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Jun 30 2014 12:00pm

The Cunning, Illuminating, and Bloody Graham Greene: The Greatest Thriller Writer Ever

Many of the world’s greatest writers have a touch of the pulp. They reveal characters not just in the traditional literary manner—profound thoughts, witty dialogue, yadda yadda—but by driving them to points of maximum stress and danger and seeing what they do. Great literature can get bloody. To fulfill his deepest ambitions, Macbeth doesn’t plot a cunning diplomatic conspiracy—he hacks Duncan to pieces. To punish Jason, Medea heads straight to infanticide. 

A literary work can be occasionally thrilling, but a true thriller is constantly thrilling. It tests its characters through action repeatedly, not just at one or two climactic points. Graham Greene was both a great literary novelists and the greatest thriller writer ever. No one made has ever made action more illuminating—that is, more literary.

Greene got his start as a writer of pure thrillers. His first popular success was Stamboul Train (published in the United States as Orient Express), which he said he wrote specifically to please the public and make money. As he grew more famous, he could expand his scope, but even in his later, most ambitiously literary novels, Greene employed all the tricks of the suspense master he was. The End of the Affair, one of Greene's so-called Catholic novels, is a melancholy story of one woman’s struggle to accept her belief in God. It’s also a mystery story in which a jealous man hires a detective to hunt for his mistress’s new lover. As for action, the heroine’s key epiphany happens right after a German bomb blows up the house where she’s been fornicating. 

[Now that's an explosive love life...]