A Coffin for Dimitrios Themes
by Eric Ambler

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A Coffin for Dimitrios Themes

Order Versus Chaos

Charles Latimer’s deepest impulse is a desire to create order out of chaos. Upon seeing the body of what he believes is international murderer and criminal mastermind Dimitrios Markopoulos in a coffin in Istanbul, Latimer embarks on a solo detective mission to parse out the messy timeline of Dimitrios's crimes, as outlined in the dossier presented to him. Believing he can connect the dots, Latimer tries to solve the inaccuracies and gaps in information without considering that his essential premise—that the body in the coffin was indeed Dimitrios—is faulty. When Mr. Peters allows Latimer to know the truth—that Latimer was naive in thinking such order could be applied to such a complex web of confusion—Latimer finally realizes the futility of his mission.


Part of Latimer’s initial fascination with Dimitrios is that he feels as though the criminal got what he deserved, yet Latimer also feels a degree of pity for the circumstances of his death. This cognitive dissonance essentially disappears once Latimer discovers Dimitrios is actually alive, yet Latimer still clings to the idea that justice, above all, must be served. Rather than take Mr. Peters's bribe money, Latimer simply wishes to bear witness to the successful blackmail of Dimitrios.

Latimer feels that he should let the police know all the information he has discovered and let them handle the matter, yet he realizes that the facts he has are unverifiable at best and ludicrous at worst. Furthermore, after Peters and Dimitrios fatally shoot each other, Latimer can’t bring himself to call the police for fear that he will be somehow implicated in their deaths. Instead of seeking true justice in any sense of the word, Latimer decides that he is satisfied with the cosmic justice that would allow him to escape the drama unscathed.


Latimer begins his investigation of Dimitrios in earnest, perhaps to satisfy a morbid curiosity or perhaps to seek an understanding of the “decayed” social order. However, Latimer eventually realizes that his investigation was meaningless, as he learns nothing from the experience except how to cover up traces of his presence at a crime scene. Latimer believes that he has a special capability in the real world because of his profession, yet he finds himself unequipped to handle facts or details that question his proposed theories. Despite all his experience with murder on the page, Latimer is incompetent when dealing with real life murder.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central themes of this book revolve around two axes: the interwar period just prior to the opening of hostilities in Europe during the summer of 1939 and the characteristics of the genre of spy fiction itself. Certainly any novel published in 1939 and purporting to deal with such themes as the tensions between nation-states, international espionage, and the collapse, once again, of European society can be read as dealing, at least obliquely, with the historical moment. It is to Ambler’s credit that he did not concentrate overtly on the international situation, but rather by having...

(The entire section is 757 words.)