Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Graham Greene, A Gun For Sale

I was planning on finishing Frankenstein by this point, but this got in the way. In theory, it's quite a simple plot: Raven the harelipped hitman kills the Minister for War but is double crossed, leading him to try and chase down those hiring him. So far, so straightforward.

The powerful elements of the book come through the sort of characterisation at which Greene excelled, showing us flawed people at every turn who sometimes do what is right, but more often don't. Even those who are clearly set up as protagonists, such as Mather the policeman and his girlfriend Anne, are troubled. Mather, in the best tradition of detectives everywhere, cares more about his job than his girl, while Anne, who is quite happy with the thought of infidelity if it might get her ahead in her own career, spends about half the book helping Raven. The rest of it finds itself full of the sort of collection of de-frocked priests, sundae loving villains and hard drinking chiefs of police who would probably be taken as caricatures if they appeared in anything modern, but who appear vibrant and necessary when given Greene's touch.

Very quickly a couple of themes appear. One is whether it is possible to escape a bad background, worked through in greatest depth by the assassin, Raven, but placed in wonderful contrast to his employers too. The other, focussing on war, the desire for it, and the ease with which people can be manipulated into it, comes through, not just in the deeper plot behind Raven's actions, but also in the fictional setting of Nottwich, which has heard the news of a possibly impending war and, in some cases at least, is quite excited by the prospect.

This is one of those books that starts out looking like it will just hit the markers of its genre, but ends up doing rather more. It makes no particular claims to be more than a brief thriller, and in a couple of areas looks worryingly like its going to start following an obvious formula, but then you remember that Greene is one of the main reasons that there is such a formula, and you're free to enjoy the parts of it that are better than that.

1 comment:

Andi said...

I haven't read this book of Greene's, but your reviews tells me I would probably love it as much as I did The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory. I'll have to get hold of a copy. Thanks.