Forgotten Book: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

The popular image of a spy is a James Bond like figure – handsome, dashing, a man of the world who can get any number of dames into bed (and earn bonus points when the villain’s moll too falls under his charm). Extremely quick to draw his gun, he can also put away enormous amount of alcohol without suffering from any hangover. And, of course, he always comes up trumps.

But this picture is extremely false as Graham Greene demonstrates in his novel The Human Factor. Greene’s secret agents are just ordinary men going about their task. Most of them have problems establishing an emotional connect with other people. Forced to lead secretive lives, unable to discuss office matters, adept at concealing their true thoughts, they eventually become strangers to their own families. One of the most moving parts of the novel is a wedding ceremony in which an agent realises that since his daughter is now getting married, he will not even enjoy those brief visits by her when they would meet over a meal at some restaurant.

Besides the melancholic strain that is the hallmark of a Greene novel, this novel is extremely problematic as it poses some very uncomfortable questions regarding loyalty and treachery and what is right and what is wrong.

Here is a conversation between the protagonist Maurice Castle and Cornelius Muller, a sadist South-African apartheid supporter:

“I’m quite sure there is an after-life,” Cornelius Muller said.

“You are? Doesn’t the idea frighten you a bit.’

“Why should it? I’ve always tried to do my duty.”

“But those little tactical atomic weapons of yours. Think of all the blacks who will die before you do and be there waiting for you.”

“Terrorists,” Muller said. “I don’t expect to meet them again.”

“I don’t mean the guerrillas. I mean all the families in the infected area. Children, girls, the old grannies.”

“I expect they’ll have their own kind of heaven.” Muller said.

“Apartheid in heaven.”

“Oh, I know you are laughing at me. But I don’t suppose they’d enjoy our sort of heaven, do you? Anyway I leave all that to the theologians. You didn’t exactly spare the children in Hamburg, did you?” [157]

And later, Castle tries to shake a man’s faith in communism:

“Have you never wavered a bit? I mean Stalin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia?”

“I saw enough in Russia when I was a boy – and in England too with the Depression when I came home – to inoculate me against little things like that.”


“If you will forgive me saying so, sir, your conscience is rather selective. I could say to you – Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima. Didn’t they shake your faith a bit in what you call democracy?…”

“That was war.”

“My people have been at war since 1917.”

I don’t enjoy espionage stories because of their inherent bias – the English/ American spy comes out smelling of roses while the German/ Russian/ Japanese officer is usually dastardly, often a sadist, and loses face in the end: An enemy had to remain a caricature if he was to be kept at a safe distance: an enemy should never come alive.

But in this novel, Greene makes everybody alive so that you don’t know who is your enemy and who is your friend. Castle’s wife, Sarah, an African, finds herself desolate one evening: For no reason she could put a name to she thought of the great grey-green pyramids of earth which surrounded Johannesburg – even Muller had spoken of their colour in the evening, and she felt closer to Muller, the enemy, the racialist, than to Mrs. Castle. She would have exchanged this Sussex town with its liberal inhabitants who treated her with such kindly courtesy even for Soweto. Courtesy could be a barrier more than a blow. [239]

Greene’s one time mentor was Kim Philby,  and according to Wikipedia, Greene wanted  to explore the moral ambiguities raised by Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union. Indeed, he does so admirably. Highly recommended.


First Line: CASTLE, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’ Street, not far from the office.

Title: The Human Factor
Author: Graham Greene
Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1980
First Published: 1978
Source: H.M Library [F.G.R 64]
Pages: 265
Trivia: The book was made into a movie in 1979, directed by Otto Preminger using a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. It is also the 63rd book in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries of all time.

Other books read of the same author: It’s a Battlefield, The End of the Affair, Loser Takes All, The Lawless Roads, The Ministry of Fear, The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American, Third Man.


Entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books @ Pattinase.

10 thoughts on “Forgotten Book: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

  1. I do remember liking this book a lot, but then I am a huge Greene fan – it is said that he based it on what happened to Kim Philby, who he had known before he defected. Castle is certainly much more sympathetic. Thanks for the review and the reminder of a book and I author I greatly admire.


  2. Neer, I love espionage fiction but, to be honest, I didn't know Greene had written any. I'll check this out as I'm intrigued by your review and also because I want to see how Greene tackles the subject.


  3. I agree, Neeru, that it's the human face of espionage that adds to the interest in a spy novel. And as you say, a good espionage novel reminds the reader that almost nothing in the spy world is an absolute. Including right or wrong.


  4. I have only read one book by Greene (and I don't remember the name). I want to read any of his novels related to espionage or crime. Someday. Thanks for pointing this one out. I would love to read it and watch the movie.


  5. I've only read two Graham Greene books: THE END OF THE AFFAIR and MINISTRY OF FEAR and I know I should have read more. This one sounds intriguing, Neer. I'm putting it on my list.


  6. Sergio, Greene is a great favourite of mine too. I still remember how moved I was after reading his book The Power and the Glory. It was my introduction to him and I was so glad to have discovered such a wonderful writer.Philby's shadow falls on this book and especially in a telling conversation where two British agents discuss whether they have any moral authority to label somebody traitor.


  7. Margot, you are absolutely right. The most moving parts of the novel were the inhumanity of the system vs the emotions of the people involved.


  8. I want to read any of his novels related to espionage or crime. Someday. :)Tracy if we only had enough time to read all the books….


  9. Yvette, Greene is one of my favourite writers and his novels: POWER AND THE GLORY and THE QUIET AMERICAN are on the list of my all-time favourites. I can't recommend him enough.Looking forward to reading your views on this one.


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