Graham Greene

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Graham Greene Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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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...

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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 he shows capacity for more humane behavior.

Brighton Rock

This interest in the killer as a human being with a history, a psychological reason for his conduct, appears again with the character Pinkie in Brighton Rock; this time it is much richer and more complicated, and has added to it that very important theme of the Greene canon, the question of religion. Pinkie is, like Raven, a lethally dangerous man without hope for anything more than what he can lay hold of through crime. What is the nature of his relationship to God? How can God allow the squalor, the violence, the hopelessness of modern urban society, the self-interested manipulations of modern politics? If he exists at all (and that is questionable in Greene’s world of meaningless animality), can he forgive humans for their terrible conduct, their cruelty to one another? The thrillers, like the novels, often embark on this melancholy investigation of not only social responsibility but also religious possibility.

The Honorary Consul

This interesting idea of the killer as a lost soul, so deeply in sin that he cannot be retrieved even by God, can take complicated turns in Greene’s work. In The Honorary Consul, the lost soul is, in fact, a Roman Catholic priest, Leon Rivas, who has left the Church to lead a revolutionary group against the fascist regime in Paraguay. Legally, he is a criminal; religiously, he is in a state of sin. Much of the novel is taken up with a discussion not only of political right and wrong but also of the responsibility of God for allowing the inhumanity of fascism in supposedly enlightened late twentieth century countries such as Paraguay, where murder and torture are common tools of political power.

Such debates are often carried on by means of another character-type that recurs frequently in Greene’s novels. In A Gun for Sale, Anne Crowder, a simple showgirl who gets involved by chance in Raven’s attempt to elude the police, attempts to understand what makes Raven what he is. This suspension of judgment, this willingness to understand, this kindness in the face of seemingly unexplainable conduct, sees her through. It is not always to be so. Many of Greene’s major characters are merely trying to get through life without emotional commitment, but their basic decency pulls them into the center of dangerous situations that they had not contemplated. Greene has admitted to a deep admiration for the work of Joseph Conrad, and his jaundiced view of the makeup of a spy or a terrorist can be traced back to Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1910) and The Secret Agent (1907). The pessimism of Greene’s protagonists can be seen in Conrad’s most ironically titled work, Victory (1915), in which a character who had hitherto kept to himself, as he had been advised to do by his father, befriends a woman and falls in love with her reluctantly and innocently enough, but with consequences that are disastrous for both of them. Greene’s novels often center on a man such as Eduardo Plarr of The Honorary Consul, a doctor who helps the poor as best he can yet shuns personal relationships. By chance he falls in love, helps a friend, attempts to rescue an innocent political hostage, and gets killed for involving himself with other human beings.

The Heart of the Matter

In The Heart of the Matter (1948), the police officer Scobie ignores a seemingly innocent breach of wartime regulations, tries to console a young woman rescued from a torpedoed ship, and attempts to keep his neurotic wife happy though he no longer loves her—all innocent acts of pity. In combination, however, they lead to betrayal and murder—and to Scobie’s suicide, despite his agony in offending God by causing his own death. Decency, pity, innocent concern for others are often likely to kill a character in Greene’s inexorably, arbitrarily cruel world.

This confrontation of often-inept tenderness with a world that does not care is what has come to be suggested by “Greeneland,” a word that has been coined to refer to the universe of Greene’s novels. Modern thrillers are generally marked by stylistic eccentricity, and much of their readers’ pleasure derives from the peculiarity of the dialogue and of the narrative. Indeed, it is almost an obligation for the writer of the thriller to fashion the story’s language in a way that mirrors the moral and emotional characteristics of the protagonist. It can be as shallow as the style used by Ian Fleming or as rich and complex as those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

For Greene, style may be said to go beyond any other thriller writer’s ambition for it. In his work, style is clearly an aspect of meaning, and thus his writing is peculiarly muted, repressed, and consistently pessimistic in tone and image. Chocolate, for example, always seems to have connotations of death in a Greene novel, an idea that would be surprising in any other context but seems perfectly appropriate in his work. “Seedy” is the word often used to describe Greene’s world. His characters—down-at-heel, reclusive, plain, and depressed—often seem unqualified to cope with trouble, but they tend to attract it, no matter how hard they try to avoid it.

To balance the discussion, it should be said that Greene, for all of his morbidity about life in general, is often a very amusing writer. Indeed, he has written what may very well be the most comical of mock-thrillers, Our Man in Havana, in which many of the conventions of the genre are quite charmingly turned upside down.


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