Good Reading : May 2007
MAY 2007 ı goodreading 19 categorical turn away from him in horror. Women are repelled. He is alienated. He is cold. He hates everyone.The ugliness on his face reflects the ugliness within. After Raven commits the brutal contract murders of a European politician and his secretary, he is enraged to discover that he has been paid off in unusable marked money. The bare bones of the plot are that, penniless and hungry, he goes in search of revenge, to find and kill the ancient Sir Marcus, the pseudo- English industrialist who has cheated him. Sir Marcus is intent on using the assassinations to foment an outbreak of war between England and the unnamed European country so that his factories will profit. For those who have not read A Gun for Sale I won’t give the taut and morally challenging climax away, except to say that Greene continues to play with our sympathies, confusing the certainties of right and wrong beyond those we’d nor- mally expect from a standard pulp thriller. The third of Greene’s entertainments is The Confidential Agent (1939), a fast- moving and atmospheric thriller. A middle-aged former university professor, traumatised by the violent death of his wife and identified throughout only as D, has arrived in England from a European country in the grip of civil war. His task is to buy up large supplies of desperately needed coal from a British industrialist, Lord Benditch, before the enemy, repre- sented by a supercilious agent called L, can get his hands on it. Greene refuses to name the country, although it’s easy to assume that Spain is the likely inspiration, and that D is a Republican, while L is a Fascist out to thwart him at every turn. Early in the novel D encounters Rose, Benditch’s partying daughter, and slowly they kind of fall in love in the melancholy, Greene-ian way, leading to a bitter-sweet conclusion where the hero must return to his homeland and a doom-laden future. It all sounds very grim, but extraordinarily there is a high quotient of knockabout black comedy to the tale as D goes about his business. One startling claim about The Confidential Agent is that Greene began writing it in the mornings while work- ing on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons – a monstrous mental and emotional workload, during which he took Benzedrine to keep himself fired up – because he was convinced in advance that the latter title wouldn’t sell. As was to be expected, each day ended in deep depression. The Ministry of Fear was published in 1943.The movie version was released one year later. Attempting to read the novel 40-odd years ago, immediately after viewing the film, was a rude shock to an impressionable teenager.Yes, there were fortune-tellers, séances, microfilm and spies, and the blackout of wartime London. But what of all this other baggage, this moral and psychological darkness concerning Arthur Rowe’s guilt-ridden mercy killing of his wife? Because of the film, though, I have always loved the book. Maybe one shouldn’t revisit rose- tinted memories too closely. Recently, after buying a video of the film version from the United States, I read the novel once more, and was perplexed to find myself impatient with the long-winded guilt theme, wishing Greene would stop obsessing and just skip along to the thrills. Yet, for all that, readers may find the conclusion, teetering between the future and the past, between tentative love and a return to memory and misery, preferable to the jaunty final scene of the film, which blocks out the past entirely. Perhaps as a product of its time, and aimed at mass audiences, the film version prefers to dream only of a sunny future. Should we recognise The Third Man movie as ‘an entertainment’ by default? This famous crime thriller, set in post-war Vienna, was first drafted in fiction for m by Greene as a means to shape a story for the film script, but was not intended for publication. However, riding on the Within minutes I was lured into the shadowy noir world of a 1940s spy thriller.