Graham Greene's Thrillers and the 1930s

By DeCoste, Damon Marcel | Style, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Graham Greene's Thrillers and the 1930s

DeCoste, Damon Marcel, Style

Brian Diemert Graham Greene's Thrillers and the 1930s. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996. x + 237 pp. $44.95 cloth; 16.95 paper.

It did not seem fair to Conder that the products of his brain should be condemned to the same cycle as his body. Something should be left His body must decay, but some permanent echo should remain of the defective bathroom, the child with whooping cough. He began to write ....

Graham Greene, It's a Battlefield (1934)

Some seven years after the death of the man so often hailed as "our greatest living writer," Graham Greene's place in literary history and, more specifically, in the literary canon remains unsettled. Whether his work will attain that exalted immortality for which the journalist Conder hungers, or whether it will come to share that liminal position of semicanonization held by such other writers of the 1930s generation as George Orwell and John Dos Passos, has not, as yet, been decided. Moreover, the question of which works from his formidable corpus will continue to be studied, taught, and deemed worthy of critical response remains an open one. For Greene scholarship, now is the time when such issues are open to resolution, when the canonical future of Greene, and of his individual works, may be determined. In this critical context, Brian Diemert's study of Greene's early use of the thriller format, with its explicit concern for "the twin concepts of canon formation and critical authority, of privileging certain types of literary texts . . . over others" (5), is both an apposite and exciting addition to Greene criticism.

Certainly Diemert's treatment of Greene's early novels and thrillersRumour at Nightfall (1931) through The Ministry of Fear (1943)-is a timely one, for as he points out, these texts have been largely ignored by critics of Greene's work. Indeed, besides Diemert's analysis, there exists only one other book-length study of Greene's many "entertainments," namely Peter Wolfe's Graham Greene, The Entertainer, published in 1972. Yet Wolfe's study approaches these texts not as thrillers or detective fiction, but as further evidence of Greene's status as a Catholic novelist; thus these are, for him, all tales of "the potential saviour[,] not only a man with a mission[, but] also a man on the run" (9). Apart from this book, which thus largely elides the generic specificity of these texts, critics have, as Diemert observes, largely dismissed these novels as inferior, "genre" fictions (7-9). This, indeed, is a trend which continues in other recent attempts-for example, Peter Mudford's 1996 Graham Greene and Cedric Watts's 1997 Preface to Greene-to secure Greene's canonical status. In these studies, Greene's thrillers of the 1930s are either simply ignored, as in Mudford, or dismissed, as in Watts, as "blithely preposterous" or "strained and implausible" (45, 50), as inferior study pieces for the "serious" work to follow. The stage has then been set by both past and contemporary scholarship for the exclusion of these novels from any critically sanctioned Greene corpus, and Diemert's work is thus valuable, if only in that it pauses, at this decisive juncture in Greene's reception-history, to reconsider the merits and complexities, and the due claim to canonical status, of these largely overlooked works.

Yet the value of Diemert's study is not strictly the esoteric one of attending to the forgotten text. His book is also laudable both for the rigor with which it theorizes Greene's use of popular literary forms and for its thorough situation of this use in the context of the political and cultural debates of the 1930s. Diemert's impressive first chapter convincingly places Greene and his literary concerns in the crisis-laden milieu of this decade and reads his embrace of "genre" fiction "as part of a widespread response to the literature and criticism of high modernism . . . and to the political, socio-economic, and military crises of the 1930s" (5). …

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