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Perhaps Greene's best book, a brilliant moral thriller
on May 24, 2004
British author Graham Greene divided his early novels into two distinct groups: `serious' novels, like "The End of the Affair," "Brighton Rock," and "The Power and the Glory"; and `entertainments,' his term for his espionage and suspense thrillers. This second group includes "A Gun for Sale" (U.S. title: "This Gun for Hire"), "Stamboul Train," "The Confidential Agent"...and "The Ministry of Fear." Looking back on Greene's long career, this distinction seems very artificial and almost silly; it perhaps made market sense back then, but Greene's entertainments are every bit as serious-minded as his non-genre work. These books are in no way lightweight time-wasters. They are as concerned with character, drama, and the human condition as any of his other books. In fact, I honestly prefer his entertainments; through the mode of the thriller, they actually stab deeper into the reader's mind.
"The Ministry of Fear," published in 1943 when World War II was raging in London's skies, is perhaps Greene's finest entertainment and my personal favorite of his novels. Greene produces here a quintessential noir novel using a premise we often associate with Alfred Hitchcock's films: an innocent man accidentally stumbles upon a secret that turns him into a man marked for death and hunted by the law. However, Greene's main character, Arthur Rowe, is hardly innocent. He is a solitary, lonely individual who harbors a deep guilt over a crime he committed in the past. When he speaks the wrong phrase to a fortune-teller at a fair, he suddenly finds himself the target of a shadowy group of spies in London -- the Ministry of the title. Soon he's fleeing through blitz London, framed for murder, desperate and near-suicidal, but harboring an anger toward the people who have tried to kill him.
Suddenly, Greene pulls a massive plot switch on the reader. The novel makes an abrupt shift that alters the whole nature of the plot. Rowe's story becomes that of possible redemption and the washing away of past sins..but at the expense of feeling whole and complete. To say much more would ruin the surprises of the novel and the internal odyssey of the main character. It's one of the most fascinating moral and character-driven thrillers ever written. And the backdrop of war-torn London, facing daily rains of bombs, is astonishing. It's almost a fantasy world, albeit a horrific one.
Greene's language can sometimes feel too exact and literary for some readers' tastes -- he certainly writes nothing like today's typical churner of bestsellers -- and his peculiar 1940s British terms may cause some head-scratching for American readers. However, Greene had a magical way of expressing ideas that anyone can relate to. He writes in flashes of truth that can make the reader shiver with realization. Only the greatest authors can do this, and Greene does it over and over again in "The Ministry of Fear."
If you've only read Greene's non-genre novels, I urge you to delve into "The Ministry of Fear." It will make you wonder why Greene even bothered to divide up his books. For any lover of thrillers, espionage stories, or World War II, this book will fill all your needs and give you much more in the bargain.