This farce holds the same canny and clever delight as the Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove and The Comedy of Errors, with dialogue and pacing to which David Mamet is clearly indebted. I could almost see the smoke from Graham Greene's typewriter keys swirling in the air as he tore through sheets of erasable bond, churning out this crazy, wonderful and utterly a propos satire of spies.
It's the mid 1950's when we meet our man, Jim Wormold, a milquetoast British expatriate who moved to Havana prior to World War II, having escaped military service due to his bum leg. He is a sad sack salesman of vacuum cleaners, abandoned by the mother of his blossoming 17 yr old daughter, Milly, who is part sainted Madonna, part bombshell Marilyn.
Wormold is inexplicably recruited as a spy by MI6- the British Secret Service- in a fabulous men's room encounter with scene stealer and smooth operator, Hawthorne (a.k.a 59200). Wormold marvels that he has been entrusted to spy- he has few contacts, fewer friends, is apolitical to the point of apathy, and bumbles awkwardly through his dull and lonely life. He is also broke and has a daughter whose demands score his guilty heart.
This brief tale chronicles Wormold's adventures as a spy; ironically, he creates a network of sub-agents, unleashes a series of events that rock the intelligence world, and manages to build up his bank account with a tidy sum in the process.
The butts of the joke are the British Secret Service and the cult of pop culture espionage. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments- I won't spoil by sharing- but this was a delicious read.
It's not all fun and games, however; Greene may have intended a light-hearted comedy, but he reveals critical and extremely prescient observations about Cuba and the coming revolution and about the Cold War hysteria that damaged reputations and even destroyed the lives of innocent people who were identified as Communists or communist sympathizers. In light of the manipulation of military intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq, his satire remains alive and relevant to this day.
It is a true gift that a writer so associated with heavier themes of religious ambivalence, imperialism, and the universality of suffering, could toss those themes back with a wink and a giggle and wonderful readability.