A review of A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene

The prose has a deliberate hard-boiled rhythm (the novel’s opening sentences – “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful…” – illustrates this as well as anything) and the suspense is deftly maintained, but what most lifts the novel above the ordinary is Greene’s approach to character. His sympathy is extended to almost all of the characters in the novel, not aligned with just a few.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

A Gun for Sale
by Graham Greene
Vintage Classics
November 2005, ISBN: 0099286149

Graham Greene’s fifth novel, originally published in 1936, remains a compelling thriller. When Raven, a paid assassin, kills the Czech Minister for War, he leaves behind evidence that incriminates other European nations and seems certain to push the world toward war. Returning to England, Raven is double-crossed: his employers pay him off with marked, stolen bank notes. Soon the police are on his trail and we get a manhunt (think The Thirty-Nine Steps) set against the backdrop of an England preparing for war.

The prose has a deliberate hard-boiled rhythm (the novel’s opening sentences – “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful…” – illustrates this as well as anything) and the suspense is deftly maintained, but what most lifts the novel above the ordinary is Greene’s approach to character. His sympathy is extended to almost all of the characters in the novel, not aligned with just a few. There is sympathy for the murderer Raven (he is one of Greene’s damned wounded outcasts, rather like Pinkie in Brighton Rock) as well for Acky, an excommunicated priest, and Anne Crowder. Anne is the ostensible heroine of the novel, but she is not – by Greene’s lights – wholly good; for she betrays the trust of the confessional. Even Sir Magnus, the steel magnate who attempts to provoke a war and so create a market opportunity for his business, is given a fair amount of sympathy. Only Sir Magnus’s “agent” (a word that carried the relatively new meaning of “spy” in 1936) is disregarded in this respect; and one can understand why. An agent is a willing pawn, someone who acts for another, with all the moral decrepitude that this implies. How can one sympathise with a human vacuum?

A Gun for Sale lacks the moral depth and doesn’t quite have the fully-realised political landscape of Greene’s mature work. And it has other shortcomings too: the influence of John Buchan is a little too apparent, the story relies too much (or so it seems to me) on implausible incidents and coincidence. Yet there is no denying that here Greene’s power as a storyteller is as strong as it ever was; A Gun for Sale is effective, engrossing entertainment.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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