Sonewhere in shadowy post-war Vienna, where everyone has something to sell on the black market, lurks "the third man," who witnessed the murder of Harry Lime. The police don't care to investigate, but novelist Holly Martins is haunted by the death of his friend. He searches for the killer in this adaptation of the Graham Greene novel.
I like the feeling of suspense and mystery in a war-damaged city - it's not at all a typical Greene-novel - the characters are not fully fleshed out. It's told from the perspective of the police inspector, who narrates the story which is confusing at times, when the main character is Rollo.
One thing that is interesting about this book and others of its genre (like Chandler’s Marlowe series) is the total lack of swearing. There is sex in this book and crime and violence, but they all seem to be somehow more deliberate and more serious because of how they are portrayed. It’s not violence for its sake or sex for its own sake. They’re included because they’re vital to the plot. The witness, who is killed because he told Martins that he saw a third man, is killed because he could damage the plot. Its more interesting that way and the whole story seems more serious because of it.
A slim book, this noir story of espionage was written by Greene in order to give him a feel for his characters before writing the script for the movie of the same name. There are some changes between the two, but if you enjoyed the movie (which is why I bought this book), you'll enjoy reading what's going on inside Martins head as he slinks around looking for a killer.
It's a fast-paced and short reading and shows how in the aftermath of WWII people were creative to make money even though others had to die for it.
Unfortunately, neither of these is contained in this book. Oh well, we must all try to forge ahead somehow. And this book makes that forging ahead an easy thing to do. It is a fast, entertaining read which tells the story of Rollo Martins’ arrival in post-war Vienna to visit his friend Harry Lime who, when Rollo arrives, is dead. There follows the tale of Rollo striving to solve the murder local authorities have declared an accident.
If you have seen the movie, then you have seen part of the book. But only part of it. This is actually a book that was never meant to be a book. In fact, as Graham Greene describes it, the story is really just a treatment meant to be turned into a movie. So you will see differences. (For example, no cuckoo clock quote.) But that should not be a deterrent. I am not normally a reader of “thrillers” (or whatever genre this book might be considered), so I cannot expound on the relative merit of this book to others of its kind. But I can expound on the fact that this is a good story you will most likely enjoy.
It starts off in February, in Vienna. I didn't realize that Vienna was divided into sections for English, American, French and Russian. It is a postwar, crime story. Harry Lime is dead and Rollo Martin, Western story writer, has come to Vienna to see his friend in time to attend the funeral.
Graham Greene tells us in the beginning of the story that the movie is better, that he wrote the story to help guide him in helping with the film production. The film was produced by Carol Reed. It stars Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. The atmospheric use of black-and-white expressionist cinematography by Robert Krasker, with harsh lighting and distorted "Dutch angle" camera technique, is a major feature of The Third Man. Combined with the iconic theme music, seedy locations and acclaimed performances from the cast, the style evokes the atmosphere of an exhausted, cynical, post-war Vienna at the start of the Cold War. (Very apt description by Wikipedia).
Some points from the book. The main character besides Harry Lime the dead guy is Rollo Martin. Rollo is impetuous and Martin is thoughtful so Rollo Martin is a some of each. Martin has learned that he shouldn't mix his drinks (Rollo tends to have several women on the string) and Martin has decided that he shouldn't mix his drinks anymore. Other parts that I come to expect include the occasional Catholic reference.
Achievements: Guardian 1000 (Crime), 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 Edition),
Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time - UK Crime Writers' Association (72). The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time Mystery Writers of America (48).
It was a quick read. Rating is a bit off as the film has corrupted my impression of the book. 4.2
Written as a basis for a screen play it lacks depth. Green explains the reason for the book in the preface.
"The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen."
"To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on. The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another."
I had no empathy for any of the characters.
It did however make me want to view the film again.
"I don't read them," Martins said. (17-8)
Even though this is probably a novella, I knew I wanted to teach it in my class on The Modern Novel. Like many novels I am obsessed with, it is itself about novels: the protagonist is Rollo Martins, a writer of paperback westerns who discovers that actual conflicts between good and evil are not so much like the ones he writes about every day. As a result, there's a lot of meditation here on knowledge: how do we know things and where does our knowledge come from? I see a lot of resonance between The Third Man and the later Justine; I guess it's no coincidence I read them in the same course as an undergraduate, or I taught them together myself.
Martins's emotional knowledge conflicts with the well-researched factual knowledge of Cab Calloway. Martins says, "I don't suppose anyone knows Harry [Lime] the way I do," causing Calloway to meditate, "I thought of the thick file of agents' reports in my office, each claiming the same thing" (27). Martins means 'as well as I do,' but there's a second sense you could take it in: that Martins's way of knowing Lime is distinct from all other ways of knowing Lime, and two pages later, Calloway thinks, "It was odd how like the Lime he knew was to the Lime I knew: it was only that he looked at Lime's image from a different angle or in a different light" (29). Martins is always meeting people whose views of Lime conflict with his, and he doesn't know how to deal with this. Lime's girlfriend Anna suggests to Martins, "There are always so many things one doesn’t know about a person, even a person one loves—good things, bad things. We have to leave plenty of room for them.… [S]top making people in your image. Harry was real. He wasn’t just your hero and my lover. He was Harry. He was in a racket. He did bad things. What about it? He was the man we knew.… [A] man doesn’t alter because you find out more about him. He’s still the same man" (114-15).
Some would say that the detective story—especially in its quintessential, Sherlock Holmes style—suggests that truth is a findable, achievable, objective phenomenon, but that’s not what’s up in The Third Man: all truth is mediated, through time, through personality, and we can never have access to the whole thing. Anna argues this is okay, but Martins seems to believe it’s something to be mourned. And, indeed, Martins doesn't solve his epistemological dilemma by reconciling or even acknowledging his way of knowing was unsophisticated; rather, he kills Lime, allowing him to return to his old paperback-style worldview. Lime threatened it, but Lime has been destroyed.
A subplot concerns Crabbin, a literary snob who accidentally invites Martins (whose pen name is "Buck Dexter") to speak to his literary society instead of the literary novelist he meant to bring (Benjamin Dexter). It's a source of good jokes, but it means more; Calloway closes the novel with a reflection on Crabbin, of all people: "Poor Crabbin. Poor all of us when you come to think of it" (157). No one is ever who you think they are. The story is mediated through Calloway to make sure we get this, to make sure we understand that the world is vastly more complicated than we can ever understand. Most of the characters in The Third Man, like Crabbin and Anna, know that they do not have the world solved, that any way of understanding life is only a fiction-- except for the one who writes fiction.
What a strange world unknown to most of us lies under our feet. (148)
I have a bit of a history with this story. I speak fluent German and studied abroad in college in Vienna, where I absolutely fell in love with the city and have wonderful memories associated with it. While on our trip, the professors organizing the study abroad took us to (I believe, if memory/Google serves me correctly) the Burg Kino to watch the film version of The Third Man, after which we went on a tour of the Vienna sewer system. This is just to say that, going into this book, I knew both the story and the city in which it's set decently well, and my view of the book's merits (as such) is probably not the most objective one.
Greene's preface states that "The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen." To be completely honest, I do think that this story is better seen than read. The edition of the book that I read was an updated ebook celebrating the release of a restored version of the film, and it was really interesting in that it had short video clips from the movie interspersed with the text, as well as the entire screenplay as an appendix. The clips were great for evoking the mood of the film, but in all honesty, the writing itself felt pretty sparse, and I found this book a bit less suspenseful/dramatic than how I remember the film. I'm glad I read it, as it was fun to return to this world and this city, but I think this might be a rare occasion where I'd recommend the film over the book (or at least definitely in addition to the book).