"The Ministry of Fear," (1943) is a British spy story/crime drama/thriller by much honored twentieth century British author/screen writer Graham Greene (The Third Man, The End of the Affair). The book is set in England, a country violently at war during World War II. Arthur Rowe is released back into wartime England after serving two years in a mental asylum for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. Despite the attention given him by psychiatric professionals, he is still rather immature and self-centered. Somehow, at a local garden fete, he stumbles across a murderous Nazi spy ring, by correctly guessing the weight of a cake - made with real eggs, we are repeatedly told. As Rowe appears to be substantially friendless, he doesn't know where to turn; but stakes his survival on that well-known British ability to muddle through. First he consults Mr. Rennet at “Orthotex: Long Established Private Inquiry Bureau” that generally does divorce work. Then, in his shambling way, Rowe finds himself at the offices of Comforts of the Free Mothers, where he meets a brother/sister pair of Austrian refugees, Anna and Willie Hilfe. And at Mrs. Bellairs’ fortune telling séance, where he meets a Dr. Forester, and a man going by the names of Cost/ Travers or Ford; and foul deeds are afoot. Mr. Rennet, of Orthotex, the employee Rennet assigns to Rowe’s case, Mr. Jones, and most everyone else Rowe meets, as he tries to sort things out, will most likely regret having met Rowe. The book, as many of Greene’s other works, was made into a film of the same title THE MINISTRY OF FEAR, starring Ray Milland, directed by the great cinematic thriller- maker, the Austrian-born Fritz Lang (METROPOLIS). The film may now be better known than the novel it’s based on: at any rate the talented Lang made some canny changes, such as setting the introductory garden fair in the still-charming countryside, rather than the war torn Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London, rather close to the British Museum, as Greene did. Still, it must be said, Greene gives us a first-rate view of London under bombardment, its shelters and smoking ruins. (Lang made his film, supposedly set in the U.K., in Hollywood, to escape the dangers and privations of the city at that time.) Graham Greene (1904-1991) was one of the most illustrious British writers of the 20th century. He enjoyed a very long life, most of the century, and a very long, prolific writing career, during which he gave us “The Power and the Glory,” and “Our Man in Havana.” These two books, among Greene’s many other masterworks, were made into notable films. His books were very well-written, highly literate; greatly honored; much praised by the critics, and enjoyed a wide readership, being frequent best sellers. The author had first-hand spy experience; he was recruited to Britain’s secret service, and worked in the African country of Sierra Leone during the Second World War. The writer was also one of the better-known Catholic converts of his time; many of his thrillers, as this one, deal with Catholic themes of guilt and redemption. He created vivid characters with internal lives; they faced struggles and doubt. Sometimes his characters despaired, or suffered world-weary cynicism – they were always self-aware. But Greene always created a tight thriller, in a lean, realistic style that boasted almost cinematic visuals. If you’ve never read him before, the book at hand is relatively light and cheerful compared to some of his others: it’s a good place to start.
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