“The gulls swept over Dover. They sailed out like flakes of the fog, and tacked back towards the hidden town, while the siren mourned with them: other ships replied, a whole wake lifted up their voices – for whose death?”
So begins the story of D.
D. is an agent – a confidential agent – who is sent to England on a mission. Having arrived in Dover, nothing goes to plan and D. is soon pitched against another agent (L.).
In this race to fulfill his task, D. is thrown into the centre of a time and place pulled into antagonising directions – there is a battle between the young and old, the aristocracy and the ordinary men, the natives and foreigners, the mad and the sane, the powerful and the helpless, the stupid and the enlightened, love and indifference – all elements which would come to define the somewhat harrowing place that is Greene-land.
“It was absurd, of course, to feel afraid, but watching the narrow stooping back in the restaurant he felt as exposed as if he were in a yard with a blank wall and a firing squad.”
Graham Greene famously wrote The Confidential Agent, fueled by Benzedrine, in parallel to The Power and the Glory. In contrast to The Power and the Glory, he expected to earn money from the sales of this “entertainment”. It is of no surprise then that The Confidential Agent does not dwell on morality or religion as much as some of Greene’s other books. It does have elements of those deliberations – after all The Confidential Agent is based on and inspired by the Spanish Civil War – but it does not go into great depths.
And, this for me is where it falls down. What I love about Greene is that he commits his protagonists to something – an ideal, a cause, a situation, anything – and gives them depth. This is lacking a bit here. D. is portrayed well and we learn much of his back-story, but knowing D.’s past does not help much to figure out other characters in the book. So, despite a promising start and interesting plot, the story itself loses grip on a number of occasions because there is little chemistry, or tension, between the characters – not between D. and his nemesis, not between D. and his persecutors, and not even between D. and Rose.
The Confidential Agent was first published in 1939, ten years after his first novel The Man Within, and knowing of Greene’s life and career, it is still an “early” work. It shows all the potential that would fully develop in his subsequent work, but it just isn’t of the same quality. However, I do wonder…
I haven’t read The Power and the Glory, yet, but I almost want to wager that Greene put in it what he held back on in The Confidential Agent – less aimless caper and more study of the human condition.
3* (out of 5*)