Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Gun for Sale’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 192 pages; 2010.

First published in 1936, A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene is an oppressively dark crime novel about a British assassin who becomes a wanted man in England after he commits his deed on European soil.

In much the same way as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated the Great War, the murder has been designed to provoke a new world war which will make many men in England rich.

Murderous opening

When A Gun for Sale opens we are thrust right into the action. Raven, the English assassin with the harelip (which marks him as easily identifiable), is in an unnamed European country getting ready to kill the Minister of War. Things don’t go exactly to plan but he manages to escape detection after the murder of the politician and his secretary — though he doesn’t get rid of the weapon as he had been instructed to do so.

When he returns to London, he meets Cholmondeley, a fat man with a penchant for sweets, who double-crosses him by paying his £250 fee in stolen banknotes, which are traceable by authorities.

Raven now has to go on the run in his own country, but not without planning his vengeance on Cholmondeley, whom he follows on the train out of London to (the fictional) Nottwich. (Remember, he has a gun.)

Also on the train is a young woman called Anne, who is heading to Nottwich to begin working as a chorus girl in a pantomime. In a strange twist of fate (or should we say authorly coincidence?), Anne’s fiancé is the police detective in charge of finding Raven, and so all these characters are unwittingly drawn together in a complex plot involving corruption, betrayal, sex and murder.

The claustrophobic manhunt that ensues not only puts Anne’s life in danger, it makes Raven increasingly prone to commit more horrendous acts out of fear and paranoia.

Fast-paced tale

The fast-paced narrative is written from multiple perspectives in Greene’s distinctively clear and clean prose in which not a word is wasted.

The world conveyed here — dark, grim and often immoral — presents women as the mere playthings of men and sees war as a way for corrupt men to make vast amounts of money.

I read A Gun for Sale with a mix of fear and fascination. It’s not dissimilar to Greene’s more famous Brighton Rock, which it predates by a couple of years, in that it charts the disturbing outfall of one man’s violent behaviour on the people and community around him.

I normally love inter-war novels, but this one is pretty bleak and chilling. Perhaps its most interesting achievement (and one that I particularly admired) is the way in which it makes the female protagonist the star of the show and paints such a wonderful portrait of the killer it’s easy for the reader to both loathe and empathise with him…

I read this book for The 1936 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 12-18 April, 2021.

Author, Book review, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Vintage

‘Travels With My Aunt’ by Graham Greene

Travels with my aunt by Graham Greene

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 262 pages; 1999.

First published in 1969, Travels With My Aunt was one of Graham Greene’s later novels. It’s an unusually cheery one for a writer whom I mostly associate with dark, often moralistic, stories with strong Catholic overtones.

A cheery tale with dark undertones

Travels With My Aunt tells the story of a retired bank manager, Henry Pulling, whose dull suburban life is forever changed by his elderly Aunt Augusta, who convinces him to come travelling with her. A riotous romp across Europe and later South America ensues, but as the story progresses the belly laughs and hilarious moments give way to increasingly darker undertones.

At its core, the book poses an intriguing question: what is it to lead a good life? Is excitement and adventure better than leading a quiet, settled existence? And to what extent should we broaden our horizons — or toe the line? Is it ever okay to flout the law? Or hook up with a Nazi war criminal?

When the book opens we meet the first person narrator, Henry Pulling:

I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.

At that funeral he meets his aunt — his mother’s younger sister — for the first time since he was a young child and she takes him back to her apartment, above a pub, where she resides with her lover, a middle-aged black man from Sierra Leone.

It soon becomes clear to the reader — and NOT to the narrator — that Aunt Augusta is more closely related to Henry than he may realise. “You were your father’s child,” she tells him on the taxi ride from the funeral to her home. “Not your mother’s.”

This sets the tone for much of the story: Aunt Augusta says outrageous things and tells outrageous tales, but there’s always a grain of truth in them, yet Henry is too naive, too unworldly to understand the full implications.

A different way of living

As the narrative progresses, Henry’s eyes are opened to a different way of living — his loveless existence is juxtaposed against his aunt’s often passionate past.

“Think how complicated my life would be if I had kept in touch with the men I have known intimately. Some died, some I left, a few have left me. If they were all with me now we would have to take over a whole wing of the Royal Albion.”

And he soon begins to see that his aunt has little respect for the law — she’s always dabbling in some money-making scam or trying to find ways to avoid having her bags checked at the airport:

“I hope you’re not planning anything illegal?”
“I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” Aunt Augusta said. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”

Confident storytelling

As ever with Graham Greene, the writing has an assured elegance and the storytelling is confident, almost muscular. There’s the very real feeling that the author is having fun with the story, he’s enjoying creating these two characters that are polar opposites — the wayward, amoral aunt and her dull, colourless, jobsworth of a nephew — and throwing them together to see what might ensue.

The one-liners — which come thick and fast, especially in the earlier part of the novel — are hilarious. And many of the set pieces, including the police investigation into Henry’s mother’s ashes, which have been replaced by pot, had me tittering away as I furiously kept turning the pages.

Travels With My Aunt is one of those rare books that you can read for enjoyment alone; you can skim through the pages and forget the real world outside. But dig a little deeper and there’s a whole lot more happening underneath. Greene turns his perceptive eye to  bigotry, drugs, sex, marriage, religion and death. He throws in a smattering of espionage, a little bit of Nazi war crime, a small dose of youth culture (albeit Sixties style), and pits a naive middle-aged man against a worldly-wise 76-year-old woman and somehow creates a kind of magic.

I rather adored this novel. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — the middle part dragged a little for me — but the rather brilliant (and somewhat shocking) denouement suggests that Henry’s not quite so innocent after all…

I actually chose this book for my book group and I’m happy to report everyone else seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. We gave it a collective score of 7.5 out of 10.

1001 books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Penguin, Setting

‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene

Brighton-Rock

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 256 pages; 1998.

A month or so ago I watched the documentary Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene, which I had recorded on my SkyBox for rainy day viewing. It immediately made me want to rush out and read everything Greene had ever written, and so I pulled Brighton Rock, first published in 1938, from my shelves, where it had been sitting for almost a decade.

A murder by the seaside

The book is set in Brighton, on the south coast of England, in the 1930s. It’s a completely different world to the one we know now and the grim reality of a life hard lived resonates off the page.

The story largely revolves around two characters — the teenage gang leader and Catholic thug Pinkie Brown and the buxom Guinness-swilling woman, Ida Arnold, on his tail — whose lives are brought together through the murder of Charles “Fred” Hale, a newspaper reporter on business in Brighton, one sunny weekend.

In some circles the book is billed as a detective story, because it traces Ida’s steps to track down Hale’s killer, but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the genre. What it does do is explore the battle between good and evil — represented by the sociopathic Pinkie and the decent law-abiding Ida — as well as highlighting how one small crime can spiral out of control into a series of crimes, the tracks of which become increasingly harder to cover.

The book is also classed as one of Greene’s “Catholic novels”, because Pinkie’s behaviour makes a mockery of the church’s doctrine on marriage and morality, while Ida’s behaviour suggests that you don’t need to follow faith or religion to be a good person. It also juxtaposes Pinkie’s virginity and his revulsion at the idea of the sexual act (or any kind of intimacy), with that of Ida’s rather liberated view (and experience).

Exceedingly well-drawn characters

Bearing all this in mind, including Greene’s literary legacy the weight of which I could almost feel pressing on my shoulders as I turned each page, I have to admit I had trouble getting into this novel. It felt old-fashioned in a way I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but I also had difficulty identifying with any of the characters — and that’s despite the fact they are exceedingly well drawn: Pinkie is loathsome and nasty, capable of carrying out abhorrent acts with no care for the consequences; his girlfriend Rose is lonely, weak-willed and naive, but desperate to be loved by anyone who shows her the slightest bit of attention; while Ida is headstrong, determined and independent, beholden to no one.

Yet I didn’t feel “engaged” with the way in which their story unfolded — Ida painstakingly trying to track down the man she believes has killed Hale; Pinkie “wooing” Rose, the young waitress he believes could spill the beans, and marrying her so that she cannot testify against him — and think it may have something to do with the complete absence of warmth in the story. Indeed, I felt one step removed from it throughout, almost as if I was reading it through a layer of ice, which, in turn, had made the narrative feel cold — and detached.

That said, I admired the book’s take on the importance of justice and the way in which Ida so cleverly and single-mindedly pursued it. While she’s described in an overtly sexual way throughout, it seems rather refreshing to have such a strong female lead in a book written at this time.

And there’s no doubt that Greene is a master at creating atmosphere: the dark, seamy Brighton he depicts here resonates with unseen dangers and unknown tensions, while the razor gangs and the rivalry between them feels genuinely scary.

Brighton Rock may not have won me completely over, but it’s a heady mix of psychological character study and criminal thriller, and I’m glad I read it. And it certainly hasn’t deterred me from exploring more of Graham Greene’s work.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene

End of the affair by Graham Greene

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 191 pages; 2004.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the basic premise of The End of the Affair , which was first published in 1951 and has remained in print ever since? It must be the late Graham Greene‘s most famous novel. It’s been adapted for the screen twice — in 1955, starring Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson, and in 1999 starring Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes — and transformed into an opera in 2004 by the American composer and pianist Jake Heggie.

It’s  a dark but ultimately compelling tale about one man’s tortured relationship with a woman he cannot have and the decisions people make that impact on the rest of their lives.

The basic storyline revolves around a doomed love affair that takes place in 1940s war torn London. Maurice Bendrix, a successful writer, falls for Sarah Miles, the wife of a dreary civil servant with whom he has struck up a business relationship. For five years Bendrix (he is rarely called by his first name throughout the book) and Sarah conduct an illicit, passionate affair until Sarah calls it off without warning or explanation.

For two years Bendrix nurses his wounded heart, becoming rather bitter and twisted in the process. Then, one wet wintry night, he meets Sarah’s husband, Henry, crossing the Common. Henry invites him back to his place for a drink, because he wants to discuss Sarah, whom he suspects of having an affair with another man. He suggests that Bendrix might be able to assist him and so begins a rather creepy episode in which Bendrix, via a private detective, tracks Sarah’s every move with unexpected consequences…

This is an incredibly moving story that brims with pathos and anger throughout. Initially told from Bendrix’s rather damaged point of view, we later learn Sarah’s side of the story via her journal which has fallen into Bendrix’s hands. Her diary entries provide a glimpse into her view of the affair and her deep and abiding need to escape the routine dullness of married life any way she can. It also reveals a surprising element to Sarah’s character, namely her relationship with God, and the reasons why she gave up Bendrix all those years ago.

I found the book quite a devastating, heart-rending read that reveals a London I barely recognise. The narrative is incredibly dark and bleak and depressing, but there are chinks of light as well, and more than two weeks after reading it the story still lingers in my mind and no doubt will stay with me for the rest of my life.

In short, a compelling read and one that has inspired me to dig out more of Graham Greene’s rather prolific back catalogue. And as much as I would love to see the Julianne Moore/Ralph Fiennes version of the film, I’m too scared to watch it lest it fails to live up to the brilliance of this short but incredibly wise and knowing novel.