A Coffin for Dimitrios

by Eric Ambler

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Last Updated on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

Eric Ambler’s mystery novel lampoons the clichés of the the literary genre to which it belongs through the ironic tale of Latimer, a mediocre writer of pulp detective books. The most important quotes in the text explore the criticism that Ambler inserts about Latimer, as a representative of the naivety and foolishness of the mystery genre.

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In a roman policier there is a corpse, a number of suspects, a detective, and a gallows. That is artistic. The real murderer is not artistic.

Colonel Haki describes to Latimer the difference between murder mystery novels and their real-life equivalents. Haki describes the appeal of the literary version of real murder, saying it makes the grotesquely mundane into a form of entertainment. This introduces the idea that Latimer does not seem to understand the seriousness of Dimitrios and factual murder, despite writing about it for a living.

You deceive yourself. You hope au fond that by rationalizing Dimitrios, by explaining him, you will also explain that disintegrating social system you speak spoke about.

This comes from a conversation Latimer has with Marukakis in Athens during his investigation into Dimitrios's background. Latimer unsuccessfully tries to explain why he had taken such interest in this topic, and Marukakis implies that Latimer believes he can understand all the problems of society if he can understand a ruthless criminal like Dimitrios. Ambler uses Marukakis's statement to communicate Latimer’s naivety once again; later in the text this quote becomes ironic, as Latimer becomes embroiled in a rather ridiculous scene with Dimitrios himself.

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Mr. Latimer, this is not a detective story. There is no need to be so stupid. Even if you cannot he discreet, at least use your imagination.

This quote is spoken by Mr. Peters, the former criminal associate of Dimitrios, who has been following Latimer across Europe. While Peters soon reveals that his intentions are to blackmail Dimitrios, this quote addresses Latimer’s erroneous assumptions that he believes will solve the mystery of Dimitrios. Peters's criticism is that Latimer believes in easy conclusions that adhere to a kind of moral order which does not really exist. Peters suggests that Latimer’s myopic view of things limits his ability to understand the complexity of the truth in the real world.

Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified. I have tried to define those conditions—but unsuccessfully. All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.

This quote comes from the final chapter of the novel, in a letter to Latimer from Marukakis. In this letter, Marukakis reflects on the news of what transpired in the Paris houses that resulted in both Peters's and Dimitrios's deaths. Marukakis discovers this news in a headline, while Latimer has intimate knowledge of the real truth. This quote in particular suggests that it is possible to change the world and therefore prevent people like Dimitrios from becoming the malicious criminals into which they transform.

This is contrasted with the light-hearted ending of the text, which depicts Latimer reading this grave letter and then immediately thinking about the plot of his next murder mystery novel, which sounds like another clichéd plot that belies the truth about murder, even as Latimer himself recently witnessed it. This juxtaposition suggests that Latimer is ill-suited to his lofty goal of understanding and changing the world for the better, as he realizes he lacks the strength of character to do what is necessary to achieve such goals.

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