Oh, I do like a spy novel! And this is one with a twist – because it is a satire on the well known intelligent services and the methods they are willing to employ to obtain information.
Set in Cuba at the time of the missile crisis, Greene tells the story of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman whose business is not meeting the demands of his daughter’s spending habits and who is inadvertently thrown into sidelining as a secret agent. The only problem is that Wormold does not have any information of value to pass on. So, he takes it upon himself to create it, on one hand to earn his paycheck and on the other to not be suspected of being a defector.
All goes well for Wormold, In fact it goes too well, and one day the illusion of espionage he created becomes a reality that entangles Wormold and the people around him in a deadly net.
Even though Greene always intended Our Man in Havana as a satire and a comedy, I could not help but be reminded of the saying that some truths are stranger than fiction, and that this story probably actually happened. Maybe not in the exact circumstances, maybe not to a vacuum salesman in Havana, but it is not so far fetched to believe that there is some truth in Greene’s premise, and this together with the knowledge that Greene worked in the secret service himself (and despised it) gives the book another level of depth that elevates it beyond the run of the mill espionage spoof.
One of my favourite scenes (and one for the to-do list):
“Wormold unfolded the draughts board. Then he arranged on the board twenty-four miniature bottles of whisky: twelve Bourbon confronted twelve Scotch. ‘What is this, Mr Wormold?’ ‘An idea of Dr Hasselbacher’s. I thought we might have one game to his memory. When you take a piece you drink it.’ “
5* (out of 5*)