During a demonstration in Hyde Park, Communist bus driver Jim Drover acts on instinct to protect his wife by stabbing to death the policeman set to strike her down. Sentenced to hang—whether as a martyr, tool, or murderer—Drover accepts his lot, unaware that the ramifications for the crime, and the battle for his reprieve, are inflaming political unrest in an increasingly divided city. But Drover’s single, impulsive act is also upending the lives of the people he loves and trusts. Caught in a quicksand of desperation, sexual betrayal, and guilt, they will not only play a part in Drover’s fate, but they’ll become agents—both unwitting and calculated—of their own fates as well.
Turning the traditional narrative of the police procedural, domestic drama, and political thriller on its head, It’s a Battlefield was described by Graham Greene himself as “a panoramic novel of London,” one without heroes and villains, only “the injustice of man’s justice.”
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 2, 1904
Date of Death:April 3, 1991
Place of Birth:Berkhamsted, England
Place of Death:Vevey, Switzerland
Education:Balliol College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
The Assistant Commissioner was careful of his appearance before meeting men younger than himself. It gave him the same kind of confidence as dressing for dinner had done in eastern forests. He opened the cupboard door and brushed his dark suit before the mirror, his narrow yellow face bent close to the glass. Young men had certain savage qualities; they moved quickly; they sometimes carried poisoned weapons. He brushed slowly in rhythm with the plodding jungle step of his mind. He said to his secretary: 'I've put my telephone number on the desk. If there's anything urgent ...' As usual before a sentence was finished he became lost in the difficulties of expression. Slowly, with a fateful accumulation of hesitant sounds, he hacked his way forward. 'Er — urgent, you will please — er — ring up the number, and — er — ask for me.' Bowler-hatted, umbrella over the left arm, he passed down long passages lined with little glass cells. Telephone bells rang, electric buyers whirred like cicadas along his route, but his thoughts stepped carefully on, undeflected, undelayed, certainly unhurried.
By the time he reached the courtyard, he had decided that he did not care for politics. In Northumberland Avenue he said to himself that justice was not his business.
All round Trafalgar Square the lights sprang out, pricking the clear grey autumn evening. The buses roared up Parliament Street and swung in a great circle. A policeman at the corner of the avenue recognized the Assistant Commissioner and saluted him. The Assistant Commissioner nodded and crossed carefully where the signs pointed. I've got nothing to do with justice, he thought, my job is simply to get the right man, and the cold washed air did not prevent his thoughts going back to damp paths steaming in the heat under leaves like hairy hands. One pursued by this path and that, and only as a last resort, when there was no other means of ensuring a murderer's punishment, did one burn his village. Justice had nothing to do with the matter. One left justice to magistrates, to judges and juries, to members of Parliament, to the Home Secretary.
The Assistant Commissioner paused for a moment before a shop window in Pall Mall filled with carpets. One could not live long in the east without learning something about them. The Assistant Commissioner was interested, but he had no idea whether the colouring was beautiful or coarse, whether the pattern pleased or repelled; he was interested because he could apply certain formulas to determine whether the carpet had been made in the east. He satisfied himself, as far as he was able without touching, that the carpets were genuine before he went on to the Haymarket corner. It never occurred to him to buy one; in his flat he had a few rugs on hardwood floors. A newspaper poster caught his eye: 'Drover Appeal Result', and another further up the Haymarket, 'Bus-Man's Appeal: Result'. An opportunity for investigation occurred to him, and he bought a paper, asking the man whether any particular interest had been shown in the news that night. The man shook his head and pointed to his mouth; he was dumb and the Assistant Commissioner walked on, frowning a little.
From Piccadilly he turned up a side street. He was not a man to waste a walk, even to an appointment. Women were coming out of offices on the ground floors of the tall blank buildings. He paused before one number. There had been an agitation recently in the Sunday press over brothels in London, and the police were paying particular attention to a certain flat. The Assistant Commissioner pursed lips which frequent fevers had drained of colour and left dry and pale. He considered morality no more his business than politics. It was impossible to keep the brothels closed. They sprang up like mushrooms overnight in the most unlikely places. One, he knew, had existed for years next door to a most respectable club. If you had them watched, your police were bribed; it was much better to let them be. At the top of the Burlington Arcade he noticed two policemen and another stood outside the Galleries on the opposite side of the street. Vine Street was posting its men in a new way, and he made a mental note to get Bullen to ring up the Inspector.
He entered the Berkeley suspiciously; he liked his appointments either at Scotland Yard or a Minister's house, and he could not understand why he had been brought to a restaurant. The pale leaf colours, the sofas, and the mirrors which flashed back from every side his own lined and jaundiced face irritated him as much as a bowl of flowers on a desk.
'Dear Commissioner.' He saw the private secretary detach himself from two women. Tall, with round smooth features and ashen hair, he shone with publicity; he had the glamour and consciousness of innumerable photographs. His face was like the plate-glass window of an expensive shop. One could see, very clearly and to the best effect, a few selected objects: a silver casket, a volume of Voltaire exquisitely bound, a self-portrait by an advanced and fashionable Czechoslovakian. 'Dear Commissioner.' He greeted the older man again with amusement, patronage, frankness and guile, putting his hand on his arm and guiding him to a remote corner. 'A sherry?'
The Assistant Commissioner said slowly: 'I should like a whisky and — er — soda.' He felt suddenly old and dusty; as if he had just returned from one of his torrid tedious marches, with a man left dangling in the jungle for the birds to peck, to find at headquarters a young cool messenger from the Governor. The secretary said: 'The Minister's so sorry not to see you himself. It's the debate, you know, on licensing. He can't leave the House for a minute. Frankly, I'm worried about him. He'll knock himself up. First the town planning, then the juvenile offenders, and now the licensing.'
The Assistant Commissioner did not listen; he had learnt to husband his hearing; he cast his mind back over the work of the afternoon. The morning's work had already been docketed in his mind while he ate his lunch from a tray in his room. First the report of the fingerprint experts on Ruttledge's marks and the knowledge that all the work on the Paddington Trunk Case must be done over again; whoever had murdered Mrs Janet Crowle it wasn't Ruttledge; then the report on the new wireless invention; and the exhibits in the Streatham Common murder and rape which he had wished to examine personally, the handkerchief rusty with blood and the piece of matted hair and the cheap wool béret.
'It's a battlefield,' said the secretary. 'Back and forth into the lobby. I know for certain he had no tea.'
I shall go over the ground myself, the Assistant Commissioner thought. The photograph of the two wooden chairs and the pressed grass did not tell enough.
'I don't want him to break down now, with two clear years in sight. Of course at the Dissolution he'll get a peerage.'
The Assistant Commissioner brought his mind back with difficulty from the Streatham villas. 'It was — er — about Drover ...?' Somebody in another corner of the lounge began to laugh. 'My dear, it was divine. They tied the pram on top of the taxi and Michael —'
'Yes,' the secretary said, 'it was about Drover. Now that the appeal has failed, it all rests on the Home Secretary. The poor dear man is worried, very worried, and all on top too of the licensing.' The secretary's wide pale face glistened softly under the concealed lighting and he leant forward with an infinite suggestion of frankness, with an overwhelming effect of guile. 'To tell you the truth, he'd have been glad, he'd have been tremendously relieved, if the appeal had been allowed.'
'Impossible,' the Assistant Commissioner said, 'there was no possible — er — line that the Defence could — could take.'
'Exactly. I was in Court The Minister, you see, thought that the L.C.J. might give some excuse for a reprieve. But there was nothing at all to get hold of.'
'The policeman died,' the Assistant Commissioner said stubbornly, 'we got the man.'
'But the Minister, you know, doesn't want the poor devil's blood. Nobody does. It was a political meeting. Everyone was excited. Drover thought the bobby was going to hit his wife. He had the knife in his pocket That, of course, is the snag. Why did he carry the knife?'
'They all do,' the Assistant Commissioner said. 'Helps to scrape away oil, mud. Cut up bread and — er — cheese.'
'Have another whisky?'
'No, no, thank you.'
The private secretary laid a square white hand on the Assistant Commissioner's arm. 'You know we must help him. He's in the devil of a state.'
'Do you mean — Drover?'
'No, no. The Minister, of course. My dear chap, if you could have seen him this afternoon. The devils. They made him fight every inch of the way; the Local Option Clause; the Tied Houses. And he's never at his best when he misses his cup of tea. Really, you know, I could almost have wept. And I had to send him in a note that Drover's appeal had failed. We must help him, or he'll never get through the Session.'
'Anything that I can do,' the Assistant Commissioner began in an embarrassed way. He was embarrassed because he did not know what the devil it was all about. He was annoyed that the working of his mind should be blocked like this. The Drover case was over; the Paddington trunk case, the Streatham murder required all the thought he could give to them. He ought, he knew, to leave them to his subordinates in the Criminal Investigation Department, the specialists in fingerprints and blood tests, the detective- inspectors who could go through the routine of inquiry blindfold. But it was his weakness, though in the east, in the enervating heat, it had been his strength, that he could never leave his department alone.
The private secretary's amiability spread luxuriantly like a quickly-growing creeper. 'I knew we could rely on you.' He proceeded to put the matter into a Parliamentary nutshell; the antitheses and balancing clauses, the calculated touches of humour when he spoke of the Opposition, had as little meaning to the Assistant Commissioner as the jargon of an art critic. 'You mean,' he said, 'that the Home Secretary would like to reprieve him?'
'Ah,' the private secretary wailed softly, leaning back on the leaf-green sofa, dabbing gently again and again at an automatic lighter, 'how you simplify. The affair is more complex than that. But we can start from that basis — the Minister would like to reprieve. But, you see, there are the strikes.'
'The cotton workers are out, and the railwaymen may be out next week. Drover is a Communist. Will it be taken as a confession of weakness if we reprieve him?'
The Assistant Commissioner opened his mouth to speak; he wanted to affirm that politics were not his business, but the secretary forestalled him. 'And if we hang him, will that be regarded too as a confession of weakness? Will they imagine that we are afraid to be magnanimous?'
'They?' the Assistant Commissioner asked. 'Who are they?'
'Ten — er thousand members.'
'Yes, yes, officially, but every striker, while he is out, is a Red more or less. One doesn't trouble about shades.'
'But what can they do?'
The private secretary leant forward and remarked impressively: 'If resentment kept them out a week longer, if over-confidence kept them out a week longer, it would cost the country fifty million.' He tapped the Commissioner's knee. 'More taxes and we lose the next election. What happens then?'
The Assistant Commissioner did not answer. Stooping over the trampled grass on Streatham Common, he would not have raised his eyes to a pyrotechnic display at the Crystal Palace, however brightly the sky was lit by rockets. The private secretary laughed and said, again with a frankness which gave the impression of deep guile: 'No peerage for the Minister anyway. And no under-secretaryship for me.'
'I don't understand,' the Assistant Commissioner began. It was one of his favourite expressions; extraordinary the number of occasions on which he could apply it: on first nights; when discussing the latest novel; in a picture gallery; when faced with an example of corruption. But turning over in mind the woollen béret, noting the texture of the wool, the pattern of the crochet, he understood more than the most sensitive artist, noticed more than the most inquisitive woman.
'The Minister argued in this way. You, more than any other single man, have your fingers on London: the poorer parts in particular.'
The narrow yellow face showed no pleasure; the Assistant Commissioner loved accuracy. 'The poorer parts only. I don't — er understand this place.'
'Oh,' the secretary said with airy amusement, 'I can answer for this place. If you can answer for — shall we say the docks, for Paddington, Notting Hill, and King's Cross, the suburbs, Balham and Streatham, the —'
'Streatham,' the Assistant Commissioner murmured, interrupting the secretary's shabby pageant.
'If during the next week you can send in a private report on what you think the effect of a reprieve or an execution would be —'
'I don't like it,' the Assistant Commissioner said with an unusual lack of hesitation.
'A personal favour, dear chap,' the private secretary pleaded, 'because he's so tired, so worried —'
'He's got the report of the case, the judge's notes.'
'But if you could see him now, fighting every inch of the way, local opinion, tied houses.'
'If he finds it hard to decide, he might see the man for himself.'
'Would that be possible? Not for the Minister, of course, he's far too busy with the licensing, but perhaps for me.' The secretary smiled and tapped his cigarette. 'He depends, you know, a good deal on my advice.' Modestly he held the Minister's dependence up under the wide concealed light as a whimsical curiosity, a quaintly ugly antique.
'I'll take you to the prison now if it would — er interest, help you.'
'Does that mean that you consent, that you'll let us know,' he dabbed again at his automatic lighter, 'what people think about it?'
Again the Assistant Commissioner corrected him: 'The poorer parts,' and again with a studied gesture towards the leaf-green sofas and the two women whom he had left and who now smiled at him from a far corner, the secretary answered for the Berkeley. 'Oh, I can speak for the rest.'
The Assistant Commissioner, digging blunt nails into the sofa and heaving himself upright, said sharply: 'Have you ever been inside a prison?'
'You will be — interested.' He watched the bland face with distaste: he distrusted any man who showed so little sign of employment. Light employment, 'half-time work', had no meaning for the Assistant Commissioner, throwing his whole shrewd slow mind into every detail of his duty, into a crocheted béret, a second-hand trunk, a park chair, a cloakroom ticket: nor did the men with whom he spent his days disguise the fact that they worked — worked seriously, with a sense of responsibility, to keep life in them — detectives, bus-drivers, pawnbrokers, thieves.
'Most interesting, I'm sure.'
He preferred the morbid watchers at the prison gates, waiting for the striking of the clock, the posting of the typed notice ('carried out in the presence of the Governor, the prison doctor ...'). Shivering in winter with the early cold, in summer touched by the pale heatless sun, they were made aware of what it was that kept them safe behind their shop counters, in their walk from fishmonger to grocer: they knew something of the stones, the rope, and the lime ('The executioner was Pierpoint').
'I have never seen a murderer,' the private secretary said. 'As far as I know of course.'
Yes, the Assistant Commissioner thought, I prefer those others. He said: 'We can take a bus from the Ritz.' He did not see why the country should pay for a taxi in order to satisfy the private secretary's interest, or to help the Home Secretary to a decision which he should be able to reach without difficulty, all the papers being before him, including the judge's notes.
'I have a car just round the corner.'
Something worried the Assistant Commissioner. He stood hesitating on the threshold of Piccadilly. Something had been said which he did not understand, it belonged to an alien world, but it was his duty to understand, something about. ... The lights were all lit, the shop girls crowded the pavement on the way to the Underground. 'What were they saying?' he asked, 'about a pram on — er a taxi?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "It's a Battlefield"
Copyright © 1962 Graham Greene Estate.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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