Oh, what a wonderful book and so beautifully read by Michael Kitchen. I miss it already.
Last year I listened to Our Man in Havana and loved it. This one is very different and even more admirable. It has a pleasingly complicated plot with twists as painful as the Guy de Maupassant short story "The Necklace." In that story a couple makes a great sacrifice to replace a necklace they thought was extremely valuable and learns after ten years of penury that it was worth very little.
SPOILER ALERT! The story will have to come out here.
The main character is Major Scobie, a policeman of great rectitude, second in command in an outpost in Sierra Leone where he has lived for 15 years. When he learns he will not be named Commissioner at the retirement of the current Commissioner, his wife, never a comfortable person, goes into a tailspin. She wants to visit friends in South Africa and though he does not have the money for this, he promises to find a way to send her there. He borrows money from Yusef, a Syrian shopkeeper, and in short order is morally compromised.
After Louise left, Helen, a young widow who suffered great misfortune, lands in their outpost. Scobie fell in love with her and in their insular world, everyone soon knew. Though he took great care to avoid detection, he wrote a note declaring his love which of course fell into the hands of the Syrian shopkeeper. Yusef makes use of the note to involve Scobie in his diamond-smuggling operation. Louise, having heard of Scobie's affair, returns and requests that he go to mass with her and take communion to prove that he had confessed. And thus we come to the Catholic portion of the novel.
Scobie obsesses over this as an unthinkable moral failing; he must not take communion without confession and renunciation of Helen and he is unable to renounce her. Never mind that he has betrayed his profession and his wife and took action that results in his long-time servant Ali being murdered, the real horror is taking communion without the confessional. And though he is able to delay the event for a time, ultimately he makes this step as well. In the midst of all this "The Neckless" twist occurs. The Commissioner tells Scobie he will become Commissioner after all, and so Scobie learns Louise might have stayed and been happy, he needn't have borrowed the money, and wouldn't have taken up with Helen. Ultimately, Scobie concludes that suicide is his only recourse. He does have a long argument with God about this and God made some good points, but was unable to overcome Scobie's resolve.
This is the story of a good man who, choice by choice, finds himself trapped by evil until he must make the worst choice of all. Because he is a sympathetic character, we watch his descent with sympathy and pain. All this occurs with the backdrop of life in the outpost of colonial West Africa with its cast of characters vividly portrayed.
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, first published by Viking Press, 1948, 306 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.