Title: The Confidential Agent
Author: Graham Greene
Greene, Graham (1939). The Confidential Agent. New York, The Viking press
Date Posted: December 5, 2016
Reviewed by Allan Kopp
The hero/protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent is referred to only as “D.” That’s how confidential he is. He’s a middle-aged man (think Charles Boyer), a foreigner, travelling in Britain, and he’s not there to see the sights, either. He is a lecturer in the Romance Languages, a scholar and peace-loving man, but things haven’t been going so well for him. His country is at war, he’s been in prison for two years apparently because he was on the wrong side, and his wife was shot and killed by the enemy. He’s in Britain to negotiate a coal deal with the owner of a huge coal-mining conglomerate, a certain Lord Benditch. His side must have the coal to have a chance of winning the war. If the enemy gets the coal, D.’s side is certain to lose. Well, guess what? There’s another “confidential agent” from the other side, known to us as “L.” who also wants the coal. Will “L.” kill “D.” to keep him from getting the coal, or will “D.” kill “L.” to keep him from getting it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning. D. is badly beaten (although it doesn’t seem to stop him) and his papers that establish his identity are stolen, and this is just the beginning of the obstacles that are placed in his way.
We realize early that the business about the war or D.’s side needing the coal doesn’t really matter. We learn nothing of the politics of the war or who is fighting whom. This is only a device to propel the plot. Don’t waste any time or expend any brain power trying to figure out the war.
Of course, there always has to be a “femme fatale” in a story like this. In this case she is the daughter (what a coincidence!) of Lord Benditch, the coal magnate, and her name is Rose Cullen (think Lauren Bacall). She seems to know D. and to know the importance of his mission, but where do her loyalties lay? Is she to be trusted? After a while she claims to be in love with D., in spite of their age difference and also in spite of his not being very lovable. Can D. make a go of it with Rose Cullen or he is only deceiving himself? Will they have a future together after the war business is settled, or is she only sucking up to him, seeking his vulnerable side to knife him in the back? In a story like this, you can never be sure.
We are told that Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in 1939 in a matter of a few short weeks, fueled by Benzedrine (whatever that is), and that he wrote it for money. After it was finished, he was so unhappy with it that he wanted to disavow it and publish it under a pseudonym, but it was published under his own name and it turned out to be well-received by critics and the reading public alike. It’s rather formulaic, a “thriller” (in other words, “light” reading), but it lives up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.