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Greene’s most hilarious and most mordant entertainment.

Gleefully combining the raucous humor of absurdity with slyly subtle wordplay and caustic satire, Greene entertains on every level, poking fun at British intelligence-gathering services during the Cold War. Setting the novel in the flamboyant atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Havana, where virtually anything can be had at a price, Greene establishes his contrasts and ironies early, creating a hilarious set piece which satirizes both the British government’s never-satisfied desire for secrets about foreign political movements and their belief that the most banal of activities constitute threats to national security.

Ex-patriot James Wormold is a mild-mannered, marginal businessman and vacuum cleaner salesman, whose spoiled teenage daughter sees herself as part of the equestrian and country club set. Approached by MI6 in a public restroom, Wormold finds himself unwillingly recruited to be “our man in Havana,” a role which will reward him handsomely for information and allow him some much-needed financial breathing room.

Encouraged to recruit other agents to provide more information (and earn even more money), he chooses names at random from the country club membership list and fabricates personas for them, featuring them in fictionalized little dramas which he churns out and forwards to his “handlers.” Always careful to fulfill their expectations exactly, Wormold becomes a more and more important “spy,” his stories become more creative, his “enemies” find him and his “agents” to be dangerous, and his friends and the real people whose names were used as fictional agents begin to turn up dead.

Skewering British intelligence for being such willing dupes of a vacuum cleaner salesman who never wanted to be an agent in the first place, Greene betrays both his familiarity with the inner workings of the intelligence service, of which he was once a member, and his rejection of Cold War politics. In a conclusion which will satisfy everyone who has ever become impatient with political maneuvering, Greene carries the absurdities of power to their limits, orchestrating a grand finale which shows British politicians at their most venal–and most ridiculous. Acerbic in its humor and delightfully refreshing in its choice of “hero,” this novel is Greene at his very best.

Notes: The film version of this novel stars Alec Guiness, Maureen O’Hara, and Burl Ives.

Also reviewed here: THE THIRD MAN and  THE POWER AND THE GLORY

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