The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (first published in 1943).
Summary: Just released from a psychiatric hospital for the mercy killing of his wife, Arthur Rowe inadvertently gets caught up in a twisty espionage plot.
It is 1943, the middle of World War 2 in London, with nightly bombing raids and no one knowing if they will live to the next morning. Arthur Rowe lives quietly in a flat, reading and re-reading The Old Curiosity Shop. He’s been exempted from the war effort because he was recently released from a psychiatric facility where he had served a sentence of the mercy killing of his wife.
Inadvertently, he is caught up in an espionage affair, surviving poisoning, escaping another murder charge only to survive a bomb blast when a case, supposedly of books that he is carrying to a hotel rendezvous explodes. He loses his memory, narrowly escapes a sinister psychiatrist, and joins the effort to hunt down the espionage mastermind, the brother of a woman he has fallen in love with, Anna Hilfe. I’ve seen plenty of plot movement and narrow escapes in other Greene novels, but nothing like the madcap adventures of this novel, reminiscent more of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday than anything else I’ve read by Greene.
It begins at a charity fete where Rowe visits a fortune teller who mistakes him for one of the conspirators, that enables him to win a cake in which a role of microfilm has been hidden. He is poisoned, but survives, when he will not give up the cake. After working with a detective, he visits the fortune teller again, and when the lights go out, a man is murdered with a knife carried by Rowe. Knowing he could be charged with murder, he flees, ends up carrying a case of what he thinks are books to a hotel for a man he met at a book seller.
The case explodes, he survives but with the loss of his memory, recovering in a bucolic country psychiatric facility (again!) headed by a soothing but sinister doctor up to no good. He’s visited by Anna Hilfe, who works at the charity that ran the fete, who he’d met earlier and encountered just before the suitcase bomb exploded. He comes to love her, even though he does not remember the prior connection, nor the ways her brother Willi is involved in the espionage plot, ways that become clearer as memory returns and he joins the effort to uncover the ring and retrieve a crucial microfilm.
“The Ministry of Fear” formally is an espionage ring, but becomes more in Greene’s plot. It is the dull reality of the nightly existence of Londeners. For Rowe, it is the fear of being found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit while struggling to justify the one he did. Fear and distrust taints love as both Rowe and Anna know things of the other and of themselves that they dare not reveal. With the catastrophic losses of war and the gray world of espionage, one senses people anxiously clinging to illusions of normalcy in a world gone wrong, and living off balance as a result. It may well be Greene’s snapshot of his times–and a parable for our own.