“The oldest sins the newest kind of ways . . . ”
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
Kingsley Amis called him “Grim Grin,” an apt name for a novelist who aggressively insisted that the path to God runs through the wilderness of lust, degradation, deceit, and betrayal.
Like his spiritual ancestor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Graham Greene seems to have been convinced that sin is the gateway to salvation, a position not without some warrant in the theology of his adopted faith. Indeed, it may well be that Greene was drawn to Roman Catholicism precisely because of its Augustinian strain. But this raises an obvious question: How far can one allow oneself to fall before Saint Augustine’s felix culpa becomes prohibitively infelix?
Greene’s fiction is filled with characters who declare their sinfulness with varying shades of remorse and pride. In Brighton Rock, Rose, an innocent young woman married to a murderous criminal, is “tempted to virtue like a sin” but chooses to stay on her course for what she considers will be damnation for her husband’s sake. In The Power and the Glory, an alcoholic priest is in the act of saying Mass and has reached the Consecration when a disturbing dream comes back to him unbidden, an unnerving...