Graham Greene Emerges from Seclusion with a Harrowing Tale of French Corruption

updated 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The story begins like a passage from a Graham Greene thriller. First an ominous letter to the editor appears in the London Sunday Times. It tells of mysterious telephone calls, crime on the French Riviera, and darkly charges that lawyers, judges and police officials in Nice are in the thrall of gangsters. The writer vows to expose them all. "If old age permits," he promises, "I hope to deal with it, too, in a nonfiction book based on personal experience. As for the title, I shall have to borrow from Zola, J'Accuse."

Letters to the Sunday Times are a notorious soapbox for eccentrics, but this one commanded attention: It was signed by Graham Greene himself. After the paper published a follow-up, other reporters swarmed into Nice to find out what had so disturbed the reclusive 77-year-old novelist. They discovered a bizarre story that led Greene from a family custody battle to what he sees as widespread local corruption.

Greene explained that he had broken his silence to act in defense of Martine Cloetta, 31, the daughter of Jacques Cloetta and his wife, Yvonne, Greene's longtime secretary. Greene met the Cloettas and their little daughter in 1960 in the Congo while gathering material for his novel A Burnt-Out Case. Six years later, when Greene settled in Antibes, he discovered the Cloettas in nearby Juan-les-Pins. Yvonne helped out as Greene's secretary, and was rumored to be his mistress. As she grew up, Martine became Greene's surrogate niece. In 1972, when she got a job as an announcer on Monte Carlo TV, she was smitten by Daniel Guy, the debonair real estate agent who helped her find an apartment near work. Little more than a year later they were married, and within six months they had a daughter, Alexandra.

Martine, who is now in hiding in Switzerland, says she was in trouble from the start. "I became aware of my husband's predilection for unsavory characters," she says. "But I thought they were just pals. I was pretty naive." Late one night, Martine claims, Lucien Bonito, a painter with reputed connections to the underworld, appeared in the Guys' apartment to pick up a small suitcase hidden in the garbage pail. "I didn't want to know what was in it, and Daniel wouldn't have told me anyhow," Martine says, "but from snippets of conversation and remarks like 'We've got the cops sewn up and it's costing us plenty,' I gathered Daniel was in it up to his ears. Casino rackets and such things."

Her suspicions were not without reason. Daniel, a veteran of the Algerian War, had often told about his past membership in the terrorist OAS (Organisation de I' Armée Secrète), some of whose members relocated to Nice after Algeria became independent. Between 1960 and 1970, moreover, after his return to France, Daniel was jailed four times on charges of theft and violence and served a total of more than three years behind bars. When Greene later confronted Guy with evidence of his criminal past, he shrugged it off as "errors of youth."

The Guys were divorced in 1979, a few months before Martine gave birth to a second daughter, Sandrine. Custody of Alexandra was awarded to Martine, but in April 1980 Daniel took the unresisting little girl from the garage of Martine's apartment in a violent scene, during which he pulled his father-in-law, Jacques Cloetta, from his car and throttled him, and Martine sprayed tear gas in Daniel's face. Incredibly, French courts awarded Guy custody of Alexandra in May and confirmed it after two appeals. Martine and Yvonne contend that there is a full-fledged conspiracy among Niçoise authorities to shelter Daniel, who, they say, has bought the favors of the judicial system, and who wants to keep Alexandra out of revenge.

Martine then fled, fearing that her husband would seize Sandrine as well, and Greene intensified his campaign. Living alone in his two-bedroom flat, he works on J'Accuse, writing in longhand that is painfully slowed by arthritis. In Nice, newspapers are railing against him, and the city's Mayor, muttering about lawsuits, has charged the author with "spitting in the soup." Says a defiant Daniel Guy: "I am a wall." "So am I," retorts the aged writer, and promises that his tract will get to the heart of the matter.

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