[With the exception of Brighton Rock] I’ve never read a book by Graham Greene I didn’t consider worth tucking away for at least one future reading. I encountered The Heart of the Matter too late in life to feel any confidence I’ll live long enough to enjoy this one again, but that’s the result of the aging process, not the book. It will be there with the others still waiting if I kick before I get around to it again.
Set in an imaginary West African British colony early during WWII, The Heart of the Matter is vaguely reminiscent of Maugham’s Ashenden series in some ways, Of Human Bondage, in others, with a touch of Heart of Darkness thrown in for seasoning. Scobie, the aging, passed-over-for-promotion Deputy Commissioner of Police, is the primary character and the only European character in the book who loves Africa and wants nothing more than to remain there his entire life.
However, his wife, Louise, hates it, bludgeons him with his lack of upward mobility, harnesses his kindness and determination to avoid causing her pain even though there’s no love left between them, and tortures him with guilt. She frequently declares tearfully he doesn’t love her and draws his assurances, “Of course I love you.”
The native population loves his unique respect and fairness in the execution of his duties whenever the individuals are not involved in crime. When they are involved they despise him for identical reasons. The Indian and Syrian merchants and Neutral Nation Shipping and Smuggling concerns mostly just would rather he could be bribed or tricked into seeming to be vulnerable to bribes.
Through this tightening stricture of War, Colonial idiosyncracies, needy personal relationships, and intrigue Greene threads Scobie’s strait-jacketed life along a complex and interesting plot worthy of far more well-known and durable writers.
I’d suggest readers who’ve only been exposed to Brighton Rock might find themselves surprised to discover in The Heart of the Matter that Greene is a writer they want more of. Same as so many other of Greene’s works.