It is difficult to think narrowly of Graham Greene as a writer of thrillers, for his own idea of the medium, from the beginning of his career in the early 1930’s, was highly complex. Despite the commercial success and critical recognition of his works, he was often self-deprecating, particularly when he wrote or spoke of his thrillers. He claimed to have written so many of them in the early stages of his career simply to make money and to establish a reputation as a writer that would allow him eventually to leave journalism (where he had a successful career as a columnist, a screen critic, and an editor) and become a full-time writer of fiction. Nevertheless, the early thrillers manifest, if somewhat awkwardly on occasion, his wide-ranging ambition for the form, which he polished over a career spanning more than fifty years. Indeed, many of Greene’s thrillers have themes and tonalities in common with his supposedly more serious novels.
A Gun for Sale
His early thriller A Gun for Sale: An Entertainment (1936) is seemingly a simple tale of a hired killer who is on the run after murdering an old man in a European city and returning to England to collect his payoff. He knows nothing of the victim, nor much of the man who contracted his services, but he becomes determined to find the latter when he discovers that he has been paid in counterfeit money. The police pursue him for passing the bogus currency, as he looks for his employer. Eventually he finds the boss of the operation and kills him—and is, in turn, killed by the police.
The basic plot is that simple. It is what Greene added to it that makes the difference. The murdered man turns out to have been a prominent politician with a strong reputation for social reform, and his death precipitates a crisis between two European countries that may lead to war. The man behind the assassination is an industrialist who will make a fortune out of armaments if war does occur. The fact that thousands will die is irrelevant; profit is the point of life. This modest flirting with politics and the profit motive of modern capitalist society foreshadowed a common element in Greene’s work. Greene was a socialist; his sympathies were always with the common people, and his disdain for capitalism and its influence on human character was often woven into his novels. A recurring character is the manipulating boss who will kill for profit; sometimes he is a politician, and at times he is a fascist tyrant, as is the case in The Honorary Consul (1973). People in power in general—whether they simply are criminals, as in A Gun for Sale or Brighton Rock (1938), or whether they have political connections, as in The Human Factor (1978)—are likely to act viciously, even against their own, and often represent a kind of mean-spirited inhumanity that Greene despises. Greene’s major characters, however tainted they may be themselves, are often in the hands of pusillanimous villains who far surpass their agents in human beastliness. Moreover, such conduct is often clearly connected with democracies badly derailed through commercial greed, when it is not connected with outright fascism in novels such as The Human Factor, Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment (1958), and The Comedians (1966).
Greene is often called a novelist of pity, and this aspect of his work is constant. In A Gun for Sale, the killer, Raven, is an unattractive runt with a harelip that he knows most people find disgusting. He is despised, and he despises, but the reader learns that his life has been a living hell. His father was executed, and while he was a child, his mother stabbed herself to death. He has no affection for anyone, and expects none for himself. Yet the novel explores the possibility of a different Raven, the one who might have been had someone taken an interest in him, and on occasion...
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