"The Heat of the Day" is set in the autumn of 1942, and deals with the triangular relationship between its three main characters, Stella Rodney, Robert Kelway and Harrison. (For most of the book he is referred to only by his surname, although towards the end we learn that his Christian name is also Robert). Stella is a woman in her early forties, briefly married and then divorced about twenty years earlier. She is several years older than her soldier lover, Kelway. Kelway was wounded during the retreat to Dunkirk, and is now working for the army in a non-combatant role which involves access to classified information.
Harrison, an agent with the British secret services, is investigating Kelway, who is suspected of passing military secrets to the enemy. Harrison contacts Stella and informs her that Kelway is suspected of treachery. He, however, is prepared to bargain; he will allow Kelway to remain at liberty provided that Stella becomes his lover.
Of the three main characters, it is Kelway who is potentially the most interesting. He is a man who is prepared not only to betray his country but also to collaborate with a regime as vile as the Nazi one. He has neither been bribed or blackmailed, but has made the decision to assist the enemy out of ideological conviction. Unlike most Nazi sympathisers, however, he does not appear to be motivated by racism or anti-Semitism. He rather believes that the freedom promised by democratic systems of government is an illusion and that it is the unity and strength conferred by obedience to a powerful leader which hold out the greater hope for mankind.
Both the other main characters are also, in their own way, traitors; Harrison in that he puts his own sexual advantage before his duty to his country and Stella in that she is prepared to assist Kelway to escape even after he has confessed his treachery to her. As others have pointed out, this could have been the plot of a Graham Greene thriller, although Elizabeth Bowen's treatment of her subject matter is very different from the way Greene would have handled it. For a start, there is very little mention of religion, something which normally plays an important part in Greene's works. More importantly, although Bowen is interested in exploring the psychology of her characters on the surface level, she does not explore their deeper reasons for their behaviour, something which, I feel sure, would have interested Greene.
I felt that more time should have been spent in exploring the motivations of the main characters; the psychology of a man like Kelway, in particular, could have made for an interesting character study, but this opportunity was neglected. We never really see the process whereby he has come to the conclusion that it is totalitarianism, not democracy, that represents the wave of the future; we are simply presented with his opinions at the end of the book when he confesses his guilt to Stella and attempts to explain his treachery to her. (It is also never explained why he should have developed an admiration for Nazism rather than Communism, which had rather more support in Britain at this period).
On a more immediate level, however, Bowen is very sensitive to the nuances of social behaviour and conversation, which meant that her characters always seem vivid and real. Her prose style is elegant, and she is good at conjuring up a sense of time and place, taking her reader back to a damp, foggy autumn in London and the Home Counties, midway through the Second World War. (The "Heat" in the title is metaphorical- this is not a book about a hot summer). The book did not, however, seem well-structured- too much of the book was taken up with sub-plots with little connection with the main story. Bowen tells how Kelway's family debate whether or not to sell their family home and how Stella's son Roderick inherits a country house in Ireland from a cousin- Bowen was herself from an Irish landowning family- and wastes a good deal of time on Louie, a young woman with only a vague connection to Stella and Harrison, and her friend Connie. Although there were things to enjoy in "The Heat of the Day" it did not impress me as much as "The Death of the Heart", the only other one of Bowen's novels which I have read.