Our man in Havana

by Graham Greene

Hardcover, 1958




New York : Viking Press, 1958.


James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts, is short on money and has a teenage daughter with expensive tastes. When he's approached by the MI-6 to become an agent, he reluctantly takes the lucrative job and soon begins fabricating wild reports, inventing bogus recruits, and dreaming up secret military constructions out of vacuum cleaner designs. But his deceptions soon start becoming disturbingly real.

Media reviews

10 of the Greatest Cold War Spy Novels “Possibly the greatest writer of prose to devote so much of his time to the theme of espionage, Greene was himself briefly an intelligence agent. His WW 2 experiences in London, dealing with a disinformation-dealing agent in Portugal, provided the impetus for this satirical and prescient look at the spy game. Wormhold, a British vacuum salesman in Havana during the Batista regime, becomes a spy for the MI6 to better provide for his daughter (he’s a single parent). The reports Wormhold concocts involve imaginary agents, whose salaries he collects. But his lively reports begin to greatly interest London, who send in reinforcements, initiating a deadly black comedy of errors, making the hapless agent a Soviet target. In an instance of perfect casting, Alec Guinness portrayed Wormhold in the 1959 film version.”
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Toward the end, as we go into a business luncheon at which Wormold is due to die, things begin to warm, and it seems we will get what we came for. But when, for a climax, a dog wanders into the dining room, laps the whisky Wormold spilled, dies, and thus gives warning of poison, things simply fall apart. I never saw a dog drink hard liquor, and don't believe this one did. However, I do believe he could read, and had had a look at the script, to know what he should do. All in all, little as a Greene fan likes to say it, this book misses, and in a thoroughly heartbreaking way, for it misses needlessly where it might have rung the bell.
For once, Greene's Roman Catholic hang-ups, which make novels such as The End of the Affair so desolate, are kept in check - even joked about. "Hail Mary, quite contrary", prays convent-educated Milly, aged four. Nine years later she sets fire to a small American boy called Thomas Earl Parkman Junior because he's a Protestant - "and if there was going to be a persecution, Catholics could always beat Protestants at that game."

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Greene's version of a "light comedy" features a depressed and abject man ("Wormold") who sells vacuum cleaners in Havana and comes to defraud MI6 with extensive false stories about enemy actions on the island gathered through a network of fake agents in order to buy the love of his daughter, who is so deeply wrapped in a protective cloak of Catholicism and materialism since her mother left as to be inhuman and unreachable. Wormold's reports are a little too convincing for some on the other side, and he inadvertently sparks a kind of alternative or cod–Cuban Missile Crisis, leading him to directly or indirectly cause the deaths of the traumatized and emotionally damaged man they send to assassinate him, his world-weary and surely marked-for-annihilation-from-the-beginning German friend and counsellor Hasselbacher, an innocent dude named Raúl, and an innocent dog named Max, and leading Wormold himself to flee the country and turn up back in London in the first flushes of love with his young and resourceful secretary, in a prestigious desk job and on the list for an OBE. His daughter does not marry the Batista chief of police with the wallet made of human skin, but both of them are represented as perhaps "no better than they should be." It's not funny! And when it tries to be it's sort of haw-haw farce stuff or heavy-handed gallows drollery, and it blows. But it's still a really enjoyable book, as Wormold stumbles from mishap to self-induced mishap and yet we stay in his corner, because he seems just "principled and cynical" (maybe the most affecting part of the book, weirdly, was where he remembers being bullied at school and never quite being able to catch up, never being swift enough to bully back and earn his place among the braying boys, and standing there like a post instead and that setting the course for his whole life) and used to loving people who don't particuarly love him back, and willing to defraud the spymasters pursuant to that decency and love. It's a somewhat Bartlebyesque story of the decency that eschews, that refuses to do evil things to its fellow man--and when Wormold is finally spurred into action it is for reasons that reflect how quixotic and flimsy that decency can be too.… (more)
LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
This absurdist espionage novel combines droll cynicism with sweet romanticism in a deliciously hair-raising manner. In many respects, it's an anti-spy story, more interested in the rich development of characters through dramatic irony, rather than cultivating the thrills of mystery and danger. The hero of the tale sets himself against the machinations of states and powers, while trying to defend his real loyalties, the foremost being to his teenage daughter.

Greene's book is a speedy read, partly because so much of it is dialogue. The talk is full of clever ambiguities, and I found it easy to imagine as a well-constructed play for the stage. Evidently, the 1959 film adaptation with Alec Guiness in the lead was successful. It's clearly a classic of Cold War English "intelligence" fiction, one that would pair nicely with Deighton's Ipcress File, a slightly later and much darker tale, but one of comparable length and pacing.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
I could spend an hour trying to describe what the book is about, but I don't have the energy and would rather spend some of that time reading besides; so I'm basing myself on a portion of the wikipedia's summary, which I found very good (relatively spoiler-free).

This black comedy is set in Havana between 1952 and 1959, during the Batista regime. James Wormold, a middle-aged vacuum cleaner retailer is approached by Hawthorne, who recruits him to work for the British secret service. Wormold lives with his sixteen going on seventeen year-old, beautiful and devoutly Catholic daughter, Milly. Wormold business isn't going well enough to finance Milly's extravagances, so he accepts the offer, but he has no information to send London, so he starts faking his reports, invents a fictitious network of agents, and also sends sketches of vacuum cleaner parts, claiming they represent a secret military installation being built in the mountains. In London, nobody suspects anything, except Hawthorne so they decide he needs a bigger staff and send Wormold a secretary, Beatrice Severn, along with a radio assistant, which is when real complications ensue.

This is the first time that I've regretted choosing the audio version instead of a physical book. The narrator was very good, but the producers ought to be shot. Someone decided that it would be really amusing to dump loud Salsa music sequences between sections to add an additional Cuban flavour. Dozen of times. I really enjoyed the first Graham Greene book I read, The Tenth Man, and found him to be a deeply sensitive and insightful writer; so I've learned my lesson and will take the time to actually read his books from now on. Of course, these distractions seriously curtailed my enjoyment of what is really quite a funny plot. I would probably have given the book four stars, but would rate the overall production 1.5 star at most, considering I was ready to give up the first time I heard that blasted music. I finally came to what I think is a reasonable compromise. I'll revise my rating as needed if and when I do read the actual book.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
This novel, which Greene calls one of his 'entertainments', was chosen for one of my f2f book groups, and then one of us ended up in the hospital and asked me to read it to him. I think slowing down to read a book aloud is of great benefit, although I doubt my amateur attempt was as easy to understand as a professional's would have been.

Greene sets this deceptively light comedy, by turns funny and frightening, in Havana just before the last revolution. Rebels are in the hills; spies of all countries want to know everything about them, and each other. Jim Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is recruited in the most casual way by British Secret Service; he is bewildered by the job but enticed by the money, having a daughter with expensive tastes and great manipulative skills. Pressed to report, he decides to become creative, with increasingly woeful results. People who don't even know they are involved in Wormold's fantasy tradecraft find themselves in harm's way; the not-so-secret Cuban police are everywhere, and finally our man in Havana has to become wise in a hurry to save his own skin.

But I wouldn't call this a caper. Some of the musings are too serious for that. Underneath the 'entertainment', Greene is pondering the big questions of faith, purpose, meaning, and loyalty, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with a snarl.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Graham Greene seemed to enjoy setting traps for his characters. I don't suppose that that's too uncommon among thriller writers, but Greene was also a good enough writer to make his characters into real, likable people rather than mere plot-driven puppets. "Our Man in Havana" is, by any measure, a good book, but I found watching poor Jim Wormold get painted into a corner by his own opportunistic untruths to be a distinctly uncomfortable experience. Still, there are other reasons to read this one. Greene seems to be using the flashy, fast-talking Hawthorne to poke fun at the cloak-and-dagger genre, and his portrayal of young MIlly Wormold's Catholicism is wonderfully open to interpretation. The novel's real attraction might be its setting, Cuba on the edge of Castro's revolution. It's hard not to read about Cuba without getting a hint of somebody's nostalgia, but the Havana that Greene describes here seems impossibly far away, separated, as it is, from the contemporary reader by both time and politics. Greene's describes it here as an infinitely corrupt place whose amusements are dimmed by the main character's sadness and attachment to his own past. "Our Man in Havana" has an ending right out of a movie, but it's still recommended to readers who like sad tales from sunny places.… (more)
LibraryThing member richardderus
Graceless, gormless Wormold, a British sales agent for an American vacuum cleaner company in barely pre-Revolution Havana, has a problem. His adolescent daughter Milly, a manipulative and materialistic minx, spends well beyond his paltry earnings in her quest to ensnare the Red Vulture. That's a person, not a bird, one Captain Segura, who is the police torturer and possessor of a cigarette case covered in human skin. (An assertion Milly makes but Segura denies.) Wormold is fighting a losing battle, trying to sell a home appliance that's less useful than a broom in a country that's teetering on the brink of collapse. The power goes off too often to make it a sensible purchase, despite Wormold's trips to Cienfuegos (the Cuban Navy's main port) and points east (where the Revolutionary Army is strongest) to drum up business. What he *does* drum up is the interest of the state security apparatus. You see, Wormold is a British spy.

Good heavens, not a real one! He was worrying his way through a daily daiquiri with his German friend Dr. Hasselbacher when a Brit called Hawthorne inveigles him into the bathroom. That sounds, well, louche is I suppose the least offensive term, but it's what happens so have a séance and take it up with Greene if it's too sordid for you. What Hawthorne wants, I suppose, is a reason to visit Havana from his base in more-staid Kingston, Jamaica. (In 1958, when the book takes place, Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.) It also doesn't hurt his standing with MI6 to have a sub-agent in uneasy, revolution-bound Cuba. Wormold gets the nod, though to be honest I don't see a single reason why...oh wait...Milly the Minx is spending Daddy into bankruptcy (her initial salvo when we meet her is to demand a horse to go with the saddle she's just bought) so of course Wormold is in need of funds. Money always talks to men with debts.

From that match-to-fuse moment, a farce of atomic power begins to whirl from one end of the world to the other. Some sage adivce given to Wormold by WWI veteran Hasselbacher, to make his reports to London out of whole cloth on the principle that no one can disprove a lie, leads to Wormold's entire life being turned upside down. As he hurries from fire to fire atop an ever-increasing reactor fire of anxiety-into-terror, Wormold's lies begin to morph into the truth. Hawthorne's sub-agent becomes London's Agent of the Month, so to speak, as the wildly inventive reports he files bear fruit. As the book was written long before the events of the Missile Crisis, it really seems as though Greene was prescient: He has Wormold invent secret bases where mysterious equipment (drawings attached to his report were actually of a scaled-up vacuum cleaner) was being assembled. MI6 wants photos, of course; Raul the pilot (an invented sub-agent of Wormold's) suddenly dies in a crash. This is evidence that Wormold is onto something, obviously.

More and more of Wormold's fabulous reports are borne out as his "contacts" begin to suffer for his lies. Wormold himself comes in for assassination by the Other Side! He averts his fate, being a devout coward, and then has to do the worst-imaginable thing to escape his fate. (Read it, you'll see.) In the end, Greene can't design a better fate for Wormold and Milly than the one he puts on the page. It's perfect, it flows naturally from what's happened in the story, and it's hilarious. The humor of this book, like most of Greene's work, is dark to black. Be warned that there is little of this sixty-year-old send-up of National Security run amok that isn't viewable as critical of the State from 2019's perspective as well. Is that sad or inevitable, or perhaps both?

My favorite moment in the story comes when Wormold, busily inventing actions for his fictitious sub-agents to get up to, muses on the creative process:
Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge.
Beautifully said, Author Greene. Just beautiful. And so very true.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Greene's classic spy comedy offers an entertaining comment on the farcial business of foreign intelligence and spycraft. So much information is publicly available that it surpasses clandestine information in quantity and quality. Secrecy does not improve information quality. It makes it vulnerable to all kinds of curveballs.

The author also had a keen nose for a rotten regime, setting the story in Cuba just before the Cuban revolution revealed the fragility of Fulgencio Batista's regime. Greene sets up a wonderful cast of protagonist types whose predictable behavior still doesn't prematurely reveal the plot. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
Mr. Wormold is British. He lives in Cuba with his daughter. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is not very successful. Life is dull. Then Mr. Wormold becomes 'our man in Cuba'. Recruited by the British Secret Service because he was in the right bar at the right time (or was it the wrong bar at the wrong time?), Wormold now has to adjust to the life as a spy on foreign ground. Not knowing anything about the intelligence business he fakes reports to his superiors in London, invents subagents and makes a fair living doing this. But then his invented agents start being involved in 'accidents' and his fake reports begin to have an effect on reality.

Among the reasons I like this book is the great set of characters. There is the vacuum cleaner salesman turned spy Wormold, his daughter Milly who is especially Catholic when in need of a favor, the German Dr Hasselbacher who still finds the time to see a few patients while drinking the rest of the day, a brutal Cuban police captain who divides people into a 'torturable' and a 'non-torturable' class, and secretary Beatrice who falls in love with Wormold on first sight. This makes for a cast for a humorously written Cuban spy story that manages to entertain as well as to criticize. Greene succeeds in taking his readers to 1958 Havana and experience Cuba, the spy business and one small character finding his way in the big intelligence arena. Greene probably gave one of the best fitting descriptions of Our Man in Havana himself when he said that it "was potentially a very funny plot which if it comes off will make a footnote to history."

Our Man in Havana is a great novel. It made we want to know more about Wormold, read more stories about him. It made me want to go to Havana. I love it when a book does that to me. 4.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member themulhern
Graham Greene's entertainments are very much alike, just like Dick Francis mystery novels. But they are so much better than Dick Francis novels.

This entertainment is particularly enjoyable. It contains all the usual Greene tropes assembled in the most appealing manner. The characters are thin and tremendously enjoyable. The dialogue is drily witty and occasionally hilarious. There are tragic deaths and miserable lives. Minor characters are, inevitably, killed but not for the usual Hollywood reasons. Rather their deaths are utterly tragic and symbolic of the casualties of global conflict. There are cynical policemen and alcoholics of every profession. As in "The Ministry of Fear" and "The Third Man" the protagonist's minor actions set into motion important and inevitably tragic events. He gets the girl, but soberly, and in a mad, arbitrary, and merciless world.

Jeremy Northam's reading is excellent.
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LibraryThing member MusicMom41
When I was in high school if I finished my homework late at night I sometimes would watch the late night movie on the channel that showed the oldies. One movie that always stayed in my mind as a favorite was Our Man in Havana with Alec Guinness and Burl Ives. I didn’t really remember the plot, just that it was funny and in some ways bizarre. When I saw the book last February at our annual used book sale I knew I would enjoy reading it and I was right. The story is about an English single father with a teenage daughter living in Cuba in the late 1950s, shortly before Castro takes over. He owns an unsuccessful vacuum cleaner sales store and is concerned about making ends meet and being able to give his daughter an education. He is approached by another Englishman and reluctantly lets himself get talked into becoming a very reluctant spy. What follows is a satiric dark comedy that is wonderfully humorous but leaves you with something to think about. Highly recommended… (more)
LibraryThing member Dorritt
Graham Greene obviously had fun writing this wonderfully satiric send-up of the espionage business. I smiled through most of the book, and often laughed aloud ... and yet the story never veers so far into farce that the reader is able to entirely forget the very real events in Russia and Cuba that made espionage a necessary evil during this perilous moment in world history.

Because this IS Graham Greene, the character development is a step above the norm: the main character, Wormold, is delightfully unexpected; his daughter is engagingly manipulative; and even the corrupt chief of police, a man who carries around a cigarette case fashioned from human skin, turns out to be something more than the cartoon characiture of a bad guy that he might have become in a less gifted author's hands. And it's not only espionage that falls victim to Greene's wit: he also throws satiric darts at such deserving targets as Catholicism, Americans, Cuban culture, and do-gooder international organizations, to name a few.

In summary, thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoys their humor with a dose of intellectualism. I've read it twice already, and can imagine picking it up again sometime in the future!
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LibraryThing member cameling
Not your typical spy thriller but it surely is very entertaining. A British vacuum cleaner salesman is recruited by MI6 to be their agent in Cuba. He's no James Bond but accepts the position so he can buy a horse and country club membership for his precocious teenage daughter.

Not having any interest in being a secret agent, he makes up fictitious agents and reports which are sent to London. Before long he becomes boldly creative with his reports so much so that London thinks Cuba is on the cusps of a revolutionary war. They send additional staff to aid their star agent and thereafter things start to spin out of control. When some people are killed, he realizes this is no longer a game ans tries to come clean .....but someone wants to kill him. Oh and the Chief of Police in Havana, a man known to carry a coin purse made out the skin of a man he tortured, wants to marry his daughter.

One of the best satirical comedies I've read in a long time. Bravo!
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LibraryThing member nrclibn
Dryly humorous, and a wonderfully evocative outsider's view of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
LibraryThing member cdeuker
Marvelous fiction. An Englishman, selling vacuum cleaners in Havana, becomes a "spy" in order to make a little extra cash for his high-rent daughter's upkeep. He invents sub-agents, but those spying on the spy don't realize this. The sub-agents come to life . . . and death . . . and the breezy comedy turns serious.
Marred by an epilogue that is preachy in a way the book is not.… (more)
LibraryThing member kbergfeld
It took a while to get going, but once the plot started to play out, I had problems putting it down. I think it is a matter of getting past the British humor style of writing, as well as the set-up. Delightful fun in the summer on the roof with a hard cider.
LibraryThing member grheault
Very funny, cold war story, about a vaccum cleaner repairman who needs money and spies who need something to spy upon. Well written, fast moving, great characters, happy ending. Companion to Catch 22.
LibraryThing member charbutton
An enjoyable re-read. Wormold, a British ex-pat living in Havana, runs a branch of a vacuum cleaner supplier, has drinks every day with his only friend Dr Hasselbacher and worries that he doesn't have the money to give his attractive young daughter the future she deserves. One day a British gentleman appears in Havana and offers Wormold the chance to become a spy for Her Majesty's Government. What follows is farcical, absurd and very funny as Wormold becomes embroiled in what turns out to be a very dangerous situation.

The close connections between the British Secret Service and writers of fiction in real life (Ian Fleming for example) sharpen the satire and make me think that Wormold's experiences might not be that far away from the reality of the spying network in the mid-20th century!

Wormold himself is an interesting character, a passive man who just seems to take everything that's thrown at him and ends up in a much better position than before. But there's also a lot of unknowns about him. How did he end up in Cuba? What happened between him and his wife to make her run off?
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
A highly entertaining spy, but no spy, story that takes place in Cuba at the end of the fifties, right before Castro's revolution. I didn't know Greene's playful side, everything I read before was very heavy, and whereas this is not devoid of good and biting insights, it's much more entertaining than anything I've read before.

An excellent preface by Christopher Hitchens was worth reading on its own.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
Take James Bond and mix him with Inspector Clouseau (shaken, not stirred) and you'll have a pretty close estimation of protagonist Jim Wormold. In fact, you'll have a close approximation of the story's feel as well. It takes the danger, some violence and the wit of James Bond and mixes in some lighter almost slapstick humor a la Inspector Clouseau.

This was the first book I've read by Greene and if this is any indication of how enjoyable the rest of his work is, it won't be the last.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
Equal parts funny and tragic, a vacuum salesman gets drafted into MI-6 in Cuba. Pre-Castro Cuba.
LibraryThing member tulstig
A fairly gentle 'romp' through the world of 'pretend' espionage. Set and written quite a few years back it is hardly a hard-hitting novel, but I don't think that was ever intended. A few giggles, but not belly laughs -but for all this an amusing read.
LibraryThing member etimme
Very funny and well written book. The easy wit of Greene's Wormold reminded me a lot of Christopher Moore's protagonist from "Dirty Job" - or perhaps I should say that Moore reminds me of Greene. In any case, I enjoyed both the humor of Greene's dialogue and the absurdity of the plot while not missing the attention spent on the vibrancy of the Cuban backdrop.… (more)
LibraryThing member StevenABird
Classic cold war spy satire. A quick, light, fun yet very rewarding, witty and enlightening book.
LibraryThing member HairyGromwell
I came to Graham Greene through the back door, so to speak. I had no preconceptions, and I had never read any of his darker works before I stumbled upon his travelogue, Journey Without Maps - an account of his trip to Liberia in the early days of that nation's history. It was enjoyable and thoughtful. When I happened upon Our Man in Havana, I had little knowledge of that book, but decided to read it based on the strength of his travelogue. What a stroke of luck! It was very enjoyable. Given our recent troubles with the "intelligence" provided by our secret services, this is still a relevant work. Greene, who worked for the British secret service, himself, satirizes the sorry state of their information-gathering in this work. A British-born vacuum cleaner living in Cuba is struggling to provide for a daughter with very expensive tastes when a curious offer comes his way - he is asked to consider becoming a secret agent. Knowing that he will never access to the information they require, he decides to invent the reports, as well as recruited informers, and use the funds he receives to satisfy his daughter's needs and desires. All goes well until the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur.
Greene raises a number of interesting questions at the end, including the sense in fighting for something as uninspiring as an economic system. Not only are the methods of the MI6 questioned, but also their mid-20th century motivations.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Pretty dry, but funny. Exactly what Hawthorne expects of Wormold is a mystery. Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman and the idea that he has the connections or the clout to bring in confidential secrets is preposterous. The perfect set up. Beautifully done. Wormold has more enthusiasm than ability and once he starts accepting the money he feels that he should come up with something. His honor in this aspect, but in no other aspects of this endeavor, is also amusing. Even his daughter thinks he’s absurd.

Not only does his handler fall for his reports, but the “experts” back at MI6 think they are genuine and valuable. He falsifies reports of some kind of construction going on as witnessed by an alcoholic pilot. Then he submits some “technical drawings” that are nothing except slightly altered schematics of vacuum cleaner parts. Some of the people who see these drawings find them somewhat familiar, but cannot or will not believe that they are anything but what they seem to be – the drawings of covert munitions or some kind of military equipment.

I didn’t know what to make of Beatrice. MI6 sends her to be Wormold’s secretary and presumably she has experience at this kind of work, but when she gets there and Wormold begins to show her his “work product” she seems to think it’s impressive rather than bogus. Perhaps she doesn’t have much experience. Then again, her comments about her prior postings being boring and full of filing and letter-writing, perhaps she does have experience but the whole business of spying is so ludicrous as to look farcical even when it is in earnest. It is this difference that makes Wormold’s industriousness of reports and sub-agent cultivation seem like the genuine article. But we know from our first sight of her that she has a good sense of humor and mischievousness and when she learns of his fake spying, we somehow know she will forgive him.

The writing was frank and clear with just a dash of spice. I loved how Wormold is presented as a very straight-laced and kind of old world gentleman. He is appalled at Hawthorne’s slang (I didn’t even notice it until complained of). He treats Milly simultaneously as a child and a grown woman. He is suspicious of the police Captain Seugura, but also trusting of him. Dichotomies abound.

In the end though, one of his deepest character traits comes out in decisive action – the killer. The assassin. Wormold kills the other agent that set him up to be exposed and murdered. This sets up the chance for he and Beatrice to be together as a couple and Wormold’s formidable incompetence is not punished, but is rewarded by MI6 who gives him a better position, an O.B.E. and a raise. They know somehow that he’s an idiot, but admitting it would result in they themselves looking foolish and they are not willing to risk it.
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