Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2016

The Third Man, by Graham Greene, narrated by Martin Jarvis

the-third-man-001Quite by accident, I seem to have knocked off another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. (664 to go, 2006 Edition!) Until I consulted my Goodreads shelves to mark that I’d finished it, I did not know that Graham Greene’s The Third Man was even listed.  Indeed, I’ve been listening to it en route to visit my father without realising that it’s a fascinating work in the way that it creates a kind of European noir.  Not ever having read anything by Chandler (Raymond, presumably) or Hammett (Hammett who?) I did not know that

[their] classic hard-boiled novels…have universal significance in their depiction of a world where space is defined by urbanisation, and where corruption springs up as a result of the modern city. (2006 Edition, p.457)

What 1001 Books says is that Greene has transferred these distinctly American concepts to Vienna…

evoking an urban space fractured by both war and development, but one that also has an immutable weight of history lacking in its American counterparts.  (ibid.)

vienna-beethovens-graveI have been to Vienna but I did not recognise this same city in The Third Man.  Vienna was the first city that I visited in Europe, about 15 years ago when the budget first allowed for international European travel.  I remember arriving in the Graben and taking a very early morning walk until our hotel was ready for business or failing that, a warming coffee could be had from a café. (Alas, arriving in an unwelcoming dawn is a common phenomenon for long-haul passengers from Australia).  Used to the clean lines of Melbourne’s modern buildings and its elegant Victorian Gold Rush edifices, I was taken aback by the florid Baroque architecture, and since we didn’t subsequently venture much beyond the city centre except to take the tram to visit Beethoven’s grave at the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s main cemetery in the southeast, I don’t have any memory of any other kind of architecture.  (This trip was only three weeks after my first ankle operation, so I did well to be able to hobble around at all, really).  We were only there for three days and I was jetlagged for most of that so I wasn’t really aware that Vienna had suffered extensive damage during WW2 and that much of what we saw was restoration.

cafe-maria-theresiaGraham Greene brings post-war Vienna to life.  Rollo Martins, a second-rate writer of westerns, arrives in the undignified ruins of the war-damaged city to visit his old school-friend and childhood hero Harry Lime.  Except for five British pounds which Rollo can’t exchange due to currency restrictions, he has no money and is expecting Lime to put him up and give him a job.   But Vienna is in the grip of Allied Occupation by the Four Powers (France, USA, Britain and Russia) and although much of the bomb damage is shrouded under heavy snow, infrastructure is a shambles.  The shopping strip exists only at eye level, repaired only to the first floor.  And in marked contrast to our delighted discovery of the truly decadent Café Maria Theresia at Café Hawelka, Rollo can’t get anything but ersatz coffee and the tea is undrinkable.  Green’s unsympathetic portrayal of the city might perhaps be in rather poor taste if it were not for Britain’s own experience of the bombing of civilians at the hands of the Germans and the subsequent muddle of post-war reconstruction and austerity.

Rollo’s plans fall apart when he discovers that he has arrived in the wake of Lime’s unexpected death and he’s only just in time for a hasty funeral.

Fortunately for Rollo, because the surname of his nom-de-plume Buck Dexter is shared with a serious writer of the same name, he is mistaken for the real Benjamin Dexter and fêted by a naïve stout middle-aged young man from the British Council called Crabbins, who puts him up in a hotel and lends him some money.  In exchange, Rollo has to deliver a lecture for the city’s literati, and with Rollo’s impersonation Greene pokes a bit of fun at modernist writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  But before long, in the course of attending the funeral, Rollo discovers that there is something a bit suss about Lime’s death, and he determines to find out more.

The story is narrated by a world-weary British policeman called Calloway, who knows what Rollo does not: that Lime has (like almost everyone else in the beleaguered city) been involved in a racket, and a very nasty racket at that.  However, Rollo as an amateur has two advantages that a policeman has not: he doesn’t have to work set hours, and he can cover more ground in a day than Calloway’s men can.  Also, he can be reckless…

That recklessness makes for well-orchestrated suspense which apparently made The Third Man a terrific movie, though in this case, the movie preceded the novella because Greene wrote the screenplay first.  1001 Books makes much of that too, suggesting that

the interlinking … actually furthers the story’s central feature, the idea of opposing things being forced together: the old and the new, the “serious” and the “entertaining”, the novel and the film, Europe and America.  The breaking down of boundaries between these concepts is a signal feature of  twentieth century literature, and The Third Man remains a powerful example of how this can be made into something other than a disaster to lament. (ibid, p 457).

I think this is a load of old codswallop, if only because the “serious” and the “entertaining” had been together in literature ever since Dickens…

This edition is superbly narrated by Martin Jarvis (who is memorable for his portrayal of Jon in the 1967 BBC adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, starring Eric Porter, Susan Hampshire and Kenneth More. You can still buy this version and it is a million times better than the recent truly horrible 2002 version which I could not bear to watch after the first atrocious half hour).  I enjoyed this beautifully crafted thriller so much that I listened to it twice:).

Author: Graham Greene
Title: The Third Man
Narrated by Martin Jarvis
Publisher: Clipper Audio, CSA, 1988
Source: Kingston Library


This audiobook edition looks as if it’s long out of print, but perhaps Audible has a copy.  But you can get a print edition at Fishpond: “The Third Man (Twentieth Century Classics S.)



  1. I hope my library can find this one for me. I’ve watched the movie, but many years ago. (Dashiell Hammett, writer of ‘hard boiled’ crime, Maltese Falcon etc).


    • Ha, I knew one of my readers would know who he was.
      Do you have something like Z-portal in WA? It’s a search engine for all the libraries in Victoria, and if you find something you want in the Wimmera or Gippsland, you can request it on inter-library loan, and usually get it for free or sometimes for the token cost of the postage. (I’ve never paid more than $7).


      • We can search on the WA State Library database – all local libraries are just sub-sets.


        • I hope you find it, it’s good to listen to on the road:)


  2. I haven’t read the book, but The third man is a wonderful movie. I’d watch it again. It has a great musical theme too. I would read the book (or listen to the audiobook, actually) if time allowed. I’ve read very little Greene, but I’ve seen several movies based on his stories. He’s one of those writers I mean to read more of one day!

    BTW Have you ever read Shirley Hazard’s book about her friendship with him, Greene on Capri?


    • I haven’t read it, but I thought I had that book by Hazzard, but my Goodreads records tell me I don’t. I shall have to do a shelf check!


      • Don’t you have a shelf list!? Of course, I do ;-)


        • I do have it. I found it waiting its turn on my NF TBR, but I had forgotten to add it and also People in Glass Houses to GR…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read and loved The Third Man, so the thought of Martin Jarvis reading it is very appealing – he has such a wonderful voice! :)


    • Another one to look out for is Michael Kitchen reading The Heart of the Matter. It is brilliant…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. this is one of the few Greene books I’ve yet to read though have seen the film a few times. Martin Jarvis is a superb narrator and i had the good fortune to see him do a master class on how to do this. Wonderful


    • A master class?! That would be fantastic…


  5. […] survey of the books I’ve read (and re-read sometimes as audiobooks): The Third Man (1935, see my review), A Gun for Sale (1936, see my review); Brighton Rock (1938); The Confidential Agent (1939, see my […]


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