Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2022

The Human Factor (1978), by Graham Greene

October 2nd is the anniversary of the birth of Graham Greene (1904-1991) so this was a good time to read one of his few novels that I hadn’t already read.

As it says on the dustjacket of The Human Factor, spy agencies are usually the stuff of thrillers, but…

…Graham Greene has made it the background of a perceptive and compassionate novel.  For an officer of the service, espionage can only be a part of life.  Life is also the private relation to which he returns in the evening, the dangerous human factor of the title.

The ‘human factor’ that drives this novel set during the Cold War, is loneliness.  Almost all the men of Greene’s intelligence service ‘looking after’ postcolonial Africa in the seventies, are lonely people.  Castle is happily married to Sarah, who knows a little about his work, but he hates being evasive about his work with his son Sam.  Colonel Daintry’s marriage failed, and his relationship with his about-to-be-married daughter is fraught because of the lies he has to tell.  Davis, who fancies himself as a man about town and went into the secret service with James Bond fantasies, is bored and fed up because it’s hard to chat up the girls when you can’t impress them with your job.  And Doctor Percival, who’s had an integrity bypass, is an enigma.

The story begins with a discussion about a leak in the department.  It’s not that the information matters much — not much in Africa matters much, apparently, except that it’s important not to upset mining interests which concern the US and UK economies, i.e. gold, diamonds and oil. As C explains to Castle:

‘Have you ever wondered. Castle, what would happen in the West if South African gold mines were closed by a racial war? And a losing war, perhaps, as in Vietnam. Before the politicians have agreed on a substitute for gold.  Russia as the chief source. It would be a bit more complicated than the petrol crisis.  And the diamond mines…De Beers are more important than General Motors.  Diamonds don’t age like cars. There are even more serious aspects than gold and diamonds, there’s uranium.

(Younger readers may need reminding that Thatcher opposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa. This article claims she opposed white rule in South Africa as a sin against economic liberalism rather than a crime against humanity.  Well, maybe.)

Still, in Greene’s novel, what really matters is the scandal, because after Philby, Burgess and McLean the secret services can’t afford another public embarrassment.  Their strategy, led but not implemented by the enigmatic ‘C’, is to identify the culprit, and get rid of him discreetly.

The leak is traced to two possible culprits in ‘C6’ division.  One is Maurice Castle, now an ageing bureaucrat looking forward to a quiet retirement, but who had to make a quick getaway from his post in South Africa because his wife Sarah is black and they were infringing the apartheid race laws.  He had help back then from Carson to get out across the border — at a time when most of the South African activists running the escape routes were linked to communism. The other man under suspicion is the younger man, Arthur Davis, who doesn’t take security seriously enough.  He gets caught taking a file out of the office to read it over lunch; his superiors detect the ‘appointment at the dentist’ which was really a lunch date with Cynthia from the office; and he plays flippant spy games with Castle’s son.

Well, the wrong man is ‘disposed of’ and the novel then deals with duplicitous behaviour, duty, guilt and entrapment by circumstances.

And as always with a novel by Greene, there is a melancholy tone, and signalling that it won’t end well.

…Castle lay awake a long time.  He had at such moments an enormous temptation to trust her, to tell her everything, much as a man who has had a passing affair with a woman, an affair which is finished, wants suddenly to trust his wife with the whole sad history—to explain once and for all the unexplained silences, the small deceptions, the worries they haven’t been able to share, and in the same way as that other man he came to the conclusion, ‘Why worry her when it’s all over?’ for he really believed, if only for a while, that it was over. (p.194)

I know that this novel was made into a film, because I stumbled on the same copy as mine, for sale at AbeBooks for $551 because it is signed by Otto Preminger (Director) and Richard Attenborough (in the lead as Colonel John Daintry) and Nicol Williamson, who played Maurice Castle. Apparently there’s also an on-set photograph of the two men and a letter from the film production company notifying residents of dates and times shooting in the Birkhamstead area. Wouldn’t that be a nice copy to have!

Author: Graham Greene
Title: The Human Factor
Jacket design by Michael Harvey
Publisher: Book Club Associates, The Bodley Head, 1978 (First edition)
ISBN: none, hbk, 339 pages, later assigned ISBN: 9780370300436 (0370300432)
Source, personal library, $2.00, OpShopFind.


  1. Good to see that Graham Greene is not forgotten.


  2. Love Greene may read one later I’ve most of his books


    • I’ve still got a couple I haven’t read, something to look forward to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Greene, but this is one of the ones I haven’t read yet. As you say, something to look forward to!!


  4. This is one of my favorite Greene novels – although I must admit I haven’t read them all – and, as you say, the tone is distinctly melancholy without being overdone.


    • The thing about Greene is, he has such a profound understanding of human behaviour, and one the disappointing things about that recent bio I read, is that it did not explain how he came to be so discerning.


  5. I just discovered (thanks to Wikipedia) that he suffered from bipolar disorder, and that he wrote to his future wife, “Unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material.” Maybe that is part of the explanation.


    • Maybe. But he must have been out and about a lot and met all sorts of people…


  6. This wasn’t one of my favourite Greene novels but I still enjoyed his thoughtful portrayal of Daintry and Castle. I know pay close attention to the use by dates on any of my nut supplies as a result of this book!


    • LOL It did make me wonder how many of the nut allergies we hear about are due to carelessness with them!


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