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.