Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Another novel (like The Great Gatsby earlier this summer) that I managed to come to without having read any other work by the author or having seen the film version.
James Wormold is a single parent running a vacuum cleaner shop in Havana, Cuba, in the last days of the Batista regime. With trade gradually failing, he desperately needs money to grant his 17-year-old daughter Milly's wishes and ensure that she has a future beyond the island.
Approached by a pushy Englishman called Hawthorne, Wormold finds himself recruited by the British secret service ? "our man in Havana" ? with funds for himself and promises of more for any agents that he himself recruits.
But Wormold has no contacts and no knowledge or interest of what is happening in the country. Finally called upon to start justifying his new income, he starts concocting reports for London.
And that's where the trouble really starts.
Graham Greene himself joined the Secret Intelligence Service (which became MI6) in 1941, and the novel is largely a satire on intelligence services in general and British intelligence in particular.
There's an element of tragedy in the farce ? that of the innocent dying as Wormold's creative reports take on a life of their own ? but there's plenty of humour that leaves one smiling. And ultimately the biggest laugh is the denouement ? how the British intelligence services decide to deal with the knowledge that they've been conned.
It's funny and wry, and it's interesting that, with the benefit of internal experience, Greene seems to view the intelligence services as part of the problem rather than the solution. Very entertaining and with a nice bite to it.
? The idea of invented reports from a spy turned up again in John le Carr?'s 1996 novel The Tailor of Panama, where Harry Pendel wants to keep the money flowing from British intelligence.