Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Greene, Graham (1943). The Ministry of Fear: an entertainment. New York: The Viking Press
Date Posted: January 10, 2017
Reviewed by William Du Bois
“Pity is a terrible thing,” says the man from Scotland Yard. “People talk about the passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of all: we don’t outlive it like sex.” For it was pity that blasted the life of a certain British Milquetoast named Arthur Rowe, pity that lured him between the tiger-smooth paws of Hitler’s minion. Graham Greene goes deep into Rowe’s clouded subconscious to tell us why.
Few writers can distill drama from a twisted soul with more skill than Mr. Greene; few experts in the field would dare to combine all the elements you will find in The Ministry of Fear. The novel begins as a case-history in psychiatry, and ends as a spy hunt, complete with roving Heinkels, pukka sahibs, and a pale Austrian beauty who keeps her enigma to the end. Only the Graham Greene fans will know how cunningly this English virtuoso endows his lumber-room items with life. The Ministry of Fear is top-hole entertainment and then some—a guaranteed chiller to beat the first Summer heat-wave.
But Mr. Greene’s new novel (like his Brighton Rock, “This Gun for Hire” and The Confidential Agent) is more than a mere thriller. Here is a writer who might have been a poet or a psychoanalyst —and chose to construct super-whodunits instead … an author who does not stop with an expert danse macabre; a social investigator who goes on to probe the dislocations that make murder a fine art today. In this century, he tells us, “It really pays to murder, and when a thing pays, it becomes respectable. Your old-fashioned murderer killed from fear, from hate—or even from love, very seldom for substantial profit. None of these reasons is quite—respectable. But to murder for position—that’s different, because when you’ve gained the position, nobody has a right to criticize the means. Nobody will refuse to meet you if the position’s high enough. Think of how many of your statesman have shaken hands with Hitler.”
Arthur Rowe is Mr. Greene’s illustration of the schizophrenia that is corroding the world today. Probably no one else would have chosen Rowe as a protagonist. When he ghosts into the novel, he is dank with malaise, “a tall, stooping, lean man with black hair and a sharp narrow face. His clothes were good, but gave the impression of being uncared for: you would have said a bachelor if it had not been for an indefinable married look.” And yet, when the story ends, he has developed a strange courage.
In the first chapter he has wandered into a charity fete in Bloomsbury, guessed the weight of a prize cake, and carried it home to his solitary lodgings. Must we add that the cake contains a secret that shall be nameless in this review? Or that Rowe is promptly trailed by all the characters in the old police romances?
What writer’s magic makes each of these figures glow with a baleful iridescence all their own? Like most conjurer’s art, Mr. Greene’s method may be analyzed from the wings. It includes a fine sense of balance, mood and timing; a mastery of the well-known English gift for underplaying; a liberal use of the creeping-paralysis method in the big scenes. We may burn to know the secret locked in Rowe’s tortured brain (or the crime-file at Scotland Yard, or the padded cell at Dr. Forester’s). Mr. Greene lets us burn—and makes us linger over apparent trifles.
Not all of The Ministry of Fear will stand the yardstick of logic. Some of Rowe’s agonies are drawn out beyond the breaking point; it is a safe bet that veteran readers will spot the arch-fiend before they have passed page fifty. But you will hardly quibble over the flaws in this hypnotic moonstone of a novel.