios

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A Coffin for Dimitrios Summary

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A Coffin for Dimitrios is a 1939 spy novel by English author Eric Clifford Ambler. Known as the father of crime realism, Ambler tells the story of Charles Latimer, a novelist who investigates the death of a criminal named Dimitrios. The investigation takes Latimer through Turkey and Greece, and ultimately to England, where the plot culminates in a revelation about Dimitrios’s true fate and a fatal shootout. The novel is considered one of the first postmodern works for its themes of social alienation, the construct of narrative and truth, and the instability of identity.

A Coffin for Dimitrios begins as Latimer researches the death of Dimitrios, a notorious Greek drug boss whose business stretched across the Mediterranean. Dimitrios’s body was discovered in Turkey’s Bosporus River. A writer of detective stories, Latimer is fascinated with what little is established about Dimitrios’s life—a fascination that soon turns into an obsession. He travels to the morgue to see his body, then researches his first known crime: a murder-robbery during the Armenian genocide committed by the Turkish nation. From there, he tracks Dimitrios’s attempt to seek asylum in Greece, then to the island of Sofia, where he narrowly missed an assassination attempt.

At his hotel in Sofia, Lattimer catches a man searching his room. The man is Mr. Peters, Dimitrios’s past accomplice in the drug trade. Dimitrios and Mr. Peters had been friendly, but that ended when Dimitrios betrayed Mr. Peters to avoid his own capture, taking over his part of the business. Mr. Peters is intrigued when Latimer claims that he saw Dimitrios’s body. He suspects that Dimitrios is, in fact, alive. He gives Latimer an ambiguous lucrative offer that involves helping him with an investigation. Latimer tentatively accepts, and Mr. Peters connects him with a former spy in Paris.

The Parisian spy relates that Dimitrios was once involved in an espionage attempt to steal the blueprint for a minefield. Dimitrios ended up taking the plans for himself, betraying the man he was working for. Latimer reaches out to Mr. Peters, who tells him that Dimitrios managed a huge drug-smuggling business in Paris. While in Paris, Dimitrios became addicted to heroin and blackmailed his accomplices to obtain a cure before fleeing the city. Peters assures Latimer that Dimitrios is certainly alive. He explains that the body he saw in the morgue belonged to another of Dimitrios’s victims, a man who got caught trying to blackmail him. Dimitrios used the murder to fake his death.

Latimer agrees to help Peters blackmail Dimitrios. He helps, but refuses to accept any of the proceeds of the blackmail on principle. They extort half a million francs from Dimitrios. Peters is confident that they are in the clear and that Dimitrios will never track down their identities. Just before Latimer leaves for England, he and Peters celebrate their victory. In the middle of their celebration, Dimitrios arrives with a gun and shoots Peters. Latimer disarms Dimitrios, then gives Peters the gun and starts to run to get the police. As Latimer exits, Dimitrios warns him, frantically, that Peters will simply shoot him and escape rather than seek the recourse of justice. Latimer leaves anyways; moments later, he hears shots fired. He runs back in to find both Peters and Dimitrios dead. Without any remaining recourse, and realizing that he is now the surviving epicenter of the crimes, Latimer purges the flat of any evidence of his presence. He leaves the blackmail money behind with Peters and Dimitrios’s bodies. At last, he returns to England, resuming his life as a writer of detective fiction. This ironic, mundane ending of A Coffin for Dimitrios illuminates the paradoxical bridge that exists between fiction and reality: Latimer has been both the author and the subject of crime stories.