On the face of it, A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene is a genre thriller, featuring a crime committed by a confessed and declared villain, followed by a police pursuit. In the hands of a great writer, however, even clichés such as this can be transformed into thoroughly satisfying novels.
First published in 1936, A Gun For Sale is set in a Europe over which war looms constantly and threateningly, casting a shadow of fear and even depression over all human interaction. Graham Greene appears to use this context to allow the book to make a significant, yet very subtle point, an assertion that conflicts, even grand conflicts like wars, are pursued by interests, instigated by an intention to profit. The grander the conflict, the greater the potential gain. As individuals vie for influence, prominence, control and dominance, so do societies, groups, companies, even countries. And some of the protagonists play dirty, rarely receiving the comeuppance of justice. When they do, we are gratified, sensing the same rightness that a happy ending might provoke.
A Gun For Sale has several important characters, more than a review can list. Raven is the first we meet, the blackness of his name immediately suggesting a functionality for the plot, for he is the anti-hero, the hired gun who completes the bloody assignment in the book’s first pages. Hare-lipped and ever resentful of his disfigurement, both physical and, as a result of a painful upbringing, psychological, he suggests a figure that the reader might be invited to despise, perhaps a pantomime bogeyman of genre fiction, always accompanied by a threatening, trademark fanfare.
But Graham Greene is not that mundane a writer. We eventually come to know Raven well. Though we are never actually invited to like him, we eventually sympathise with his plight, if only by virtue of the fact that there are some apparent social heroes who in reality are a darned sight more deserving of our contempt. Raven is double-crossed and sets out to track down the perpetrator of his humiliation.
Raven leaves a trail and a policeman, Mather, takes up the pursuit. By chance Mather’s girlfriend, Anne, boards the same train as Raven from London to Nottwich, an industrial town were she will appear in the chorus line of a pantomime. Raven and Anne meet and, viewed from the distance of the pursuer, become accomplices.
Mather’s fellow copper, Sanders, is an interesting foil to Raven. Both are disfigured. Raven’s problem is with appearance and he yearns to be rid of the hare-lip that disfigures his face, a disfigurement that Anne plays down, thus engendering his trust. The policeman Sanders, on the other hand, stammers. He is quick of wit, but not of voice, and is aware that his impediment has cost him promotion.
Mr Davis, also known as Cholmondley, amongst other things, is the greasy lackey employed by Sir Marcus. The latter is an industrialist, owner of a steelworks in Nottwich, a business that has seen better times. Mr Davis is a right cad, regarding theatre girls as fair game, regularly picking them up and persuading them into the grubby room he rents from a truly surreal couple in order to protect his reputation. The freemason Sir Marcus is barely clinging to life, but he retains sufficient pride, or malice, perhaps, to inflict untold suffering on others, merely to retain his own status in a future he does not have.
And so Raven pursues Cholmondley, who answers to Marcus. Mather and Saunders pursue Raven, and Anne seems to be on everyone’s side. And it all works out.
But Graham Greene does much more than tell a tale. Through simple language and structure, and via a plot that would grace a b-movie at best, he penetrates his characters’ psyches, locates them in social class and history, and manages with a deft lightness of touch to convey a remarkably strong sense of place, setting and context. Through his simply constructed prose, we see people, places and events from a multiplicity of perspectives and are left with a complexity of associations with every character. And that, precisely, is why cliché is left far behind.