A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene (1936)

One of the more populist of his books, from the group which Greene in mid-life dismissively referred to as ‘entertainments’, I found A Gun For Sale the first genuinely gripping and plausible Greene novel I’ve read. For once there is something like a plot, a sequence of linked events concerning the same characters in which much is at stake and the reader is genuinely concerned at the outcome, which rattles along at speed and isn’t slowed to a standstill by the long soliloquies about despair and futility which mar the other early novels (although the long passage about the medical students seems inserted to pad it out).

Plot

Raven is a hitman. Abroad, he murders an old socialist Minister in some government, sparking an international crisis as nations blame each other. Raven doesn’t care. Back in England he is paid off by the guy who contracted him, fat Cholmondeley. But when Raven satirically and cruelly buys a dress for the crippled girl in his seedy boarding house, he discovers he’s been had – paid in forged fivers. The police have the serial numbers of the notes, have distributed the list to every shop in London, and the dress shop tips them off. Determined on revenge, Raven finds and follows Cholmondeley onto a train heading north to Nottwich (presumably Nottingham).

In a parallel thread, young Anne Crowder is in love with clear-thinking logical detective Jimmy Mather. Mather just happens to be the detective assigned to the Raven case. Anne just happens to be on the same train heading for Nottwich as Raven, as she’s a dancer joining a troupe there. Penniless and ticketless, Raven gets talking to her, then uses her as a human shield to escape through Nottwich station and then marches her to the outskirts to a deserted estate of new houses where he fully intends to shoot her, but the accidental arrival of an estate agent allows her to escape.

Anne makes her way back to her boarding house and next day is rehearsing with her dance troupe when Cholmondeley turns up, under the name of Davis, as the backer of the show. Anne realises this is the fat middle-man Raven is looking for; also that if they can prove Cholmondeley did it, the international incident which is moving towards war will be cancelled. She allows Cholmondeley to wine and dine and very nearly seduce her – but then accidentally lets slip her acquaintance with Raven, and a terrified Cholmondeley smothers her with a pillow. We think she’s been murdered.

Ticket inspectors etc have identified Raven, tip off the police and so Mather and some London cops arrive in Nottwich, and promptly bump into Raven at a church jumble sale (!) Here Raven sees a woman with Anne’s bag, hassles and follows her home where, after beating up the deranged Acker, he finds Anne tied up and stuffed into a fireplace (!) but otherwise unharmed. But Raven didn’t know Mather had been at the same jumble sale, has followed him to the house, and is now trailing him as he carries the unconscious Anne to a hideout in a shack amid the railway sidings.

Meanwhile, wicked old Sir Marcus, one of the richest men in Europe and CEO of Midland Steel goes to see a local bigwig Major Calkin and – after a satirical dinner party scene – tries to strong arm him to use his influence to ensure Raven is shot dead on sight – because it turns out wicked old Sir Marcus was the sponsor of the original assassination. He is fomenting war because his metal works stand to make a fortune from the outbreak of hostilities, when he will be able to export to all the warring nations.

There is always an element of the ludicrous or absurd in a Greene novel, but the slight absurdities of the jumble sale and Anne being stuffed up a chimney are dwarfed by the news that the entire town is to have a gas alert practice! Sirens will go off and everyone has to wear a mask at a specified time. Greene goes into very great detail about how a gang of medical students takes advantage of this gas attack practice to go about their annual rags and japes – except one is unfortunate to bump into Raven, who strips him at gunpoint, stealing his medic costume and – crucially – gas-mask.

Raven bumps into Cholmondeley/Davis and forces him at gunpoint to take him into the heart of Midland Steel (they’re let through the tight security because everyone thinks it’s a medical student jape). Here there is a showdown with wicked Sir Marcus more or less confessing everything. The tension ratchets up when Sir M presses the emergency alarm and cops come banging at the door. Raven shoots Marcus dead, then also whining, crying Cholmondeley/Davis, and is turning to shoot Anne’s boyfriend, Inspector Mathis, who is outside the window on the window-cleaning gantry, when another policeman Saunders forces the lock, bursts into the room and shoots Raven, who dies sobbing in agony.

Epilogue

In a deliberately anti-romantic gesture, we are shown the after-effects of the tragedy ie it has next to no impact on the lives of a range of secondary characters:

  • Ruby the tarty chorus girl who was due to lunch with Davis at 1 o’clock, instead persuades the hotel commissionaire to buy her sausages and coffee.
  • Saunders, the copper who shot Raven dead, passes a hall holding a lecture from a man who claims to be able to cure stammers, so he goes in.
  • Major Calkin the profiteer who Sir Marcus had asked to get the police to shoot Raven on sight discusses the tragedy with the police inspector then, in the street, dives into a shop to avoid Mrs Piker and her wretched dog.
  • The old lady and mad Acky who host the boarding house where Davis took showgirls to sleep with them, and who attacked Raven as he rescued Anne, delight in another fictional letter of protest he has written to his bishop (the assumption being that he is a seedy, defrocked priest).

Even though Anne is finally vindicated that her efforts have stopped a European war, her puzzled boyfriend the copper Mathis proposes to her and, as their train pulls into London, they both forget about this strange adventure.

It’s almost as if life just goes on after people die, or that the tragedies which loom so large for their protagonists, are only monetary blips in the lives of the rest of us – this also being the message of the final scenes in The Heart of The Matter and The Power and The Glory.

Movies

For a change this Greene novel opens with something decisive and dramatic – the grisly assassination of the Minister along with his elderly maid – and then maintains the edgy pace and tension. There are a few rather absurd longeurs – the jumble sale, the Chief Constable’s dinner party, the medical students’ pranks – but it’s easy to park them to one side, concentrating on the core of a really compelling narrative. And that’s what explains that this is the most filmed of Greene’s novels, having been adapted no fewer than five times for the screen, starting with the classic 1942 noir version, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

A rogues gallery

There is not so much prolonged characterisation in this Greene novel ie not so much of the repetition of a few key memories amid reams of descriptions of their thoughts, feelings and vague puzzled motivations, which make the Farrant siblings in England or D. in The Confidential Agent so wearing.

It’s here, but kept to a brisk minimum: Raven has a hare-lip which makes him memorable and recognisable, so that’s why he always bumps off witnesses. The hare-lip means he’s never had a girl, making him ‘a sour bitter screwed-up figure’. His father was hanged and his mother cut her own throat in the kitchen leaving her body to be found by the young boy, who was then abused in various care homes. So Raven is a barrel of laughs. And he’s not the only one with a blighted past. The brother of the policeman, Mather, drowned himself, a bitter memory which keeps coming back to him.

But most of the other characters are given quick, vivid pen portraits, a handful of brisk (and generally seedy) details enough to sketch in a whole a life, the kind of thing Greene is so brilliant at.

The minister came out from the bedroom. He had tried to tidy himself, but he had forgotten the cigarette ash on his trousers, and his fingers were ink-stained. (p.6)

Mr Cholmondeley picked his way between the tables. He was fat and wore an emerald ring. His wide square face fell in folds over his collar. He looked like a real-estate man, or perhaps a man more than usually successful in selling women’s belts. (p.12)

[Alice] came out of the next room, a slattern, one shoulder too high, with wisps of fair bleached hair over her face… He hit her on the side of the head… ‘Get on,’ he said, ‘you humpbacked bitch.’ (p.15)

A woman in a nurse’s uniform opened the door, a woman with a mean lined face and untidy grey hair. Her uniform needed washing; it was spotted with grease-marks and what might have been blood or iodine. (p.26)

[Dr Yogel‘s] hair was jet black; it looked as if it had been dyed, and there was not much of it; it was plastered in thin strands across the scalp. When he turned he showed a plump hard bonhomous face, a thick sensual mouth. (p.27)

[The girl minding the porn mag shop] had a square face that could never have looked young, a squint that her heavy steel spectacles did nothing to disguise. She might have been any age from twenty to forty, a parody of a woman, dirty and depraved, crouched under the most lovely figures, the most beautiful vacant faces the smut photographers could hire. (p.31)

[Charlie who keeps a gambling club with prostitutes] was as fat as an eastern eunuch and swayed his great hips coyly when he walked like a street woman. (p.35)

[Mr Graves, a potential housebuyer was] a young-old man in a black suit who carried about with him in his pale face and irascible air the idea of babies in small sour rooms, of insufficient sleep…. Mr Graves said, ‘Good morning,’ carried his pitiful narrow-chested pride downstairs. (p.51)

Miss Maydew sat sideways in the front row with her feet up on the next stall. She was in tweeds and had a golf-and-grouse-moor air. Her real name was Binns, and her father was Lord Fordhaven. (p.52)

[Mr Collier the director] was rather under-sized with a fierce eye and straw-coloured hair and a receding chin. He was continually glancing over his shoulder in fear that somebody was getting at him from behind. (p.53)

The Chief Constable [of Nottwich] was fat and excited. He had made a lot of money as a tradesman and during the war had been given a commission and the job of presiding over the local military tribunal. He prided himself on having been a terror to pacifists. It atoned a little for his own home life and a wife who despised him. (p.68)

The curate entered. He wore suede shoes, he had a shiny face and plastered hair and he carried an umbrella under his arm like a cricket bat; he might have been returning to the pavilion after scoring a duck in a friendly, taking his failure noisily as a good sportsman should. (p.84)

[Acky] had come through to her side from the back of the house on rubber-soled shoes, making no sound. Tall and bald with a shifty, pious look… he belonged to a different class altogether: a good school and a theological college had formed his accent; something else had broken his nose. (p.93)

Sir Marcus [one of the richest men in Europe] entered on the tip of his toes. He was a very old, sick man with a little wisp of white beard on his chin resembling chicken fluff. He gave the effect of having withered inside his clothes like a kernel in a nut. He spoke with the faintest foreign accent and it was difficult to determine whether he was Jewish or of an ancient English family. He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth. If there was a touch of Jerusalem, there was also a touch of St James’s, if of some Central European capital, there were also marks of the most exclusive clubs in Cannes… It was difficult to hear what he said; he spoke in a whisper. His old scaley eyes took them all in. (p.107)

Style

According to Wikipedia, his contemporary Evelyn Waugh described Greene’s style as ‘not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life’. This is spot on. Raymond Chandler makes you gasp on every page at the brilliancy with which he handles the language, at the vivid poetry of his style. Greene never does that. There is rarely if ever a single sentence you would quote for its linguistic dexterity or imaginative use of words alone.

Instead, Greene’s ‘style’ consists more of a technique or strategy of deployment, the deployment of telling detail: it’s the skilful way generally anonymous sentences are placed to cumulatively create an impression: of people, of places, and of people’s thoughts. In the snapshots of characters listed above, none of the individual sentences are verbally surprising or impressive, the prose is generally brisk and factual. It’s the selection of detail and its crisp juxtaposition, which create the affect, especially when it’s the juxtaposition of internal thoughts with external details which counterpoint them. And since the thoughts are generally gloomy and the external details are generally seedy they complement each other perfectly, and it is this combination which, I think, is what creates the Greene style.

She stared out at the dingy Midland station with dismay. It seemed to her that everything which made her life worth the effort of living was lost; she hadn’t even got a job, and she watched, past an advertisement of Horlick’s for night starvation and a bright blue-and-yellow picture of the Yorkshire coast, the weary pilgrimage which lay before her from agent to agent. The train began to move by the waiting-rooms, the lavatories, the sloping concrete into a waste of rails. (p.181)

P.S.

In a strange twist Raven reveals to Anne, during their night hiding out in the railway sidings, that he started his criminal career by murdering Kite, leader of a gang in Brighton. Now this is the same Kite whose murder starts the plot of Brighton Rock and whose gang Pinkie takes over. Rock wasn’t published for another two years: was Greene intending to link up all these novels into one super-plot? (Would be a fun party game trying to make plot conections between all his novels…) Or was the Kite business so handy he re-used it for Rock – surely not. Or was he so short of filler for this already short novel that he stuck in something which was already part of another draft novel, then found he couldn’t remove it from either?

The movie

The novel was bought up by Hollywood and made into the fabulous movie, This Gun For Hire, introducing the gorgeous young Alan Ladd and the stunningly beautiful Veronica Lake.

Credit

A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene, first published by Heinemann in 1936. All quotes and references are from the 1986 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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