Book Review: The Ministry Of Fear

The Ministry Of Fear, by Graham Greene

Sometimes even the entertainments of Graham Green are gloomy and morbid, and such is the case here. Few people would consider this to be among Greene’s great books, although even an ordinary book by this author is better than many people can muster up. Sometimes even unsuccessful attempts to avoid cliche as this book is are still instructive, though. In some ways, it could be said that Green was writing a cliched novel in a genre that had not been invented yet, and so the fact that it seems highly cliched to this reader is a sign that one has read a great many later novels that continued in the trend that this novel took with regards to concerns about fifth columnists during World War II and secret service agents. This book is a political thriller of the kind that is written skillfully by many people, and it is a skillful novel, but at the time it was written it was part of an genre of literature that was at best only in its infancy. What this means is that even a novel like this one has at least a considerable degree of importance in terms of its literature, but despite the fact that this importance is easy to recognize, it does not mean that I found this novel necessarily very enjoyable or enlightening.

In terms of its plot, this novel begins with something that appears to be very meaningless and trivial that becomes far more dangerous than it would initially appear. Arthur Rowe is a man who lives a rather quiet and ordinary life until he wins a charity auction for a cake with an answer given to him by a bogus fortune teller, which leads him into deep business involving a shadowy circle of spiritualists who are connected with a fifth column element trying to steal plans and get them to Hitler during World War II. Arthur falls in love (spoiler alert), loses his memory, and ends up a patient in a hospital when he is wanted as a person of interest in what he feels to be a murder case. To make things even more rich, the protagonist himself is someone who was brought up on murder charges for the death of his wife, but was let go because he was judged to have done it as a mercy killing, something which is repeated over and over again, and a great part of what makes me not like this book nearly as much as the author clearly is trying to get the reader to like it. To be sure, the political intrigue of this book is deeply interesting and the author’s interest in avoiding a plot that would criticize the wartime government of Great Britain is at least shrewd and clever, and there is something to be appreciated in that.

Why is it that despite the obvious skill of this novel that I do not really appreciate it all that much, or at least as much as a novel of its skill and genre [1] would indicate? A large part of my unease with this novel comes from the framing. The author is trying to have a difficult problem both ways, by having the world of the novel view mercy killings as something that is easy to forgive and not even judge as a crime at all, even while the protagonist tries to argue that he is a bad guy despite the fact that everyone else in the novel considers him to be a good guy, more or less. And it is that which I find offensive. I do not consider mercy killing an excuse for murder, and so I believe the protagonist to have been a bad guy, or at least a worse guy than he seems willing to concede. The fact that the author tries to present the protagonist as both a good guy as well as a self-flagellating one indicates that the author likely wanted himself to appear like a good guy despite having done things that one might view of as bad. Did the author push someone to abort a baby or drive someone to suicide through abuse or philandering or something like that? If so, it would greatly explain the author’s intent both to be seen as a good guy and be seen as a good guy who considers himself to be a bad guy for something that is wrong but not a wrong that is viewed of as all that evil by a decadent and corrupt society like our own. But to receive the praise of such decadent individuals as a good guy is truly not all that worthwhile.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/07/20/book-review-the-ambler-warning/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/book-review-the-candidate/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/05/05/book-review-trap-the-devil/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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