The Third Man by Graham Green

One thing I am learning about book blogging is that if you read a lot it becomes hard to post a review of everything you have read! So I am going to try and post brief discussions of some books rather than a full review or discussion of everything I read. I hope this will allow me time to delve more deeply into specific books and issues.

One of the books in my back log is the Graham Greene novella The Third Man. This story was originally commissioned as a screen play and was not released as a book until after the hugely successful movie starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Wells. The movie led to popular demand for the book.

If a novel is like a full sized painting then a novella is like a sketch. In this case, The Third Man is a brilliant sketch of post-war Austria in the gritty spy or crime thriller vein. At the center of the action is Harry Lime. Which is particularly interesting because Harry Lime is dead. Or at least that is what his friend Rollo Martins is told when he arrives in Vienna. Martins begins to seek out answers to Lime’s death and is told by the witness that it was a hit-and-run accident. But another witness swears their was another person on the scene at the time or a “Third Man.” Martins’ source, however, winds up dead. This sets in motion a cascading series of events which ratchet up the tension and speed up the pace; turning a mystery into a thriller.

What gives this short work its punch is the ability to create a feeling of reality; to make you sense the place without being there. Post-war Vienna and the politics of four power occupation provide a dark and gritty backdrop for the story. Greene’s style and tone are perfect. The writing creates an atmosphere that matches the contrasting aspects Vienna: poverty and riches, excitement and danger, tight control and black market freewheeling, despair and exhaltation. Green also creates a feeling that you are only reading part of the story. He gives the story a depth usually not possible in a book of this length. This feeling that there is more to the story, that the unfolding events are real, strengthens the tension and speeds up the pace. I haven’t seen the movie but I would guess that this is also one of its strengths. Good movies pull you in as if the story existed before the movie; they convince you that the world you are seeing is real not just created on a set.

Any fans of Greene’s will want to read this gem if they haven’t already, but it should also appeal to those who enjoy a tight thriller or fast paced mystery. Greene liked to call these type of books “entertainments” but the skill and artistry with which they unfold makes them hard to dismiss as mere spy thriller pulp. After all sketches can be just as beautiful as paintings in their own way.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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