A Coffin for Dimitrios

by Eric Ambler

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Last Updated on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

Ambler’s novel can be classified as both a murder mystery novel and a subversive critique of such novels at the same time. Through the plot of protagonist Charles Latimer, Ambler explores various clichés of the genre in addition to questioning the genre’s popularity with audiences.

Like many consumers of murder mysteries, Latimer is intrigued with violence and bloodshed as a form of artistic leisure and entertainment. Upon discovering that Dimitrios's history is not fully understood, Latimer embarks on an international mission to fill in the gaps and create a satisfying conclusion—just as if he were reading one of his own crime novels. This desire for a tidy ending in the genre is what makes Ambler’s book so interesting, since this text leaves several plot lines unresolved and shows that Latimer has seemingly regressed in his attitudes about his profession rather than grown as a result of his experience. One would expect that Latimer would have become disillusioned with the manufactured order of his writing after witnessing real-life murder, yet Latimer ends the text by thinking of an even more cliched, over-processed plot for his next book. The criticism of Ambler’s own preferred literary genre is a fresh take on the murder mystery story, making this novel a standout.

Ambler mostly relies on his characteristic wit and irony to communicate the themes of the text. The prose contains frequent use of humor and sarcasm to establish a playful tone, which underscores the critical messages Ambler communicates. Mr. Peters, for instance, frequently utters jokes and comments that mock Latimer for his clichéd beliefs and actions, demonstrating the author’s ineptitude through humor.

The frequent use of situational and dramatic irony in the novel also create the needed suspense to maintain readers's interest. Mr. Peters's revelation that Dimitrios is actually still alive—a twist that is revealed about midway through the book—forces the plot to change course. When Marukakis's letter at the end of the text asks Latimer how he feels about the truth being exposed in the papers, it is classic example of dramatic irony, since the reader knows the extent of Latimer’s involvement in the deaths of Peters and Dimitrios. These examples of irony are either successful ways to create suspense, as in the case of the former, or humorous additions, as in the case of the latter.

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