(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alden Pyle, an undercover U.S. agent, is found murdered in French Saigon. In the early 1950’s, the French still controlled Vietnam as a colony, but they were beginning to lose control of the country to the communist revolutionaries. Pyle had come to investigate conditions and had befriended an English newspaper correspondent, Thomas Fowler. Vigot, the French police chief, orders Fowler and his former mistress, Phuong, to his office for questioning. Fowler is under suspicion because he is one of the last people to have seen Pyle alive, and Pyle had taken Phuong from Fowler.

Vigot interrogates Fowler, who proclaims not only his innocence but also his ignorance of what happened to Pyle. Phuong, who does not understand English, says nothing. After the interrogation, Fowler tells her that Pyle had been murdered. Her reaction is surprisingly mild, and she reveals almost nothing about her feelings. Fowler then goes over the sequence of events that led to Pyle’s murder and Vigot’s summons to police headquarters.

As the story goes, Pyle befriends Fowler during his first days in Saigon. Fowler is a reluctant companion. He dislikes Americans, especially ones like Pyle who seem on a mission to save the world. Pyle never admits to Fowler that he is a CIA agent—indeed no reference is made to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the novel, except for Fowler’s suggestion that Pyle might work for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Established in World War II, the OSS was the precursor of the postwar CIA.

To Fowler, Pyle is an innocent who reads books on Vietnam but does not understand the reality of people’s lives. Fowler believes that the Vietnamese should be left alone. He does not believe that their lives could be improved by Westerners. He considers himself a reporter without political commitments or opinions. He is an older man (not saying...

(The entire section is 771 words.)