As his biography makes clear, Greene was a prolific writer, partly from his own psychological compulsion to write, partly out of financial necessity. It was only in the later 1950s, after he’d been writing for thirty years, that he finally felt financially secure. Among the unstoppable flow of novels, travel books, articles and reviews, was a steady stream of short stories, which he wrote throughout his career. 19 were collected in a 1947 volume, which was reissued in 1954 with a few more, making twenty-one in all.
- The Basement Room (1936) Philip Laine is seven. His well-heeled parents go on a fortnight’s holiday leaving him to the care of the Butler, Mr Baines, and his wife. Baines spoils him, Mrs is a terror. She departs for a couple of days and immediately old Baines brings home a young woman, kissing and fondling her. They put Philip to bed and he dreams. Then wakes with a start to find Mrs B standing over him like a nightmare. She discovers her husband being adulterous. In an enraged fight he pushes her over the banisters to her death. Philip runs out of the house, wanders round Pimlico at night, concerned strangers take him to the police station, the police take him home where he innocently blurts out enough to incriminate old Baines. On just one page (23) occur typical Greene keywords: nightmare, terrified, misery, cruelty, sob, tears, frightened, bleeding. In retrospective asides, the author points out the psychological damage this one event had on the boy: ‘Life fell on him with savagery: you couldn’t blame him if he never faced it again in sixty years.’ (p.23) He dies a lonely old man 60 years later, with only a secretary to hear his last whispered words, still haunted by the tragedy. This slender tale was made into a movie, Fallen Idol (1948), with a screenplay by Greene himself and directed by Carol Reed, their first collaboration, followed the next year by the sensational The Third Man.
- The End of The Party (1929) A macabre story in which ten-year-old twins, Peter and Francis, are invited to a birthday party. Francis is petrified of the dark and terrified they’ll be forced to play hide & seek in the dark again. He remembers shrieking with fear at last year’s party. He tries everything to wriggle out of it but is forced into the game. Knowing all this his brother, Peter, makes efforts to be the first to find & touch him in the dark. When the lights are switched on he finds his brother has died of fright at his touch. Keywords: Fear, terror, scream.
- I Spy (1930) Charlie Stowe is 12. While his mum’s asleep he tiptoes down the stairs into his father’s tobacconist shop to steal some cigarettes. His hand is on a pack when footsteps come closer and his father opens the shop door with the key. He is accompanied by two men, who seem to be policemen. His father gets his coat, offers the two men cigarettes which they refuse, and leaves (under arrest?). Charlie goes back upstairs to bed obscurely realising his dad is like him, cautious, shy, afraid of the dark.
- The Innocent (1937) The narrator is 36. He has brought a girl he picked up in a bar in London the night before out to his birthplace in the country. He takes her walking round the old town in the dusk of an August evening, the damp flagstones and leaves bringing back memories. The intensest is of his passion for a girl just turning 8 when he must have been 7. He remembers the house where they shared music lessons and how he scrawled a message of his devoted love and left it in a wooden hole for her. To his amazement, the hole is still there and he finds the paper with his childhood message there. He is appalled to see it is the crudest picture of a couple having intercourse.
- A Drive In The Country (1937) She’s a young woman sick of living with her boring parents on a council estate in a boring red-brick house her dependable father has slowly improved, so she sneaks out one night to meet a ne’er-do-well named Fred, who collects her in his car and drives her out to the country, drinking spirits on the way, where she discovers he has a gun in his pocket and plans a suicide pact, but she runs away, hears the shot, stumbles back to a roadhouse, hitches a lift with another drunk man, and sneaks back into her house with a new respect for the solid, petit bourgeois values of her father.
- Across The Bridge (1938) Greene travelled round Mexico from January to May 1938, a trip which resulted in the travel book, The Lawless Roads, and his first really ‘great’ novel, The Power and The Glory. Plot – A crooked businessman whose scams have been discovered has fled England to a border town just inside Mexico. Two detectives arrive to catch him but don’t recognise him. But they do spot his dog and kidnap it, taking it across the border to the States. The next day the crook himself crosses back to the States. The narrator is chatting to the detectives in a bar when the dog (outside in the car) starts yapping, leaps out of the car and runs down the hill towards its owner. One of the detectives jumps into the car and gives high-speed pursuit. At the last minute the dog swerves in front of the car which takes evasive action and runs over the rich crook. End of. — As an anecdote it feels crude. Next to Somerset Maugham’s subtle anecdotes in Ashenden, it is a child’s scrawl. What makes it very Greene is the large dollop of philosophising which is thrown over the whole thing, like a rich sauce being poured by a rookie chef over a very plain dish.
It all seemed to me a little too touching to be true as the old crook lay there with his arm over the dog’s neck, dead with his million between the money-changers’ huts, but it’s as well to be humble in the face of human nature. He had come across the river for something, and it may, after all, have been the dog he was looking for. It sat there baying its stupid and mongrel triumph across his body, like a piece of sentimental stauary: the nearest he could get to the fields, the ditches, the horizon of his home. It was comic and it was pitiable, but it wasn’t less comic because the man was dead. Death doesn’t change comedy to tragedy, and if that last gesture was one of affection, I suppose it was only one more indication of a human being’s capacity for self-deception, our baseless optimism that is so much more appalling than our despair. (p.75)
1. Someone being run over and killed is not comic. 2. Can we agree that a short story which ends abruptly with someone dying melodramatically is only slightly above the level of ending with ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’. 3. At one point Greene says the whole square-full of people knew the crook was sitting at a bar table except for the two detectives who’d come to look for him. Greene describes this situation as being so ‘fantastic’ that someone could have written a play about it (p.70). It isn’t really fantastic, or funny, or merit a play. I think this story exemplifies how little Greene understands what other people do in their lives, their work, caring for children, their business, all the stuff that makes life (and people) interesting. He can only make his people interesting by having them commit suicide or die in squalid accidents. And it exemplifies how he wills trivial incidents to become stories. He tries to dress up trivial events to make them much more than they are. And the quick route to doing this is by larding them with philosophical clichés about life and death and human nature and despair. The significance of many of these stories doesn’t emerge subtly to be savoured in the memory; it is rammed down the reader’s throat with paragraphs of newspaper-style editorialising.
- Jubilee (1936) ‘Soiled by showers and soot the streamers blew across Piccadilly, draughty with desolation.’ There is a certain pleasure in reading Greene to see just how much despairing description and seedy atmosphere he can shoe-horn into a tiny scrap of plot. In this story down-at-heel Mr Chalfont preys on women in Mayfair bars but the biter is bit when the woman he picks on turns out to be a retired hooker and madam who made a mint from the recent Jubilee, takes pity on him, gives him a fiver and offers him a free one. This could be a moderately funny situation but Greene prefers to see it through his trademark despair, prefers to think that this one trivial incident is somehow a watershed in Mr Chalfont’s life and he is henceforward a broken man.
- Brother (1936) Paris. Bar owner. Some communists come up the road and take refuge in his bar. The Civil Guard set up roadblocks at the end of the street and approach. The bartender doesn’t like Reds. They refuse to pay for their drinks. He hides in the back room as the Civil Guards machine gun and storm his bar. They are decent and pay for the drinks. But when he goes to the step to the cellar, he finds one of the reds dead, and finds himself whispering, ‘brother’. — Maybe this is intended to be poignant.
- Proof Positive (1930) Mr Weaver calls a special meeting of the Psychic Society. He can only barely whisper and the audience get restive until he subsides into his chair with strange noises. The chair, Colonel Crashaw, calls a doctor to the platform who concludes Weaver is not only dead, he has been dead a week. Was his spirit living on after the body, keeping the body animated? A felsh-creeper in the style of Conan Doyle or Wells.
- A Chance For Mr Lever (1936) In 1935 Greene went for a 4-week, 350-mile trek through Liberia in west Africa. The trip resulted in the travel book, Journey Without Maps and the second of his ‘great’ novels, The Heart of The Matter. This short story captures Greene’s horror at the poverty, the heat and disease of the country. Plot – suburban Mr Lever lost all his savings in the crash, has to go back to work, for a dodgy mine equipment company who send him out to Africa on a wild goose chase to track down a prospector named Davidson to approve the macinery he’s selling. Lever complains about the heat, the disease, the lazy blacks etc. When he finally gets to Davidson he is dying in his tent. Lever has a moment of madness when he forges Davidson’s signature on a letter to his bosses saying, Yes, go ahead and buy Lever’s new machine. The omniscient narrator rather sadistically enjoys telling us that Lever has been bitten by a mosquito carrying yellow fever and will be dead in three days.
- The Hint of An Explanation (1948) Two men on a train in Yorkshire get talking about politics then religion. One’s a Catholic and tells an anecdote about how he was a boy in a small East Anglian town, and is cornered by the town baker, named Blacker, who has an obessive hatred of Catholics. He threatens to break into the boy’s bedroom and slit his throat unless he smuggles him out a communion wafer. The boy slips a wafer out of his mouth at his next communion and takes it home with him, but then refuses to hand it over when Blacker comes knocking at his window that evening. He changes his mind and does swallow it and is astonished to watch Blacker burst into tears and walk away. He is convinced the baker was an instrument of the Devil trying to pervert God’s love. His story told, the teller’s overcoat falls open and the narrator sees that the teller is a Catholic priest.
- The Second Death (1929) Retelling of the Lazarus story, but with no names and in such a way that initially it seems as if it’s set in the present day, down to the characters calling each other ‘old man’. A young roustabout is summoned by the mother of his friend to the friend’s deathbed, and he tells him, terrified, about the last time everyone thought he was dead, but he woke and was alright, and it was that wandering preacher what done it.
- A Day Saved (1935) An uncharacteristically unliteral story, a sort of fable or fairy story, about a man who calls himself Robinson and describes himself as the shadow of another man who may be Canby or Wells or Fotheringay and who he plans to murder as he takes the train across Europe. An undefined third party advises his victim to save a day by flying and so the malevolent narrator sits behind him, helps him through customs, and translates his requests as they join a train, ending up carousing with the locals.
- A Little Place Off The Edgeware Road (1939) A typical Greene avatar wanders round London obsessed by his gloomy, suicidal thoughts. Everything is shit. He goes into a rubbish, half-empty cinema and a hairy man comes and sits next to him and gets him into conversation about murder, a new murder and then seems to brush fresh blood against him, on his hands and face. Does he even exist or is he the figment of the main character’s imagination? Or has the main character himself committed the murder?
- The Case For The Defence (1939) Another short, punchy entertainment. Narrator reports on murder trials. A trial he’s covering collapses when the defence produce the defendant’s identical twin ie no witness can be sure which one they saw. In the crowd outside court one of the twins gets pushed under a bus and dies. Which one?
- When Greek Meets Greek (1941) A rarity, a genuinely finished and amusing story: a plausible faker sets up a fraudulent Oxford college for correspondence course during the War. A butler who has acquired the posh manners of his employers enrols his son, saying he’ll pay later. (The son is still in Borstal. The courses are taken by letter.) The fake’s daughter is clever and quick. When they hold a fraudulent diploma ceremony for the son, she and he both realise their respective parents are liars. Suddenly joined by this common link they fall in love, determined to turn the fake college into a really successful racket. Genuinely funny, could see it becoming an Ealing comedy.
- Men At Work (1940) Another entertaining and amusing squib describing the futile bureaucratic activities of the Ministry of Information at the start of the War. Greene worked there for 6 months and was amazed at its ridiculousness, captured here in silly meetings with fatuous agendas.
- Alas, Poor Maling (1940) Another short squib about a man whose tummy rumbling perfectly mimics things he’s heard, like music. On one ill-fated occasion, just as a vital board meeting is starting, his stomach plays the air raid siren so convincingly that the meeting rushes down to the shelter and the decisive motion to amalgamate two printing business collapses.
- The Blue Film (1954) Carter has taken his tiresome wife on a tour of the Far East. She insists on doing risqué, dangerous things so he arranges for them to go to a dingy local’s house and watch blue movies. (Nowadays people go kayaking, white water rafting, hiking in the mountains, water-skiing, to see historic sites. Was the world of the 1940s and 50s really as boring and bereft of things to do as Greene makes it sound?) The second porn film features, surprisingly, him, him with a girl thirty years earlier, a girl he picked up and then had an affair with. His wife is dutifully disgusted but that night urges him to make love to her and climaxes for the first time in ages. But Carter feels ‘he had betrayed that night the only woman he loved.’ — This squalid little tale could have been played for laughs but I felt Greene loaded it with more significance and earnestness than it really justified.
- Special Duties (1954) A Catholic satire. Millionaire Mr Ferraro has for three years employed a mousy secretary to go to Catholic churches in London and beyond to pray for him and do penances. He keeps an account book in which he tallies up the number of days remission her work is getting him off Purgatory. A chance check-up reveals the secretary has in fact done none of them but taken the money and bunked off with her boyfriend. — Probably funny for devout Catholics.
- The Destructors (1954) The collection concludes with a Lord of the Flies-type story about a gang of boys round a London common who, for no real reason, set out to destroy the lovely Queen Anne house of a lonely, old man they nickname Old Misery. As a depiction of London gang life it is as out-of-date as an Ealing comedy. But the intensity of its vision of barely teenage boys setting about their task of destruction with glee and purpose is unsettlingly powerful. Since Greene lived in a Queen Anne house by Clapham Common which was gutted by a bomb during the Blitz, this story is routinely trotted out as a piece of barely disguised autobiography.
Many of the stories are crude and have barely got going before the terminate in a sudden death, suicide or murder. They skewer shabby, failed people moving in a grim, seedy world with horrible accuracy, but lack emotional or verbal subtlety. They sound better in bald summary than in actual reading. Many achieve the clever feat of being simultaneously melodramatic and dull. Maupassant, Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Maugham, HG Wells, Conan Doyle – their short stories are subtle or entertaining, imaginative or thought-provoking. Greene’s are rarely any of these things.
And the lack of space to develop characters tends to expose how bare and flat Greene’s prose style can be. It is like East Anglia on a February afternoon, flat and windswept and grey and rainy. His favourite words – terror, fear, love, hate, misery, shabby, despair – ring like church bells heard from a distance, thin and inconsequential.
And the repetition of the boring English names and the boring English settings conveys a crushing sense of what a boring place England seems to have been until some time in the 1960s. Greene had to flee England to more congenial Third World countries, not only because there his world-class pessimism was justified by the sordid and corrupt surroundings, but simply because they were less stiflingly dull than the late 1940s London of rationing and whist drives. Or is it Greene who is boring, a man who travelled far and wide but could never escape his own despondency and inanition? That, after all, is the picture he paints of himself in his two volumes of autobiography.
After being depressed by the succession of shabby characters bumbling round grubby offices, it is a pleasant surprise to come across the three comic stories – Greek, Work, Maling – which are out of keeping with the frequent melodrama of the others. They’re the only three I’d recommend anyone to bother with.
Greene’s fellow Catholic novelist and friend, Evelyn Waugh, managed to turn his despair in humanity/Catholic faith into a series of wonderfully funny novels, starting with the complete assurance of Decline and Fall (1928). It took Greene a long time to write a fully-finished novel – possibly Brighton Rock, his 8th attempt, more probably Power and Glory, his tenth. His fans see him as a great tragic novelist, full of profound insights into human nature and encompassing the politics of the twentieth century. But it’s possible to propose a radically alternative view: that Greene was a potentially great comic novelist whose career was ruined by his addiction to adolescent morbidness and Catholic melodrama, and who didn’t find his truly comic voice until too late in life.
- 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.