It might seem superfluous to review a book as well-known both in literature and film as this Graham Greene classic. However, considering the enormous fuck-ups of various U.S. covert agencies over the last couple of decades as well as the diseased underbellies that have been revealed in such works as Legacy of Ashes and even John Rizzo’s piece of unintentional indecent exposure Company Man, I’m sad to report that Graham Greene’s cold war satire is as trenchant as ever.
People get killed over secrets that are not secret. Careers are made and lost, wars started, lost, and won, searching for weapons that don’t exist. Conspiracies are fabricated with the fecundity of a creative writing workshop, then financed, then uncovered, then covered up again. Poor James Wormould, your everyday colorless vacuum cleaner salesman is pulled into spying against his will, almost without his knowledge. London sends him a staff, a safe, and demands reports, which he writes like a novel–full of his characters and events he creates out of thin air. London believes his fantasies, finances them for real, and bullets fly.
As with any Greene novel, there’s plenty of religion, philosophy, and literature woven throughout, so that even this relatively inconsequential “entertainment”, as he famously called it (and others like it), has meat on its bones. If you aren’t laughing most of the time you’re reading it, you’re not paying attention. And you’ll probably puddle up a time or two as well. The tears, though, are just as likely to be over the state of our own 2000-and-beyond CIA and secret service as over the MI6 that is the subject of Mr. Greene’s 1958 world.