I recently read Greene’s The Power And The Glory; it’s a fine book, one of Graham’s best. Written in 1940, it is a timeless book (e.g. not specifically of 1940) about a whiskey priest on the run in Mexico—trying to escape from the authorities who want him dead and from his own past. The writing is tight and controlled; there is not a dead patch in the book. Of course, being Greene, it’s a very Catholic book; besides the pleasures of good writing, you also get Guilt, Original Sin, the Eucharist, and a boatload of alcohol. In other words, it’s Greene-land. The character of the priest is rather fuzzy and ambiguous, but by the end the reader has a very good idea of him.
I then read two mediocre books about priests (Giovanni Guareschi, G. K. Chesterton) and a horrible Willa Cather effort (Alexander’s Bridge). Then back to the well; The Ministry Of Fear was Graham Greene’s 1943 followup to TPATG. It is a vastly different work. It works best as an efficient spy thriller; an innocent man is framed for murder and goes on the run. All kinds of things happen to him. This kind of work was very much in vogue in the Thirties and Forties; Eric Ambler, John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock made careers out of this sort of thing.
What holds The Ministry Of Fear back are a few patches of dead writing, or filler. The plotting is fantastic. Careful readers will get thrills as Graham plots his double and triple crosses; I was nodding my head approvingly about halfway through. A name on one page becomes a NAME on another page. The dialogue too is well-done. Best of all are several set pieces: unexpected but furthering the plot. As opposed to under-writing the lead, we get too much information. The religio as before is kept to a minimum. The character of London is clear; bomb blasts, funerals, streets in rubble. The plot hums along; it is what Greene called an entertainment.
TMOF is very much of its time, with bomb blasts, London in rubble, and the unnamed enemy casting a pall over everything. The Romance is forced: ”It is not being happy together that would test the couple; it was being unhappy together.” These apothegms dot every Greene book.
It is not Graham Greene’s best book, but worthy. Greene at half boil was better than anybody else except Evelyn Waugh.