What a great book. I hadn't read it in ten years, and had forgotten most of the details; the plot itself is revealed in the first few pages, so no matter that I could remember it.
It involves, of course, a vacuum salesman -- who becomes a spy, sort of. He is recruited by British Intelligence, and makes money by "recruiting" imaginary agents and sending them on expensive fictional missions. Brillliant, farcical and more illuminating and entertaining than a hundred Ludlum-type "thrillers."
The amazing thing about Greene is his ability, in the context of his stories, to capture the essential humanity of his characters and place it in writing, and to convey deeper meanings and truths which underly their movements and plot.
Greene's tale might seem preposterous -- but it isn't. Before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese employed an agent who clearly fabricated reports, and proposed means of sending secret signals from a boat he didn't own, and a house he leased to naval officers. In truth, intelligence agencies have suffered legions of failures and even the best of them made egregious mistakes with similarly disastrous consequences. Greene's book is not merely an amusing tale of a few people, it is an allegory and expose of the fallacies of secret organizations, and a biting commentary about the extremes to which they can go to protect their own -- rather than the public's -- interest. Greene, to be sure, must have witnessed some of the bungling, and underlying his farce is a warning and a commentary.