Reviewed by Paul Kane
The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene
Vintage Classics, November 2006
Graham Greene’s wartime “entertainment” – as he was wont to call such efforts as this – was originally published in 1943 and it is still a suspenseful thriller, albeit with a now decidedly period tinge. The novel is perhaps more interesting as a staging post on the way to “Greeneland”: the way in which Greene adapts the conventions of John Buchan’s kind of espionage thriller to his own world, and skewers it ever so slightly toward his own concerns, is very much a presentiment of the kind of novels that he would later write.
The events of the story are set in train – rather preposterously, as I think most would agree – when Arthur Rowe wins a cake at a fete by guessing its weight. He cannot be dissuaded from leaving with it and, sometime later, someone tries to kill him to get it back. In time, he is framed for murder and becomes a man on the run. Standard genre fare, one might conclude. But what Greene makes one aware of is the way in which wartime makes murder invisible. Why should the authorities be concerned with the odd murder, when there have already been hundreds of civilian casualties and more are certain to follow? The greater evil of war shrouds the lesser evil of murder.
The overriding strength of the novel is its strong sense of place and time, which here is London during the Blitz. In places, the book even reads like a diary; when describing his character’s feelings and observations regarding the city, Greene seems to be writing about his own. London is a city of dingy streets and boarded-up houses by day. While by night, her streets are desolate and much of her populace are huddled together underground in air-raid shelters, as the sirens sound outside and the bombs rain down:
Looking back, one could see only an illuminated sky – bright lanes and blobs of light like city squares, as though the inhabited world were up above and down below only the dark unlighted heavens. (176)
The Ministry of Fear touches on some of Greene’s moral concerns, such as whether suicide or mercy killing is ever justified (in Catholicism suicide is a mortal sin, of course). This theme appears in its most convincing form in The Heart of the Matter (1948), and its treatment here seems inessential. Indeed, too many of the formulations in the novel, such as “If one loved one feared” (220) create rather the sense of a straining after a significance that is not quite warranted. As a feat of storytelling, though,The Ministry of Fear is both instructive (e.g. for the way certain significant events happen “off-stage” and the way in which certain characters – Prentice being one – act as a lodestone or lightening rod for the emotional force of the story) and impressive. This is a minor work, then, but a novel with its own strengths and satisfactions; and it is an interesting precursor of much of what was to follow.
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org