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					"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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posted:6/20/2011
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