Thursday, 1 June 2017

Fiction mirrors fiction - James Bond and Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios

One of the numerous volumes on James Bond's bookshelf (there are more than you think) is Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios. Bond reads the novel, published in 1939, on the plane en route to Istanbul in From Russia, with Love (1957).

The novel concerns a writer of detective mysteries called Charles Latimer. In Istanbul, he's introduced to Colonel Haki, the head of the secret police, who, interested in Latimer's profession, tells him about a real murder. A man called Dimitrios, by all accounts a nasty piece of work, has washed up dead, having been stabbed. As far as Haki is concerned, the case is closed, but out of professional curiosity, Latimer begins to look into the life of this criminal. Following a trail from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and Paris, he discovers that the truth about Dimitrios isn't so clear cut, as events take a sinister and dangerous turn.

What Bond thought of the book is unrecorded, but he may have returned to the book from time to time and wondered whether there were certain echoes of the book in his own adventures. 

For instance, according to the records of the Greek authorities, Dimitrios is 182 centimetres tall. Bond may have raised an eyebrow at that – Bond himself is only one centimetre taller, as mentioned in From Russia, with Love, and indeed, we subsequently find out that Dimitrios is a little taller still.

Then there's the description of the nature of spy work. At one point of the novel, Latimer meets a polish spy named Grodek, who Latimer discovers recruited Dimitrios as an agent. In a subsequent letter recounting his meeting, Latimer wonders whether 'governments of adult men and women behave like children playing Red Indians'. The phrase would have been familiar to Bond. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre, while torturing Bond with a carpet beater, tells Bond that 'the game of Red Indians is over, quite over', and later Bond admits to himself that he 'had been playing Red Indians through the years.' It's unlikely that Ian Fleming, perhaps having read The Mask of Dimitrios before he wrote Casino Royale, borrowed the phrase from Ambler, as, during the Second World War, he called his commando unit, 30AU, his Red Indians, but the coincidence is interesting all the same.

In another part of the book, Latimer discovers that Dimitrios was also a drug pedlar, and learns about the drug trade from a former associate of Dimitrios, a Mr Peters. Latimer finds out, for instance, that drugs are smuggled into Europe from Istanbul on the Orient Express, with the help of a bribed sleeping car attendant. Bond, of course, travels on the Orient Express in From Russia, with Love, but the train is mentioned again in the short story 'Risico', which is about the drugs trade. Fleming describes how opium is smuggled onto the train in Istanbul and hidden in false upholstery in the carriages, with the help of bribed train cleaners. As he set off to Rome to tackle Colombo, and then Kristatos, Bond must have been pleased about having had something of a grounding in drug smuggling from Eric Ambler.

What about the nature of good and evil? James Bond wrestles with this question as he recuperates from injuries sustained by the carpet beater in Casino Royale. Bond tells Mathis that 'in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes – and we call them God and the Devil'. Latimer also reflects on the nature of good and evil, and considers that traditional concepts are not sufficient: 'It was useless trying to explain [Dimitrios] 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.' 

It's hard to say whether Ian Fleming had The Mask of Dimitrios in mind as he wrote Casino Royale and 'Risico', or that the book was especially influential in the writing of From Russia, with Love, but as Bond finds himself in the same murky environments as Eric Ambler's hero, it's unsurprising that there would be there be some aspects in common between Ambler's and Fleming's work.

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