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Last Reviewed 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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

A Coffin for Dimitrios is a novel of obsession, first of the protagonist, Charles Latimer, and finally of the reader. It is a novel of a search as Latimer travels around the eastern Mediterranean in a journey of discovery, trying to locate the past of the man whose body he had seen lying in a Turkish morgue. It is a novel of betrayal as first one and then another of Dimitrios’ friends become his victims, finally ending as both Latimer and the reader discover their own betrayal at the hands of the author, Eric Ambler.

The novel opens in 1938 with Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who has just resigned his academic post for reasons of health and in order to concentrate on his career as an author of detective stories, vacationing in Istanbul, where at a party he meets Colonel Haki, the head of the Turkish secret police. Haki, an inveterate reader of romans policiers, offers to give Latimer the plot for his next book, and the following day, the men meet at Haki’s office, where the officer describes a conventional but totally useless story about a murder in the library of an English country house. In a moment of inspiration, Haki also offers to show Latimer the dossier of a real murderer whose body has been recently found floating in the Bosphorus. Spurred by Latimer’s interest, Haki tells the writer about Dimitrios from his first run-in with the Turkish police in 1922 until they found his waterlogged corpse a few days before. Latimer accompanies Haki to the morgue, where they view the body; as they leave, the Colonel remarks that he would like to have seen what Dimitrios saw and what death has prevented his lips from recounting. With these intriguing lines, Latimer is off and running toward an adventure that will take him from Turkey to Athens, on to Sofia and Geneva, and finally to Paris, where eventually he discovers the real ending of the life of Dimitrios. In the process, Latimer courses back over the years, tracing the life of his man from 1922 to the present moment of the novel, in 1938.

After examining the court files in Turkey which describe the first recorded crime of Dimitrios, that of murdering Sholem, a moneylender in Smyrna, in 1922, Latimer sets off for Athens to follow him through the Greek refugee camps caused by the Greco-Turkish War. The trail next leads to Sofia, where in 1923, Dimitrios, by then using the Turkish name of Taladis, was involved in an assassination attempt on the life of the leader of the Bulgarian Peasant Agrarian Party, Stambulsky. In Sofia, Latimer meets Madame Preveza, the first of the victims left in the wake of Dimitrios’ remarkable career. Although Dimitrios next escaped to Belgrade, Latimer is discouraged from going there by the mysterious Mr. Peters and instead sets forth for Geneva to interview a Mr. Grodek, who had hired Dimitrios to help him with some espionage work in Belgrade. There, in 1926, he posed as a German representative of an optical firm and blackmailed a minor government clerk, Bulic, into selling Yugoslav military secrets.

Dimitrios dropped out of sight until 1931, when he surfaced in Paris as the head of a large and well-organized drug ring. Latimer proceeds to the French capital, where he runs into the mysterious Mr. Peters, who proves to be another of Dimitrios’ victims, having been jailed when he turned over all the names of the members of his drug ring to the French police before eluding them. Peters fills in the rest of the details of Dimitrios’ life and reveals what the reader has already started to suspect—namely, that Dimitrios is still alive and that the body in Turkey was a plant to throw the authorities permanently off of his trail. In a finale worthy of a revenge tragedy, both Peters and Dimitrios, now posing as a successful French businessman, are killed in a shoot-out when Peters’ blackmail scheme against Dimitrios fails. Latimer walks away from the carnage without informing the police or taking the money, and the novel concludes with Latimer firmly reentrenched in his role as a writer about fictitious crimes and struggling to compose the plot of his next detective story.

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