A Coffin for Dimitrios

by Eric Ambler

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Last Updated on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

Eric Ambler’s novel A Coffin For Dimitrios, set in the early twentieth century, takes the reader from Turkey to numerous other European sites. Charles Latimer traces the story of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a man he never met but only saw as a corpse in a morgue. Beginning in Istanbul in 1938, while Latimer is on vacation, the plot moves back in time to different events in Makropoulos’s fascinating life.

Latimer, an English author, meets Colonel Haki at a party. Haki, the head of Turkey’s secret police, learns that Latimer writes crime fiction, which Haki enjoys. The policeman fills in the fascinated Latimer on the exploits of a notorious spy and criminal, Makropoulos, since the early 1920s. He ends up taking Latimer to the morgue to view the criminal’s body, which had turned up in the Bosporus. Latimer’s imagination is fired up, and he sets off to learn all he can about Makropoulos. The quest takes him to Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and Paris.

In Turkey, Latimer learns about Dimitrios’s first known crime: he murdered a moneylender in Smyrna in 1922. Next, in Athens, Latimer finds out he had once lived in a Greek refugee camp. In Sofia, Dimitrios had used the alias "Taladis" and tried to assassinate a Bulgarian politician. There, Latimer meets Madame Preveza, who runs a brothel. She recounts how Dimitrios wronged her.

Latimer does not go on to Belgrade, which had been Makropoulos’s next known stop, after meeting a man named Peters, who suggests he try Geneva. There, Latimer interviews Wladyslaw Grodek, a retired spy who worked in Belgrade with Dimitrios, who was then using a false German identity that enabled access to Yugoslavian military secrets.

A few years later, Latimer learns, Dimitrios had operated an illegal drug business in Paris. Following this lead, Latimer again meets Peters, who explains that he, too, had been victimized by the criminal. When Dimitrios acted as an informant to the police, betraying his fellow dealers, Peters was sent to jail, but Dimitrios escaped. Peters tells Latimer the body found in Turkey was not that of Makropoulos: he is still alive. Peters locates Dimitrios and tries to blackmail him, but finally, the two men kill each other. Latimer, who witnesses the shootings, rejects further involvement and simply returns to his writer’s life.

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