One advantage I have had over the years with the Nebraska Library Commission is that of being able to visit libraries all over the state – primarily public libraries, but a few other types as well. Often the public libraries have ongoing book sales of both weeded and donated books, usually on a shelf or sale table with suggested prices for paperback, hardbacks, or magazines, sometimes with statements such as, “Donation accepted.” On one fairly recent swing through the western part of the state to do a strategic planning workshop, I paused briefly at a book sale and purchased The Tenth Man, a short novel by Graham Greene.
Of course it was the author’s name that intrigued me, and the recollection of a film based on one of his novels, The Third Man, that caught my attention since I had never heard of a book by him entitled, The Tenth Man (and since the title so closely resembled the more well-known one). A summary of the novel itself is fairly easy and straightforward. The setting is a German prison camp during the World War II era in which political prisoners are forced to draw lots to determine which of every ten men will be executed – a “decimation” order that is apparently similar to what happened in Spain during its Fascist years.
This short novel (about 30,000 words) moves quickly, with the action and dialog quite spare, yet effective. The primary story concerns that of a wealthy attorney who is among the prisoners and who draws one of the marked papers indicating he will be executed (following orders of the prison masters who allow the prisoners themselves to determine who will be sacrificed). The crux of the story is that the attorney desperately offers all his wealth, his home and his land to any other prisoner who will take his place and be executed. He has a taker, and, being an attorney, knows how to put the proper papers together to bring this about to make the destitute man temporarily rich, at least until his death, with his family provided for.
The substitute is executed, and later, after the war has ended, the attorney returns to his former home, passing himself off with a different name and identify. He is, of course, penniless, but he is befriended by the executed prisoner’s sister and her crotchety mother, and is given caretaker-type work there since the family is in a somewhat precarious position. Yet another imposter – as it turns out, an unemployed actor — shows up, claiming to be the surviving attorney and ingratiating himself to the sister.
The story is fairly sparse, as I mentioned, but very well-written. What was most interesting to me, however, was not so much the novel itself, but more how it came about. According to the author, he wrote this novella sometime in 1944, based on an idea he had had in 1937. In 1983 Greene was contacted by an agent in America, telling him that The Tenth Man was being offered by the movie giant MGM for sale to an American publisher. Graham’s memory of the novel was so vague, that he thought he remembered writing a two-page summary of the story idea, not the 30,000 words it turned out to be. Apparently Greene had sold the rights to the novella to MGM under what he deemed a “slave contract” to ensure security for his family’s income.
Graham Greene himself worked for MI6, England’s spy agency. His travels for the agency took him all over the world, and he used many of the settings from his travels in his novels. The Tenth Man is not considered among Greene’s greatest work, but this author’s prolific career of writing novels, short stories, travel books, essays, plays and screen plays bears looking into. The Tenth Man is my introduction to an author I always meant to, but never had read, before this.