Water on the Brain

Title:                      Water on the Brain

Author:                  Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie, Compton (1933). Water on the Brain. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Doran & Company

LCCn:     33032591

PZ3.M1974 Wat2

Date Updated:  February 25, 2015

This book is a vicious spoof written by Mackenzie after he had been prosecuted under Britain’s Official Secrets Act in 1932. Nigel West groups this book with his list of the Best Spy Novels by Spies.

The journalist, Richard Norton-Taylor[1], reported the following on Mackenzie in The Guardian.

Sir Compton Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for revealing information about intelligence service in Greek Memories

The First World War memoirs of Sir Compton Mackenzie are to see the light of day 78 years after they were banned after the intervention of MI6 and MI5.

In 1932 the author of more than 90 books, including Whisky Galore, was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for revealing information about Britain’s intelligence service in Greek Memories.

Mackenzie was charged with identifying wartime intelligence officers and revealing that passport control and visa sections of UK embassies were often used as cover for the secret service. He also disclosed the existence of a department of the Secret Intelligence Service‚ now known as MI6 but then known as section “M.I.i.c” of the War Office.7

Worst of all, Mackenzie revealed that the first head of MI6, the one-legged Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, was referred to as C. It is a moniker that his successors, including the incumbent, Sir John Sawers, maintain. They sign their telegrams and correspondence‚ sent to the Queen as well as the foreign secretary, C in green ink.

The unexpurgated version of Greek Memories will be published next week by Biteback Books[2] [in 2011]. It includes a memo sent to the government’s law officers by Valentine Vivian, then head of the intelligence service’s counter-espionage section. “The keynote of this book is authenticity”, warned Vivian, adding that Mackenzie was clearly determined to “outdo in outspokenness and realism” an officially approved account of British intelligence during the first world war that had been published earlier.

Worried about the embarrassing publicity a trial would provoke, MI6 and MI5 persuaded Mackenzie to do a deal: if he pleaded guilty, he would avoid jail and be fined a sum “not exceeding £500 and £500 costs”.

Mackenzie’s lawyers had already managed to persuade a Foreign Office official to admit that although the book included information protected by the Secrets Act, he did not believe the public interest had been prejudiced by publication. It emerged that one intelligence officer named in the book, Colonel Sir Eric Holt-Wilson of MI5, had encouraged Mackenzie to write it.

Under strong pressure from MI6 and MI5, the publisher Cassell agreed to withdraw Greek Memories–although not every copy was destroyed–and to publish a censored version. As late as 1994, officially it still could not be read without the permission of MI6 and government lawyers. It was not even catalogued in the British Library, although the Bodleian Library in Oxford made it available in its “suppressed books” section.

Mackenzie took his revenge in Water on The Brain, a satirical fictional account of the Directorate of Extraordinary Intelligence, MQ 99(E), run by N. The organization’s headquarters, Pomona Lodge in north London, became a lunatic asylum, wrote Mackenzie, “for the servants of bureaucracy who have been driven mad in the service of their country”.

Other former members of MI6, including Graham Greene and John le Carre, also later stuck to fiction.

[1] Richard Norton-Taylor, “Mackenzie Memoirs Banned for Spilling Spy Secrets to Be Republished,” The Guardian (18 November 2011)

[2] In 2014 a search of Biteback Books web site doesn’t show the book, and a Google search reveals Greek Memories (Paperback) – Biteback Publishing https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/greek-memories-paperback, with is a broken link. One wonders if this book has been effectively suppressed.

Rift Zone

Title:                 Rift Zone

Author:               Raelynn Hillhouse

Hillhouse, Raelynn (2004). Rift Zone. New York: Forge Books

LCCN:    2003071102

PS3608.I44 R57 2004


Date Updated:  March 30, 2015

Rift Zone is the first Cold War thriller to be published by a major publisher since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “The absolutely riveting scenes of escape and capture in her first thriller prove that Hillhouse might well be the next—and perhaps the last—excellent novelist to come in from the cold. Whitney’s brutal interrogation … is one of the most believably painful scenes in spy literature.”

In the turbulent years after the rise of the Berlin Wall, Germany stood dangerously divided between freedom and Communism. Dodging border patrols and guard posts, a silent few were able to cross the borders of the Iron Curtain to deliver needed supplies, always at the risk of their own lives.

This is the past Faith Whitney knew. The daughter of a Bible smuggler, Faith was raised on the danger that such a life brought with it, a danger that can rip lives apart, even that of a mother and daughter. Now grown and living in 1989 Germany, Faith continues to smuggle goods across the border, narrowly slipping by the East German Stasi each time.

But her activities haven’t gone unnoticed. The Stasi have recruited her to deliver a package to Moscow, a package that must be delivered within forty-eight hours, or Faith will be eliminated. Her payment: the long-desired location of her missing father. The danger mounts as Faith is secretly contacted by the beautiful and seductive Colonel Bogdanov of the KGB, who also wants the package at any cost. Barely surviving harsh interrogations, and unsure of whom to trust, Faith turns to her ex-fiancée, Naval Officer Max Summer, the only man with the know-how to get her and her delivery to Moscow in one piece. On the run, the more they discover about the package, the more they realize that delivering it will likely cost them their lives. Little do they both know that the package is part of a larger plan, one that could affect the result of the Cold War in ways no one ever imagined.

Raelynn Hillhouse has been recruited as a spy by both Libyan and East German intelligence services. (They failed.) A former professor and Fulbright fellow, she’s not only faced the barrels of Kalashnikovs, but has also been caught in the crossfire of border guards’ snowball fights.

Hillhouse earned her M.A. in Russian and East European studies and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. She completed her undergraduate degree in history and German area studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published articles about Eastern Europe in major academic journals and has lectured at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, Soviet Academy of Sciences, among others. She speaks several languages, including German, French and Russian.

The author of this book is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), and this review is published on the Association’s website.


Sting of The Drone

Title:                      Sting of The Drone

Author:                 Richard A. Clarke

Clarke, Richard A (2014). Sting of The Drone. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2014008828



Date Updated:  February 19, 2015[1]

While this book is indeed a novel, Richard Clarke is one of my heroes in intelligence, for he never shies from telling it like it is. This “novel” is a retelling of what is and what could well be.

Reviewed by Dina Temple-Raston.[2]

In the decade I [Dina Temple-Raston] have been covering terrorism, the plot that seemed to inspire the most derision was one that involved some model airplanes and a Northeastern University graduate named Rezwan Ferdaus. Ferdaus planned to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol with radio-controlled planes filled with C-4 explosives. The FBI arrested him before any of his flights got off the ground, and in 2012 he pleaded guilty to two terrorism charges. In the end, he was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

The joke making the rounds at the time was that the only things the tiny model planes could have destroyed were tiny models of the Pentagon and the Capitol. But terrorism expert Richard Clarke, in his latest novel, Sting of the Drone, will make naysayers reassess the model-plane attack.

“At first it seemed like the B-52 was some distance away,” Clarke writes, as terrorists begin to take their revenge on the people involved with the drone program in the United States. “But her brain quickly flashed to the conclusion that it was just outside the window, a miniature B-52. In the nanosecond that her conscious mind understood what was happening, she saw a metal rod extending from the nose of the aircraft smash through the floor-to-ceiling glass window. As glass crashed into her suite, the B-52 erupted into a fireball that chased the glass inside, flash-burning everything in the room.”

Sting of the Drone explores a premise that members of the intelligence community have been kicking around for years: What would happen if the targets on the receiving end of a killer drone decided to strike back? “Flies can be swatted. Men can be killed,” a powerful tribal leader tells a terrorist plotter named Ghazi, who lost his father in a drone attack. “These drones can be stopped. Ghazi, I want you to do this. You will understand how and I will give you all that you need.”

Ghazi manages to assemble a terrorist dream team that includes not just a Pakistani clan that lives under the constant threat of drones in the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan (a thinly veiled version of the Haqqani network), but also two Ukrainian hackers and various al-Qaeda sympathizers already living in the United States. Ghazi’s plot: to hack into the guidance systems of the Predator drones and turn them against the very people who fly them. The premise is not so far-fetched: Iran claims that it captured a CIA stealth drone in 2011 by spoofing the GPS signals it was receiving. Iranian pilots were able to land it safely in Iran.

Clearly, Clarke is borrowing from real life. In fact, as you read Sting of the Drone you get the sense that it isn’t fiction at all. Clarke has written a classic in the genre of what is known as insider fiction—a novel or, more often, a thriller inspired by real episodes to which government officials were privy when they were working their day jobs.

Former CIA case officer Robert Baer (on whom the film Syriana is based) is probably the best known in this genre. He tried his hand at fiction in 2006 with a book about an alternate 9/11 scenario called Blow the House Down.

Three years later, Nicolle Wallace, formerly of the George W. Bush White House and Sen. John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, wrote Eighteen Acres, about the first female president.

Those fiction efforts—and a roster of titles from FBI agents turned novelists—have had little impact on the American literary canon. Rather, these books are successful when readers are left asking, “Could this really happen?”

Clarke’s book, for its part, reads like a typical fast-paced thriller: It switches back and forth between discussions at the White House and terrorist meetings in the desert, and captures the banter between military officials and bureaucrats at the Creech Air Force base outside Las Vegas, where the drone pilots are based. The jump-cuts will feel familiar to anyone who buys Bond-like books at the airport. But where Sting of the Drone stands above the rest, and what makes it important for those who have a tendency to shy away from this genre, is in its level of detail.

In Clarke’s hands, readers are taken through the entire bureaucratic process that governs the drone program. He writes about secure conference calls by a Kill Committee, in which officials from the Defense, State and Justice departments discuss targets and weigh the pros and cons of pulling the trigger. (We know that the Obama administration uses a version of this committee, and we may learn more about the legal justification of targeted killing soon, as the administration just announced that it will comply with a court order to release a crucial memo related to the operations.)

Clarke writes about mistakes, judgment calls and the terrorists’ adaptations as they begin to piece together America’s rules of engagement. This, too, has been occasionally alluded to in the headlines. As a result, all this is riveting reading. There is also some rich detail to be gleaned about the drones themselves. Clarke discusses their ability to follow targets for hours (which we knew) and how the bottom of the aircraft can be programmed electronically to take on the color of the sky—blue on sunny days, grey on cloudy ones—which, if true, most of us didn’t know. These kinds of tidbits make it necessary for readers to remind themselves that this is fiction—or at least is billed as such.

Clarke is better known as the author of the2004 nonfiction bestseller Against All Enemies, in which, among other things, he says President George W. Bush asked him about Iraq’s role in the 9/11 attacks while the towers were still smoldering.

The only thing that detracts from Sting of the Drone is what ails the insider genre more generally—the writing style. Clarke still needs to develop his voice and those of his characters. The men and women in the book sound the same. The dialogue is often hobbled by lame jokes and sexual innuendoes that sometimes fall flat.

In one especially egregious example, one of the directors of the drone program walks into his wife’s office and confuses the receptionist when he says: “Tell her Mustang is here. . . . Go ahead. Ask her if she wants to ride a Mustang.” The receptionist is so uncomfortable that she can only tell the wife that a man named Mustang is there and he won’t go away. And the wife replies: “Oh dear. . . . Well, then ask him if I can ride him.”

These kinds of clunkers, however, are more than offset by the meaty morsels about the secretive drone program.

One also has to wonder how much of this book is a Washington confessional. Clarke, who served three presidents as a terrorism czar, bears some responsibility for the decision to use drones against terrorists in the first place. In 2000, he wanted to deploy Predator drones, unarmed at the time, to fly over Afghanistan to help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

On its fourth flight, Clarke says in an author’s note, the Predator located the al-Qaeda leader. Clarke says he pushed to have the drones armed. The CIA and the Defense Department opposed it, he contends.

“Finally, on September 4, 2001, the Principals’ Committee met in the White House Situation Room,” Clarke writes in his note at the end of the book. “CIA Director George Tenet and the DOD leadership both spoke out against the use of armed Predators to get bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. They were not overruled. A week later we were attacked.”

Finished Reading: September 23, 2014

[1] Obtained June 26, 2014

[2] Dina Temple-Raston in The Washington Post (May 23, 2014). Dina Temple-Raston , NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent, has spent the past year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard studying the intersection of big data and intelligence. She has written four books and will return to NPR in June.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Title:                  The Thirty-Nine Steps

Author:                John Buchan

Buchan, John (1915, 1935). The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: W. Blackwood & sons

LCCN:    36029337

PZ3.B851 T9


Date Updated:  March 23, 2017

Nigel West developed a list of the best spy movies. This is one of the better ones of the best, based on a superb book by John Buchan. At least three versions of this film have been made, the first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is vacationing in England when he gets caught in a web of mystery in this Hitchcock thriller. Shots ring out at a show, and a terrified woman (Lucie Mannheim) begs Hannay to help her. He’s certain she’s crazy—until she appears at his flat with a map in hand and a knife in her back, muttering something about 39 steps.

Eluding the police, Hannay travels through Scotland to unearth the truth. The mysterious 39 steps turns out to be an organization of spies stealing the secrets of Britain’s Air Ministry for a new airplane. The Hitchcock movie has been rated as the 21st best all-time British movies. The 1978 movie is American, starring Robert Powell as Richard Hannay. In 2008 it was reissued with Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay. Hannay has his holiday interrupted when secret agent Scudder (Eddie Marsan) bursts into his apartment, staying alive just long enough to deposit a notebook. Pegged with murder, Hannay must decode the book and nab the culprits—before they find him first. In this nimble BBC update of John Buchan’s novel, German spies and British police give chase as Hannay races to deliver the coveted code and avert a world war.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is John Buchan’s first book in which Richard Hannay has one of his many adventures. A more recent edition (2004) is part of Penguin’s Great Books for Boys collection, which focuses on celebrating the adventurer within every boy. It’s not just boys who have an inner adventurer. The series, whether you’re young or old, male or female, will appeal to those who enjoy a thrilling edge-of-your-seat read.

Set just four weeks before World War I, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the story of Richard Hannay and his entanglement with international spies and a German plot to steal British military secrets. He is bored with London life and is considering moving on when he meets his seemingly normal upstairs neighbor. The man, who begs to be let into his apartment, soon tells a tale too grand to be a lie.

He is an American spy with knowledge of an assassination to take place on June 15th and that will rock Europe. Upon hearing the truth in the man’s words, Richard decides to help him. When he arrives home one evening to discover the spy’s body with a knife sticking through the heart, Richard realizes how entangled he has become. With one man murdered and the killers after him, Richard decides to run – and stay on the run until the 15th comes around so he can try to prevent the murder of another innocent man.

Through the wilds of Scotland, Richard is chased by a dark, unknown enemy, as well as his own country’s police. Between frantic chase scenes and thrilling escapes, Richard tries to unlock the secrets held in the murdered American spy’s diary. The diary is the key to it all, and Richard could save the day if only he could discover what “the thirty-nine steps” means before it’s too late.

One of the things I loved so much about this book was the feel for the era. It helps that it was written about the time the novel took place. I just don’t think, no matter how meticulously you do your research, that a modern author could have hit the same chords or achieved the same feeling. From the language and settings to the places and people, The Thirty-Nine Steps, both the book and the Hitchcock move, is perfect entertainment.

The book is short, just 160 pages, and you’ll want to read it all in one go. From the moment you first meet Richard as he becomes embroiled in a plot that covers nations, you just can’t put the book down. Honestly, why would you want to?

Our Man in Havana

Title:                     Our Man in Havana

Author:                 Graham Greene

Greene, Graham (1958, 2007). Our Man in Havana. New York: Penguin

LCCN:       2006052794

PR6013.R44 O9 2007


Date Updated:  January 6, 2017

“Death from a Salesman: Graham Greene’s Bottled Ontology,” Introduction to the book by Christopher Hitchens, Our Man in Havana, pp. ix-xxiv.

‘[In Havana] where every vice was permissible and every trade possible, lay the true background for my comedy.’ —Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, 1980

Graham Greene famously subdivided his fictions into ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’ (this present one falling with a slightly suppressed chuckle into the second category) as if to slyly warn his audience that an element of the ludic and the flippant would sometimes be permitted to him and should be forgiven by his readers. If, in his infrequent confessions, he might have mentally reclassified some offenses as venial rather than mortal, something of the same analogy holds throughout his work.

I should like to propose a third, or subcategory: the whisky (as opposed to the nonwhisky) fictions. Alcohol is seldom far from the reach of Greene’s characters, and its influence was clearly some kind of daemon[1] in his work and in his life. A stanza of that witty and beautiful poem ‘On the Circuit,’ written in 1963, registers W. H. Auden’s dread at the thought of lecturing on a booze-free American campus and asks, anxiously and in italics:

Is this my mileau where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic[2] swig?

Describing a visit to a 1987 conference of “intellectuals” in Moscow in the early Gorbachev years, both Gore Vidal and Fay Weldon were to record Greene making exactly this dive into his bottle-crammed briefcase. “Analeptic” literally means “healing,” and there was no doubt of a buried connection in Greene’s mind between the restorative properties of holy water and the redeeming qualities of raw spirit. In at least three of his literary ventures Greene chose to make the subject a central one. The lost but resigned little fugitive cleric in The Power and the Glory (1940) is actually aching at all times for a shot of brandy, but the Mexican vernacular deems his type “the whisky priest.” The burned-out figures of British intelligence in The Human Factor (1978) seem at times to be engaged in some sort of contest to amass the greatest number of “blend” labels, from J&B to Johnnie Walker, and even to create a new pseudo-scotch by mixing White Label and Johnnie Walker on the grounds that “They’re all blends anyway.”

The view that both sides in the Cold War were an admixture—at best—of each other’s hangover-inducing ingredients was an abiding belief of Graham Greene and is never more on show than in this miniature drama, and drama of miniatures. The action commences in a bar, and almost every subsequent moment in the story is set in a place where alcohol is dominant. To speak generally, if not absolutely, one may say that dependence on booze is a symptom of weakness, and although Jim Wormold (not a name to inspire immediate confidence) does turn out to possess a few latent strengths, he is presented from the first as a feeble man who is both a hostage —to his own poverty and inanition[3] —and who has a hostage: his foal-like sixteen-year-old daughter Milly. This girl, a combination of slight tart and vague Madonna striding through the worldly and corrupt streets of Havana, makes the hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman a prisoner of her childhood, and of his own. How wrenched yet charmed he is, having lost the wife to whom he promised that Milly would be educated as a Catholic, to hear the little girl solemnly praying “Hail Mary, quite contrary.” Yet how oppressed he is by the recollection of his own misery as a schoolboy:

Childhood was the germ of all mistrust. You were cruelly joked upon and then you cruelly joked. You lost the remembrance of pain through inflicting it.

(Many is the Greene novel and reminiscence, most conspicuously Brighton Rock, where this trope [a word or expression used in a figurative sense] of sadistic bullying makes its twitchy appearance. The slightly older boy who so relentlessly tortured him in his public-school days—a boy named Lionel Carter, as it happens—has put us eternally and unintentionally in his debt. And let us not forget that, as both tormentor and victim would have been taught: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”)

Evidently resolving—for purposes of the “entertainment”—to not make all this too lugubrious, Green introduces Milly rather as Evelyn Waugh presented the more-ominously named Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited. That good/bad little girl once made a novena for her pet pig, and was mentioned in her convent school report as the naughtiest girl in the memory of the oldest nun. She ended up by volunteering to be a nurse for the forces of General Franco. Milly unknowingly gratifies her father by setting fire to a teasing schoolmate named Thomas Earl Parkman, Junior; shows here class the collected postcards of great aesthetic nudes; and gives artless yet casuistic [specious argument] replies to direct questions from her easily-baffled and highly-impoverished single parent. She also offers novenas in the hope of acquiring a horse, and allows herself to be escorted by the saturnine [of a gloomy or surly disposition] Captain Segura, a man who would have seemed exceptionally sadistic even in the ranks of Franco’s phalanx.

Thus it is made as clear as possible, within a few pages of the opening, that Wormold is living a life of quiet desperation. He cannot go on as he is, but he is set in his ways and wedded to mediocre respectability. This would be dire enough even if—like Henry Pulling in Travels with My Aunt—he was back in suburban Wimbledon. But in exotic Havana, with business going poorly and with a burgeoning daughter to boot, he is additionally expected to keep up appearances as an awkward Englishman abroad. Yet this is precisely what makes him attractive to Hawthorne, the relentlessly incompetent envoy of British Intelligence who decides to sign him up as a subagent and (within limits) “put him in the picture.” To us, Hawthorne seems like yet another English naïf [a naive or inexperienced person] in the tropics, concerned, like any harassed salesman, with giving a pleasing impression to his ultimate boss in London, but to the hunted and needy Wormold he belongs to “the cruel and inexplicable world of childhood,” and it thus feels like no more than natural justice to exploit him and fleece him to the very hilt. The two men do, however, have an initial bond. When they meet in Sloppy Joe’s bar, Hawthorne surveys the range of bottles on offer and says:

‘Eighteen different kinds of Scotch. . .including Black Label. And I haven’t counted the Bourbons. It’s a wonderful sight. Wonderful,’ he repeated, lowering his voice with respect. ‘Have you ever seen so many whiskies?’

‘As a matter of fact I have. I collect miniatures and I have ninety-nine at home.’

And this collection is about to be enhanced by the man with whom Wormold already has a bond, another lonely loser named Dr. Hasselbacher who divides his time between a few remaining patients and the rival Wonder Bar.

‘There is always time for a Scotch.’ It was obvious from the way he pronounced Scotch that Dr. Hasselbacher had already had time for a great many. . . . He took from his pocket two miniature bottles of whisky: one was Lord Calvert, the other Old Taylor. ‘Have you got them?’ he asked with anxiety.

‘I’ve got the Calvert, but not the Taylor. It was kind of you to remember my collection, Hasselbacher.’ It always seemed strange to Wormold that he continued to exist for others when he was not there.

This touching and abject allusion to Bishop BerkeIey’s famous question is followed immediately by a playful and half-drunken ontological interlude, this time in the Seville-Biltmore bar where Dr Hasselbacher, flown with Scotch, imagines that he has already won the next day’s lottery and is awash in dollars. Addressing a stray American who doubts him, he says:

“I have won them as certainly as you exist, my almost unseen friend. You would not exist if l didn’t believe you existed, nor would those dollars. I believe, therefore you are.”

“What do you mean I wouldn’t exist?”

“You exist only in my thoughts, my friend. If I left this room _ . .”

“You’re nuts.”

“Prove you exist, then.”


“What do you mean, prove? Of course I exist. l’ve got a first- class business in real estate: a wife and a couple of kids in Miami: I flew here this morning by Delta: l’m drinking this Scotch, aren’t l?” The voice contained a hint of tears.

From Berkeley to Descartes in a few paragraphs: Greene’s theological-philosophical subtext is always available to him. (“Like Milly, Dr Hasselbacher had faith. He was controlled by numbers as she was by saints.”) And interestingly, the innocent and faithful Hasselbacher offers the annoyed American the al- ternative existence of “a Secret Service agent”—the very career upon which Wormold is, all unaware, about to embark.

Before we leave this scene, we may notice that the American is like all the other Americans in the novel: banal and bourgeois and self-pitying. (He doesn’t even consider claiming the words “I think” as proof of his existence: the real-estate business comes first.) Most of the Yanks are tourist cameos, worried about the wave of violence that is afflicting the island and tending to congregate in yet another bar at the Hotel Nacional. Their days of treating Havana as a vacation and business backyard are about to be over, “for the President’s regime was creaking dangerously towards its end.”

Our Man in Havana was published on October 6, 1958. On New Year’s Day I959 Fidel Castro’s luxuriantly bearded guerrillas emerged from the sierras and the villages and captured the city. As with his setting of The Quiet American—in Vietnam iust before the critical battle of Dien Bien Phu—or with his decision to locate The Comedians in the midnight of “Papa Doc” Duvalier s Haiti, Greene seemed to have an almost spooky prescience when it came to the suppurating political slums on the periphery of America’s Cold War empire. In 1958—the year that Doctor No was first published—lan Fleming, from his own Caribbean home, had not yet captured the world’s attention with a British agent who carried a number as well as a gun (and a license to use it). Nor had humanity learned to associate Cuba with missiles, and with the possibility of thermonuclear annihilation. And Greene in any case was having fun, with his unarmed “Agent 5 9200/ 5,” and his wholly invented missile sites based on vacuum-cleaner blueprints.

Moreover, the eclipse of British power after the Suez catastrophe of 1956 had not quite then become self-evident. “I think we’ve got the Caribbean sewn up now, sir,” Hawthorne tells “The Chief” on his return to London. This black-monocled clubman and thwarted fiction writer—a distinctly non-“M”-like creation-also invents agents in his own mind and is thus intrigued to learn more about “our man in Havana.”

“Doesn’t run after women, I hope?”

“Oh, nothing of that sort sir. His wife left him. Went off with an American.”

“I suppose he’s not anti-American? Havana’s not the place for any prejudice like that. We have to work with them—only up to a point, of course.”

(‘The Chief’—which was also the staff nickname given to Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is fond of this up to a point’ mantra, which he inflicts on Hawthorne rather than, as with Lord Copper’s underling Salter, having it practiced on him.) His character occupies only a few brief scenes but is nonetheless one of the most finished and polished portrayals in the entire book. Like Lord Copper he too, is easy to delude or, as was said of President Coolidge, “once bamboozled, impossible to unbamboozle.” Greene`s own wartime relationship with British Intelligence, and his lifelong comradeship with its most famous traitor Kim Philby, evidently conditioned him to view “the Service” as a place of collapsing scenery and low comedy, populated by a cast of jaded mislits. Thus he presents Wormold’s fraud and dishonesty in a sympathetic light: the mandarins of M16 are eager to deceive themselves, and to be deceived, and they get no more than what they ask for. l forget who it was who once updated the old moral couplet: “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive” by adding the lines:

But when we`ve practiced quite a while

How vastly we improve our style!

That later version (which was entitled “A Word of Encouragement”) could have been composed with Wormold in mind. Facilis descensus Averno! How easily he takes to the world of padded expenses, false reports, and fabricated salaries for non-existent staffers. But for Greene, the world of farce always has its bitter limitations. The inoffensive Dr. Hasselhacher is drawn into the net of Wormold’s fantasy and suffers ruin and humiliation as a consequence. Now Wormold feels himself becoming coarsened:

Shut in his car Wormold felt guilt nibbling around him like a mouse in a prison cell. Perhaps soon the two of them would grow accustomed to each other and guilt would come to eat out of his hand ….There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim.

That this last insight had been dearly bought by Greene, from his boyhood onward, there can be no doubt. Its counter- part and corollary—“Sometimes it seems easier to run the risk of death than ridicule”—does not make its appearance until much nearer to the culmination of the story.

From the name of the “Atomic Pile” vacuum-cleaner to the shock-effect produced on “The Chief” by the outlines so deftly and falsely sketched by Wormold, Greene also indulges in the lighter side of “schoolboy” humor:

“Vacuum cleaner again. Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.”

“Is that desirable, sir?”

“Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.”

This could almost have come from a Peter Sellers script of the same epoch, and will inevitably remind some of today’s readers of more recent fiascos associated with paranoia about weapons of mass destruction. However, there is nothing flippant or innocent about Captain Segura. In the figure of this torturer and mutilator and sex maniac, evidently appropriated from the dictator Batista’s dreaded “enforcer” Captain Ventura, Greene offers a foretaste of the “death squads,” with their dark glasses and special unmarked automobiles, who were to terrorize Latin America and horrify the world in the succeeding decades. Once again, this character is not on stage very often or for very long, but he furnishes another well-etched and highly memorable “miniature.” It would not, perhaps, be correct to see in him an instance of the banality of evil. His evil is too overt and too ingrained for that. But he does have a way of turning up in banal or even jovial settings, reminding me of what Greene wrote about the skill of John Buchan as a thriller writer: his ability to summon the spectre of death right up against the railings of the leafy and relaxing park. It is over a routine game of “checkers”—accompanied this time by daiquiris rather than Scotch—that Segura casually mentions his belief in the “torturable”and “non-torturable” classes. Wormold affects shock and may even feel it: At any rate be reacts as if he were a stuffy Englishman who is quite new and unused to native customs:

“l didn’t know there were class distinctions in torture.”

“Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would he outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement . . . Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal.”

Greene is here showing us a third-rate Grand Inquisitor, in a church gone bad, who no longer applies the rack or the thumb- screw out of any exalted conviction. (Indeed, we later learn that Segura has been hoarding money in case he has to make a sudden opportunistic dash for Miami.) So perhaps banality and evil are not as much separated as all that . . .

ln the novel, Greene makes his creation Wormold behave in a manner that is absurdly out of character. (It is plainly outside the bounds of credibility, given his aching feelings for his vulnerable daughter, that he would permit her to continue an association with a policeman whose cigarette case is upholstered with human skin.) However, Wormold himself proves to be a man who can confect fictional personalities more or less at will. Having initially invented them in order to bluff his superiors, he finds that they have taken on an existence of their own:

It astonished Wormold how quickly he could reply to any questions about his characters; they seemed to live on the threshold of consciousness—he had only to turn a light on and there they were, frozen in some characteristic action …. Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge …. There were moments when Wormold thought it might have been easier if he had recruited real agents.

However, this second ontological interlude—if I may so phrase it—comes to an abrupt end when the universe of rugged reality decides to claim Wormold for its own. His flesh-and-blood assistant Beatrice is a woman of unsettlingly keen intuition. “You talk like a novelist,” she observes—while still bamboozled—when he muses on the fate of one of his “agents.” You’ve been writing his elegy like a bad novelist preparing an effect,” she adds, in a line that is altogether too improbable and self-referential. It is she, who has been cheerfully paying part of the price of Wormold’s irresponsibility, who signals the very harsh new tone and turn of events at just the moment when he himself is under pressure and about to “revert” to sheer puerility and denial. (To be exact, he is playing with a children’s cereal box after breakfast.) “I don’t want you murdered,” she sternly announces. “You see, you are real. You aren’t Boy’s Own Paper” (italics mine) It is the palpable womanhood of Beatrice, combined with the increasing and alarming grownupness of his beloved Milly, that compels Wormold to play the real man at last. In earlier and easier and happier scenes, the big weapons have been conjured from his imagination, and the small-bore weapon has been a soda siphon in a hotel garden, aimed playfully at Captain Segura but easily laughed off with the excuse that it was directed at a “Dimpled Haig” Scotch. 0n that occasion, Captain Segura had resorted to an abrupt vernacular obscenity (all the indecent expressions in this novel are rendered in Spanish) and “squeezed out a smile. It seemed to come from the wrong place like toothpaste splits.” Greene’s gift for the sinister implication,and for the recurring analogy to booze, is further illustrated by the sentence: “You could not estimate his danger from his size any more than you could a hard drink.” And it is clear that the silly splash from the soda siphon has by no means diluted the Captain or his venom. But by the time Segura takes off his gun-belt and lays it to one side, in preparation for the climactic whiskey-dominated game of checkers (or “draughts” if you prefer) it is as plain as the old maxim of Chekhov that a gun once displayed in plain sight will not be reholstered until it has been fired in anger. The “Wormold,” in other words, has turned. The meek little shopkeeper is ready to commit murder. This is to be death from a salesman.

His thirst to kill is supplied by a hideous, stuttering, impotent double-agent named—like Greene’s boyhood tormentor—Carter. If this odious and parodic[4] Englishman had not offered Wormold poisoned scotch at the dreary, joyless business banquet into which he is lured and enticed (and at which different flasks and blends are continually offered and contrasted), and if the innocuous Dr. Hasselbacher had not been subsequently slain for trying to warn Wormold off, and if the whole callousness and cynicism of the spy-racket had not begun to sicken Wormold well beyond the point of disgust, I think that Greene meant us to understand that his salesman might yet have remained passive, and preferred to stay in the camp of the victim. But what Wormold is forced to realize is that he is in just as much danger from his “own” side. How quickly the tepid appeals to patriotism and Britishness and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, proffered so smoothly by Hawthorne at their first meetings, mutate into their sordid opposite. It’s not unlike the blue movie that he and Beatrice find themselves viewing while sheltering in one of Havana’s celebrated nightclubs:

There was an odd intimacy between them as they watched together this blueprint of love. Similar movements of the body had once meant more to them than anything else the world had to offer. The act of lust and the act of love are the same; it cannot be falsified like a sentiment.

And so Wormold, determined to vindicate friendship and love over treachery and murder, finds it surprisingly easy to discover what he must do. In three sentences that might almost define the world we know as “Greeneland”:

He stood on the frontier of violence, a strange land he had never visited before; he had his passport in his hand. “Profession: Spy.” “Characteristic Features: Friendlessness.” “Purpose of Visit: Murder.” No visa was required. His papers were in order.

At such a critical moment, no Greene character would refrain from at least some reflection on faith, however terse and bitter:

Vengeance was unnecessary when you believed in a heaven. But he had no such belief. Mercy and forgiveness were scarcely virtues in a Christian; they came too easily.

Even so, when it comes to the moment of truth-or “reality”—Wormold is almost unable to destroy another human being and has to rationalize his actions even as he is undertaking them. He is thankful that the decision is taken out of his hands by Carter’s vile conduct, and indeed is still rationalizing busily when the shock moment of actual crisis occurs, and the question of will or volition is snatched (unlike the fortunately purloined gun) out of his hands.

This stroke of impulsive decision does not succeed in dispelling the mist of moral ambiguity. Wormold still has to live in the world that he has—with his own lies and practical jokes—helped to make. Once again, a rationale is required of him, and he chooses (as does Beatrice) a version of E. M. Forster’s cele- brated moral calculus. If one had the choice of betraying one’s country or one’s friends, said the author of Howards End and of that momentous phrase “the world of telegrams and anger” one should hope for the courage to betray one’s country. Wormold’s confected cables to London have some of the absurdity of William Boot’s telegrams to Lord Copper’s Daily Beast, but his anger takes a Forsterian form:

“I don’t give a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations …. I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”

Many years later, in his rash introduction to Kim Philby’s KGB-vetted autobiography My Silent War, Greene was to write, again with a question mark that asked rather a lot:

He betrayed his country—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?

With or without its “perhaps” this is bound to strike many readers as a bit too glib and convenient (as indeed it is). And how many times, after all, does a choice between country and friends really come up? But, safely back in London, where admittedly there are no torturers or executioners, Wormold and Beatrice discover that their secret employers, too, are immersed in moral ambiguity and expert in the means of manipulating it. In essence, and in return for his silence about the whole fiasco, Wormold is offered a sinecure and an official decoration. In one of the weaker sections of the book, Beatrice then repeats at greater and less probable length everything that Wormold has just declaimed above. In retrospect, we can see that this Greene “entertainment” was in many ways the curtain-raiser for the bleak universe of Le Carré’s George Smiley, and of the shadowland where any appeal to loyalty and the old decencies was little more than a rhetorical prelude to a stab in the back.

The conclusive end of the Cold War, and the implosion of one party to it, now make some of Greene’s own rhetoric seem even more facile. The revolution did indeed come to Cuba, and the Captain Seguras did indeed take themselves off to Miami, and for awhile Greene himself was an honored guest of-and ardent apologist for—the Fidel Castro regime. (His admiring chronicler Norman Sherry gives some disquieting instances in Volume III of his immense biography.) Greene was not, in fact, neutral in the Cold War, nor a sincere practitioner of moral equivalence. He was by inclination a supporter of the “other” side and, above all culturally and politically hostile to the United States. In 1969 he delivered a lecture entitled “The Virtue of Disloyalty” in Hamburg, in which (never mind Lamb’s Tales) he accused Shakespeare himself of having been too patriotic, and too reticent about Catholic dissidents sent to the gibbet. He was delighted when a Soviet cosmonaut took Our Man in Havana into outer space. But his audience and readership were in the “West,” so the “shades of Greene” were adjusted accordingly. And this needful ambivalence was often useful in his novels, since it compelled him to phrase his ethical dilemmas in liberal and individual, rather than Marxist or collective, terms. Having already touched on Greene’s debt to Waugh, and most especially to Brideshead Revisited, I ought to try and return the compliment, even if obliquely. Writing in praise of Brideshead many years after its first publication, Greene said that he had remembered the novel’s beautiful opening chapter—as very long, and was thus astonished to find, upon rereading, that it was as brief as it was. This he certainly intended as a compliment. One should say the same for his own swiftly-drawn but contemptuous portrait of the British ambassador to Cuba, whose appearance in the novel occupies no more than a page and a half. The desiccated and frigid envoy repeatedly insists that he knows nothing of what has been going on, and wishes for nothing more than to remain in this blessed state of unawareness. It is Greene, not the provincial and suburban Wormold, who is able to assemble a whole diplomatic biography from the objets d’art on view while he is being kept waiting by this dignitary:

Wormold thought he could detect a past in Tehran (an odd-shaped pipe, a tile), Athens (an icon or two), but he was momentarily puzzled by an African mask—perhaps Monrovia?

In “real” life, Greene was to greatly annoy the British Foreign Office by writing some devastating letters to the press a few weeks after the publication of Our Man in Havana. Announcing a post-revolution cancellation of the sale of weapons to Cuba, the Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd had claimed that, when the weapons contract had been signed, there had been no evidence of strife. Greene wrote at his withering best:

Any visitor to Cuba could have given Her Majesty’s Government more information about conditions in the island than was apparently supplied by our official representatives: the mutilation and torture practised by leading police officers . . . the killing of hostages.

By one of those right-place-right-time occurrences that swelled his reputation as both journalist and novelist, Greene had stumbled into contact with rebels and lawyers—Armando Hart, Haydee Santamaria, Melba Hernandez—whose names are still totemic in the Cuban revolution and some of whom are admired even by those who later underwent a painful rupture with Castro. Whether it is deliberate or not I cannot say, but Greene’s description of the Havana Seville-Biltmore’s upper rooms as being “built as prison cells round a rectangular balcony” is a near-analogy to the “Panopticon” jail in which Castro was held by Batista on the Isle of Pines after his legendary attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953. Greene was well ahead of the story, before he fell well behind it. His secular and personal religion, which always stressed “the side of the victim” and which ostensibly forbade him to ”see no evil,” did not safeguard him from letting both his Communism and his Catholicism get in the way of truth telling about the rebel-turned-caudillo[5] as the years went on.

By an irony of his beloved Cuban revolution, which has left the island stranded in time and isolated from many recent currents of history and political economy (with its still-bearded leader now paunchy and grey and the only remaining Latin American head of government always to be seen in a uniform[6]), the city of Havana has been compelled to remain very much as Greene described it.[7] The more flamboyant and amoral nightclubs did undergo a period of eclipse, but the sex trade has rebounded with a vengeance as the regime has become more dependent on tourism than Batista ever was. Communism, though “the highest stage of underdevelopment,” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger once tautly summarized the case—has preserved (some might like to say “spared”) the old harbor-front and its hinterland. Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts at the Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio, the Calle Obispo and the “pock-marked pillars on Avenida de Maceo”; all the little landmarks of Wormold’s life, are still rather seedily there. Nor is this depiction valued only by nostalgic foreigners. Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Cuba’s great chronicler of low-life and the author of Trilogia Sucia de la Habana (The Dirty Trilogy of Havana) has devoted an entire novel to the imaginative reconstruction of Greene’s visit, and entitled it Nuestro GC in Havana (Our GG in Havana). Greene’s ability to evoke a sense of place and time, as in his clever mention of Havana’s “blistering October” are encoded in this book as in no other, and remain redolent and real. In some ways, indeed, the existence of an antique rather than a modern Havana, until the day when the dam breaks and the full tide of Americanization flows in, is part of his literary and political bestowal. As is, of course, the silhouette of the anomic and rumpled and disillusioned Englishman in a torrid zone, nursing a bottle of scotch and musing ineptly on Pascal while caught somewhere between the status of émigré and internal exile. The human condition seen through the bottom of a glass: darkly.

Writing to his mistress Catherine Walston in 1956 Greene told her that Our Man in Havana was potentially a “very funny plot which if it comes off will make a footnote in history.” I feel almost as if I owe an apology for having taken so long to illustrate his elementary point.

[1] For those not so familiar with this term, daemons are good or benevolent nature spirits, beings of the same nature as both mortals and gods, similar to ghosts, chthonic heroes, spirit guides, forces of nature or the gods themselves (see Plato’s Symposium). Walter Burkert suggests that unlike the Judeo-Christian use of demon in a strictly malignant sense, “[a] general belief in spirits is not expressed by the term daimon until the 5th century when a doctor asserts that neurotic women and girls can be driven to suicide by imaginary apparitions, ‘evil daimones’. How far this is an expression of widespread popular superstition is not easy to judge… On the basis of Hesiod’s myth, however, what did gain currency was for great and powerful figures to be honoured after death as a daimon…”  Daimon is not so much type of quasi-divine being, according to Burkert, but rather a non-personified “peculiar mode” of their activity.

[2] A drug that stimulates the central nervous system

[3] The absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor

[4] From parody. a feeble or ridiculous imitation

[5] A Spanish or Latin-American military dictator

[6] Since Castro’s death his brother, Raul, dresses down some, and at least does not wear the iconic cap Fidel wore all the time.

[7] Hitchens adds a footnote: “I completed this essay on the day before Fidel Castro fell ill and handed over power to the Cuban armed forces, in the shape of his brother Raul, in August, 2006.”