Book Review

the heart of the matter by Graham Greene

1948 novel about a sad catholic with too many girlfriends

cw: suicide, racism, religion

It is a fact universally acknowledged that most English people are cunts, and, similarly, that extreme, dogmatic, religious belief is one of the most destructive forces on Earth, so it is almost surprising that religion in the UK is on the wane (see recent census results)!

Dogma is frequently used to justify acts of hatred, and for a nation full of people who love to hate (well, can’t stop doing hate, many English people are incapable of love (it’s too French, too queer, too lefty)), wildly embracing dogma’s freeing excuse to make life less liveable for the self and those around the self, seems like a no-brainer.

Alas, it isn’t. But in this novel, it is.

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I’ve been reading a lot this week, as the sudden drop in temperature means that I haven’t done any travel by bicycle and it has become, again, too cold to type little posts while walking around and now that I (temporarily, I’m sure) have a phone with a functioning touchscreen, I’m wary to return to voice-to-text again until I need to. (I’m perfectly capable of creating blog posts that seem like bleak stream of consciousness with my thumbtips thank you very much.)

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The Heart of the Matter is a 1948 Graham Greene novel that I hadn’t previously read, though having read many Greene books over the last decade and a half, I could probably be convinced that I had read it, if someone bothered trying.

I realise that sounds like a criticism, but I don’t necessarily see it as that. The Heart of the Matter delivers all of the numerous things (both positive and negative) one expects to find in a Graham Greene novel, and in many ways this kinda feels like the ultimate pinnacle of Greene* styling, an Ur-Greene, if “Ur” means ultimate pinnacle, which I’m not certain it does. Maybe I mean “uber”. I’m not so hot on Germanic prefixes.

  • Graham Greene checklist:
  • Catholics
  • Alcohol
  • Adultery
  • Private education
  • “Exotic” locales
  • Racism
  • Posh English people
  • Violence (treated with a strange and conspicuous dissociation)
  • Espionage
  • Regret
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Hetero relationships where the man is decades older than the woman
  • Death
  • Sex where it’s implied the woman didn’t come but she was expecting not to
  • [I can add in your suggestions from the comments!]

The novel is about Henry “Ticki” Scobie, a Catholic colonial police officer (boooo) working in a fictionalised West African colony during the Second World War. He and his wife (who he loves and hates, and who has no friends (they both have no friends)) are greiving the death of their nine year old child a decade or so ago, a death from which neither – and their marriage – have recovered.

In order to send his wife somewhere more interesting (in her opinion – Ticki likes it there), he borrows money from a local gangster (who keeps his hands very clean, keeps no paper records of his “legitimate businesses” so, in the era prior to RICO and RICO-like laws, is basically untouchable) who then uses this as a lever to manipulate the police officer into arresting, or at least irritating, his rival gangsters. There is a young diplomatic attache (i.e. a spy) who is queer-coded (he is a spy, he likes poetry, etc) and hates Ticki, so is constantly looking for evidence of the police officer fucking up. Which Ticki does, spectacularly, by taking a 19 year old recently-widowed (white, so it’s not frowned upon) woman as his lover almost instantly once his wife has been packed off on her dirty money-funded move to Johannesburg.

But Scobie is a Catholic, so is riddled with guilt.

When rumours of his affaire du coeur reach his wife down in South Africa, she returns, putting Scobie in a terrible predicament where his non-ethical non-monogamy must be discussed. He decides to kill himself, even tho as a Catholic that’s an unforgivable sin, so he constructs a plan to fake a heart attack and take an overdose of 1940s heart medication (which was probably some “good shit”, ammaright???), which he thinks – like taking the loan from the gangster, like having an affair – no one will notice, even tho he’s almost as indiscreet as I am.

People notice, of course they do, just as they noticed the sins and the indiscretions that Scobie tormented himself about while he was alive, but they just don’t care.

This is the real danger, the real damage, of religion: it can be used to irrevocably convince people that everything, anything, matters, more than it actually does.

Only Scobie’s wife cared about his “soul” as much as he did.

It is his sense of guilt, not the consequences of his actions, that destroys him.

The Heart of the Matter is a sad, beautiful novel, and Ticki’s inevitable self destruction is beautifully and powerfully evoked. The limits and problems of dogmatic faith are depicted in detail, and though it’s difficult to know if Greene intended to write a book [that can be read] as critically as the text ends up being (i.e. Ticki would have been fine had he not believed in the tenets of religion (confession, repentance, absolution, transubstantiation etc)) to a non-Catholic (though “culturally Catholic”) reader, the novel provides a firm depiction of why belief doesn’t pay, while showing that crime (without guilt), definitely does.


Yes, The Heart of the Matter is racist (tho narratively it does convey that being racist (well, being comparatively more racist than the narrator and the “sympathetic” protagonists) is bad); & yes, the women aren’t really characters with any humanity, so, yes, this is far away from being a fresh, progressive, timeless novel… but it isn’t without power, it isn’t without empathy, or humanity or pathos, albeit only for the middle aged heterosexual white colonial police officer who feels sad because he had a nice little affair.

Is it the best Graham Greene book I’ve read?

No, it’s not (that would be The Power and the Glory), but is it the most Graham Greene book I’ve read? I think it is, and that’s no bad thing. (Unlike dogmatic religious faith, which is a bad thing.)


*As I rap in ‘Pass the Dostoevsky on the Left-Hand Side’ (lyrics printed in hip-hop-o-crit, available now from Broken Sleep Books), “When I say Greene, I mean Graham”

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