It is wartime London. The height of the Blitz. A man weighed down with a guilty conscience attends a small fund-raising fete in the hope of a little distraction. He gets a great deal more than he bargained for. The everyday setting and the great prize of a home made cake (with real eggs) were clearly chosen as a familiar setting from which to launch the adventures that follow.
At a time when Greene was still trying to keep his ‘entertainments’ and his serious works separate (as if there ever should have been a conflict), this feels like two books squeezed between one set of covers. As a result, characters that could have been fascinating portraits of people under extreme duress were sidelined to the story. At the same time, the story is only partly developed with little thought given to the motives of the characters beyond the need to drive the plot.
I can see that Arthur Rowe’s guilty conscience provides a motive for other characters, but it still feels a little contrived, as if Greene were trying to explore an ethical conundrum in the wrong setting. Placing such a character with such a past in the maelstrom of a Blitzed London and allowing him to find redemption or otherwise through events would have made a great novel in itself. Likewise, the thriller with its somewhat coy references to ‘top men’ and the foolishness of leaving documents unattended – twice – does at times feel like it needs a bit of work.
That said, it is still a superior work of its kind and certainly resists the temptation many authors would have had to tie up all the loose ends. It is economically written and even the discursive sections feel genuinely like a peep into Rowe’s head rather than into the mind of an omniscient author. It is certainly a great deal less melodramatic than the Fritz Lang movie based on the book.