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. 

Greene’s other classic literary novels—such as Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The Quiet American—are equally brooding and faith-obsessed, and equally pulpy at times. All three of those feature protagonists who either commit or are complicit in murder. Not coincidentally, almost every one of Greene’s books was made into a movie—many more than once.

Greene never abandoned the thriller. He famously distinguished his literary work from his thrillers by classifying all his long fiction as either “novels” or “entertainments.” Some critics think Greene’s entertainments are actually his finest achievement. The venerable Harold Bloom says that Greene’s entertainments employ a “simplification into intensity,” similar to the bloody Jacobean revenge dramas, such as John Webster’s The White Devil and Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, the blockbuster thrillers of 17th century England.

Greene’s greatest entertainments are his mid-career trio of The Confidential Agent, The Ministry Fear, and A Gun for Sale (published in the US as This Gun for Hire.) Some might add The Third Man. All of these are not only perfectly executed and memorably atmospheric, but also imbued with a sense of intellectual importance. Greene claimed that he conceived A Confidential Agent with “a certain vague ambition to create something legendary out of a contemporary thriller: the hunted man who becomes in turn the hunter, the peaceful man who turns at bay, the man who has learned to love justice by suffering injustice.” The hero, an aging foreign scholar on a hopeless quest for his beleaguered people, is indeed hunted, beaten up, and humiliated. He is an honorable man—so honorable that even his allies don’t trust him. But the death of an innocent girl inspires him to action: “He had stood up to the watcher, the beating, the bullet; now it was their turn.”

The best of the three is A Gun for Sale. Its central character is Raven, a disfigured hitman hired to kill a foreign defense minister. Raven is bitter, friendless, and ugly, in addition to murderous, but he is not the villain. That role is filled by the powerful industrialist who arranged the murder in order to start a war. Pursued by the police, Raven is “harassed, hunted, lonely; he bore with him a sense of great injustice and a curious pride.” As he runs through the streets of London he tells himself “after all it needed a man to start a war as he was doing.” Raven’s child-like pride both disgusts us and wins our sympathy. Even his fellow criminals have betrayed him. “These people were of his own kind; they didn’t belong inside the legal borders…He had always been alone, but never as alone as this.” Revenge is all he has left.

Many thrillers depict ordinary people made legendary by action. Greene’s preference was for defeated people who take action anyway. Desperate, unexpected heroism may be a staple of pulp fiction, but somehow it inspired some of Greene’s best writing. A thriller can be as literary as anything. Hamlet was a revenge tragedy too.


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Jeff Soloway is the winner of this year’s Robert L. Fish Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America. His debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a series, features Jacob Smalls, a globe-trotting, mystery-solving journalist with a romantic soul and a cynical knack for landing luxury freebies. The second in the series, The Cruisers, will be published in December, 2014.

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Jody Darden
4. jldarden
Got onto Greene through movie adaptations of his books, then read some. Good stuff and 'The Travel Writer' sounds good too!
Carolyn Dileo
5. cbdileo
I love these! Thanks for the giveaway!
Eva Moller
6. barna254
Love Graham Greene's books. Soloway's sounds very interesting!
Andrew Kuligowski
7. KuligowskiAndrew
When discussing Graham Greene, I always have to pay attention to context to figure out if we're talking about the author or the guy from Dances With Wolves ...
KathyP Phillips
8. KathyP
I read The Quiet American when I was in high school many years ago. Now is probably a good time to reread it. And, of course, The Travel Writer.
Angela Dyrcz
9. angeladyrcz
I haven't read any of his works so I would be glad for the chance!
Janice Santillo
10. themommazie
I never read any of his works but they do sound interesting. Would love to win. always looking for new writers I haven't tried.
Joanne Mielczarski
11. jtmswim
This is a book I would like to read.
Gef Fox
12. wagthefox
I've yet to read Greene's work. I suppose I am missing out.
DeAnna Wright
15. dswpoodles
I would like to read every one of them.
Susan Pertierra
16. orchidlady01
I'd love to read The Travel Writer - thanks!
17. DebbieC
Would love to win this , Thank you for giveaway
Deborah Dumm
18. deb730
Can't wait to read this. Thanks!!!
Patrice Gottfried
21. pkg427
Really enjoy Greene. Would love to read this.
Crystal Blackburn
22. lovesmysteries
I haven't read Greene lately so I guess I'd better put some of his books on my t0-read list.
Jon Butters
24. alsek
Would love to read this. Greene was one of the best.
Justine Heredia
26. dogforever46
I would love to read this. Always looking for a good summer read.
lynette barfield
28. lynette
Sounds interesting and I would love to have a copy
Rosemary Krejsa
29. grandpa5
I've read Graham Greene long ago. I will definitely have to read them again to refresh my memory of his stories.
Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors. Jeff Soloway sounds like a promising new author that I would like a lot!
Michael Papagermanos
31. MPAndonee
This sounds very interesting. Thanks a lot!
Gena Coggins
34. cogginsfam
Nowadays, thriller writers are a dime a dozen. Most of them are forgettable. Some are good, a few even very good, a couple approaching great. None of them can match Graham Greene. He is still the master of the genre.
Vernon Luckert
35. vl4095
Looks like a good read - would love to win!
Wendy Havens
36. wendish1971
Thank you for the contest. It looks like a great read!
Jeffrey Malis
39. bravejam
Looking forward to reading this... Thank you for the article and the opportunity!
georgina brandt
41. chord0
graham green is a great writer, interesting books.
sue weatherbee
44. dane711
I have not read Graham Greene before, but am now looking forward to it very much.
Heather Martin
45. CrystalMirror
Never was a gan of Greene. Never will be. Much more interesting lare Victorian/ eary Edwardian lit for me. But would be interested in reading something from a modern fan of his.
Louis Burklow
46. Nash62
I've long believed I need to read Graham Greene; this post convinced me to stop putting it off.
cheryl stillwell
47. nylne
I has been a while since I've read a thriller like The Travel Writer.
Cheryl English
48. RoyalCheryl
When the best puts a book out like this, this is when I want to read it as soon as possible.
peg nittskoff
Didn't know about Graham Greene until this post, but I am definately intrigued and always looking for book club books. Seeing that many of his novels have been made into movies, I now know this writer is truly great! Thanks for giving us a chance at The Travel Writer!!!!
Jackie Wisherd
52. JackieW
I've read this author before and enjoy his stories. I know I would like this one too.
53. normajean
Definitely heard about Graham Greene but have never read anything by him. You've inspired me to check him out. Thanks for the chance to win.
Linda Deming
54. lindem
This sounds like a good book for my waiting to be read bookcase.
55. Andrew
I finally sat down to read Graham Greene in a college course called English Novels of the 1930's. A terrific course that exposed me to a lot of great writing and some exciting authors. I had been afraid of Greene, but this course taught me how accessible his writing is and how gripping some of his novels could be.
57. jpl123456
Greene is a great author.
61. suzanne r
Karen Hester
62. rosalba
cynical romantic hero - sounds interesting
63. tvc15
Graham Greene was a fabulous writer (and prolific). I've enjoyed everything I've read by him, and am looking forward to reading a few more of his novels.
Betty Curran
64. willitara
I'm very interested in reading this. I'm always looking for new reading material.
Heather Cowley
67. choochoo
Something to finish up the summer reading list! Thank you!
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