This is a Greene thriller. As such, it has so much more depth than most thrillers. It is a world better than Donna Leon's The Jewels of Paradise.
You know that you are in the hands of a master: from the very first page we are off into typical Greene land: a world in which the familiar and the banal mingle with high drama. A church fete is set against the backdrop of the blitz. Buildings are bombed nightly and the very landscape of London changes day by day. The hero is drinking tea and eating cake when "the bomb burst half a mile away: you could feel the ground dent." Even the hero is an ordinary man until at the end of the first section of chapter two he says "I ought to tell you I am a murderer myself."
The book is set out like a film script: it contains some iconic scenes. We start with the fete and cut to Mr Rowe's sitting room which is bombed, a private detective agency, a seance, a second-hand bookshop, a funeral etc. These scenes are given fabulous flesh by the characters inhabiting them: the grubby private detective who specialises in divorce cases and is out of his depth with murder, the hunchback who tries to retrieve the cake, the medium with the deep voice, the array of weirdos at the seance. The scene that ends Book One, in which the hero and heroine are trapped in a hotel room with the forces of evil closing in all around them, is truly sinister and classically cinematic.
Greene delights with his descriptions, with his characters, with his dialogue (always just a little uncomfortable, as if there are things that are not being said, as there always is in real dialogue) and with his language. I love the way he reinforces emotions from two different directions. For example, on the first page there is an "inevitable clergyman presiding over rather a timid game of chance": instantly one transfers the adjective to the man to see him better. Later on Rowe returns to the detective agency by a "roundabout route" because the tube is disrupted by the bombing of the night before; on the next page Rowe has to approach the detective agency "with circumspection" because there might be danger.
Rowe himself is a classic Greene character: an ordinary man who is haunted by his past. Pity is his weakness but at the same time this is why he is good: the forces of evil have ideals but no compassion: "One can't love humanity," Greene chastises them, "one can only love people." Rowe is made strong when he loses his memory. In the final reel, as he sails of into the sunset with his memory returned one knows that he can never be happy ever after. That would be a fairy tale and Greene does not deal in those.
That's why this book is so much more powerful than your average thriller. December 2013; 221 pages.
An even better (because more realistic) Greene thriller is A Gun for Sale. Stamboul Train is also well worth reading.
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57