Wow. Let the below sink in for a minute! Despite my familiarity with quite a few biographies about Greene, I did not know about the libel suits!
When the news came to me that the English Book Society had chosen Stamboul Train, I thought I was temporarily saved, and yet fate had still a flick of the tail in store, a threatened libel action from J.B. Priestley. Priestley, whom I had never met, had taken the character of Savory, in Stamboul Train, as a portrait of himself – I had described Savory as a popular novelist in the manner of Dickens, and Priestley had recently published to enormous acclaim his novel The Good Companions, which led some reviewers to compare him with Dickens.
I was to learn in the years that followed how dangerous the libel laws could be to a writer. In this case Priestley, I am sure, really believed that this all-but-unknown writer was attacking him; he acted in good faith. The good faith of others was often more dubious. After the moderate success of Stamboul Train I began to be regarded as a monetary mark (no libel cases are ever brought against a failure). Between 1934 and 1938 one book, Journey Without Maps, had to be withdrawn and small damages paid to a doctor whom I didn’t know even existed, twice I was threatened by libel actions for reviews written in the Spectator, and finally there was the case of Miss Shirley Temple who, aged nine, brought a libel action against me through Twentieth Century-Fox for a criticism of her film Wee Willie Winkie in the magazine Night and Day.
In those black days for authors – they ended with the war and a change in the libel laws – there was one firm of solicitors who went out of their way to incite actions for libel, checking the names of characters with the names in the London telephone directory. An acquaintance of mine was approached at the door of his flat by a solicitor’s clerk who carried a novel which, he said, contained an undesirable character of the same name (the more uncommon the name the greater the danger, which was one reason why in my novel The Comedians I called my principal characters Brown, Jones and Smith). The solicitor’s clerk told my friend that if he wished to institute proceedings his public-spirited firm would be glad to assist. There would be no expenses if the case were lost, but he assured my friend it was unlikely to reach the Courts.
Unlikely indeed, for most publishers in those days had little zest for fighting. They were always prepared to cut their losses and make a small settlement. In the case of Stamboul Train about twenty pages had to be reprinted because of Priestley’s threatened libel action, and Heinemann deducted the cost from my royalties, or rather added them to my increasing debt to the firm.