THIS SHORT novel was written four decades ago while Graham Greene was under contract to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. It seems to have originated as an idea for a screenplay briefly outlined in Greene's diary some years before: "a political situation like that in Spain. A decimation order. Ten men in prison draw lots with matches. A rich man draws the longest match. Offers all his money to anyone who will take his place. One, for the sake of his family, agrees. Later, when he is released, the former rich man visits anonymously the family who possess his money, he himself now with nothing but his life. . ."

With only the slightest alterations, that is how Greene subsequently wrote the tale: a 30,000-word manuscript, spare but highly polished, that quickly vanished into the MGM archives. It was discovered there in 1983 and offered for sale. Its purchaser, Anthony Blond, showed the typescript to Greene, who writes: "What surprised and aggravated me most of all was that I found this forgotten story very readable -- indeed I prefer it in many ways to The Third Man, so that I had no longer any personal excuse for opposing publication even if I had the legal power, which was highly doubtful." So now, however belatedly, we have before us Greene's 23rd novel.

Its author's own admiration for it notwithstanding, The Tenth Man is a good distance short of his best work -- and it falls considerably short, as well, of The Third Man, which Greene seems to underrate. It is written with great skill, of course, and as with Greene's other "entertainments" it goes relatively light on the theology. But it is too cleverly plotted for its own good, and it is so didactically thematic that even the dimmest of movie moguls presumably would be able to figure it out -- which may well have been precisely Greene's original intention.

As the story finally took shape, the novella opens with 30 Frenchmen being held hostage by the Germans. As reprisal for acts of violence against Germans, their captors inform them that the next day one in 10 will be shot. The men decide to hold a lottery with 30 slips of paper, three of which are marked. One of these is drawn by Jean-Louis Chavel, a wealthy lawyer from Paris, "a lonely fellow who made awkward attempts from time to time to prove himself human." Desperately, Chavel offers his fortune -- 300,000 francs, a small estate outside Paris, considerable personal property -- to anyone who will die in his stead. The offer is accepted by Janvier, "a thin silent youth," who makes out a will leaving the property to his widowed mother and twin sister. The next morning Janvier is shot to death.

Chavel lives, but at war's end his bargain seems an empty one. He is scorned as a coward; to disguise his failure he retreats into the pseudonym of Jean-Louis Charlot. In Paris he can find no work: "He was one of them now, a man without money or position, and unconsciously they had accepted him, and begun to judge him by their own standards, and to condemn him." He has become "just a man like the rest of us," and it begins to dawn on him that he had owed his position in the world not to his own abilities but to inheritance.

Not surprisingly, in this bleak mood his thoughts turn to home; "he felt an enormous longing just to be able to get up and catch a train and go home as he had often done in past years." This he does; he comes home, though, not as freeholder but as mendicant, asking for a meal and then being hired, by the young Th,erce where he once had been ruler. Soon enough he settles in: "For twenty-four hours it was strange and bitter to be living in his own house as an odd-job man, but after another twenty-four it was familiar and peaceful. If a man lovs a place enough he doesn't need to possess it: it's enough for him to know that it is safe and unaltered -- or only altered in the natural way by time and circumstance."

IT IS ALSO not surprising -- indeed, it is all too predictable -- that in fairly short order he falls in love with Th,erviolent, self-destructive hatred for Jean-Louis Chavel, who lives while her beloved brother is dead. "I've got such hate," she says, "it goes on and on all day and all night. It's like a smell you can't get rid of when something's died under the floorboards. . . . Some people can drop their hate for an hour and pick it up again at the church door. I can't. I wish I could." Charlot realizes, with anguish, that "this is all my work," that "I didn't ask for two lives -- only Janvier's." So he begins to wonder if his growing love for her might eventally ameliorate her hatred, and thus in some small measure help him atone for what he has done.

At this point the story proceeds through a number of developments that, though certainly interesting, put the reader's credulity to considerable strain. Greene is up to making some provocative points, but he makes them by trotting his story through a course that is only marginally plausible. He also fairly trumpets his themes in the reader's ear: the irony of exchanging one's life for another diametrically opposed; the possibility of "genuine love" that will accept a person no matter how terrible his faults; the irrelevance of property to character; and, above all, the appearance of that moment in one's life when "everyone's tested once and afterwards you know what you are."

These themes are neither dull nor trivial, but in The Tenth Man they are developed in a manner most uncharacteristic of Greene: rather than showing, he tells. By contrast with The Third Man, in which many of the same themes are similarly important, he brings them forth not through the natural workings of his plot but through heavy conversations and ruminations. It goes without saying that the novel is entertaining and intelligent; if Greene has ever written anything that is otherwise, it has not come to my attention. But in our pleasure and excitement over having this unexpected bonus from him, we should not lose perspective on precisely what sort of bonus it is. The Tenth Man is an outline, however elegantly presented, for a screenplay; it might have made a major movie, but it is minor Greene.