Everyone knows that the most important element of being a good spy is being a whiskey collector. Everyone does know that? Don’t they? Well maybe not but Graham Greene certainly makes the case that you never know when, in spite of all your failings, even a skill like knowing how to drink someone under the table can come in handy.
Our man in Havana is Graham Greene's dark comedy about a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman who gets recruited into the British secret service. That's right there's James Bond and then there's James Wormold. Vacuum cleaner salesman by day and spy (well not really but he tries) by night. Much of Our Man in Havana deals with the pitfalls of secrecy and especially the type of secrecy around the business of espionage. When you have to cloak even your communications with the people you're supposed to be collecting this information for in secrets it becomes very easy the blur the line between fact and fiction. This is something Greene is not writing about from a point of ignorance either as he worked for MI6 for a period of time in his life. A fact that allowed him to see first hand similar incidents and their results. This is also a possible reason, his time in intelligence, that Greene is somewhat prophetic of the turmoil that would arise in Cuba not too much later.
In the end the main character takes on this task not out of patriotism or because he is particularly skilled at it but because he needs money for his daughter. As Wormold receives demands for reports he is convinced by a friend that sending false ones won't hurt anyone and he manages, for a while, to convince himself of the same thing. After all nobody is being hurt by it. To some extent his character ends up being right he continues getting funding, he's able to give his daughter the life he thinks she deserves and of course they send him a beautiful secretary that falls in love with him.
However, while Our Man in Havana deals with the pitfalls of deception it also deals with the ways that the stories we tell can take on a life of their own. Wormold's stories do begin to impact real people. This is largely due to the fact that Wormold has used real people, and their names, as the characters in his fictional accounts. This brings him into conflict with the chief of police in Havana, Captain Segura, and causes him to have to actually engage in some legitimate spying in an effort to get himself out from under the web of lies he's told and out from under the thumb of Segura who is trying to court his daughter. A fact dropped early in the story is that Wormold is a whiskey collector. He is always looking for miniatures of rare whiskeys but never opens them and Wormold's whiskey collection plays a key role in his interaction with Captain Segura.
Our main character's desperation is illustrated by the fact that he becomes willing to open up his precious collection for Captain Segura in a drinking game. Wormold and Segura, throughout the book, have a few interactions over a checkers board. However, in one of the climactic moments of the book Wormold proposes that instead of traditional checkers they play with his whiskey as pieces (one side scotch bottles, one side bourbon). The whiskeys (or whiskys depending on what side you're on) used are Johnnie Walker Red, Cairngorm, Dimply Haid and Grant's on the Scotch side and Old Taylor, Old Forester, Four Roses and Kentucky Tavern on the bourbon side. This sparks a scene which plays out well in the movie version too, arguably, the best drinking scene in movie history. In the film, also written by Graham Greene, none other than Obie Won Kenobi/Colonel Nicholson from the Bridge On the River Kwai plays Wormold (Alec Guinness if you really needed me to tell you). It's a fascinating scene in the respect that Wormold convinces Captain Segura that he's being fair by having him take the Scotch instead of the bourbon because one is stronger than the other. A fact that is pretty much completely false but possibly could have been a cultural misunderstanding of the time. Each piece a character takes they must drink. This is all a subterfuge to get Captain Segura drunk, as he is the better player, so he'll pass out and Wormold can steal his gun along with some information he knows Segura has on him.
I won't tell you how it turns out in the end for Wormold but I will say you can probably predict that his superiors have to deal with their own ignorance in allowing their desire for the information they expect to get to outweigh their ability to back up that information with real facts. Graham Greene is always a good read and while I don't know this I would wager he had an affinity for whiskey himself. Whether we're talking about Our Man In Havana or the whisky priest in The Power and The Glory it always has a place in his novels. This ends up being a good read on a number of levels but if all else fails you can always just get a checkers board and some miniatures and try your hand at the game. Maybe some day you'll have what it takes to be a British spy too.