Graham Greene is perhaps best known for his political novels set in exotic locales such as Cuba in Our Man in Havana, or Vietnam in The Quiet American. In It’s a Battlefield Greene explores London between the two World Wars.
The year is 1934 and there is a labor strike in Central London that turns into a riot. Just as a police officer is about to strike a woman, the woman’s husband defends her with his pocket knife and ends up killed the police officer. The man is named Jim Drover and he is just a working class guy trying to make a living driving a London bus.
It seems that Drover is a Communist and he is soon sentenced to death by hanging for his crime. An aging Assistant Police Commissioner, Mr. Conder, recently returned to London from Imperial Service, has been assigned by the Minister for Justice to get a feel for the public’s mood about the crime and the hanging. This assignment is not about appeals to justice, rather it is election times and the Minister wants to know how the hanging will affect his chances to retain his office.
The cast of characters surrounding Drover and the case are varied. There is Drover’s wife, Milly, who he saved by killing the police. Milly’s promiscuous sister, Kay, who causes problems for her long suffering sister. Drover’s brother Conrad, who is in love will Milly and so has some mixed feeling about his brother impending death. The local Communist boss who is trying to make political hay from the situation and a reporter, Mr. Surrogate, who has spun so many tales that he sometimes forgets which ones are real and which are lies.
This being a Greene novel, there is not much in the way of hope for any of these characters, they are all deeply flawed and heading to bad outcomes. Oddly, Jim Drover does not appear in the book at all except as he is referred to by the other characters. The true main point of view is Conrad’s. However, Greene shifts points of view almost at random. There are chapters which gives the readers the point of view of other people as well.
This is one of Greene’s lesser known, but better written, novels. Greene’s compassion and empathy for the characters, no matter how flawed, is on display. This is a serious work and Greene’s prose is equal to the task of showing the reader that somber outlook. This book is well worth a read.