It was typical of Dr Hasslebacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still used the prefix Mr – friendship preceded with the slowness and assurance of a careful diagnosis. On Wormwold’s death-bed, when Dr Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.
‘Wormwold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts’ The opening line of the blurb on the back of Our Man in Havana, probably helped me pick it above the other Greene’s available on the shelf. I followed up travels with my aunt with another one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’ .
When Wormwold is inexplicably offered a regular stipend to do some surveillance he reluctantly agrees, persuaded in no small part by his daughter, Milly, who despite spending his money in buckets, tries to economise by giving up cereals and only eating potatoes. Once established as agent 59200/5, Wormwold’s guilt in taking the money, coupled with the fact that he needs the money, leads him to start hiring non-existent sub agents, and filing fictitious reports back to London, including at one point, plans for a nuclear base drawn from vacuum cleaner parts. However Greene slowly unwinds Wormworld, placing him in more danger as his fictitious reports start coming true and ‘they’ start out to get him.
In and out of Havana, there is a wonderful cast of characters. Dr Hasslebacher, his ever reliable drinking buddy and good friend, is a classic ex pat abroad. Hawthorne, the operative who hires Wormwold is contrasted superbly with the Chief back in London, in a hilarious view at the secret service, although Greene manages to never let the whole thing descend into farce. Milly, the north of Wormwold’s compass, who he respects and adores but who baffles and who causes him to worry as she is chased after by the cat like Captain Segura. Flown in from the typing pool, Beatrice, comes in and pierces through his weary and worn exterior to provides a practical love interest as well as a caring, reliable assistant.
As the scheming deepens you can’t help but worry for Wormwold, and by extension Milly, the deaths signify an ever closing net that has been bought on by imaginative reports that are seriously considered and acted upon in London along with the local authorities putting a squeeze on him, finally forcing him to return to London after having his compromised ‘post’ closed down.
Even during the intrigue, violence and death (of which there isn’t really much) you are never far from a wry chuckle. Wormwold reminded me of Henry Pulling, from Travels with my Aunt, the most mundane and normal person you can imagine, flailing, but not quite helpless as his life takes an unexpected turn, and his full self is forced out of it’s shell, and by doing so, Greene has crafted a brilliantly comical novel.
‘Vacuum cleaner again. Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.’
‘Is that desirable, sir?’
‘Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.’