In Cuba, shortly before the end of the Batista regime, James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is recruited for the Secret Intelligence Service by an ambitious agent. He begins to fabricate information in order to earn money for his daughter’s education, but soon finds himself in more dangerous waters than he expected.
This is a pretty good black comedy that makes fun of intelligence services and is genuinely hilarious, with the standout scene for me the one in which the agent who recruited Wormold notices that the secret weapon which is allegedly being built in a remote area in Cuba resembles parts of a vacuum cleaner, all while presenting the plans of the weapon to his boss. That one made me laugh out loud, and there are some others parts that are almost as absurdly funny, like a dinner at which the bad guys are trying to poison Wormold, and where he then holds a hilarious speech after thwarting the attempt. In general, stupidity and power-political considerations form the unholy alliance that blinds the agents at MI6 to Wormold’s shenanigans, and the way that the whole affair is swept under the rug in the aftermath is fitting and very amusing, too.
Nonetheless, I feel that the story fizzles out a little at the end, when everything stops being a game and more or less aligns with the grim realities of espionage and political manoeuvring. In some regards, the book comes across as outdated, and it also does not reflect the brutality of the Batista regime where public executions and torture were common occurrences. Captain Segura, who is in love with Wormold’s daughter and represents the regime, has a reputation as a heartless torturer and owns a cigarette case made out of human skin, but he nonetheless remains an abstract threat, even when he philosophises on those who are torturable and those who are not during a conversation with Wormold. Also, the characters in general are just not fleshed out enough to care much about their fate.
Greene is of course a very good writer who employs the driest of wits here, and he easily manages to make the intelligence services look utterly clueless in a sort of believable way, but overall, there is a distinct lack of depth in regard to the plot and the characters. The book is certainly a highly entertaining read, but I can’t help but think it should have been more.
CBR12 Bingo: Adaptation
The book was adapted into a film of the same name in 1959.