There are spoilers for the end of the book in this review.
I can’t believe I made it to 43 without having read Graham Greene before now. I’m glad I chose this one because it’s really kind of .. charming. About ten pages in I thought “I bet this one was made into a movie and I bet it was an Ealing with Alec Guinness.” Two out of three! (It wasn’t Ealing).
It takes place in Cuba, in a time before the Cuban missile crisis began. James Wormold is a middle-aged British citizen. A single father trying to sell vacuum cleaners. His Spanish seems to be rudimentary at best, his business is struggling (the new “Atomic” vacuum isn’t selling well, since the name is putting a lot of people off). His daughter is on the verge of turning seventeen, attends an American-run Catholic school, desperately wants a horse for her birthday, and constantly spends more than her allowance will allow, putting things on her father’s credit. Wormold’s shop assistant needs a raise.
Wormold worries how he’s going to keep everything going when out of the blue a man named Hawthorne asks him if he’d like to become a spy for Britain — their “Man in Havana”. Tempted by the money, Wormold accepts.
Wormold knows nothing about spying. Despite having lived in Havana for over a decade, he knows very little about Cuba and the locals still treat him like a tourist, so he can’t recruit anyone as a sub-agent. After a few months the home office starts to wonder why he hasn’t sent them any reports. Hawthorne assures them that Wormold’s just being very cautious about creating his local network, and then reminds him that if headquarters doesn’t start getting reports Wormold’s budget will be cut off.
Spurred into action, Wormold starts inventing contacts. He pulls names from the local country club roster, the newspaper, overheard conversations… soon he has a “team” working for him and Wormold’s weekends are spent reading through the newspapers, writing fake reports for his various staff members, filling out phony expense reports, and throwing in details from gossip magazines. At one point he provides a sketch of some vacuum cleaner parts with a tiny drawing of a human standing next to them “for scale”.
The home office loves his information and presses him for more. They assign him a secretary and a communications operator to help him. And that’s when things start to go awry. His secretary is supposed to take over the task of meeting with the local agents and compiling the reports for him, so he knows the game has nearly run its course.
His plan to “kill off” his agents takes a strange turn when the people he invented start turning up dead. Someone’s figured out his secret life as a spy, but not the secret that his reports are all fiction.
It ends with the truth coming out and Wormold unexpectedly getting knighted — the Government would rather not have everyone know they fell for a con and some vacuum cleaner schematics.