The journalist as a “shady operative” in Graham Greene’s novels

An essay – by Mirianna la Grasta

Journalists have often been at the heart of Graham Greene’s fictional world. The author – whom Norman Sherry remembers as one of the biggest expressions of the 20th century literature (Monda) – was a journalist himself.

He started out in 1925 with the Nottingham Journal and then moved to The Times, where he worked as a sub-editor for four years. He travelled the world taking on assignments from various publications, providing his public with dispatches from Mexico, Sierra Leone, French Guinea, Liberia, the Congo, Kenya, Vietnam, Malaysia, Israel, Cuba, Argentina, Panama, and Nicaragua (Lonsdale, 2016; Greene, 2004; Hutton, 2007). No surprise, then, if he used his journalistic ventures as a springboard to write fiction about journalists (Hutton, 2007).

However, within Greene’s range of journalists there is hardly one character that embodies virtue, to the extent that they all have been portrayed as “shady operatives” (Lonsdale, 2016: 109). The term, in this case, refers to journalists who are perfectly aware of the mechanisms of their profession, they could use their position to fight for a greater good, but decide to stay in the darkness as they are not prepared to give up their selfish, narrow interests (Lonsdale, 2016: 111).

As Hutton (2007: 83) explains, Greene’s “shady operatives” “often find themselves in situations where they are forced to choose a side despite being part of a profession which emphasizes objectivity”. However, instead of taking sides, they retreat from any sort of conflict – either concrete or moral – and try to regain a neutral distance from their subject. They are rational and detached, pure recording instruments (Ibid.). They are observers who cannot act against what they condemn (Ibid.).

But why did Greene choose to depict journalists this way?

Hutton (2007: 81) answers this question by comparing the way Graham Greene sees journalists to the way Prospero sees Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest:

“Journalists are to Greene what Caliban is to Prospero: things of darkness he grudgingly acknowledges as his own but from which he then distances himself.”

It is clear, then, that Greene’s perspective on journalists and journalism reflects a larger debate on the profession, that started in the thirties and lasted during the whole course of the 20th century.

Stamboul Train (1932), England Made Me (1935) and The Quiet American (1955) are some of the major novels written by Graham Greene to feature the theme of the journalist as a “shady operative”. In order, Mabel Warren, Ferdinand Minty and Thomas Fowler are all examples of this kind of journalist, in their own, peculiar way.

This essay will explore to what extent these three characters/journalists are “shady operatives” by analysing their role in the plot, their characteristics, their language and their actions. I will argue that Mabel Warren in Stamboul Train and Ferdinand Minty in England Made Me fit, with any doubt, and explain the prototype of “shady operatives”. I will then study the character of Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American. Thomas Fowler is, in fact, the most interesting character of the three. Despite being considered the least “shady” of the triad, Fowler is “shady” at his own extent. He moves from being a simple “recorder of facts” to being “engagé“. But his way of being engaged is, in turn, a display of his hidden, personal interests.


Graham Greene’s early journalists reflect the media in the 1930s and 1940s. Mabel Warren and Ferdinand Minty are, between others, professionals who trust an empirical approach to journalism, and who believe that objectivity should be the guiding principle for journalists (Hutton, 2007: 8-9).

Journalist Mabel Warren, “the butch lesbian with a weakness for drunken sentimentality” (Hitchens, 2004: VIII) and “a journalist with little regard for the truth” (O’ Prey, 1980: 23), is the first “shady operative” to be painted by Greene. She is one of the main characters of Stamboul Train, the novel that first established the reputation of the author – Orient Express is the name of the American edition. The novel was published in 1932 and is the first “entertainment” written by Greene. His works were, in fact, often the fruit of his financial exigencies. But now, with his “entertainments”, his first concern was to deliberately please his public (Greene, 1980; Hitchens, 2004: V).

Stamboul Train, as the title suggests, is a thriller based on board the Orient Express, which in the story runs from Ostend, Belgium, to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. The three-day train journey accidentally brings together disparate characters, all travelling for different purposes. Coral Musker, “the showgirl who’s seen it all”, Carleton Myatt, a businessman travelling to Constantinople, Dr Richard Czinner “the political exile and conspirator” travelling incognito to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Josef Grünlich, a thief who boards the train in Vienna after having murdered someone, Mr Savory, a popular novelist and the journalist Mabel Warren with her companion Janet Pardoe. They all come from those specific parts of society that Greene wants to examine (O’Prey: 1980: 23; Hitchens, 2004).

It is important, however, to focus our attention on the specific social slice represented by Mabel Warren: the press.

Mabel Warren is an alcoholic, hard-bitten and yellow press reporter who boards the train at Colgne, Germany, in the hope for a scoop, after she recognises the socialist exile Dr Czinner.

The first characteristic that shows how “shady” Warren is, is her spy-attitude. Before trying to interview Dr Czinner, she slips into his compartment while he is out in order to find some proof of his identity. As Lonsdale (2016: 109) argues, she reckons she has three minutes to find some kind of clue among his belongings:

“Dr Czinner, seeking her at the other end of the train, would be away for at least three minutes. In that time she must learn enough to make him speak. […] Now she reached the dangerous moments of her search. […] If I am found it means the sack, she thought […] and if I’m sacked, I lose Janet, I lose the chance of Coral. […] But if I succeed, she thought […] I’ll be able to take a larger flat; when Janet knows of it, she’ll return, she’ll never leave me.” (Greene, 1932: 48)

This extract reads like a stream of consciousness. The reader feels a sense of urgency, given not only by the present tense, which makes the paragraph run quickly, but also by Warren’s anxious and continuous thoughts in direct speech.

Full of tension and thoughts, this paragraph best condenses the theme of journalists as “shady operatives”. Dr Czinner’s plan is certainly a story worth exposing and Warren’s acts have, initially, all the potential to be the fruit of investigative journalism. However, is by reading the journalist’s mind that the reader understands how hypocrite and devious Mabel Warren is. By unveiling what Dr Czinner is doing Warren does not want to achieve “the greater good” (Lonsdale, 2016: 111) – holding a socialist exile to account. Instead, she is driven by “selfish, narrow goals” (Ibid.) such as earning more money from her newspaper, buying a new house, and ultimately not losing her companion Janet.

Another element worth looking at is Warren’s attitude when writing or dictating stories over the phone. Her final pieces are not meant to be quality journalism. Instead, her words are a mass-product that the insatiable British public is waiting for.

When speaking to Mr Savory, Warren looks quite aware of whom she is writing for:

“Our public can’t wait. Hungry, you know, for its lion’s steak. No time for proofs. People in London will be reading the interview while they eat breakfast tomorrow.” (Greene: 1932: 53)

This quote gives a clear description of journalism in the thirties. The press is, in fact, part of the capitalistic mass production and is constantly feeding its masses, which are compared to ravenous lions waiting for their steak of news. In Hutton’s words, these were people “with gargantuan appetite for the written word” and, as a result, journalists like Mabel Warren felt anxious about “hammering out” new words (Hutton, 2007: 34-35).

This animalesque picture as well reinforces the theme of journalists a “shady operatives” in Stamboul Train, but also reveals Greene’s repulsion towards Mabel Warren, a character that in order to satisfy her own interests sacrifices journalistic quality for vulgar and filthy, mass-produced words (Hutton, 2007).

The other “shady” aspect of Mabel Warren is her experience in employing wicked tricks to succeed in her job. Greene perfectly catches the ingratiating tone she uses when addressing Dr Czinner:

“Her voice was low, almost tender; she might have been urging a loved dog towards a lethal chamber.” (Greene, 1932: 33)

Later, however, we understand what a plotter she is. Despite using an ingratiating tone with him, her thoughts reveal her ruthless towards Czinner. As Hitchens (2004: VIII) explains, Warren perfectly knows that the exile needs help, but she is prepared to “throw him to the wolves” for a good story. “Once and for all” she will nail Czinner to the front page: “An exclusive crucifixion,” she comments devilishly (Greene, 1932: 44).

The dark and intrusive nature of Mabel Warren is further accentuated by the olfactory descriptions that Graham Greene offers of her. As she enters a compartment, she fills the air with a masculine and unpleasant smell of “gin and shaken motes of cheap powder” (Greene, 1932: 36). “Her unwelcome smell crosses boundaries, invades bodies via noses.” (Lonsdale, 2016:110) Her strong smell, her masculine attitudes and heavy drinking make her, as Couto (1998: 92) noted, “a man trapped in a woman’s body”.

At times, her image becomes even wilder. For example, Graham Green often associates her with a hound: “her nose was on a scent”, “her nose held yet the genuine aroma of the hunt”, “with her head aching, the smell of gin in her nostrils, growls at him, closing her great teeth on her lower lip in an effort at self-control”, and the verbs “prying, pushing, scraping” refer to a violent animal nature (Greene, 1932).

It is clear, then, that through several negative connotations Graham Greene was trying to present a not so positive or virtuous character, therefore criticising the attitude of the press in the 1930s. In portraying Mabel Warren as a shady operative, Greene was definitely a maverick novelist. His contemporaries, instead, were used to depict journalists, and in particular foreign correspondents, as courageous individuals, living a life full of dangers and, by doing this, they evoked exoticism and glamour (Lonsdale, 2016: 111).

Ferdinand Minty in England Made Me (1935) is no better than “dizzy Mabel” – this was the nickname that colleagues gave to Mabel Warren (Greene, 1935). If Warren comes across as an active character, Minty can be seen as a more relaxed one. However, they are both “desperate creatures”, operating out of “the squalid necessity of making money” (Lonsdale, 2016: 109; Greene, 1935: 71).

England Made Me is the story of an English man, Anthony Farrant, who has been unsuccessful throughout his whole career. Thanks to his sister Kate, who is the secretary and mistress of a rich Swedish businessman, Erik Krogh, he obtains a job as Krogh’s personal guard. Reporter Ferdinand Minty is in the shades throughout the whole plot and, from his exiled position, he tries to bring Krogh’s filthy businesses to the front page. Being, close to Krogh, Anthony becomes annoyed of his shady and amoral businesses, and decides to pass damaging information to Minty. Hall, one of Krogh’s most loyal friends finally kills Anthony, making his death look like an incident. He then goes at Minty’s place, and extorts him with money to stop him from divulgating any harmful information on Krogh provided by Anthony.

As we can see from the plot, Minty has a big story in his hands, but prefers the money to writing the story. Again here, we see the prototype of a “shady operative”, a man that egoistically chooses a sum of money over exposing wrongdoing in his society.

In a Nazi Germany, Ferdinand Minty is an Englishman working for a Swedish newspaper. A “shady” journalist, he comes across as “an exile from his country and his class” (Greene, 1935: 180). Not only he conforms to the stereotype of the opportunistic man, he is also the depiction of absurdity (Hutton, 2007: 8).

He lives in a poor lodging-house where, a sadist, he keeps a spider trapped under a glass, torturing him and wondering how long it will live (Greene, 1935: 67). And on top of that, he speaks to himself using the third-person (Greene, 1935). His flat is sparsely furnished with “the brown woollen dressing gown hanging on the door, the cocoa and water-biscuits in the cupboard, the little Madonna on the mantelpiece” (Greene, 1935: 136 in Hutton, 2007: 84). He always wears the same old suit and wrinkled inspector coat (Greene, 1935). Overall, as many other characters-journalists created by Greene, Minty is shabby and messy, and all the descriptions above provide an example of how Greene looked at reporters in the 1930s and 1940s.

Nevertheless, what really strikes the reader is that, despite his low status in society, as a journalist Minty has an incredible access to important people and information (Lonsdale, 2016: 110). And this access, potentially gives him the authority to tackle issues and to expose powerful people. But Minty always chooses to stay in his comfort zone, and acts in accordance to what will benefit him (Greene, 1935).

Warren and Minty are just two prime examples of how Graham Green thought about journalists. Journalists in his early novels share common characteristics related to his portrayal of the profession as shady, inhabiting a “scarred and shabby” world (Greene, 1938 in Hutton, 2007: 84):

“They are poorly paid, live parsimoniously, are physically abhorrent, dress shabbily, are employed by small provincial papers, and most often cater to a tabloid readership. Grim and gritty, with a range of habits, almost all of them drink profusely.” (Hutton, 2007: 84)

If journalism in the 1930s and 1940s was driven by pure objectivity, by mid-century sceptics within the industry challenged this value, saying that by campaigning to be simple recorders of facts, journalists were renouncing to important values such as interpretation and perspective (Ward, 2005: 262). Press theorist Theodore Peterson was amongst these sceptics and, in the 1950s, he described objectivity as “a fetish” (Ward, 2005: 36).

As years passed by and journalistic values evolved, also the theme of the journalist as a “shady operative” underwent certain changes in the novels of Graham Greene. In 1955, for the first time in his career, Greene imagined a character that evolved from cynical detachment, a “dégagé” reporter, to personal involvement, an “engagé” individual. This character is Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American. As the novel progresses, his journalistic credo of political neutrality erodes, and gives space to political action (Hutton, 2007: 9; Korte, 2009: 116).

The novel is set in Vietnam during the war in Indochina between 1952 and 1954, a period characterised by the decreasing French influence in the conflict, and a corresponding increasing influence of the United States, that provided financial and military aid in order to keep the region under the Western influence (Korte, 2009: 115). In contrast with the previous novels, in which journalists were in the background of the main plot, The Quiet American is the first novel to have one journalist as the main character and narrator of the story.

Fowler is a British correspondent working for The Times based in Saigon, Vietnam. It is important to underline that he covers a war in which his nation, Britain, is not involved, and this gives him an initial neutral position (Korte, 2009: 115). However, Greene uses the character to explore a fundamental ethical question for war correspondents:

“How long one can remain a mere observer of human suffering and human wrongs without being challenged to act?” (Korte, 2009: 115-116)

Exactly as Warren and Minty, at the beginning of the novel Fowler describes himself as neutral and objective, underlining more than one time that he does not wish to become éngagé in the conflict, either as a reporter or as a human being:

“‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeat. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action.” (Greene, 1955: 34)

The repetition of the negative verb “not involved” for three times in a paragraph indicates that Fowler has a strong will to remain neutral, but at the same time what follows makes the reader understand that the journalist needs to repeat this “mantra” to himself to make sure he stays faithful to his credo. The paragraph can, in fact, be read as a sort of prayer that Fowler directs to his God: disengagement. The enumeration of passive actions – “let them… let them … let them…” – represents his passive and inanimate attitude towards the war, and depicts him as a mechanical object – a recording device, that can be turned on and off at will (Hutton, 2007: 72) – rather than a human being.

His inertia can be read, to a certain extent, as a characteristic of Greene’s “shady operatives”. On the other hand, in contrast with Warren and Mitty’s inconsistent and fabricated journalism, “Fowler’s unflinching observations of war suggest an almost obsessive urge to report the unvarnished truth” (Lonsdale, 2016: 123):

“The bodies overlapped: one head, steal-grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck on the water like a buoy.” (Greene, 1955: 43-44)

However, after witnessing the anti-communist bombings in Place Garnier, Thomas Fowler remains shocked by the violence of the attack and its consequent casualties. And after discovering that his acquaintance Pyle had supported the bombings, he finally takes a side, abandoning his “non-involvement creed”, and turning Pyle over the Viet Minh – the communist faction that will finally murder him.

Scholars (see Hutton, 2007) have often read the conclusion of the plot in a positive way, presenting Thomas Fowler as an “existentialist hero”, whose life has been changed by the event of the bombings (Lonsdale, 2016: 124). As a result, Fowler comes across as a man who has finally become politically éngagé (Ibid.). Indeed, Fowler’s responsibility for Pyle’s death has been justified as a means of political expression (Ibid.).

Nonetheless, this interpretation is erroneous (Lonsdale, 2016: 124), or at least incomplete (White, 2008). When reading Fowler’s act, we must take into consideration that Pyle was not just a “political rival” to Fowler. Most importantly, he was the man who deprived Thomas Fowler of his lover, the Vietnamese Phuong. Were, then, the bombings an excuse to get rid of his love rival?

As White (2008: 33) explains, in The Quiet American Greene views eroticism as “the driving force behind political engagement”, thus people choose their ideology based on whom they love. In this case, political and sexual motives mix and influence one another. The bombings mark for Fowler a moment of transcendence wherein his love for Phuong becomes a greater love for the Vietnamese people: “Eros transforms into ethos.” (White, 2008: 34)

To sum up, Thomas Fowler can be considered as a character in transition from a period of pure objectivity and personal interests, the period of the “shady operatives”, to a period in which there is a greater valorisation of journalism. Fowler is a “shady operative” just in the first part of the novel, in which he acts as an inanimate and impartial recorder of facts.


This essay has analysed the extent to which Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, England Made Me and The Quiet American present the theme of the journalist as a “shady operative”. It has studied the three main journalists who appear in these novels, arguing that Mabel Warren and Ferdinand Mitty are the exact prototype of the “shady journalist”. The two characters are, in fact, part of Greene’s early novelistic period, which is characterised by the debate on the role of journalists and journalism in society. Thomas Fowler, in turn, represents the 1950s’ evolution of the “shady operative”. He is “shady” just in the sense of “objective” and “impartial”. In fact, he has lost the opportunism and the selfishness typical of Warren and Mitty and he also lacks their mediocre way of writing. He will later take his own position, based on either political or erotic motives. This position however, despite being influenced by personal motivations, becomes a way of campaigning for the greater good – the love for the Vietnamese people.

 

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