Dear Weblog Superfans,
I could have sworn I wrote about this already, but I can’t find it. A few weeks (months?) ago, I read The Human Factor by Graham Greene for one of my unread books. It’s a spy novel that was intended to be a more realistic/literary spy novel than the more popular ones of the day–it was written in the 70s, I think. Those other kind were generally more exciting super-spy-type books, such as the James Bond series by Ian Fleming.
(Fleming, by the way, was a fascinating guy. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II as an intelligence officer, I believe, and was involved in some of the spy-raid planning that went on. I vaguely remember him working on Operation Mincemeat, which was a strange scheme to convince the Germans that the Allies would invade Europe via Sicily instead of France by taking a dead guy, sticking fake invasion plans in his pocket, putting him on a plane, and dropping the plane someplace where the Germans would find it. It worked, believe it or not.)
So. The Human Factor was based on Greene’s own work with British intelligence, apparently. It concerns this dude named Castle, who works a mundane job for MI6 in London but used to do slightly more “exciting” things in South Africa. Castle’s current unit is the Africa unit, and he works with another guy whose name I can’t remember. But, wouldn’t you know it, the Africa unit has a leak! And since there are only two guys who work there, it doesn’t take long for things to get dangerous….
What’s interesting about this book is the way Greene draws out the tension in scenes that, seemingly, are about regular, mundane office interactions. There are a bunch of these scenes in a row, and each on its own doesn’t seem to add much to the plot. But when there are so many pages of direct dialogue, it becomes clear pretty quickly that there’s more going on than just paper shuffling. I found myself reading this novel as closely as I read Hemingway or Carver, who make the reader do a bunch of the “interpretive” work, for lack of a better word. And it’s not like there’s no action at all; people die, guns go off, minor characters become major ones, barely referenced events and operations become more important than some of the more-discussed ones.
I’ve read a bunch of Greene’s short stories, and most of those were before his intelligence experience, so this was a fun shift in subject matter. It’s not a great copy, just a cruddy little mass-market paperback, but it’s worth keeping, I think. I can see myself re-reading it in bits and pieces to see how he worked the tension in the early dialogue-filled chapters. And it’s something to try if you like spy novels but are getting bored with the formulaic ones that are always so rampant.
Soon, something on #34…