Review of Graham Greene’s ‘A Gun for Sale’
Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale was first published in America in June 1936 by Doubleday and a month later in the UK by Heinemann. Technically his seventh novel, it set the tone for his follow-up and much better Brighton Rock and became a film of sorts in 1942 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
The novel begins with the murder of a War Minister and his secretary in London by a hired killer called Raven, an ugly man physically and mentally whose harelip handicaps his success with women and, as he goes on the run, makes identifying him much easier. Having been double-crossed by his employers with stolen bank notes, Raven goes in pursuit to exact his revenge in what becomes a double-hunt with the police chasing him for what they believe is a case of theft and not double murder. So unfolds what Greene described as an ‘entertainment’ rather than a novel. This is hard to get past as the dialogue often reads like a film script and Greene’s determination to become a success in cinema becomes apparent.
Clearly a book of its time, it highlights the hardships in 1930s Britain and the looming threat of another war in Europe which Greene is keen to point out more than once: “I don’t care if there’s a war or not…A war won’t do people any harm, It’ll show them what’s what, it’ll give them a taste of their own medicine” The film adaptation became a classic of film noir and whilst it bears little resemblance to the book, Greene’s dialogue and in particular Raven’s threats with his gun bear all the hallmarks of a Hollywood film: “Stay put. This gun doesn’t make any noise. I’ll plug you where you’ll feel it if you move” Raven’s ugliness is apparent, his conversations with Anne, the girlfriend of the police detective pursuing him whom he kidnaps are particularly convincing. He becomes more animated as her confidence grows and the bitterness he feels over the torment of his disfigurement is matched by her apparent indifference to it.
The Beauty and the Beast element to their enforced time together is the glue to the book, he warms to her and finally allows himself to trust her and despite the revulsion she feels towards him she maintains the act with Greene portraying her as Raven’s one hope of escape and retribution. In Raven we see many familiar characteristics with Greene’s leading characters, he is a pitiful man but his wretched childhood tests our degrees of empathy, Greene’s disdain for capitalists and championing of the downtrodden is plain to see in Raven’s industrialist paymasters who are set to make a fortune should war break out. What we are left with is to consider how Raven’s life might have been had he been given a better start in life and despite the blood on his hands Greene offers two equally villainous characters to detract from Raven’s actions. Through Willie Davis, referred to as Cholmondeley and Sir Marcus, the corrupt Jewish industrialist ,Greene’s hatred for capitalist corruption and greed is communicated and used as a foil to our contempt for Raven to considerable effect.
When Raven shoots Davis, Greene’s remarkable ability to create a scene of despair, betrayal and regret in the final throes of a man’s life along with his own torment over religion and women come to the fore: ‘For a man’s world is his life and he was shooting that: his mother’s suicide, the long years in the home, the race-course gangs, Kite’s death and the old man’s (War Minister) and the woman’s (secretary) There was no other way; he had tried the way of confession, and it had failed him for the usual reason. There was no one outside of your own brain whom you could trust: not a doctor, not a priest, not a woman’
This theme of a lost childhood continued in his next novel, Brighton Rock and in many ways A Gun for Sale is the ideal precursor to this classic, if you haven’t already read Brighton Rock then begin with this before immersing yourself in one of the great novels of the last century. Greene based his novel on his recollections of living and working in Nottingham in the 1920s, calling the town “Nottwich”, he uses his former address in All Saints Road as the home for Anne, saying later that “I always find it easier to remember than imagine”. Opposite is Paul Hogarth’s painting of All Saints Road from his collaboration with Greene called Graham Greene Country. Like Greene, Hogarth was taken with the neo-Gothic houses which influenced the author in creating his backdrop, and as so often with Greene, it is his own personal memories which shape the characters and the storylines and his time in Nottingham gave him enough material to give this dark thriller the setting it needed.
Greene wrote better books than this, it was still relatively early in his career and the style of writing illustrates his desire to break into the genre of hard-boiled gangster-style fiction which was so popular Stateside. What sets Greene aside from the pulp writers of the day was his investment in characters and for that alone it is worth reading. For more information and the bibliography of Graham Greene, please click here