The story begins with the news of Alden Pyle’s murder. Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, is a thirty-two-year-old Harvard-educated idealist and the son of the famous professor Harold C. Pyle, a “world authority on underwater erosion.” The younger Pyle works for the American Economic Aid Mission in Saigon, but he is also involved in espionage and terrorism and seems to be a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative. On the surface, however, Pyle is “quiet,” modest, and apparently decent in comparison to the crude American journalists and bureaucrats known to Thomas Fowler, the British reporter on assignment in Indochina who is the narrator of the novel.
Pyle is found drowned under a bridge in Saigon with a wound in his chest. His death is first presented as a mystery by the narrator, who knows more about the murder than he at first reveals. Pyle is at first defined by his naivete, his romantic idealism, and his political fanaticism. He is a disciple of a political theorist named York Harding, whose books, such as The Advance of Red China and The Role of the West, have convinced Pyle that a “Third Force” is needed in Southeast Asia, presumably meaning American military interference and aid. The American Economic Attache confides to Fowler that Pyle “had special duties” and died a “soldier’s death in the cause of Democracy.” The motive for Pyle’s murder seems to be clearly political, but Fowler is treated as a suspect by Vigot, the French police investigator, who knows that Pyle had taken Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, away from him and planned to marry her.
Fowler goes on to explain his dealings with Pyle, and the story of a love-hate relationship emerges. Pyle admires and respects Fowler and seeks his advice, but this hopeless romantic cannot help...
(The entire section is 752 words.)