Book Review: The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

The Honorary Counsel published in 1973 is one of Graham Greene’s lesser know works. Greene is better known for his political thrillers such as the The Quiet American or Our Man in Havana.

In northern Argentina, near the border with Paraguay is a backwater little burg of no importance at all. In this little town live three men of English descent: Doctor Eduardo Plarr who is trying to escape his past and a mother who nags him constantly. His mother is a physical and emotional disaster, because Plarr’s father, a revolutionary in Paraguay walked out on her years ago.

The only two other “English” related inhabitants of the town are Sir Humphries, a bad tempered old man eking out a living as an English teacher and Charley Fortnum, a bitter, divorced alcoholic who is the honorary counsel of the title of the book. Charley is a completely shady character, although paid no money and having no real power, he still manages to use his title to enrich himself. He imports new British cars every two years, duty free, and then sells them on the black market.

The three often meet at the only restaurant in town. Run by a Hungarian refugee, it serves a terrible Goulash for every meal. Although they would seem to have little in common they three men have formed a rough and ready friendship.

On day in the middle of this bucolic scene a band of revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the Argentine government show up. Their elusive leader is called El Tigre (The Tiger). Two of the rebels went to school with Plarr and they seek out the doctor. Aquino the poet, had been captured and tortured in Paraguay before escaping to Argentina and Leon once a Catholic priest, who left the Church and joined the rebels because of its relationship with the dictatorship in Paraguay. The two have come get Plarr’s help in for their plan is to kidnap the United States Ambassador. They plan to exchange the Ambassador for 12 political prisoners held in Paraguay, which include Eduardo’s father. With Plarr’s help they kidnap the man they think is the ambassador, but by mistake they have kidnapped Charley Fortnum instead, who as Honorary Consul, was escorting the Ambassador.

The revolutionaries still continue the plan by trying to exchange Charley for the prisoners. Doctor Plarr is dragged deeper into the plot when Fortnum is shot in the leg trying to escape and he is brought to treat the wounded hostage and becomes a hostage himself. Now Plarr must free them both if he can.

This book is not a conventional thriller, but is more along the lines of a character study of men who have reached the ends of their tethers. The book is well written, compelling and well worth a read.

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