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 Latimer trace the life of Dimitrios through the 1920’s and 1930’s, he reveals the gradual collapse of the West’s moral fiber through neglect and weariness. The slaughter of the innocents during the sacking of Smyrna establishes the background of terror which permeates this book. The plight of fleeing refugees and stateless persons inadequately cared for, the suppressed popular political causes which went unheeded, the presence of political assassination and petty national squabbles all attest a level of instability and disequilibrium perfect for the resumption of hostilities never adequately concluded in 1918.

Such questions of political intrigue are typical of spy fiction, a genre which was actually being defined during the interwar years. Also vital to the genre are questions of loyalty, to whom it is due and why and at what price, and personal commitment, with whom and why and at what price. The private and public virtues intertwine, complicating each other and raising valuable questions about ethics. Novels such as A Coffin for Dimitrios also provide an opportunity to explore what happens when an individual is released from the restrictions of conventional morality and is denied a place within the community of nations. Such an alienated person provides for everyone a frightening example of the forces of anarchy which reside within. As Charles Latimer follows the life of Dimitrios, it becomes increasingly clear that he is also pursuing an internal journey into the recesses of his own psyche. It is a frightening trip, one from which he recoils by the end of the novel.