The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (1943)

If you believed in God – and the Devil – the thing wasn’t quite so comic. Because the Devil – and God too – had always used comic people, futile people, little suburban natures and the maimed and warped to serve his purposes. When God used them you talked emptily of Nobility and when the devil used them of Wickedness, but the material was only dull shabby human mediocrity in either case. (p.33)

After his prolific output in the 1930s, Greene published just two novels during the Second World War, The Power and The Glory (1940) about the Mexican whisky priest, which he’d been working on before the war’s outbreak anyway, and this one, his only real war novel. He was busy with other things:

  • on the basis of his previous travels in the region (chronicled in Journey Without Maps, 1936) he was recuited by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and sent to Sierra Leone to spy on Axis activity in West Africa from 1941 to 1943, an experience which would provide the background for The Heart of the Matter (1948)
  • later in the War he signed a contract with MGM’s London agent to produce film scripts

Apparently, by the year this novel was published, 1943, Greene had acquired the reputation of being the ‘leading English male novelist of his generation’. For decades to come he would – rather defensively – continue to categorise his long texts as either ‘entertainments’ (most of his 1930s thriller-ish output, of which he was politely dismissive) or ‘novels’ (the ‘serious’, Catholic-themed works like The Power and the Glory, The Heart of The Matter, which he intended to be more ‘literary’).

The Ministry of Fear

Fear is one of the ‘entertainments’ and, like most of those, has a strong whiff of the absurd about it which only gets stronger. It opens with a surreal scene where the protagonist, the lonely, poor and downtrodden Arthur Rowe, stumbles across a fête taking place in bombed-out Bloomsbury. Beguiled by boyhood memories (contriving childhood memories for his characters is central to Greene’s fiction-making process) of village fêtes in rural Cambridgeshire, Rowe wanders in and spends pennies at various stalls. For some reason the palm reader tells him the exact weight of the Guess-the-weight-of-the-cake stall and he accordingly wins it. But at the last minute a late-comer to the fête arrives by taxi, runs to the palmist’s tent, then dashes out and over to the cake stall. The stallholders suddenly clamour for Rowe to give the cake back to the stall in a charitable gesture. Irritated, Rowe refuses and takes the cake back to his seedy boarding house.

Thus starts the plot. Because the cake quite clearly conceals a secret which ‘they’ want to get back. In the next chapter a strange man invites himself round to Rowe’s room and there is another hallucinatorily odd scene where he ingratiates himself to Rowe, saying they are both intellectuals, above the ignorant masses, while all the time both hear German bombers droning up the Thames towards them and the crump of falling bombs. At the climax of the conversation, just as the stranger is saying ‘they’ want the cake back and ‘they’ are willing to pay, a bomb lands directly on Rowe’s boarding house, ripping the roof and front wall out, plunging Rowe in his chair down to the ground floor. The mysterious stranger is stunned, then collected by his ‘friends’.

Misery and unhappiness

As a teenager Greene was mercilessly bullied at school because his father was the headmaster. Finally, he had a breakdown and was sent for treatment to a psychotherapist. The analyst suggested he write as a form of therapy. This saved his life but didn’t change his character. He was psychologically troubled, given to suicidal depression, from an early age and it shows in everything he wrote. His characters are poor, lonely, miserable men with few possessions living in shabby surroundings.

Greene’s imagination is a kind of ‘squalor-finder’ which can flush out and vividly describe the sad, failed, dirty and sordid in anybody, any place or situation.

Mrs Bellairs’ house was a house of character; that is to say it was old and unrenovated, standing behind its little patch of dry and weedy garden among the To Let boards on the slope of Camden Hill. (p.51)

The stranger who tries to take the cake off Rowe not only has mishapen shoulders, having been crippled at birth, but a nervous habit of using his fingernails to pick out the dandruff from his hair, and then pick it out from under his nails and drop on the floor. Typical.

Hammond Innes’ thrillers radiate physical health and the tremendous exhiliration of being alive in wild, bracing scenery. His protagonists are healthy, forthright, decisive men. Greene’s imagination luxuriates in shabby people with squalid habits in seedy little rooms, not doing much except feeling depressed, sorry for themselves or actively suicidal.

The sordid details accrue, for example: When Rowe visits a failing detective agency it is on the fourth floor with no lift. The reception room boasts a plate bearing a half-eaten sausage roll. He opens the door on the shabby-looking proprietor trying to hide a bottle of booze in a drawer. He notices a porn magazine in the In tray. The private detective turns out to have ill-fitting dentures and yet is puffed up with a ludicrous sense of his self-importance.

And so it goes on relentlessly, a litany of shabby, seedy, failed, horrible, balding, middle-aged men bumbling round in Greene’s ludicrous and barely existing plots. It is powerfully portrayed and horribly depressing, a vision of  ‘infinite hopelessness, pain and reproach.’ (p.58)

Very far away a taxi-horn cried through an empty world. (p.57)

He wanted to dream, but all he could practice now was despair… (p.73)

Even if a man has been contemplating the advantages of suicide for two years, he takes time to make his final decision… (p.87)

He missed Mrs Purvis coming in with the tea; he used to count the days by her: punctuated by her knock they would slide smoothly towards the end – annihilation, forgiveness, punishment or peace. (p.87)

There was an exhiliration in the absurd episode; he had made up his mind now about everything – justice as well as the circumstances of the case demanded that he should kill himself (he had only to decide the method) and now he could enjoy the oddness of existence. (p.97)

He felt like a man in mortal sin who watches other people go to receive the sacrament – abandoned. (p.155)

He seemed consumed by a passion of hatred and perhaps despair. (p.175)

His key words are: insignificant, stained, weak, defensive, anxiety, scared, secretive, shabby, seedy, dry, weedy, weak, blackheads, distaste, trashy, dim, lurid, small, shifty, damp, ragged, out-of-elbow, grey, abandoned, trumpery, flimsy, despair, gloomy, failure, defeat, waning, ugly, solitary, brooding, misery, ugly, horror, hideous, helpless, pain, whimper, suicide.

If you can’t come up with a decent plot, resort to Catholic melodrama

The plot is pathetic. The cake-won-at-a-fête opening is nonsense, twaddle. Rowe engages the feeble private detective to get to the bottom of the ‘mystery’, then goes to the offices of the charity which organised the fête. There he meets the enthusiastic Austrian emigré brother & sister, the Hilfes. They take him to meet one of the women who ran one of the fête stalls and who is now having a séance with an ill-assorted mob of typical Greene losers. During the séance the man next to Rowe is murdered and everyone suspects him! Lawks a-mercy!

Rowe half-heartedly goes on the run ie sleeps in an air-raid shelter (dirty, squalid strangers snoring or pawing each other). He walks across London to dun his old friend Henry Wilcox for money but arrives just as a (surreal) funeral procession is starting for Wilcox’s wife, killed in her air raid duties.

Compared to Ambler or Innes, Greene can’t write a suspenseful plot to save his life. What he can and does do is:

  • inject feeble characters with the overwhelming freight of his own misery and thus lend them a fake ‘depth’
  • rope in Roman Catholicism to prop up the feeble plot and give the book an entirely spurious sense of ‘profundity’

Thus Greene inflates the nondescript character of Rowe – and tries to lift the feeble plot of his novel – by making Rowe a) a Catholic who b) performed a mercy killing on his wife who had some fatal illness. Oooh. The ersatz seriousness. Oooh. The factitious depth. Oooh. The fake meaningfulness.

This allows Rowe to go on at length about being a murderer and knowing what murder is like and suffering from the guilt of murder etc – without for one solitary second even faintly convincing you that he is actually a murderer. The Postman Always Rings Twice gives the reader a thousand times more sense of what it is like to murder someone, how difficult, how gruesome, how haunted you are by the deed. Rowe’s ‘murder’ is a glib fiction which allows Greene to ring the changes on his favourite themes, a convenient text-generating device. As an examination of the actual consequences of carrying out a mercy killing on a loved one it is almost an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

After all, he belonged to the region of murder – he was a native of that country. (p.60)

This kind of rhetoric sounds good but, on a moment’s reflection, is meaningless. It is not how real murderers think or talk. It is how a death-obsessed, depressive writer thinks and talks.

Thus Rowe is turned, for the next 220 pages, into a handy vehicle for Greene’s familiar suicidal soliloquies, for his long ruminations on life and death and futility, the grand-sounding but empty orations about God, Destiny, Justice; it means he can drop into quoting the Litany or any other Catholic text at the drop of the hat, giving the text utterly spurious depth and ‘meaning’; it gives him carte blanche to spout the same depressed point of view of all Greene’s characters because it is Greene’s own worldview:

There were times when he felt the whole world’s criminality was his; and then suddenly at some trivial sight – a woman’s bag, a picture in a paper – all the pride seeped out of him. He was aware only of the stupidity of his act; he wanted to creep out of sight and weep; he wanted to forget that he had ever been happy… It is easier to kill someone you love than to kill yourself. (p.40)

And long-winded. Endless. Greene is capable of spinning basically the same despairing solipsism out into an infinite number of pseudo-profound ‘insights’ or horrified descriptions:

It is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself. (p.43)

In a dream you cannot escape: the feet are leaden-weighted: you cannot stir from the ominous door which almost imperceptibly moves. It is the same in life; sometimes it is more difficult to make a scene than to die. (p.56)

Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. (p.71)

Not one of them guessed that what had come over him was the horrible and horrifying emotion of pity. (p.66)

Pity kills… we are trapped and betrayed by our virtues. (p.74)

It is only if the murderer is a good man that he can be regarded as monstrous. (p.88)

The music had stopped, the lights had gone, and he couldn’t remember why he had come to this dark corner, where even the ground whined when he pressed it, as if it had learnt the trick of suffering… He couldn’t move an inch without causing pain. (p.67)

Like a boy he was driven relentlessly towards inevitable suffering, loss and despair, and called it happiness. (p.130)

Wasn’t it better to take part even in the crimes of people you loved, if it was necessary hate as they did, and if that were the end of everything suffer damnation with them, rather than be saved alone? (p.132)

‘Pity is a terrible thing. People talk about the passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of all: we don’t outlive it like sex.’ (p.172)

High-sounding twaddle.

Instead of plot…

…most of the book is a sequence of surreal and bizarre scenes, lent a macabre, de Chirico flavour by the backdrop of the Blitz, bombs at night, ruins by day. The bizarre urban fête with its absurdist flock of posh helpers which kicks off the novel would be badly out of place in a serious thriller, but is an appropriately amateurish way to start a half-humorous picaresque through bomb-ruined London.

In a way it’s a shame Greene didn’t have the courage of his psychoses and write a genuinely haunting hallucinatory fantasy about the London Blitz, in which ineffectual marionettes obsessed with suicide and death drifted across a flame-tormented city spouting page after page of bucket philosophy and cod theology while the bombs dropped around them. It might have been a high art or cult classic. Instead, as usual, he tried to corral his psychological obsessions into something much more conventional, into something absurdly contorting itself to be an espionage thriller.

After the scene at the fête, there follow:

  • the meeting with the seedy detective
  • the encounter with the over-enthusiastic emigré brother and sister, the Hilfes
  • the weird séance at which one Mr Cost is killed and everyone accuses Rowe of the murder
  • so he flees, spending the night in a Tube station converted into an air raid shelter
  • the failed attempt to dun an old friend, Wilcox, for money but he is distracted by organising the (surreal) funeral procession for his wife
  • Rowe leaning over the Embankment in Battersea Park contemplating suicide
  • decoyed into helping a shabby bookseller carry a suitcase of books across London
  • persuaded to carry this suitcase down hushed surreal hotel corridors to the room of one Travers: there is no Travers. When he enters the room there is the sister, Hilfe. They both realise that They are out to get them, that They are getting closer, that They are slowly turning the doorhandle, as in a surreal dream
  • the bomb in the suitcase goes off and Rowe wakes up in a convalescent home-cum-mental hospital having forgotten all his past life. Having forgotten he killed his wife, he is happy, happy…
  • until Anna Hilfe visits and stirs unfortunate memories; when the doctors try to lock him up he makes a schoolboy rebellion and breaks out of his dormitory (exactly as the real life Greene did at his school)
  • listens to the partly-mad colonel Strong in a straitjacket in his cell say he’s there because he came across Dr Forester and Poole doing something shifty – then on returing to his room Rowe is confronted by the furious Dr Forester who violently refreshes his memory of who he is, telling him he is a murderer
  • prompting Rowe to make a break for it to the nearest railway station, arriving at London to turn himself in to the police…

This isn’t a plot, it is a series of incidents, a travelogue. It is no surprise that Rowe feels manipulated:

He felt directed, controlled, moulded, by some agency with a surrealist imagination. (p.95)

Yes. That agency’s name would be Graham Greene.

Finally, some meaning

The book is divided into four parts:

  • The Unhappy Man, the long farrago of weird incidents in London
  • The Happy Man, the short interlude of the memory-less Rowe in the private clinic run by the sinister Dr Forester
  • Bits and Pieces, where the police take charge and swiftly clarify the plot
  • The Whole Man

It is only on page 150, around three-quarters in, that Rowe arrives at Scotland Yard and the feel of the novel changes dramatically because the detective Prentice is a rational adult and briskly reveals to the hopelessly self-pitying solipsistic Rowe the nature of the conspiracy which joins together all the ludicrous incidents we have had to endure in the main part of the book. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense but is the best we’re going to get: A ring of German spies have photocopied military secrets. The microfilm was hidden in the cake (ludicrously). Poole came round for tea and was going to steal the cake when the bomb landed. Nonetheless, the gang still couldn’t trust Rowe so invited him to the séance, framed him with Cost’s murder, forcing him on the run from the police. Got that? Believe any of that?

For short spells it almost begins to seem like a normal thriller or detective novel, though the holes in the plot yawn like the Mariana Trench and the pages are still larded with Greene’s trademark bunkum about justice and pity and fate and love and death and misery blah blah blah.

  • the Scotland Yard detective Prentice tells Rowe that the man sitting next to him at the séance, who he thought he killed – is alive and well – it was a stitch-up by Them to scare Rowe underground, to prevent him going to the police
  • Prentice explains the Nazis have a book recording the weaknesses of everyone in power, influential, useful, in order to blackmail them; it is a kind of Ministry of Fear set over the high & mighty
  • briskly, Prentice takes Rowe and the manager of the hotel where the bomb went off to a tailor’s in the City where they confront the not-murdered Cost who is also identified as the ‘Travers’ who booked the hotel room – ie he is one of Them but, before they can quesiton him, he kills himself (with a tailor’s cutting scissors)
  • and then on to the house of Mrs Bellairs and the séance where Rowe was framed for the murder that never was
  • and then by car out to the country house location of Dr Forester’s clinic where they discover that his underling Johns has shot dead both Forester and his sidekick Poole (none other than the sinister man who came to tea at Rowe’s flat right at the start of the story) after they have murdered the half-mad Stone. Why? Because Stone saw them burying the remains of Jones, the detective hired to tail Rowe, in the clinic’s grounds

Whereas Chandler or Hammett or Innes or Ambler would have the decency, the courtesy to the reader and the craft to convey these (preposterous) incidents accurately and clearly, Greene, like an amateur chef, leaves no incident to speak for itself but drowns everything in page after page of pseudo-intellectual gloop.

The doctor had been too sure of Johns: he had not realised that respect is really less reliable than fear: a man may be more ready to kill one he respects than to betray him to the police. (p.182)

Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… One can’t love humanity. One can only love people. (p.184)

He was learning the lesson most people learn very young, that things never work out in the expected way. (p.201)

There are moments of surrender when it is so much easier to love one’s enemy than to remember… (p.204)

It isn’t being happy together, he thought as though it were a fresh discovery, that makes one love – it’s being unhappy together. (p.207)

They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much. They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out. It occurred to him that perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough. (last page)

Bromides. Truisms. T-shirt slogans.

Terrible dialogue

Instead of dialogue which develops the plot, dialogue which analyses the situation and generates insights into tricky scenarios and plans for escape (in which the reader can excitedly share), instead of needle-sharp exchanges which add to the tension, like the snappy exchanges to be found in Chandler or Innes or Ambler – there is next to no plot in Greene and so little or no suspense and so the dialogue is desperately un-tense, consisting of shabby people talking at cross-purposes or suddenly all agreeing they’re in danger without the circumstances providing the slightest justification for it or, at a slightly higher level, exchanging the same sort of truisms about life and death which fill the editorialising narration.

Greene’s dialogue does a number of things but it doesn’t move the plot along because there is almost no plot. A lot of the dialogue is 5th form philosophising. In fact the dialogue seems to take a kind of pleasure in portraying the characters as hopeless, childish, inadequate to the adult world.

He picked up [the heavy brass candlestick]. ‘He tried to kill me,’ he explained weakly.
‘He’s asleep. That’s murder.’
‘I won’t hit first.’
She said, ‘He used to be sweet to me when I cut my knees. Children always cut their knees… Life is horrible, wicked.’ (p.202)

In the last 20 pages Rowe discovers that the dying Cost made his last phone call to the Hilfes’ flat. Rather than calling the police like an adult he sets out on a boyish ‘adventure’ to collar them himself, only to take pity on Anna (who he now mysteriously ‘loves’) and, instead of capturing Hilfe outright, allowing his sister to have moments alone with him, during which he hands over a useless copy of the photographs and she, like an imbecile, lets him escape.

Rowe pursues him in a taxi to Paddington station and, again as the bombs fall closer and closer, in the characteristically seedy setting of the Gents lavatories, Hilfe finally hands over the negatives in exchange for the gun with one bullet in it. Whereupon Hilfe maliciously a) reveals to Rowe his full past ie the oh-so-gruseome fact that he poisoned his wife and b) shoots himself, thus depriving the police of valuable information about the spy ring. Rowe is a cretin.

Now, with a fully-restored memory and fully-restored to normal Greene levels of suicidal despair, Rowe returns to Anna, pledges his love to her but conceals the fact that Hilfe told him about his past; he is going to pretend to still be the happily post-bomb trauma amnesiac; and so he consciously commits to deliberately lying to her for the rest of their lives together. Oooh.

This is obviously meant to be some profound insight into the horror of human nature or the human predicament or something. More obviously, Greene has just justified a lifetime of infidelity to his wife. It is therefore entertaining to read in biographies of him that he was a philanderer on an epic scale, both with other people’s wive and countless prostitutes. His wife’s later admission that maybe he was not suited to married life counts as one of the geat understatements of literary history.

Obsessive thinking

His helpless, ineffectual characters are doomed to discover the same shallow ‘truths’ again and again, because the same depressive thoughts circulate obsessively in Greene’s mind throughout his life. This explains why the novels feel so static – why there is so little sense of progression or revelation.

Fear ends with Rowe as depressed and suicidal as at the beginning. The all-encompassing gloom is there from the start, the suicide-ometer levels bump up or down a bit during the text, but has returned to Deep Despair by the end, possibly intensified by the final flesh-creeping bollocks about entering into a lifetime of lies in order to ‘protect’ his beloved.

When you open a Greene text you enter the gloomy Greeneworld and continue in the same place of shadows and despair till you put it down. There is no psychological dynamism or progression because you remain in the same place.

An aspect of the ‘plot’ of a novel is that the characters somehow change. They learn things. They are altered. This doesn’t really happen in Greene. The whisky priest starts The Power and The Glory as hopeless as he ends it; Scobie is as miserably tied to his depressed wife at the start of The Heart of The Matter as he is at the end. Greene may cobble together ‘plots’ of a sort for his novels, but his grim worldview is so stifling and ubiquitous that the characters never really change. At most, they degrade.

The thriller’s compulsory reference to thrillers

Seems to be a law that all thrillers have to refer to the way their plot is turning out very like a thriller. In one of the many dreams or dream-like fugues which colour Rowe’s consciousness, he addresses his long-dead mother (Greene’s mother, also, died when he was young):

‘It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, your lawn, your sandwiches, your pine tree. You used to laugh at the books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died. I’m your little Arthur who wouldn’t hurt a beetle and I’m a murderer too. The world has been remade by William Le Queuex.’ (p.65)

On his arse

When asked at the séance what he does, Rowe replies, ‘sit and think’. He has an independent income of £400 a year and so doesn’t need to work. This inanition accurately reflects the novelist’s own lack of involvement in the productive life of the world around him. He travelled, he seduced lots of women, he had famous acquaintances, but he spent most of his time sitting and thinking, mostly about how depressed he was, turning over and over the same obsessive negative thoughts endlessly.

Graham Greene’s novels aren’t novels, they are the compulsive symptoms of a deep-rooted psychological illness.

Related links

Movie version

Hollywood was quick to pounce on the novel, gutted it for the melodrama about an insidious spy ring, and released a movie version, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland, just one year after the book came out. The whole second part about Rowe losing his memory of killing his wife, the entire sequence about the private hospital in the country and all the patients and the murdered private detective and Johns killing Forester – all that is deleted to make a much simpler plotline revolving round Rowe falling for Anna and both of them exposing her spy brother. Given the continuous melodrama of the plot, the film is surprisingly static and inert. My wife fell asleep, and I struggled to keep awake.

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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