For some reason I had got it into my head that ‘The Ministry of Fear’, my first read for Greene for Gran, was going to be something of a rather light hearted farce along the lines of ‘Our Man in Havana’ only with mystery, murder and cake I might like it a bit more. Yes, shock horror I have read Greene before and not always enjoyed him, more so in his farcical writing it has to be said which always made Gran look very perplexed when we discussed his works. Sorry Gran, good news though, I really liked this one because it did so much more than I was expecting it to.
Arthur Rowe is a man who finds himself in a war that, apart from when the sirens go off and people head down to the shelters, he finds he has very little involvement or even real feeling for. He spends his days wandering and thinking about his past (which once you discover it explains why he isn’t fighting in the war) and spending his monthly allowance on this and that as is his want. It is on one of these trips that he stumbles upon a charity fete, which he can’t help but enter as it reminds him of his childhood. So far so innocent, though as he visits the stalls something seems slightly amiss. Arthur’s perceptions aren’t wrong as it is the simple act of guessing the weight of a cake throws Arthur into a world of spies, mystery and murder, though as we discover Arthur himself is no stranger to the latter.
“There was something threatening, it seemed to him, in the very perfection of the day.”
Greene’s line above perfectly sums up the brilliant start of ‘The Ministry of Fear’ as you read on things get stranger and stranger and darker and darker. Charities suddenly have a dark undercurrent and you question if you can trust anyone no matter how sweet they might seem on the face of it. It goes from twee English war novel, to slight Agatha Christie territory (a séance indeed) only darker and then into a full on spy thriller as the book goes on and you as the reader get further and further drawn into a web of espionage and secrets in the war torn present and also the dark recesses of Arthur’s past.
“People want to kill me because I know too much. I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all around me. You remember St Clements – the bells of St Clements. They’ve smashed that – St James’s, Piccadilly, the Burlington Arcade, Garland’s Hotel, where we stayed for the pantomime, Maples and John Lewis. It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine. You used to laugh at books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murderers, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but dear that’s real life: it’s what we’ve made the world since you died. I’m your little Arthur who wouldn’t hurt a beetle and I’m a murderer too.”
Greene also does something very daring as after throwing you into this world in the first part of the book he suddenly throws you somewhere completely different and unexpected in the second which you won’t see coming. This leaves you briefly disorientated, which you soon gather is the point, and then a whole new set of sinister thrills and spills start. I was reading along thinking ‘I wonder if Gillian Flynn read this book before she wrote ‘Gone Girl’?’ not because of the narrators but just because of the genuinely surprising turns that Greene throws in the readers direction.
As well as being quite a page turner, though I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say it became so compelling I couldn’t put it down, Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers – but I will in the comments if people fancy a natter about it. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.
“The summer lay all around them, and evening was coming on. He was saying ‘Mother, I murdered her…’ and his mother said, ‘Don’t be silly, dear. Have one of these nice sandwiches.’”
I have now read five of Graham Greene’s works, with more to come, and I think out of what I have read so far ‘The Ministry of Fear’ might be my favourite because it mixes all of his styles in one novel. It has the humour of ‘Our Man in Havana’, the brooding gloom of ‘Brighton Rock’, and the ability to completely move/ruin you as ‘The End of the Affair’ did me, it blew me away back in my pre-blogging days. It is also one of those books, which I love, where you can see where it took riffs from books just before it or of its time (Agatha Christie) and also where you could spot where novelists now (Gillian Flynn, Alex Lemaitre) might have got their inspiration from. I am really glad that I have read this, my only regret it that I can’t have a good old natter with Gran about it as I think she would have been delighted to see me so impressed by one of Greene’s lesser known works. Good thing I have all of you to chat about it with then, isn’t it?