A Masterclass In How To Write A Spy Thriller : Europe Between The Wars
Finding what to read next after finishing a book which satisfied on every level, can be a real problem – well it can for me, as the stunningly successful book is one which shakes me up, and continues to make me think, feel, reflect and react for some time after I finish reading it. It then proceeds to hang around for a bit, insinuating itself between me and my next book, and, generally, will be almost bound to make me disappointed in that next read.
So……I finished Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North roughly a week ago, and that met my criteria of being a great book – not just the story, the characters, the quality of the writing, but it was ‘about stuff’ and engaged my intellect, my heart, my guts and has continued to make me reflect on its layered ‘stuff’
So……….I have picked up and put down, half read, read in disappointment books which don’t make it onto here. But how to break the spell? Reading something purely for entertainment won’t work, as I still want ‘stuff’ . Reading something where my little miss picky is going to be irritated by writing which is not of the same calibre won’t work either. Only a re-read will do, And the inspired choice was Eric Ambler’s The Mask Of Dimitrios.
I love these books written in the interwar years, by writers with an interest in world affairs, thrillers with a finger on the pulse of international affairs. Graham Greene, who wrote several of these (Stamboul Train, A Gun For Sale, The Ministry of Fear) classing them as entertainments, won’t do for me at THIS point, because Greene is a writer who always takes the reader right inside his characters, creating empathy, unsettling, and even in ‘the entertainments’, engages viscerally, making the reader feel and suffer with his characters. Flanagan wrung me too hard emotionally, and I want, at this point, a cooler, distanced engagement.
Ambler is perfect. He writes wonderful, absorbing, twisting stories, and his characters are plausible, interesting, and of a piece with themselves, rather than purely ciphers. But, – he doesn’t engage (at least not in this one) with any personal stuff, nothing intimate, nothing of relationship. Hearts are not stirred, shaken and broken, though bodies might be!
The Mask of Dimitrios is in many ways an old-fashioned, intelligent thriller, displaying all the craft of disciplined good writing.
…propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made
The central character, Latimer, is an academic and writer. He has written books on economics, but, latterly, has become successful as a writer of popular, well written detective stories. Travelling abroad whilst he works on finding a plot for his next novel, he happens, by chance encounter, to meet a high ranking Turkish colonel, through whom he gets drawn into hearing the story of Dimitrios, a man who evaded capture across Europe, for over a decade. He was implicated in several murders, political assassination attempts, was a mercenary, and ran a drug ring. In short, he was some kind of personification of the master criminal.
Latimer, almost idly, is intrigued to see, as a writer of detective stories, if he himself can do some detection into all the many gaps in Dimitrios’ history.
By making his central character a writer, not a professional investigator, criminal, journalist, policier, secret service agent or political activist, Ambler has found the perfect method for instructing the reader in any background information which is needed, without the novel degenerating into a lecture on policing, the autopsy room, the drug trade, espionage and the like. Latimer, like us, is innocent of these things and will need instruction. Ambler uses an old fashioned, third person narration, which works perfectly well – the author as a cool, cerebral narrator of events. Latimer seeks out various experts along the way who can do things like translate official records written in Bulgarian, explain how spies are recruited and run, and the like. All these experts are also interesting, rounded, individualistic characters, who have unique voices; not just vehicles for information.
Presently, however, the floor was cleared and a number of the girls who had disappeared some minutes before to replace their clothes with a bunch or two of primroses and a great deal of suntan lotion, did a short dance. They were followed by a youth dressed as a woman who sang songs in German; then they reappeared without their primroses to do another dance
What did however strike me forcibly is that what is absolutely missing in the novel is ‘the personal’ None of the characters are given any domestic background. We know nothing about husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings or friends. Everyone is engaged in the business of the central story, and the ‘wants’ and motives are, in the main, greed, money, power. This is a deadly and cerebral crossword puzzle of detection. And utterly successful at that.
Ambler has the reader as feverishly unable to leave the story alone, and desirous of knowing ‘what happens next’ as Latimer himself. And he does this with an incisive writing style, and what is clearly his own urbane sense of wit and humour. This is also given as one of Latimer’s engaging qualities, keeping the reader closely engaged with, and rooting for, our central character
on his face was a look that Latimer had not seen there before. It was the look of the expert attending to the business he understood perfectly. There was a sort of watchful repose in his face that reminded Latimer of a very old and experienced cat contemplating a very young and inexperienced mouse
A stylish, engaging and pacey thriller, whisking the reader effortlessly through several European countries during the 20s and early 30s
The book was made into a noir film with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. If you intend to read the book, you might choose not to see this clip, until you have done so, as it contains spoilers.