Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

During the War, with London threatened nightly by German bombers, a lonely man, Arthur Rowe, went to a small festival. He went into the fortune-teller’s tent and the turbaned lady gave him a winning tip on the wonderful homemade cake, a cake made with eggs. Thus begins what seems like a mundane tale. Of course, this is Graham Greene, and the main character Arthur Rowe isn’t just a lonely man, he’s a man with a past. Rowe awakens from his ongoing lethargy when someone later tries to get the cake away from him.

Greene wrote what he called “entertainments” as opposed to what he considered his more serious novels. The distinction that Greene makes about his works seems too abrupt. While The Ministry of Fear isn’t as weighty as its immediate predecessor, The Power & the Glory, or the book that follows it, The Heart of the Matter (considered two of Greene’s finest works), but it nevertheless has plenty of depth along with intrigue and thrills. Even in a mere “entertainment”, Greene touches upon love, pity, fear, and guilt. Greene provides quick but definitive sketches of the characters that play a minor role, while his main characters receive the depth of treatment of which he is capable.

When reading this book, I thought that it would have made a perfect Hitchcock movie. (Hitchcock and Greene were roughly peers, although I don’t know of Hitchcock ever making a movie from a Greene book or script.) Upon investigating, I did learn that Fritz Lang did make a movie of the book starring Ray Milland, released in 1944. (I could see Ralph Fiennes playing the lead today.) Greene’s novels work scene by scene and are so well etched that they do convert effectively to screenplays. (Two excellent Greene stories turned to screenplays—done by Greene himself—are The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, both directed by Carol Reed.) I couldn’t find a copy to download, but the reviews of the film seemed good, and I suspect it would convert well.

If you’re looking for a thriller-plus, you’d be hard pressed to find a better book. The Ministry of Fear strikes the right balance between intrigue and deeper themes. It’s another excellent adventure in Greeneland.

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