A Book that Taught Don Wallace to Write

This is the first post of a new weekly feature in which we review books—fiction, poetry, how-tos . . . all genres—that teach us something about writing.

The Book: A Coffin For Dimitrios
The Author: Eric Ambler
The Movie: The Mask of Dimitrios (1945) dir. Jean Negulesco
The Lessons: Pace, Setting, Character, Dialog, The Obvious

When I was fourteen Eric Ambler provided me with my first post-graduate seminar in modern politics. Ambler’s five great pre-WWII espionage noirs were brisk accounts of dirty business, set in the borderlands of the Balkans, Italy, the Levant and the Mediterranean: arms merchants, cynical spies, bumbling civilians, and brutes of both capitalism and fascism. By the time Journey Into Fear was published in 1940, the balloon was up, and Ambler was in uniform himself.

I was highly aware of the provocative and at times counter-intuitive political content of the books when I raced through all of Ambler that year. Politics was in our family’s blood, discussed freely at the breakfast and dinner table. We’d carried signs for Goldwater but made a slight leftward deviation at Civil Rights. Ambler gave me ammunition and attitude to offset my squeaky voice and adolescent acne.

I went to Ambler for the history, although he was good at sprinkling his prose with the racy stuff. History was my true love. I wrote good historical essays, particularly about the Spanish Armada, the Civil War, and other boys’ topics. While I do believe there is something about history’s authoritative voice and omniscience that can work well when carried over into fiction, my first stab at a short story was boring and undramatic – and I knew it. My model had been the Hemingway of For Whom the Bell Tolls: serious, tight-lipped, earth-moving prose. How my teacher kept a straight face I don’t know.

What I didn’t recognize at first was how Ambler’s efficient, understated, and sly way with a story was far better than Hemingway for shaping a beginner’s fiction. First, it was easy to fall under the spell of Ambler’s cynical yet easy-going storytelling. He had a way with a cliché: he was unafraid of seeming unoriginal. His dialogue had a way of undermining what the speakers seemed to be saying, so that unease and doubt crept into every exchange. Most impressive of all was his breathtaking grasp of the obvious, which he used to insert us into his scenes so that he could lull us into a perspective, a point of view, that would reflect not on his shortcomings as a writer, but on his characters’ failings in terms of sophistication and acuity. It’s a neat trick, and to my knowledge he may’ve been the first to use it quite this way.

Another thing Ambler does is have his characters do his work for him, economically, vividly, through speeches. Not dialogues. Monologues. In the book there are three set pieces that simply take over the narrative, greatly simplifying the author’s job. They summarize, they tell what cannot logically be told, they dispense with details and particulars thanks to the tics and tendencies displayed. They are extraordinarily entertaining. The speech of Mr. Peters throughout A Coffin for Dimitrios is insinuating, false, untrustworthy, digressive and simpering: no surprise that Sydney Greenstreet (the fat comic villain of The Maltese Falcon) made a feast of the character in the film version. But it’s there on the page, first.

Another thing Ambler does is paint sordid seamy portraits of the underworld – knowing asides about drug addiction and withdrawal, white slavery, blackmail, extortion, the coy suggestion of homosexuality. For the timid reader, or naive fourteen-year-old, who has heard that such worlds exist (who hopes they exist!), Ambler is just the right tour guide: racy but not, you know, pervy.

Finally, Ambler does something in A Coffin for Dimitrios that is neither clever, nor manipulative, nor pandering. He goes out on a limb, morally and authorially. It’s rather shocking, given the man-of-the-world pose of his prose. Ambler predicts a series of events – real and on the horizon in 1938 – and declares that they are inevitable. Sometimes he speaks through his not-so-swift protagonist, the mystery writer Charles Latimer, other times through his various spies, foreign correspondents, secret police chiefs and blackmailers. Through them we witness the rise of The Iron Hand in Hungary, the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, the Greek-Macedonian-Turkish complications that ensure German and Italian success in 1940. Ambler predicts it all.

He even calls the Second World War, in his second-to-last page, and he does it with a savoir-faire that is jarring in hindsight. “My latest information is that war will not break out until the spring; so there will be time for some ski-ing.”

He was off by six months.

I’ve re-read A Coffin for Dimitrios several times as an adult, for pleasure and, yes, to refresh my weary fictional reflexes. To me he’s a reminder of all that you can do on the page, if you just let yourself go and trust the story to tell itself.

To give you a taste of Ambler, here are some of his remarks, prescient, sharp as a Grafton cheddar. They appear, seemingly out of nowhere, in A Coffin for Dimitrios. They open up the story philosophically. Any journalist would have been, I think, proud to be the author of them, but particularly in 1939, when the book was published.

“The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.”

“In a dying civilisation, political prestige is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician but of the man with the best bedside manner. It is the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance.”

“Men have learned to distrust their imaginations. It is, therefore, strange to them when they chance to discover that a world conceived in the imagination, outside experience, does exist in fact.”

“Paris, in that late autumn afternoon, had the macabre formality of a steel engraving.”

“But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michael Angelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”

This last quote comes at the beginning of the climax of the book, forty pages from the end. Today it reads like a modern cliche. Even in Ambler’s time it was. But in the story it’s a summation of all the writer character of Latimer has grown to accept. And it leads him to play a part in the blackmail and extortion to come – not for his own profit, but because it is not in his inquiring nature and morbid imagination to get off the train before it reaches the station. (Latimer writes detective novels, after all.)

Ambler gets the reader in the same fix: even as he lectures us, subtly, about the fraudulence of the whole genre of cosy detective novels, he is delivering us into just such a denouement. Which is what we want, after all. (Something writers should always remember: find a way to give the reader what he wants.)

Ten years later, Graham Greene would lift the entire scenario, as well as the character of Latimer, for his screenplay of The Third Man.

* Spoiler alert: Here’s the ending:

“He looked out of the window. The sun had gone and the hills were receding slowly into the night sky. They would be slowing down for Belfort soon. Two more days to go! He ought to get some sort of a plot worked out in that time.

“The train ran into a tunnel.”

Perfect, yes? The train ran into a tunnel. Not yet a cliché, when Ambler wrote it. And perhaps not when you write it, too.

Articles in this series

One response to “A Book that Taught Don Wallace to Write”

  1. Michael Maren

    Great post, Don. You were the one who turned me on to Eric Ambler, and specifically A Coffin for Dimitrios many years ago.

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