One wants to do a book like Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (1943, this ed. Penguin, 2005) some justice with a serious review - this is not an I-liked-it-so-you-should-read-it kind of book. Rather, it is a slow burn of sorts, hanging around in the back of your mind until, finally engrossed, you find yourself sitting alone at 6:30 on a Monday morning madly reading while eating your oatmeal, because you have to finish it otherwise it will torment you all day.
I've read a bit of Greene, but wouldn't have known to have picked up this one had I not happened upon it mentioned on The Rap Sheet as one of those books One Must Read. Greene, as it happens, wrote a fair amount about crime, and as Alan Furst's informative introduction will tell you, actually worked for British SIS in Africa during WW2. So it is not so surprising that this experience gets turned into a very dark, very quiet tale of mysterious doings in London during the Blitz. In one sense (well, in the only sense I know, actually) it's classic Graham Greene - a lone wolf of sorts gets caught up in a moral dilemma far larger than his puny existence, and has to struggle to decide whether to involve himself at all, or to walk away and continue his humdrum, if depressed, existence. There are chasms on every side of the path that the characters walk - real danger lurks here, existential terror there. No choice offers a partcularly positive outcome, so what does it matter what Rowe (I can't refer to him in my usual sense of Our Hero - he is, but he is so not) chooses to do, since there is no clear way forward.
And that's what is ultimately so compelling about this tale, its absolute grounding in the uncertain, gray, amoral world at war. Published in 1943, The Ministry of Fear is suffused with a bleakness that is a sharp rebuke to so many stories written by authors who know the ultimate outcome of that conflict. Reading this, you almost forget how it turned out, but you never ever lose sight of the absolute disruption of the present. Greene's description of an air raid is brilliant in its mundane devastation.
"They hadn't heard the plane this time; destruction had come drifting quietly down on green silk cords: the walls suddenly caved in. They were not even aware of the noise.
Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the effect of an embarrassing dream as of man's serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to the neighbor's gaze." (19)
This isn't to say that Greene's Britain during the war is hopeless, far from it. Consider this description of driving back into London early in the morning after a raid.
"They came into London with the early workers; along the industrial roads men and women were emerging from underground; neat elderly men carrying attache-cases and rolled umbrellas appeared from public shelters. In Gower Street they were sweeping up glass, and a building smoked into the new day like a candle which some late reveller has forgotten to snuff. It was od to think that the usual battle had been going on while they stood on the island in the pond and heard only the scrape of the spade. A notice turned them from their course, and on a rope strung across the road already flapped a few hand-written labels. 'Barclay's Bank. Please inquire at . . .' 'The Cornwallis Dairy. New Address . . .' 'Marquis's Fish Saloon . . .' On a long, quiet, empty expanse of pavement a policeman and a warden strolled in lazy proprietary conversation like gamekeepers on their estate - a notice read, 'Unexploded Bomb.' This was the same route they had taken last night but it had been elaborately and trivially changed. What a lot of activity, Rowe thought, there had been in a few hours - the sticking up of notices, the altering of traffic, the getting to know a slightly different London. He noticed the briskness, the cheerfulness on the faces; you got the impression that this was an early hour of a national holiday. It was simply, he supposed, the effect of finding oneself alive." (170)
Keep calm and carry on, indeed.
The thing about Greene is, no matter what he is writing about, or where it takes place, he writes utter truths that sometimes shake you to your core. When Rowe is at his bleakest moment, he thinks back to his childhood, worrying at the signs of his moral decay like you might wiggle a loose tooth. Greene pushes harder.
"In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality - heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated. That is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood - for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we knew the rules, but the later books are complicated and contradictory with experience; they are formed out of our own disappointing memories - of the V.C. in the police-court dock, of the faked income tax return, the sins in corners, and the hollow voice of the man we despised talking to us of courage and purity. The Little Duke is dead and betrayed and forgotten; we cannot recognize the villain and we suspect the hero and the world is a small cramped place. The two great popular statements of faith are 'What a small place the world is' and 'I'm a stranger here myself.'" (75-76)
Have you ever read a more devastating declaration of the casualty of growing up?
So, yes, you should probably read this book. Greene was a contemporary of Eric Ambler's, and if you hadn't already figure it out, Furst will remind you, a spiritual ancestor to John Le Carre, as well. These guys of course have the lock on the good-guy-in-a-bad-situation genre, but Greene's are so nuanced that they stand unnervingly apart. I had a little trouble getting into The Ministry of Fear - the first third is bewildering, and you might wonder if it is worth sticking around for more. It is.