In 1938, Graham Greene was busy writing two novels. The better-known book became his classic, The Power and the Glory, about the Mexican whiskey priest. But Greene feared that The Power and the Glory would not sell, and he needed money to support his family. Therefore, in the mornings, he wrote one of his “entertainments”, The Confidential Agent. As an entertainment, The Confidential Agent qualifies as a thriller. It has a fast-moving plot, reversals of fortune, and plenty of action. In this regard, Greene’s tale is like those of his contemporary, Eric Ambler, and later writers such as Alan Furst, who inhabit the same shady and treacherous underworld of pre-World War II Europe.
But this is Graham Greene. This is Greeneland.
So while The Confidential Agent meets all of the requirements of a thriller, nevertheless, it has that twinge of angst for which Graham Greene is famous. For instance, the protagonist is never given a name, only the initial “D.”. In this, we perceive shades of Kafka. Further, D. is haunted by the past. The civil war in his home country (the Spanish Civil War?) killed his wife and left him in prison, expecting execution. Having escaped captivity, D. is assigned a mission to England by his embattled government. But D’s past pulls at him all the while. His memories, his wounds, and the adversaries have traveled with him to try to thwart his mission to buy coal on behalf of his government. D. is not a James Bond or even a George Smiley. He’s an amateur, a scholar of the medieval French text The Song of Roland. He’s intimidated by the thought of personal violence even though he has suffered his share.
I don’t know if there’s any Graham Greene book that I wouldn’t recommend. Graham Greene’s “entertainments” are weightier than many other writers’ most ambitious works. Greene establishes characters quickly and deeply. Although one can describe the tale as “action-packed”, you are taken by fleeting and seemingly minor characters such as Else the cleaning girl at the hotel and the gang members of the mining town. Thus, if you’re looking for something both entertaining and more considerate, you will likely enjoy Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent.