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Graham Greene: The Human Factor

The blurb on the front of my copy says Probably the best espionage novel ever written. It isn’t. It’s not bad but it is fairly straight John le Carré/Len Deighton, with just a bit of Greene’s usual themes thrown in. It takes the then common theme that spies are very ordinary people (i.e. not James Bond) with ordinary money and sex/marital problems and are also fairly lonely people. The only interesting stance Greene takes is that all of them (in this case British, Soviet and South African), while certainly not viciously evil, tend to illustrate the idea of the banality of evil, i.e. end up doing evil deeds merely by doing what they see is their job.

The story is set in what is presumably MI6, thought it is never actually mentioned as such, as the employees à la CIA, call it the firm. In any case, it is a British government agency dealing with external matters. In his case, we are concerned with the Africa desk, dealing with, more or less, Central/Southern Africa. The head of the Africa desk is Watson, whom we barely meet. We are concerned with the head of this unit – Maurice Castle – and his assistant, Arthur Davis. We barely get to know their first names as last names are almost always used. The third member of the unit, Cynthia, is only relevant because Davis is in love with her, a love that is not reciprocated. Their jobs tend to be very mundane and also fairly regimented. Castle is married to Sarah. Sarah is a black African whom he met when he was in South Africa. He fell in love with her which caused a lot of trouble, as interracial relationships were strictly forbidden under South Africa’s apartheid laws. Moreover, at the time he fell in love with her, she was pregnant with another (black) man’s baby. He manages to get her out of South Africa and back to London and brings up the son – Sam – as his own, the father being presumed dead (though we later learn that this might not be the case). Davis is single, shares a flat with two Department of the Environment men, drinks too much and, as said, is in love with Cynthia.

The action develops when there seems to be increased security and we learn that there has been a leak from this unit. We are immediately led to believe that the source is Davis and the bosses think so too. Much of the book is concerned with why they think so and what they do about it. Of course, as this is a spy novel, the obvious answer is usually wrong and when we found out what is really happening, things do heat up, our man defects and the British, inevitably, get it wrong. Mixed up with this is the role of the South Africans, who are sharing intelligence with the British (and, therefore, ultimately with the Americans). Greene certainly tells the story well and lets us know very early on who the guilty party is so that the real meat of the novel is does the traitor get away and, if so, how. His usual themes of guilt and responsibility do come in but they are almost side issues, as our focus (and Greene’s) is on the plot as well as on the issue of how all three sides think that they are doing the right thing when it is clear to us that not only are they messing up everyone’s lives (a point made strongly by Greene), including assassination, but that they are all as bad as one another, with no good guys, only people who think that they are good guys doing what are ultimately bad things.

And the greatest espionage novel of all time? Publisher’s Weekly thinks it’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which also makes Time’s 100 best English-language novels since 1923, while The Times has Funeral in Berlin. While The Quiet American makes the Publisher’s Weekly list and The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory make Time’s list, this novel does not make any of these three lists.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Bodley Head