I do enjoy a good mystery. And spy novels—what’s not to love?  So when Graham Greene’s The Human Factor popped up as the book of choice for my book club, I sensed a winner right from the start. I was right; thought not, necessarily, for the reasons originally imagined . . .

When we first meet Maurice Castle, he’s little more than an average Joe. He puts in his hours at the office, and goes home to his wife and (step-) son each night. He loves his dog. He watches the clock and counts the days ‘til retirement.

Obviously, he’s one of us, right?

Well, not exactly—unless one of us happens to be a spy. You see, Castle is a former British diplomat working the African section of the foreign office. It’s something of a humdrum existence really, until there’s a suspected mole in his department. That’s when things begin to heat up.

Even then, the intrigue is not about flashy cars and cool gadgets; it’s about personal threats and vulnerability, loyalties and a moralities; it’s about the human factor of the spy game.

And Greene should know. During World War II, he was recruited to M15 (Britain’s secret service); he served in Sierra Leone. And Berkhamsted, where Castle makes his home? It was Greene’s home, too.  

Makes you wonder if it hit a little too close to home; if maybe he thought it one story he couldn’t do justice. After all, Greene considered the novel something of curse–‘a dead albatross’ he called it–and considered not publishing it at all. I, for one, am glad he didn’t give in to that line of thinking. Apparently, I’m not alone. Upon publication (1976) it stayed 6 months on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Sure, the setting is outdated (it takes place during the Cold War); but the storyline is classic. So if you’re looking for something of a psychological thriller . . . for a well-written spy novel . . . for a book hard to put down, even when you want to look away . . . you might want to give Graham Greene’s The Human Factor a try.