Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

February 28, 2008

Must Reading:Part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:41 am

If you haven’t yet read Eric Ambler’s pre-World War II espionage novels, the ones that created the sophisticated political and literary spy novel genre, now’s the time to start. And %%AMAZON=0375726713 A Coffin for Demetrios%% is the place to start. I’m writing a longer essay about the political prescience and sophistication of Ambler’s work, but I want more people to have read him. His four pre-WWII novels–which include Background to Danger–<Epitaph for a Spy and Journey Into Fear will make you realize where latecomers like LeCarre and Furth got their sensibility, the ability to fuse the complexities of politics and ideology with the spy genre.

But Demetrios is the essential one, even more relevant now with Balkan intrigue–Kosovo, Serbia, Albania et. al.–once again a flashpoint for international tension. The secret, though, of the subterranean profundity of Demetrios is Ambler’s use (in 1939) of the word “Holocaust”, the earliest reference I know, and how he links the Turkish/Greek/Armenian mass murders of the teens and twenties, to a shockingly prescient vision of the one to come. Hint: the master criminal, Demetrios, whose involvement in Balkan fascist intrigues is a key focus of the book, was born in 1889.

I’d like to hear if there any fellow Ambler fans out there.



  1. I too am an enthusiast of Ambler. As a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown with a focus on the Balkans, A Coffin for Dimitrios has been on my mind lately. As I begin to dig into the literature on the region, it’s remarkable how much he got right. His novel Judgment on Delchev is an insightful commentary and indictment of communism in Yugoslavia after the Tito-Stalin split at a time when that country was becoming the darling of the west. While his post-War novels tailed off significantly, even his sillier stories, The Schirmer Inheritance and The Light of Day come to mind, contain their their. Looking forward to the essay you mentioned.

    Thanks! So as someone surely more knowledgable about real Calkan history than me, was Ambler correct in his analyisis of the Stambulisky assassination and IMRO?

    Comment by Chris Holbrook — February 29, 2008 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  2. According to R.J. Crampton in his Concise History of Bulgaria, it was a coalition that ousted and killed Stamboliiski. This was a disparate group of anti-Stamboliiskis who cooperated out of a sense of mutual animosity. This faction did include IMRO and rallied around an academic economist named Aleksander Tsankov, first a socialist and later a Hitler toady. However, who actually performed the killing of Stamboliiski is unclear. Interestingly, one of the early leaders of IMRO was a man named Gotse Delchev. It’s been many years since I’ve read Ambler’s A Judgment on Delchev, but it seems unlikely Ambler randomly chose that surname.

    As Ambler says in the novel, “it’ss not who fired the gun, but who paid for the bullet.” Thanks, for the additioal info.

    Comment by Chris Holbrook — February 29, 2008 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  3. Good to see a reference to Ambler here. He’s not much mentioned anymore. I first heard of him in an author interview at the back of the paperback edition of Alan Furst’s “The Polish Officer”. I’m not really familiar with the rest of his work, but “A Coffin for Dimitrios” is brilliant.

    Comment by Dennis — February 29, 2008 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  4. is “the Coffin for Demetrios” the one with the amazing description of the slaughter at Salonika? My copy of that book has disappeared, but I can still remember Ambler’s description: the burning city, the screaming people, and chaos at the docks.

    Yes, basically; it was Smyrna.but you rmember the horror of the description correctly.

    Comment by heather — February 29, 2008 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  5. I have been rebuying and reading the early Ambler books for thirty years. A Coffin for Demetrios caused me to develope a sturdy interest and affection for the Turks.
    On a different note, Ambler wrote the screenplay for The Cruel Sea, a masterful war movie that equals it’s classic novel forrunner.

    Comment by Fred J Harris — February 29, 2008 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  6. So far my favorite is Doctor Frigo. Bleak, hilarious, Latin American.

    Comment by Hank Sims — March 1, 2008 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  7. Thank you for calling attention to Mr. Ambler! I’ve enjoyed him since stumbling upon a 1960 omnibus edition titled “Intrigue” which includes Dimitrios and three of his other pre-1940 novels. (With an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock and a cool 1960-noirish dust jacket to boot.) Perhaps the Hitchcock reference prompts this next thought: another novelist whose work is also amazingly prescient is John Buchan. He is, I realize, more “action”-oriented than Ambler (as well as prone to displaying, at times, some of the nastier stereotypes of the British upper-classes). He is probably best known for “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (the Hitchcock connection), but for prescience I was thinking of “Greenmantle” (1916), which is about the Germans trying to stir up a “Jehad” during World War I. Here’s a small sample: “Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.” (I’ll confess that when I first read this (pre-9/11) it didn’t register with me (other than as part of the story). I wonder if Buchan had a fatwah issued against him in 1916 for that particular observation?) There is, as you may guess, plenty of jingoism (horrors!) in Buchan, but I have seen him described as the “father” of modern spy novels as well (along with Ambler, of course – I’m not arguing for a preference). In closing, here is a final bit from Buchan: “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.” (“The Power-House”, 1916.) My apologies for the long post.

    Comment by Manwithoutqualities — March 2, 2008 @ 12:13 am | Reply

  8. I have that same collection, Manwithout…, which I picked up at a used bookstore in Ann Arbor when I was in law school. Read them all in a weekend and ran to the public library to find as many other Amblers as I could find. I don’t think it did my GPA any good, though.

    Comment by Alex Bensky — March 2, 2008 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  9. There is an excellent film of A Coffin for Dimitrios – Mask of Dimitrios (1944) – which is overdue for restoration and re-issue on DVD. Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet (for once not cast as villains) give fine performances.

    Comment by Steve — March 5, 2008 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  10. I’ve been an Ambler fan since third grade when I read the “Belgrade, 1936” chapter from Dimitrios — it was anthologized as part of Robert Arthur’s young-adult collection SPIES AND MORE SPIES. (The chapter works very well as a standalone short story, by the way.) I sought out the full novel shortly thereafter and never looked back. Great stuff.

    Comment by David — March 5, 2008 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

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