Kevin Wignall is an accomplished short-story writer and has been contributing to EQMM for the past decade; his latest EQMM story, “The Messenger,” will appear in our December 2014 issue. Another of his stories, “Retrospective,” has just been turned into a short film with Charles Dance, which will be showing at the L.A. Short Film Festival tomorrow and at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on August 8th. Kevin is also the author of five adult novels and several young-adult novels, the latter under the byline K.J. Wignall. His 2004 novel For the Dogs is in development for a feature film. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The names le Carré, Simenon and recent British mystery author Mark Billingham come to mind . . . .” In this post, the author connects his work and inspiration to another literary suspense icon, Graham Greene. —Janet Hutchings
Although I also write books for young adults (as KJ Wignall), when I was growing up the genre didn’t exist. We moved directly from children’s books into the world of adult literature. One year I was trying to finish the Narnia Chronicles, the next I was hooked on Agatha Christie, and by the time I was about twelve my reading repertoire had expanded to include another of my early favourites, Graham Greene. I moved on from Christie (though I’ve revisited some of my favourites recently and wasn’t disappointed) but Greene stayed with me and became an influence on my own writing.
I was talking to my local indie bookseller a few weeks back and he pointed out that although he still sells a steady trickle of Christie mysteries, and continues to sell a reasonable number of Greene’s contemporaries—Waugh, Fitzgerald, Hemingway—he doesn’t sell a Graham Greene novel from one month to the next. He seems to have fallen out of fashion in some way.
Perhaps that’s because of the moral and religious concerns that predominate in a lot of his novels, which seem out of step with our times, particularly in novels which appear modern in many other respects. Greene was clearly troubled by the disparity between his private life and his own religious faith, and his preoccupation with that conflict can seem heavy-handed (for example, in The End of the Affair, which some people adore, but I don’t much care for).
I say all this really as a preamble to saying that you shouldn’t let it put you off. In many ways, Greene was one of the progenitors of the modern mystery thriller and there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had from his books. Many of them have key elements of noir, particularly the complex protagonist who’s tempted to err and is then carried into dangerous territory as a result.
Likewise, modern political thrillers owe a huge debt to Greene. He was always keen to explore the shifting political landscape of the world in the twentieth century and often predicted developments that few political commentators at the time would have foreseen. It’s perhaps a sign of his skill in this area that The Quiet American, which I’ll come to shortly, was required reading on my South-East Asian Politics course at university.
My first introduction, though, was through a comic but no less prescient novel, Our Man in Havana, published in 1958. Set during the days of the Batista regime in Cuba, it centres on Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman who takes a job with the British secret service to finance his daughter’s extravagant lifestyle.
Wormold has nothing to contribute, so he creates a world of fictional contacts and meetings, and sends detailed diagrams of vacuum cleaners, claiming they’re rocket launchers. It’s funny, though often tense, and predicted several aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later.
But this satire on the intelligence service also seems oddly relevant today in the light of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. It’s certainly no surprise that one of the great living spy writers, John Le Carré, was inspired by this book when writing his own 1996 novel, The Tailor of Panama.
At this point, I’d usually recommend mystery fans to seek out Brighton Rock, an early novel, and one that I read in my late teens. The opening, in which Hale is murdered, is worthy of a Hitchcock movie, and the searing exploration of small time gangsters in a seaside resort is never less than gripping. It’s bleak, too, and yet oddly, it was listed as an “entertainment” when it was first published in the US.
But in some ways, an even better introduction to Greene’s thriller credentials is This Gun for Hire (A Gun For Sale in the UK). For all the Greene I’d read, I hadn’t managed to get around to this one until a couple of the early reviewers of my first novel, People Die, compared it with Greene’s 1936 hit-man tale.
I’m glad I hadn’t read it before writing my own debut because I might have given up there and then. It covers what we now consider familiar territory—the cold-blooded killer for an antihero who isn’t obviously likeable, the hunter becoming the hunted—but for the time it was fresh and daring and still reads that way even now. Greene even takes the additional risk of making the antihero, Raven, physically unattractive, giving him a harelip which also adds to his difficulties when he’s on the run. It’s a fast, taut read and a great introduction to the works of Greene, particularly for readers who are less interested in the political.
But speaking of that, I said I’d come back to The Quiet American. It’s a novel which contains many of the Greene staples—an exotic location, a love triangle, issues surrounding Catholicism and divorce, political commentary—but he gets the balance spot on in this book and it’s a terrific thriller as a result.
The reason it got on to that university course I mentioned is that the novel—published in 1955, and set near the end of the First Indochina War—captures perfectly the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The fate of Pyle, the eponymous American, even foreshadows the way Vietnam would play out for the USA. It’s still got things to say about foreign policy today and should be required reading in Washington as well as in academia, but I recommend it here purely on the strength of its credentials as a first class and very human political thriller.
This is only a short piece, and I’ve only had time to talk about a few of the books. For people who like Le Carré, I could have pointed you towards The Human Factor, a later book, but one of the most underrated spy novels ever written. For those who like paranoia in their mysteries, I could have pointed you to The Ministry of Fear. Or there’s The Honorary Consul, a thriller with a kidnap that goes wrong, and the classic Greene characters, outsiders who’ve washed up in an exotic location.
But I want to end briefly on the subject of film, perhaps the easiest way to dip a toe into Greeneland. Most of his books were filmed, some faithfully (the recent Phillip Noyce adaptation of The Quiet American) some more loosely (the Alan Ladd version of This Gun for Hire, a book which has actually been filmed several times).
As is often the case, some of the films haven’t aged as well as the books, and I urge you to seek out Greene in print, with one exception. Although the author wrote the novella first, as base material for the script which he also wrote, The Third Man was always meant to be a film, and it still stands as a masterpiece of noir cinema.
It’s classic Graham Greene, from the love triangle and the moral complexity, to the great setting and the antihero you shouldn’t really like but still do anyway. The result is a film that’s bursting with iconic cinema moments, and if you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough—as long as you remember who wrote it!
Graham Greene was an astonishing writer (if sometimes uneven—he wrote for money, and during a particularly lean period he actually wrote two books at once) who had a massive influence on twentieth-century culture, both in literature and also in film. I’m sure his time will come again anyway, because great storytellers also rise back to the surface, but he’s an author we should really take for our own in the crime and mystery community.
A sales director once told me that Graham Greene wouldn’t have found a publisher if he’d started out today. I disagree with that. He might have had some fierce editorial arguments, but he would have been published, and he would have been a crime writer.