The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (Penguin Classics)
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125 of 127 people found the following review helpful
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.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 23, 2011
to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die." Samuel Butler

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that it has taken me close to three score years to pick up and read a book by Graham Greene. On the other hand, I now have quite a few books I can now add to my to be read pile.

I purchased this book after reading Alan Furst's Introduction. I very much like Furst's work (See Dark Voyage: A Novel) and, after reading that Furst was influenced by Eric Ambler I worked my way thought Ambler's works with a great deal of pleasure (See A Coffin for Dimitrios). In the Introduction to Ministry of Fear, Furst mentions that Greene was another key influence. So I was sold, and, more importantly, I was not disappointed.

As in Ambler and Furst's books The Ministry of Fear gives us an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. Arthur Rowe is an ordinary man, albeit one with a troubled past. He is described by Greene as a tall stooping lean man with a narrow face and whose clothes were good "but gave the impression of being uncared for; you would have said a bachelor if it had not been for an indefinable married look." Set in the early days of WWII, the blitz has just begun and Rowe finds himself in a charity fete. Rowe finds himself paying a few pence to have his fortune told and through a strange quirk of fate utters a phrase that puts him right in the middle of an espionage ring.

The story takes off from there. The cast of characters introduced by Greene should be familiar to anyone who has read Ambler, Buchan, or Furst: the stolid police detectives, the sinister and inscrutable foreign spies and assorted hangers on; and the lovely lady who may be friend or foe. But what Green does here that I find so intriguing is to turn a rather generic story line into a brilliant examination of something entirely different: how memory and forgetfulness either free us or enslave us.

The heart of the book for me was not the story line itself. [Note: possible spoiler follows.] About half way through the book we find that Arthur Rowe had been hurt during the blitz and was suffering from amnesia. As the story continues we see not only the plot develop but witness the transformation of Arthur Rowe. As noted earlier, he had been haunted by an earlier tragedy and, to my mind; this tragedy had totally enslaved Rowe. He was a prisoner of his own guilt and his thoughts and actions were constricted by that guilt. Now that the balance between memory and forgetfulness had shifted so to had Rowe's thoughts and actions. Given a new name he truly became a new person and as his memory starts to return Greene presents us with Rowe force to make a conscious decision as to whether his memory will continue to enslave him. Rowe's decision and the actions that follow take us through the book's satisfying conclusion.

"I have done that", says my memory. "I cannot have done that" -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields." So said Friedrich Nietzsche and Graham Greene has taken that theme and run with it with great skill and with great delight to the reader.

Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2000
Set in England during WWII, The Ministry of Fear is the story of Arthur Rowe surviving but not truly living in the shadow of what was once his life. He finds himself hunted by shadowy forces of espionage and the memory of having mercifully murdered his sick wife. Somewhat convuluted at times and not Greene's best effort, but still brilliant and heart tugging. Greene's fire always burns brightest when he speaks to the heart and not of cloak and dagger stuff.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2001
Arthur Lowe's (uh, Rowe's) struggle to quiet his life from the awful memory of his merciful killing of his dying wife because he cannot stand to see her suffer is really a low point(if you will) for this man, yet we still feel sorry for him and his battle. He finds great pity at seeing anyone or thing suffer, so much so that he is blind to the moral imperative that murder is wrong and is a crime. Lowe gets away with it in the story, but not in his mind. We see Arthur stepping "joyfully back into adolescence", to "mislay the events of twenty years", that cause him to behave in a childish manner - he will not give up the cake at the fete. The action propels him into a journey of espionage that would change his life. Instead of trying to struggle to forget his past we see him struggle to find his past and to discover who he is. In the process he finds love once again.
The backdrop of the bombing of London and all the underground cubby holes he seeks to shelter himself from the life altering bombs of his mind are all great metaphors that tie this very good novel together. Rowe is not a hero but a highly flawed human who coincidentally disrupts a spy plot at the moment of his catharsis. His purity of compassion and pity for suffering beings is his downfall because he crosses the line into unethical conduct to sooth himself - a selfish indulgence that results in him playing God, and then almost makes the same error again.
How many times do we excuse ourselves for our actions in the name of noble spirit? It is the precursor to Catch 22 ("We had to destroy the village to save it", or "I had to kill my wife to put her out of her misery").
There is much to learn from this "entertaintment".
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This novel has one of the best opening chapters of any novel I have ever read. Arthur Rowe is a repressed and guilt ridden man, living out the war in a London boarding house with little companionship. So, when he comes across a rather sad little wartime fete, he is eager to recall the memories of childhood it evokes. During the fete, a misunderstanding means that he wins a cake. However, the cake was never meant for him and his sudden lucky prize has consequences he could never have anticipated.

This book was published in 1943 and, in it, Graham Greene paints an evocative picture of a war weary population. Arthur Rowe is bombed more than once during the novel and many of the people he comes across have a furtive, nervous air about them. London has been reduced to almost a series of small villages, with people having to consider whether or not they have time to cross the city before the sirens go. However, the blitz is not the only problem Arthur Rowe faces. He finds that he possesses something that the Germans want and they will use any means to acquire it. In fear of his life, Rowe tries to investigate the organisers of the fete and meets Anna Hilfe and her brother Willi; Austrian refugees, who seem to believe his outlandish story.

Although, in essence, this is a story which has been told before – the innocent man who somehow becomes involved in espionage and murder- rarely has it been told as well as this. Despite the danger, Arthur Rowe is a man who gradually begins to engage with the world around him again. This is a disturbing novel in places; a tale of coming to terms with guilt, the weight of memory, of love and loyalty. Although the main character is mild-mannered and bookish, he has a disturbing past and is suddenly motivated to try to find a future. This is not one of Graham Green’s most talked about novels, but it deserves to be. As a novel of wartime, it is fascinating as a portrait of a city which is battered, but certainly not beaten and I am glad that I have discovered it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 22, 2010
Graham Greene was a very talented and prolific twentieth century writer, perhaps best known for his novels The End of the Affair and the Third Man, both of which were made into successful films. Many of his books explore the struggle of modern man or woman to make moral choices in a complex and often corrupt world. He also liked to write thrillers, which he called "entertainments" to distinguish them from what he considered his more serious novels.

Greene's thriller The Ministry of Fear certainly is entertaining. Greene pulls out all the stops in this story of Arthur Rowe, a middle aged, disillusioned man with a sordid past who stumbles into a real mystery when he wins a cake in a raffle at a seedy charity fair. From the moment he claims his cake made with "real eggs" (real eggs were a true delicacy during the London Blitz!), Rowe becomes a marked man. He is followed, threatened, attacked, betrayed, imprisoned, and nearly blown up. Through it all he tries to figure out what mysterious message is connected with the cake. Does it all point to a devious plot to threaten the allied cause and his beloved England?

Because Greene is such a first class writer, he can't write a story that doesn't have some deeper subtext about good and evil, or create a hero who doesn't engage and interest us. We cannot help but care about what happens to Arthur Rowe. Greene keeps us guessing until the very end about whom Rowe should trust.

When we remember that The Ministry of Fear was written during the war when no one knew which side would ultimately triumph, this novel of espionage and moral choices packs an even more potent punch. Espionage writers come and go, but you will have to look hard to find a writer more engaging, effective, and ,yes, entertaining than Graham Greene.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2011
It is a pleasure to turn to the novels of Graham Greene (1904-91) the famous twentieth century British novelist. In a new Penguin edition his 1943 noir "The Ministry of Fear" includes a fine introduction by Alan Furst a fine novelist of spy fiction in his own right.
The novel is set in World War II London suffering from the ravages of nightly bombing during the blitz. The anti hero is Arthur Rowe a shell of a man tortured by the mercy killing of his ill wife. Rowe had been tried for murder but was aquitted.
He stops in at a fair for charity where he buys a cake. The cake was meant for a spy. The cake contains classified film. The short book follows Rowe's adventures as he is suspected of murdering a man at a seance. This book reminds the reviewer of Alfred Hitchcock's classic tales of innocent men wanted for murder.who solve the case (such as in "North by Northwest")
The novel has a good resolution with Rowe finding true love and the Nazi criminals being killed or captured. One section of the book is set in a creepy nursing home where Rowe is sent following the loss of his memory. Through dreams the reader is carried back to an Arcadian England prior to the Great War of 1914.
What makes Greene's tales so good is his ability to write elegant English, turn phrases and keep the reader in suspense.
The Ministry of Fear is a superb classic of espionage writing!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2010
I was waiting to catch a plane at PDX and saw a young guy sitting across from me reading this book. No this isn't a Craigslist "Missed Connection;" I just thought the book looked interesting so I made a note of it and bought it when I arrived home.

This was a very well written, succinct thriller that was written and published during World War II. Graham Greene is generally known for writing literary fiction but also wrote what would today be called thrillers or bestsellers (which he referred to as "entertainments") and *Ministry Of Fear* is a prime example of Greene's entertainments. It was fun to read a thriller written by such an accomplished literary author, and the book conveys a thick sense of fear and paranoia that I imagine is quite a genuine depiction of life during wartime.

But wait, there's more! An interesting film was made based on this book, starring Ray Milland, who was perfect in the lead role. The movie had quite a few different plot elements than the book, some of which were actually improvements - but the best thing is the entire movie is available for free on youtube - cool!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2013
This was a very good read. On the train an hour each morning on the way to work. Although born ten years after the conclusion of the Second World War, I can still remember England post war before the recovering sixties. England slowly recovered from war and Mr Greene captures the atmosphere of this oppresiveness very well. Austerity, the claustrophobic society where people conform because of the risk of shame; rather than standing out, or heaven forbid-appear "foreign". My family name was foreign in sixties England and with my gob, I always stood out once I drew breath and was made to feel I was not English. Well I wasn't, I was Geordie with a wide streak of Flemish-Belgian. So the characters, and their smallness of what was right and correct have resonance for me. I found this to be one of Graham Greene's more satisfying stories. Part whodunit, spy and crime novel. But what works for me is the sense of time and place. Reading this, I could imagine being in London under war and Blitz conditions and the characters remained credible and added to the story/plot and settings. I was absorbed and felt gritty and grimy sitting in shades of black, white and grey on the train to Parramatta and I swear I could smell smoke and cinders and brick dust. I pulled my hat down over my brow and got on with accepting my lot in life. Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2011
A kind of dark "Through the Looking Glass" story of one person's experience in World War II London. Greene excels in placing an ordinary character in dramatic, historical circumstances to play out the choices that make up his life.

In this book, it's Arthur Rowe. Rowe steps nostalgically into a church bazaar, visits a fortuneteller, follows a chance mis-identification by the fortuneteller into a winning guess at a cake's weight, and ends up a central figure in international espionage, with the right side and wrong side, guilt and innocence, and even Arthur's own identity all thrown up in the air

It's a good ride through a winding plot, with a twist I'm not used to from Greene -- an involvement of the reader in the novel as a puzzle, almost like more modern or postmodern stories such as the movie Memento.

Greene calls this book one of his "entertainments". I thought it was certainly entertaining, as well as another of his explorations of character under personal and historical stress.
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