Friday, August 14, 2009

Eric Ambler—A Coffin for Dimitrios

I lifted this from the shelves at a bed and breakfast I was staying at, thinking that there’s nothing quite like a mindless murder mystery to entertain you at the beach.

In fact, it’s quite a mindful one, from its erudite protagonist to its oddly inverted plotline, in which a British professor turned crime novelist happens into a murder while vacationing in Istanbul. One expects he will set out to solve the crime, but rather than trying to unravel the circumstances of the death, he becomes obsessed with reconstructing the trajectory of the life, much like assembling an existential jigsaw puzzle when you have only a few pieces.

Since the victim was a career criminal who profited off the misfortune of others, the trail leads through various stress points of early-twentieth-century Europe: the uneasy ethnic mishmash of the late Ottoman Empire, the holocaust of Smyrna, the refugee camps of Athens, the political intrigues and coups of Bulgaria, and the trade in drugs and kidnapped women in Paris. Lurking behind everything are the giant, shadowy international banks who profit off all of it, just as surely as Dimitrios did. In the narrator’s words:
It was useless to try and explain Dimitrios 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 The logic of Michael Angelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

There's a lovely linkage set up here between the petty criminals who threaten civilized society, the criminal masterminds who destroy it, and the economic masterminds who arrange it for their own benefit, making use of (it is suggested) the other two groups as needed. Published in 1939, before the invasion of Poland, the book ends with the premonition of World War II. If Brecht had written crime novels instead of just reading them, he probably would have come up with something like this.

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