This was the second of Mrs Offence’s birthday selections. It’s one of those annotated books for (in this case German) students of English. One interesting feature is the footnotes, which I found give a flavour of the text on their own.
I’d somehow managed to never read a Graham Greene, but obviously I’ve seen the Carol Reed classic shadows-and-zithers film of The Third Man. Apparently Greene wrote the novel purely as part of the process of writing the script, and in fact the film was released in 1949; the book followed a year later. ‘The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen,’ he says in his foreword.
Rollo Martins, an author of pulp westerns, is invited to Vienna by his school friend (and boyhood hero) Harry Lime. He arrives just in time to attend Lime’s funeral.
It is just after the second world war, and the ‘smashed, dreary city of Vienna’ is divided into four occupied zones. Co-operation between Russia and the US, UK and France is breaking down. Corruption is rife. The story is narrated by Calloway, an English policeman assigned to Vienna, who had been investigating Lime for his part in a racket – ‘He was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city’ – and was about to arrest him when he was hit by a car.
Martins and Calloway argue – in fact the two men are at loggerheads for much of the book: ‘I could invent better policemen than you in my bath.’ Martins cannot accept Lime’s involvement in corruption, nor that his death was accidental. His investigation into the traffic accident leads him to believe a mysterious third man was at the scene.
The narrative structure is interesting. Calloway’s overview of the situation and greater local knowledge allow him to place Martins in a broader context and relate incidents that Martins does not see. He is both an omniscient and slightly avuncular narrator, and a protagonist, a skilled manipulator of people. He gives Martins the chance to investigate because he knows he may get further than the official police. He seems to like the author but also thinks he is an idiot and has little compunction about sending him into danger. But these were violent times.
‘I saw the papers sticking in his pocket and I pulled them out. He made a grab at his gun, and I punched his face – I felt really mean at doing so, but it’s the conduct they expect from an angry officer…’
This is Calloway dealing with a Russian colleague!
Inevitably I read this book through the filter of the film, and although Greene talks about some minor differences in the introduction, they do seem minor. The inevitable question is: If you have seen the film, is it worth reading the book?
‘He walked rapidly away. He didn’t bother to see whether he was being followed, to check up on the shadow. But passing by the end of the street, he happened to turn, and there just around the corner, pressed against a wall to escape notice, was a thick stocky figure…
He called sharply, “Do you want anything?” and there was no reply. He called again with the irascibility of drink, “Answer, can’t you,” and an answer came, for a window curtain was drawn petulantly back by some sleeper he had awakened, and the light fell straight across the narrow street and lit up the features of Harry Lime.’
See what I mean? You all saw Orson Welles, admit it.
My opinion: This is a real treat of a book, subtle and atmospheric and with a real flavour of desperation and deprivation. I’d definitely recommend it, even if you have seen the film recently.
But if you can, hire a zither player to stand in the street while you read…
Final destination: A keeper