Graham Greene on Smuggling

While in Idaho, on vacation last week, I read many Graham Greene novels. Why? It was in compliance with a personal rule of mine. When I’m reading a book that references another book, I stop and read that other book, for context. For my birthday this year, my sister got me Kristin Hannah’s recent novel, The Women, about a nurse in the Vietnam War. I was hoping to have it read by the time I met up with my sister in her new home, but, about three percent into the book, it states, regarding the main character’s parents: “At home, Frankie found her parents in the living room, dressed for dinner. Dad stood at the bar, flipping through the newspaper, while Mom sat in her favorite chair by the fire, smoking a cigarette and reading a Graham Greene novel.”

That was not a very specific reference. What do I do? I interpreted that as needing to read Greene’s entire body of work up to the period of this novel of historical fiction, which is 1966. That’s 19 books. The reference could mean any one of them. So, I’m reading them all, taking a deep dive into Graham Greene.

Greene is generally considered a spy novelist, but his first novels have not been about intelligence. His first novel, for example, The Man Within (1929), was about a smuggler of alcohol who betrays his colleagues to the police. While on the run, the smuggler meets a stranger in a bar who makes the witty statement: “‘We shall never put down smuggling in the Courts,’ Mr Farne said. ‘There is only one way—to remove the duty from spirits.’”

That rings true. Of the benefits of a policy that restricts imports of something, preventing its tax-free import is not generally one of them. This is manifest in so many ways, from the war on drugs, which doesn’t stop the consumption of drugs, to tariffs on imports, which incent shady behavior to avoid paying the duty.

Of course, one has a long literature of economic research to read that supports this observation. However, sometimes reading these things in a novel makes them more lucid. There are many such observations in Graham Greene novels.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there