From the archives: The Human Factor

I am really tired and lack the energy to post content tonight so I thought I would be lazy and post some old material from my other blog. Just think of these reviews as bonus material, after all they are new to you (unless you are a dedicated reader and read them at the old site). Without further justification here is a brief review of Graham Green’s the Human Factor.


I have not read a high percentage of the so called “100 Greatest Novels.” Having stumbled on a bunch of Everyman’s Library editions of some of said novels, however, I decided to purchase and begin reading more classic works of literature.

Not wanting to dive in too deep to start I picked an author on the list but a title that was not. I also picked a genre – espionage – that was easy to read. The result was The Human Factor by Graham Greene. I had only a few basic notions about Greene prior to reading him: he was in some way Catholic; he was seen as anti-America; and that he wrote about the Cold War from a Gray rather than black and white perspective (in the way of Len Deighton and John LeCare). This was not necessarily a problem as I read fiction for the enjoyment not for its political or religious clarity.

The espionage in The Human Factor is from behind a desk; and it is done by old men far removed from the likes of James Bond. But what really lies behind the book is the question of loyalty. The main character is Maurice Castle, the head of the Africa station for a branch of British intelligence. The story centers around the way his life changes as the department seeks to plug a leak. On the surface Castle seems to have it all together – to live a normal life with his wife and son. But as the story develops we realize that Castle is not as simple a character as he seems and the pressures begin to unravel his carefully planned life. In trying to do good – and in trying to repay a good – Castle finds himself betraying those around him and being separated from the one he loves the most.

Graham gets in digs at America and South Africa throughout and a general moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union is present as well. Graham seems distraught about Cold War Africa and views communist activity in the region as the better of two evils. But this does not detract much from the story. Graham gives the secondary characters just enough color and personality to make the story work while the focus remains on Castle. Graham’s writing is sparse and neat rather than languid or flowery and this helps the story stay focused and taunt. The story begins slowly but picks up pace and tension as we learn about Castle through the events around him and through his own thoughts and feelings. Graham slowly reveals the gulf between Castle’s outside actions and his internal conflictions. As the tension builds you wonder when the dam will break and the conflict will spill out into the open with serious consequences. There are no great mysteries to unravel so much as pressures to be relieved. Graham does add a few twists at the end, however, to keep you off guard and seeking answers.

All in all, The Human Factor is a skilful and thoughtful exploration of loyalty and secrecy. I found the book engaging and subtle. Graham successfully communicates the ambiguities and pressures involved in living a secret life of divided loyalties. I recommend it to anyone interested in a darker and grayer Cold War played out more in the mind and personalities of old men than in the jet set activities of young super agents.

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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2 Comments

  • Kevin,

    G. Sherbell sent me his book as well. I gave it a brief review about a week or so ago (and mostly came to the same conclusion you did.) But I’ve also come to the conclusion that I don’t really have a responsibility to review books that are sent to me. Especially I don’t have a responsibility to help sell the book, although neither do I want to bury it. Perhaps best to mention it at all only if it really interests you or illustrates some other important issue?