You come to this book by Graham Greene expecting it to be like James Bond but with a laugh a minute and although it is a humorous look at the world of spying it is far from being slap stick and there are victims that get caught up in the games that are played but become all too real. If anything this is a satirical critique of the ease with which the game of spying can spiral out of control.
Bearing in mind it was set in pre Castro Cuba, but came out in 1958 when the tension over the country was nearing the heights that saw it involved as a battlefield on two major occasions in the Kennedy administration, once for real and the second politically, it adds spice to the spying activities.
A British vacuum cleaner salesman Wormold living with his daughter Milly is drifting along losing money, still bruised after his wife left him and getting into deeper trouble because of his daughter’s spending habits. Then he is approached by a man named Hawthorne who recruits him to become the secret service’s man in Havana. He is advised by his German friend Dr Hasselbacher to make up the reports but just after a secretary is sent out from London to help him the characters in his reports start to come true and end up dying or being shot at. Things culminate with Wormold having a poisoning attempt made against him and then shooting the would be poisioner before fleeing back to the UK but not to disgrace but an OBE and a life being looked after not just by the secret service but also by his secretary who has fallen in love with him.
Is it well written?
You move from laugh out loud moments, for example when Wormold is recruited in the toilets, to moments that seem to be like The 39 Steps including the moment when he realises he is about to be poisoned. Then you get the moments of sadness, when Dr Hasselbacher is murdered and Carter. To be able to go from those moods seamlessly and leave you with a warm feeling at the happyish ending is a skill. On top of that you get a feel for what pre-Castro Cuba was like with the country already being seen as the players in the Cold War as a battleground of influence and control.
Should it be read?
It is a pretty accessible Greene and so that is in its favour. The story flows along which also helps and it has a reputation that is slightly more crowd pleasing than some of his other novels. Against a backdrop of some of his other work it deserves to be read not just to show his flexibility but also to show his methodology in painting an accurate picture of a location, building strong characters and developing a plot that has the capability to involve and surprise the reader.
Playing at spies leads to loss and love in pre-Castro Cuba but reminds you powerfully just how much of a lethal game spying was during the cold war
Version read – Penguin paperback