Territory of the Thirties Suspense Novel
Graham Greene’s early novels include several which he grouped as ‘Entertainments’ – written between the wars and during the war, they often involve espionage, shadowy groups of subversives intent on destroying the normal fabric of life – and who those ‘subversives’ are, and what their intent is, shifts as the forces are arraigned against each other in the Second World War.
I have just re-read the 1934 A Gun For Sale – where, curiously, it is the Balkan flashpoint of the First World War that is seen as the possible touchpaper for a Second. And the driver, or creator of the possible war is firmly seen as capitalist armaments manufacturers. War that uses assassination (in this case, of a pacifist socialist) to try to provoke the conflagration of war, in order to increase profits
The complex strands of human foibles, strengths and sufferings are clearly in evidence in this short suspense novel. The ‘Gun For Sale’, the hired assassin, is Raven, a man with a hare-lip. Raven came from a violent, abusing home, denied affection and regard; witnessing whilst young a horrific event, he is brought up in institutions. Greene is straight into the complexity of making the reader engage with the question of where the responsibility for Raven and his kind, really lies.
The central relationship in the story is that between Raven, who never trusted ‘a skirt’, and Ann, the girlfriend of Mathers, the solid, dependable, trustworthy policeman who is hunting Raven down for a crime he did not commit.
Ann is a dancer in a third-rate musical company, and is herself someone of slightly dubious sexual morality. Showgirls dispense mild favours in order to get dinners. By chance, Ann and Raven tangle when he uses her as a shield to evade arrest. She is drawn into the plot through pity for Raven, and a sense that injustice has been done to him. She abhors what she realises he has done, but the sense of wrong done TO him is still strong.
Greene finds plenty of opportunities to show what is an enduring theme in his book – how the corrupt and vicious, particularly those on the margins of society, are not without nobility, and that the upstanding and virtuous may have shadowy, less attractive sides.
This is a pacey read, right from the arresting murder at the start, and all characters are complex and three dimensional.
However, I was left with a sense of unease, in that there are a couple of throwaway allusions which read as anti-Semitic towards the real villain of the piece, the powerful steel magnate who wishes to push Europe towards war for the sake of profits.
Of course, we have all become very much more alert to the ways in which racist thinking exists and existed. Greene almost casually mentions that this character might have come from Jewry. He is a shadowy figure and links to International Capitalism. A scant few years after the publication of this book, the spectre of a demonised, Jewish conspiracy was being used to whip up a nation to either commit, or turn a blind eye to, horrific acts. The almost casual way in which, in 2 or 3 sentences Greene expresses anti Semitism, was a bit of a shocking slap in the face. Clearly, a degree of anti-Semitism did exist in this country almost without it being thought about, but the shock for me was to find its expression in the writing of this most humane and compassionate writer about human frailties.
At various points the title of the book changed to A Gun for Hire, This Gun For Sale or This Gun For Hire – A film version transposed seedy ‘Nottwich’, a drab Midlands town, to LA, with Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd as Ann and Raven, and Robert Preston as Mather. Raven’s hare-lip was Hollywooded into a damaged wrist (!)