The reader must not confuse appearance for reality in this book. We meet Dimitrios as a corpse in a morgue at the start of the book, but he doesn’t really die until the book’s end. So the book is one long investigation into a death which hasn’t happened. I’ve read that the book has also been published as “The Masks of Dimitrios” and this alternative title tells alot about the book’s protagonist. Dimitrios Makropoulos, aka Dimitrios Talat, Dimitrios Taladis, and S.K. and his work in Smyrna, Sofia, Adrianople, Zagreb, Athens, Paris, plying his trade as a murderer, robber, pimp, white slaver, heroin distributor, spy, assassin, and ultimately on the Board of Directors of Eurasian Credit Trust in pre-WWII Europe, a time and place of great tensions in a Europe teetering on the brink of war. The sense of this imminent catastrophe is a part of the atmosphere of the book.
Latimer, the narrator for most of the novel, is a successful crime novelist who is questioning his own talent and the worth of his trade. His cover story for chasing Dimitrios’s trail across Europe is that he is engaged in real life detective work, which should help his craft. But he and many others in the novel question his motives. He himself begins to consider his obsession more of a work of biography than detection. “There was an emotional element in it, too, I wanted to explain Dimitriios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system”. The book considers biography, duplicity and self-understanding, “A man’s features, the bone structure and the tissue which covers it, are the product of a biological process; but his face he creates for himself. It is a statement of his habitual emotional attitude; the attitude which his desires need for their fulfilment and which his fears demand for their protection from prying eyes. He wears it like a devil mask …. though [others] understand instinctively that the mask cannot be the man behind it, they are generally shocked by a demonstration of the fact. The duplicity of others must alway us be shocking when one is unconscious of one’s own.”
In the end Latimer allows himself to become complicit in a criminal enterprise which he rationalizes by deceiving himself that it will out Dimitrios for his crimes. The wise communist journalist who helps Latimer, brings together the book’s social critique and it’s concern for masks by saying, “Can one explain Dimitrios or must one turn away disgusted and defeated? I am tempted to find reason and justice in the fact that he died as violently and indecently as he lived. But that is too ingenuous a way out. It does not explain Dimitrios; it only apologises for him. 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.”
If you like classic mysteries written in the 30's and 40's, this is a good read.
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