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Russian Roulette: Bad Bet

In response to:

God's Greene from the March 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In the course of an article about Graham Greene [NYR, March 16], John Bayley presents a gratuitous analysis of the game of Russian roulette which implies that this dangerous “game” may be safer than it appears. HIS ANALYSIS IS TOTALLY IN ERROR WITH REGARD TO MOST REVOLVERS. The additional torque due to the presence of an unbalanced round in one chamber is normally less than the frictional drag on the cylinder. The chance that the bullet would be likely to “be carried by its weight to the bottom of the cylinder” is virtually zero. While the likelihood of a fatal result of a turn at Russian roulette might conceivably be less than 1 in 6 by a few percentage points, depending on the weapon, the game remains essentially a sloppy form of suicide. It would indeed be a tragedy if an individual were to act on this piece of misinformation, perhaps as a party stunt, and lose his or her life.

In that it bears directly on human life, this minor point seems to me, at least, to be more than a piece of literary trivia.

Gary Boucher, Ph.D.
Golden, Colorado

John Bayley replies:

Dr. Boucher is right to draw attention to the risk factor incurred by discussing the mechanics of such a dangerous “game” as Russian roulette, and it was thoughtless of me not to realize this myself. As regards those mechanics expert opinion seems divided: it seems the kind of problem that hardly admits of a practical solution. My purpose in mentioning it, however, was to draw attention not to a question of ballistics, but to a chronically equivocal element in Greene’s literary persona.

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