I’ve read quite a few Greene novels over the years but this is almost certainly the best. It is about small time gangsters in Brighton, a smallish city on the south coast of England, set in the 1930s, when it was written.
It is very bleak – beautifully so, in fact. He creates the sleazy, shifting morality of the underworld very well indeed. But the book is really about guilt, especially Catholic guilt. Greene converted to Catholicism as an adult and many of his books feature the moral puzzles that religion creates.
In this book, the shallow and violent protagonist, Pinkie, tries to bring the stories he recalls from his Catholic faith to bear on his actions but their shallowness is revealed by their failure either to make him moderate his behaviour or to give him comfort. He is especially hung up about sex and is a very unappealing misogynist, because of his fear of intimacy and the responsibilities that come with emotional investment.
Occasionally, the theological bits of the book feel a bit shoe-horned in, perhaps stretching credulity. But it is a book of primary colours and emotions, even if the backdrop of Brighton is brilliantly described in its bleakness and superficiality.
A very good book that stands the test of passing time very well.