Graham Greene: The Ministry of Fear
Greene set this novel in the middle of the London blitz during World War II, when paranoia about spies was at its highest and when the landscape in London changed daily from the bombing. It is a novel of spies and has some standard clichés, including the lone, innocent hero struggling against the unseen and terrible enemy, with little help, except, of course, from the woman he meets and falls in love with, the bad guys being ubiquitous, even casual strangers our hero meets in the street and our lone hero managing to outsmart the police in catching the villains. It is still a very enjoyable novel and Greene does manage to convey the atmosphere very well.
Our hero is Arthur Rowe, a man of independent means, who lives alone in a small flat in London. As we later learn, he has spent time in prison for killing his wife, in a mercy killing when she was very ill. At the beginning of the novel he attends a fête in Bloomsbury, organized on behalf of the Comforts for Mothers of the Free Nations Fund. He sees a cake he likes which he can win, if he correctly guesses the weight, and he makes a guess. He then goes to have his fortune told by Mrs. Bellairs and she tells him the correct weight of the cake. He goes back to the cake stall and gives this new weight and finds that he has won the cake and is given it immediately. However, on leaving the fête, he is told that there has been a mistake and another, just arrived man has won it. However, he refuses to give it up and takes it home to eat it. From then on, shadowy forces try to get the cake back from him.
When his house is bombed, while a stranger has been trying to get the cake back by poisoning him, Rowe seeks the help of a detective who is initially reluctant to help but finally does. He himself decides to do some investigation and starts at the Comforts for Mothers of the Free Nations Fund, where he meets Anna Hilfe (Hilfe is the German for aid or help) and her brother, Willi. It is Willi who takes him to Mrs. Bellairs’ house and the pair arrive just in time for a séance. A phone call from Anna Hilfe warns Rowe to escape but he cannot and, during the séance, one of the participants is murdered using Rowe’s knife. Rowe flees and from then on he is embroiled in an ever-widening mystery, sought by the police, unsure of who his friends are, knocked unconscious in a bomb attack and losing his memory. A complicated scheme to get secret documents about Britain’s war-preparedness out of the country, involving numerous people, is gradually unraveled by our hero and I don’t think that I will spoil the story by saying that he gets the girl in the end.
This book is fairly standard Greene entertainment, to use his own word. Trying to guess who are the bad guys (most of them), who are his friend and who are merely innocent bystanders all adds to the fun. The portrait of a London that changes on a daily basis, as buildings are bombed, with Arthur Rowe barely missing death from bombs on two occasions, is also fascinating. As always, Greene’s hero goes through a nightmare but, as an Englishman, he never gives up and lives to give us another fine tale.
First published 1943 by Heinemann