Raven is a hired killer. He assassinates the old minister and his secretary. This put Europe (this book was written in 1936) on the brink of war as countries blame one another for the political killing. But Raven is paid £200 by Mr Cholmondley and when he gets back to his London flat he finds the police looking for him because the notes are on a list of stolen money. So Raven has to trail Cholmondley to Nottwich to seek revenge.
Also on the train to Nottwich is Anne, the actress girlfriend of Mather, the Scotland Yard detective who is pursuing Raven.
The joy of this thriller is the spare prose which Greene uses; this captures perfectly the bleak lives of the characters. And every character is brought to life, even the bit parts, from the medical student who, being made to strip at gunpoint, is acutely aware of the hole in his pants to the chorus girl who goes for a meal with the show's producer. "I fling myself at men," she says, "but I never seem to hit them" in a wonderful moment of humour almost at the very end of the book, straight after the tragic climax. As for Raven, he may be a crook and a murderer but he had a rotten start in life. We feel for him in his weakness and his shabbiness and his fears.
This book is indeed almost Shakespearean in its concern to flesh out even minor characters and the careful construction of the plot (and the slightly contrived web of coincidences that make up the main story). But the taut prose is pure Greene. In many ways its dramatis personae reminded me of Stamboul Train. On the other hand, the way that Greene writes about murder and political conspiracy set firmly within a thoroughly everyday English context, with seediness and need and insecurity the background to all of us, high or low, is a little like The Ministry of Fear.
But this excellent book transcends them both.
February 2015; 182 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. 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