A Gun for Sale
By Graham Greene
First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann 1936
Reviewed by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
The cast of characters in A Gun for Sale, particularly the villain and the detective, are quite definitely professionals.
A. A. Milne would not have approved. The murder mysteries of his liking as a ‘not uncritical’ reader, must be peopled with amateurs, as he enunciates with wit and warmth in the introduction to The Red House, his own successful foray into this genre of writing (the first book on crime fiction reviewed on the Ambi Blog). There is, certainly, an active amateur in A Gun for Sale who occupies centre-stage. But she is a woman, a professional actress of the pantomime and chorus variety, and her presence and initiative in the novel generates much feeling in both the villain and the professional. Milne would prefer not to have diversions into romance in a murder mystery, to get on with the action and leave the hand-holding for later, so to speak.
In A Gun for Sale, the action – which is fast and furious – is inseparable from the hand-holding to a large extent. It is caused by the initially unwitting, and later unstoppable, alliance of the woman with the main protagonists. And as the story unfolds, the professional villain and policeman seem to lapse into the mistakes and the mannerisms of amateurs, while the amateur who practically stumbles upon the gun, often displays the nerve and insouciance of the professional. In the end, we are never quite certain who to categorise as the villain or the detective; or whether the lines between romance and revenge should run parallel or cross-over.
Indeed, there seems little in common between the worlds of A Gun for Sale and The Red House Mystery, though they essentially deal with events in the same island, and were published barely 14 years apart. England in Greene’s eyes is a bleak, brutal place. The smooth bowling greens and distinctive homes of Milne’s suburban landscape are replaced in Greene’s rendering with crowded seedy lodgings, stretches of industrial waste and speculative housing estates whose ‘…houses represented something worse than the meanness of poverty, the meanness of the spirit’.
It is a world whose social structures have already broken down, where the sceptre of war is both recent and imminent, and people are scared and scarred mentally and physically. In The Intimate Enemy, Ashis Nandy writes about the effect of colonisation on the coloniser. The violence, contempt or exploitation he practices on a different people become part of his nature, and are expressed on his own people. In A Gun for Sale, the industrializing colonising experience has caught up with the English. Theirs is a world in shades of black, from the name and disposition of the villain, John Raven, to what the future seems to hold for the rest of his country-men.
Relationships, landscapes, businesses, are all fractured, contrived, or cold. The pillars of society are as flawed and frayed as the outcasts. Detectives, doctors, mayors, business-heads, either surrender to or bask in brutality, some more than momentarily. Individuals – whether policemen, convicts, or chorus-dancers – are all as dispensable and distinct as cogs in the wheel of the great industrial machine, of which Raven and his family represent the dispensable poor, who still have a use in the dirty business of capitalism. It was perhaps his proximity to and perception of such a world that made Greene so much admire the gently ironic writing of R. K. Narayan, which brought alive Malgudi and its completely different landscape humorously knitted together with a measured pace and scope of life.
The country of Greene’s observation and imagination is nearer today, and frighteningly familiar to anyone in the modern world. It seems as if England of the 1940s lives on in the rest of the world, moved by the machinations of the mighty, in different yet similar ways. Yet, despite the pervasive air of remorselessness and ruthlessness that he conjures up and the graphic images of violence and gore, Greene writes with great evocation and economy. The course of events in the novel takes place over barely a week, Christmas week. The action encapsulated in this brief period is swift. From the starting moments of the murder on the continent, the murderer – ‘the gun’ – ranges across London and all over a midland town in the 182 pages of the novel.
The plot is unlike most ‘murder mysteries’ in that the identity of the murderer is revealed right from the beginning. The great question in this book, which even the murderer is unaware of, is why has he been asked to do the murder? And so in A Gun for Sale, the reader, like the amateur ‘detective’, becomes an unlikely accomplice to the murderer in his breathless journey to stalk and discover the larger villain. The murderer is himself being chased by the police in a disquieting hunt within a hunt, whose visual equivalent is an Escher drawing.
The chase ends in the discovery and the realisation that there is no end. With the extermination of the old, newer villains rise up, like the demons in Indian mythology whose blood falls to the ground – only to generate new demons. This is not a cosy book that you can curl up with and happily forget. Yet, despite all this frightening strangle-hold of larger malignant forces, and the ineffectuality of the individual that Greene seems to believe in, he concedes that some individuals can change some things, if only in a limited way. There is respite and hope, if only momentary. Which is why, despite its bleakness and professional menace, the novel has moments of tenderness and spirit that stay with you after you finish it. And though, in Greene’s own classification the book falls in the genre of entertainment, it rises above it.
 p. 40