Ministry of Fear – Book Review
Ministry of Fear, written by Graham Greene and published in 1943, is one of only two novels he published during World War Two, when he was working for MI6.
Ministry of Fear: Title
The title is figurative. The characters describe the ministry of fear as a web of blackmail and threats used by the enemy to force compliance with their wishes. Later, the narrator draws parallels with the psychological fear people have of losing the things they have and how that fear constrains them.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Ministry of Fear: Logline
In World War Two London, a widower stumbles into a spy conspiracy, and is framed for murder. After he gets amnesia in an explosion, he tries to regain his memory and discover what the conspirators’ plan is.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Ministry of Fear: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
The Unhappy Man
It’s 1941, during the period of heavy German air-raids on London known as the Blitz. Arthur Rowe is guilty and depressed about the death of his wife, who he killed as she had a terminal illness.
Rowe goes to a charity fête. For a joke he goes to the fortune-teller, who tells him the correct answer to the ‘guess the weight of the cake’ competition. Rowe uses the information to win the cake, but as he leaves, the fête committee tries to stop him, saying there’s been a mistake. Rowe refuses to give the cake back.
The next day, a man rents a room in Rowe’s house. As an air-raid starts, the man offers Rowe money for the cake, but Rowe refuses. Then he puts poison into Rowe’s tea, but Rowe recognises the smell and doesn’t drink it. A German bomb explodes, and when Rowe regains consciousness, he finds the house demolished and the man unconscious.
Concerned that someone tried to kill him, Rowe goes to the charity who ran the fête. There he meets Anna Hilfe, and her brother Willi, who are Austrian refugees.
Rowe and Willi go to the fortune-teller’s home to investigate. While there, they take part in a séance, during which someone murders a man with Rowe’s pocket knife. Knowing the conspirators will frame him for the murder, Rowe escapes before the police arrive.
Now on the run from the police, Rowe spends the night in an air raid shelter, fails to borrow money from a friend, and contemplates suicide.
That afternoon he meets a man who asks him to take a case full of books to a hotel. At the hotel, he’s escorted to a room where Anna is waiting. It’s a trap and a bomb in the case explodes.
The Happy Man
When Rowe wakes up, he’s in a sanitarium in the country, but has amnesia. The nurses tell him his name is Richard Digby.
Relieved of his guilty memories about his wife, Rowe is much happier. Anna visits and calls him ‘Arthur’ which confuses him. Rowe thinks he must have been in love with Anna before he lost his memory and starts to fall in love with her again.
When Rowe announces he is leaving the sanatorium, the doctor threatens him with being confined to the ‘sick bay’. Rowe sneaks into the ‘sick bay’ and finds a patient locked up and in a straitjacket. Angry at Rowe’s escapades, the doctor gives him a newspaper cutting saying the police want him for murder. This triggers the return of some of Rowe’s memories.
Bits and Pieces
Rowe escapes from the sanatorium, with a nurse turning a blind eye, and gets a train to London, where he goes to the police to confess to the murder, though he doesn’t remember it very well…
The police [blackout]tell him that the man who Rowe thought murdered isn’t dead. It was a trick to prevent him going to the police.[/blackout]
The police also tell Rowe that [blackout]the cake had a microfilm of secret plans hidden in it. They take him to a tailor’s shop where he identifies the supposedly dead man, who is part of the spy-ring. Before they can question him, the man makes a phone call and then kills himself.[/blackout]
Rowe goes with the police [blackout]to arrest the fortune-teller and then to the sanatorium that Rowe escaped from, where almost everyone is dead.[/blackout]
The Whole Man
Rowe works out [blackout]the telephone number that the tailor called before killing himself and phones it. Anna answers. Going to her flat he discovers that it’s her brother, Willi, who’s the head of the spy ring.[/blackout]
Willi [blackout]escapes. Rowe catches up with him at Paddington station just as another air-raid starts. Willi gives Rowe the microfilm, reminds Rowe that he killed his wife, and then commits suicide.[/blackout]
Rowe [blackout]returns to Anna. He pretends Willi told him nothing and his memory of his wife has not returned.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Ministry of Fear: Analysis
I felt Ministry of Fear fell a little between two stools. It seemed unsure whether it wanted to be. Was it a literary novel about identity and how guilt and the past make happiness in the present impossible? Or was it a spy thriller? As such, it’s very uneven.
Ministry of Fear starts in The Thirty-Nine Steps territory, with the amateur hero blundering into an enemy spy plot and being forced on the run, pursued by the conspirators and the police, and so far so good, with his character deepening as we discover how having assisted his wife’s euthanasia has left him guilty and depressed.
Then the surreal plot device of the bookseller, the suitcase, and the bomb intervenes.
Rowe loses his memory and a different novel takes over, where he’s in a hospital that he suspects is not exactly taking good care of him, or its other patients. The characterisation is very well-defined as we see how the loss of memory takes the weight off his mind and allows his cheerful nature to reappear.
The third sequence, as Rowe’s memory returns, is a spy romp as Rowe and the police round up the spies and Rowe turns detective to track down the mastermind. Finally, the spy plot wraps up, in a rather farcical manner.
Then comes the bitter and downbeat ending to the psychological plot, [blackout]as Rowe and Anna decide to deceive each other, caring for each other too much to admit their secrets.[/blackout]
Fundamentally, Ministry of Fear has a ‘conspiracy’ plot (See Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Conspiracy’ Plot
- Witnesses an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or infiltrated by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Discovers who the Antagonists are.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
The major problem is that the spy plot in The Ministry of Fear makes almost no sense at all, relying on coincidences, handwaving and implausibilities. Also, the ‘microfilm of secret plans’ hidden in the cake is a MacGuffin, and the spy plot resolves ridiculously easily.
The psychological plot is more interesting and is the core of an excellent novel, but the two plots just don’t quite pull together into a coherent whole. The trouble is, the dark tone of the psychological plot does not sit well with the much lighter spy plot.
Ministry of Fear: My Verdict
Structurally, and in tone, it’s a mess, but the atmosphere, characters and writing quality make it worth reading.
Ministry of Fear: The Movie
Fritz Lang directed a movie of Ministry of Fear in 1944, starring Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds, but it’s only loosely based on the novel.
Critics sometimes describe the movie of Ministry of Fear as a film noir, but it’s no such thing, dropping all the noirish angles present in the novel. For example, Rowe (whose name they change to Stephen Neale for some reason) didn’t kill his wife—she committed suicide. And the movie drops the sanatorium and amnesia plot, and the downbeat ending, completely.
Dropping the amnesia plot makes the movie a straightforward spy romp, even adding a couple of chases and shoot-outs. Ray Milland gives a mediocre, unbelievable performance, far too light and jolly. The standout performance is Hillary Brooke as the fortune-teller, who gives it a bit of the femme fatale (rather pointlessly as she’s only in two scenes). And the movie has a cringe-worthy comic ending too.
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