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MI6 Recruits a Bumbling Salesman in Our Man in Havana

When you're in need of an undercover spy, who you gonna call? The owner of a vacuum cleaner store, of course.

In 1941, Graham Greene entered the counter-espionage unit of the MI6, per the recommendation of his sister. Already a respected and published author, he couldn't help but latch onto the tales of duplicitous, money-hungry agents circulating throughout southwestern Europe. One such agent was Juan Pujol García, codename "Garbo," who was secretly aligned with British and American intelligence. Disguised as a pro-Nazi spy, he began feeding the Germans false information—even going so far as to create a fictitious spy network—that successfully threw them off the Allies' trail. Called "traitor" by his superiors and "hero" by the Brits, Garbo's schemes and (occasionally hilarious) slip-ups endeared him to Greene as the perfect lead for an espionage thriller. And thus, Jim Wormold of Our Man in Havana was born.

Voted one of The Telegraph's 20 Best Spy Novels of All Time, Havana follows the madcap adventures of a salesman-turned-spy in pre-revolution Cuba. Between his daughter's outrageous spending habits and the failure of his vacuum cleaner store, 40-something Jim Wormold is having a hard time staying afloat. Enter Hawthorne, a member of British intelligence, who comes to Wormold with an opportunity that could potentially solve his financial problems. There's just one catch: Wormold must first give himself over to a life of espionage, keep an eye out for any suspicious activity, and report back to the MI6 headquarters in London. Though reluctant, the threat of bankruptcy looms heavily over Wormold's head, convincing him to accept Hawthorne's offer...

Needless to say, he isn't cut out for this line of work.

Guided by his best friend, Wormold takes a note out of Garbo's book and begins fabricating information about other spies—which, to his horror, eventually comes true. As Wormold's lies continue to have devastating real-life consequences, he's pushed along a wild journey of danger, deception, and disaster that places him in the path of people who want nothing more than to see him dead. Can he manage to cover up his scams, prevent more innocent people from getting killed, and live to tell the tale?

Hailed as a “comical, satirical, atmospherical” novel and adapted into the 1959 film of the same name, Our Man in Havana is a can't-miss classic of Cold War spy fiction and a portal into a bygone Cuba (The Daily Telegraph). Keep reading for an excerpt in which Wormold—anxious about the state of his business and his daughter's excesses—meets the mysterious Hawthorne for the very first time...

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Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene

The long bar that morning was empty except for the elegant stranger at one end and a stout member of the tourist police who was smoking a cigar at the other. The Englishman was absorbed in the sight of so many bottles, and it was quite a while before he spotted Wormold. ‘Well I never,’ he said, ‘Mr Wormold, isn’t it?’ Wormold wondered how he knew his name, for he had forgotten to give him a trade-card. ‘Eighteen different kinds of Scotch,… the stranger said, ‘including Black Label. And I haven’t counted the Bourbons. It’s a wonderful sight. Wonderful,’ he repeated, lowering his voice with respect. ‘Have you ever seen so many whiskies?’

‘As a matter of fact I have. I collect miniatures and I have ninety-nine at home.’

‘Interesting. And what’s your choice today? A dimpled Haig?’

‘Thanks, I’ve just ordered a daiquiri.’

‘Can’t take those things. They relax me.’

‘Have you decided on a cleaner yet?’ Wormold asked for the sake of conversation.”

“Cleaner?’

‘Vacuum cleaner. The things I sell.’

‘Oh, cleaner. Ha ha. Throw away that stuff and have a Scotch.’

‘I never drink Scotch before the evening.’

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‘You Southerners!’

‘I don’t see the connection.’

‘Makes the blood thin. Sun, I mean. You were born in Nice, weren’t you?’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Oh well, one picks things up. Here and there. Talking to this chap and that. I’ve been meaning to have a word with you as a matter of fact.’

‘Well, here I am.’

‘I’d like it more on the quiet, you know. Chaps keep on coming in and out.’

No description could have been less accurate. No one even passed the door in the hard straight sunlight outside. The officer of the tourist police had fallen contentedly asleep after propping his cigar over an ash-tray; there were no tourists at this hour to protect or to supervise. Wormold said, ‘If it’s about a cleaner, come down to the shop.’

‘I’d rather not, you know. Don’t want to be seen hanging about there. Bar’s not a bad place after all. You run into a fellow-countryman, have a get together, what’s more natural?’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Oh well, one picks things up. Here and there. Talking to this chap and that. I’ve been meaning to have a word with you as a matter of fact.’

‘Well, you know how it is.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Well, wouldn’t you say it was natural enough?’

Wormold gave up. He left eighty cents on the counter and said, ‘I must be getting back to the shop.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t like to leave Lopez for long.’

“Ah, Lopez. I want to talk to you about Lopez.’ Again the explanation that seemed most probable to Wormold was that the stranger was an eccentric inspector from headquarters, but surely he had reached the limit of eccentricity when he added in a low voice, ‘You go to the Gents and I’ll follow you.’

‘The Gents? Why should I?’

‘Because I don’t know the way.’

In a mad world it always seems simpler to obey. Wormold led the stranger through a door at the back, down a short passage, and indicated the toilet. ‘It’s in there.’

‘After you, old man.’

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‘But I don’t need it.’

‘Don’t be difficult,’ the stranger said. He put a hand on Wormold’s shoulder and pushed him through the door. Inside there were two wash-basins, a chair with a broken back, and the usual cabinets and pissoirs. ‘Take a pew, old man,’ the stranger said, ‘while I turn on a tap.’ But when the water ran he made no attempt to wash. ‘Looks more natural,’ he explained (the word ‘natural’ seemed a favourite adjective of his), ‘if someone barges in. And of course it confuses a mike.’

‘A mike?’

‘You’re quite right to question that. Quite right. There probably wouldn’t be a mike in a place like this, but it’s the drill, you know, that counts. You’ll find it always pays in the end to follow the drill. It’s lucky they don’t run to waste-plugs in Havana. We can just keep the water running.’

‘Please will you explain …?’

‘Can’t be too careful even in a Gents, when I come to think of it. A chap of ours in Denmark in 1940 saw from his own window the German fleet coming down the Kattegat.’

‘What gut?’

‘Kattegat. Of course he knew then the balloon had gone up. Started burning his papers. Put the ashes down the lav and pulled the chain. Trouble was—late frost. Pipes frozen. All the ashes floated up into the bath down below. Flat belonged to an old maiden lady—Baronin someone or other. She was just going to have a bath. Most embarrassing for our chap.’

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  • Photo Credit: Florencia Viadana/Unsplash

‘It sounds like the Secret Service.’

‘It is the Secret Service, old man, or so the novelists call it. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about your chap Lopez. Is he reliable or ought you to fire him?’

‘Are you in the Secret Service?’

‘If you like to put it that way.’

‘Why on earth should I fire Lopez? He’s been with me ten years.’

‘We could find you a chap who knew all about vacuum cleaners. But of course—naturally—we’ll leave that decision to you.’

‘But I’m not in your Service.’

‘We’ll come to that in a moment, old man. Anyway we’ve traced Lopez—he seems clear. But your friend Hasselbacher, I’d be a bit careful of him.’

‘How do you know about Hasselbacher?’

‘I’ve been around a day or two, picking things up. One has to on these occasions.’

‘What occasions?’

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‘Where was Hasselbacher born?’

‘Berlin, I think.’

‘Sympathies East or West?’

‘We never talk politics.’

‘Not that it matters—East or West they play the German game. Remember the Ribbentrop Pact. We won’t be caught that way again.’

“Hasselbacher’s not a politician. He’s an old doctor and he’s lived here for thirty years.’

‘All the same, you’d be surprised … But I agree with you, it would be conspicuous if you dropped him. Just play him carefully, that’s all. He might even be useful if you handle him right.’

‘I’ve no intention of handling him.’

‘You’ll find it necessary for the job.’

‘I don’t want any job. Why do you pick on me?’

‘Patriotic Englishman. Been here for years. Respected member of the European Traders’ Association. We must have our man in Havana, you know. Submarines need fuel. Dictators drift together. Big ones draw in the little ones.’

‘Atomic submarines don’t need fuel.’

‘Are you in the Secret Service?’

‘Quite right, old man, quite right. But wars always start a little behind the times. Have to be prepared for conventional weapons too. Then there’s economic intelligence—sugar, coffee, tobacco.’

‘You can find all that in the Government year-books.’

‘We don’t trust them, old man. Then political intelligence. With your cleaners you’ve got the entrée everywhere.’

‘Do you expect me to analyse the fluff?’

‘It may seem a joke to you, old man, but the main source of the French intelligence at the time of Dreyfus was a charwoman who collected the scraps out of the waste-paper baskets at the German Embassy.’

‘I don’t even know your name.’

‘Hawthorne.’

‘But who are you?’

‘Well, you might say I’m setting up the Caribbean network. One moment. Someone’s coming. I’ll wash. You slip into a closet. Mustn’t be seen together.’

“We have been seen together.’

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‘Passing encounter. Fellow-countrymen.’ He thrust Wormold into the compartment as he had thrust him into the lavatory. ‘It’s the drill, you know,’ and then there was silence except for the running tap. Wormold sat down. There was nothing else to do. When he was seated his legs still showed under the half door. A handle turned. Feet crossed the tiled floor towards the pissoir. Water went on running. Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment. He wondered why he had not stopped all this nonsense at the beginning. No wonder Mary had left him. He remembered one of their quarrels. ‘Why don’t you do something, act some way, any way at all? You just stand there …’ At least, he thought, this time I’m not standing, I’m sitting. But in any case what could he have said? He hadn’t been given time to get a word in. Minutes passed. What enormous bladders Cubans had, and how clean Hawthorne’s hands must be getting by this time. The water stopped running. Presumably he was drying his hands, but Wormold remembered there were no towels. That was another problem for Hawthorne but he would be up to it. All part of the drill. At last the feet passed towards the door. The door closed.

‘Can I come out?’ Wormold asked. It was like a surrender. He was under orders now.

He heard Hawthorne tiptoeing near. ‘Give me a few minutes to get away, old man. Do you know who that was? The policeman. A bit suspicious, eh?’

‘He may have recognized my legs under the door. Do you think we ought to change trousers?’

‘Wouldn’t look natural,’ Hawthorne said, ‘but you are getting the idea. I’m leaving the key of my room in the basin. Fifth floor Seville-Biltmore. Just walk up. Ten tonight. Things to discuss. Money and so on. Sordid issues. Don’t ask for me at the desk.’

‘Don’t you need your key?’

‘Got a pass key. I’ll be seeing you.’

Wormold stood up in time to see the door close behind the elegant figure and the appalling slang. The key was there in the wash-basin—Room 501.

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Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene

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Featured image: Craig Whitehead / Unsplash 

Published on 15 Jan 2019

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