The Pursuit of Justice: Graham Greene's Refiguring of the Detective Story in 'It's a Battlefield.'

Article excerpt

Graham Greene remarked towards the end of his life that "in the twenties and thirties I was much interested in the detective story" ("Last Word" viii). These decades are routinely referred to as the golden age of the detective story by the genre's historians(1); however, the classical British detective story familiarly presented to us in the work of Christie or Sayers failed to meet Greene's demands that the story express both a sense of realism, and social and political concern. Aiming his attack at Sayers's novels particularly, he recalls in Ways of Escape that classical detective stories were, "[w]ith all their carefully documented references to Bradshaw's timetable or to the technique of campanology or to the geography - complete with plan - of a country house.... lacking in realism. There were too many suspects and the criminal never belonged to what used to be called the criminal class" (73). Instead, Greene preferred the "blood" or the thriller as the form best able to deal with the modern world:

There never was a school of popular English bloods. We have been damned from the start by middle-class virtues, by gentlemen cracksmen and stolen plans and Mr. Wu's. We have to go farther back than this, dive below the polite level, to something nearer the common life. (Reflections 65-66)

Although Greene is discussing the popular cinema here, the idea of going further back to the thrillers of Buchan, Childers, or Wallace, to name just three authors Greene enjoyed reading, inspired attempts in his own early fiction to adapt the detective story and the thriller to the political and social concerns of the day by recreating and restructuring these forms to produce a new kind of thriller not steeped in the jingoistic, even fascistic, ideology of the pre-World War I thrillers. This endeavour is most clearly seen in those texts Greene chose to call "entertainments," but is not exclusive to them. It's a Battlefield (1934), which he described as "his first overtly political novel" (Allain 87), was never considered an "entertainment," but it is, nonetheless, a text that marks the beginnings of Greene's attempts to rework the formula of the thriller in order to challenge the form's implied ideology and to bring political, social and economic concerns into popularwriting so as to make it the vehicle of both entertainment and "serious" purpose.

Considered one of his best novels in the thirties (Calder-Marshall 373), It's a Battlefield follows its textual precursor, Conrad's The Secret Agent, in using the thriller as it derives from the detective story to interrogate received and accepted ways of interpreting or reading the world and, by implication, texts. Detective fiction is a particularly apt genre for this purpose since, as Todorov and others have pointed out, the classical detective story is itself a story of reading.2Most clearly, the detective is a figure for the reader in the text, since the detective must read a text that is written by a criminal or murderer in the clues that he or she finds. However, the murderer attempts to keep this story hidden from the detective by creating a fiction, an alibi, which will conceal the true story of the crime. That is, the murderer is the author of a palimpsestic account of the murder, with the story of the crime as it really happened lying beneath a story of the crime claiming to be the truth of what happened. The detective is forced to interpret one text, the alibi, in such a way that he or she is able to uncover the hidden story that is the true account of events, for showing through the fictional account of the crime are indications of what actually happened. The detective story ends with the detective producing a new narrative, which is the explanation and interpretation of the criminal's fiction. In this way, "[d]etective fiction, particularly of the classical formula,... thematizes narrativity itself as a problem, a procedure, and an achievement" (Huhn 451). …