Wilson sits on the balcony at the Bedford Hotel in a West African island colony, sipping gin and staring off into sea. He looks like the other men there, but his eyes betray his sensitive nature. A man named Harris asks Wilson if he can join him, and Wilson says yes. They are annoyed by an Indian man who keeps trying to read their fortunes, and Harris complains loudly about all the West Indians around. Harris points out another white man to Wilson - Scobie, a police officer who is rumored to have affairs with African girls and receive bribes from Syrian merchants.
Scobie walks past the government buildings and the jail and courts with the "odour of human meanness and injustice" (15). He goes to his sparsely decorated office. A Mende sergeant informs Scobie that the Commissioner and a Miss Wilberforce from Sharp Town want to see him. He first visits the Commissioner, who is retiring. He confirms the rumors that Scobie will not be taking his his place and warns Scobie against taking any action against the decision - because Scobie has enemies who will never allow his ascension to the Commissioner's post. He asks if Scobie wants to retire and Scobie insists he wants to stay on because he likes living in West Africa.
Scobie then meets with Miss Wilberforce. She has come to resolve a conflict that commonly arises between tenants and landlords in Sharp Town. During the conversation, Scobie marvels that he is able to think of Miss Wilberforce as pretty even though she has dark skin; he would not have been able to admire her beauty fifteen years ago.
That evening, Scobie returns home and calls for his wife, Louise. He does not love her but feels responsible for her happiness. The thought of her constant unhappiness makes him weary. Ali tells Scobie that Louise is upstairs and feeling ill. Soon thereafter, Louise calls down to her husband using the nickname "Ticki," which he hates. Upstairs, she asks Scobie about the rumor she has heard about the Commissioner, and Scobie admits that he has been passed over for the promotion. Louise moans that she cannot never show her face at the club again, and begs him to quit so they can leave West Africa. After Louise's anger fades, Scobie gets her to eat a little and feels victorious.
Later, on the way to the club, Louise keeps prattling on. Scobie never listens to what she's saying unless she speaks in a specific urgent tone. He reflects on an incoming Brazilian ship that the force will need to search for diamonds and contraband. The Scobies arrive at the club, and Louise is nervous that the other guests will be talking about them. She spots one of her acquaintances and Scobie wanders over to his colleagues: Fellowes, Reith, and Brigstock. Fellowes is complaining about a man named Wilson that Harris, the dentist, has brought to the club. Fellowes is mad because Wilson should be joining the club in Sharp Town, but as Scobie points out, that club is not functioning right now.
Scobie greets Wilson. He observes that Wilson seems "defenseless," and is standing around "waiting for people to be friendly or unfriendly" (30). Scobie introduces Wilson to Louise, and is pleased to see them hit it off. Scobie's evening seems to be improving until he hears a junior officer named Frazer joke that "literary Louise" has gotten ahold of poor Wilson. Scobie is incensed; he feels a surge of emotion which eventually turns into quiet pity for his wife. She should be able to enjoy her books, he cries out inwardly. Scobie strides across the room defiantly and kisses Louise as a gesture of his loving commitment to her. No one sees or cares. Scobie is ready to leave but Louise decides to stay a bit longer to continue chatting with Wilson.
On his way home, Scobie stops to help Yusef, whose car has stalled. Scobie tries to remain surreptitious, as it is dangerous for cops to be seen associating with Syrian merchants. However, Scobie agrees to give Yusuf a ride. He asks Yusuf about his business. Yusef laughs and says he is doing well. Scobie mentions Tallit, another Syrian with whom Yusef has a conflict. Scobie wonders to himself why he likes being in West Africa so much - "Is it because human nature hasn't had time to disguise itself?" (35)
On his way home, Scobie stops to tell two policemen they should investigate the "rats" – street gangs of young boys down by the wharves – and the younger policemen do so grudgingly. Scobie also finds a bottle full of dog pee and stuffed with leaves; it is intended to cast a curse on someone. Scobie riles himself up thinking about Frazer's comments about Louise and throws the bottle into the water, sending the foul scent and "evil thought" (38) spreading into the air. Scobie decides that he will not allow Frazer to conduct the inspection of the ship tomorrow, which makes him feel better.
At home, Scobie finds Wilson and Louise pleasantly reading poetry together. He offers to drive Wilson home, and after a bit of prodding, Wilson accepts. Scobie tells Wilson to come over again, and is glad to see that Louise had an enjoyable evening.
In the middle of the night, Scobie awakens to the sound of Louise crying. This has happened many times before, and Scobie knows how to handle it. Louise asks Scobie if he loves her, and he replies that she knows he does. She will feel better when the rains come, he asserts. She cries because she is so unhappy, has no friends, and wants to leave. Louise suggests that she go to South Africa alone and Scobie can join her after he retires. He says he would miss her, and she responds that he would not. He is surprised by her accuracy. He says he will try to work something out, and they go to sleep.
The next day, Scobie goes to the bank to request a loan, but Robinson, the bank manager, deems it impossible. Scobie feels overwhelming shame as he leaves the bank. He feels as though he "[has] failed in some way in manhood” (46). Later that day, Scobie has to conduct the search of the ship, called Esperanca. The Portuguese captain serves the officers drinks and their exchange is polite – this is all part of the ritual of the search. However, someone passes a note to Scobie, informing him that the ship's captain has letters hidden in his bathroom.
Scobie follows the captain into captain’s quarters. Scobie formally conducts his search, but it is clear that the process makes him very uncomfortable. He apologizes gently to the captain but keeps searching all the same. Nothing of note turns up in the cabin, and Scobie moves to the bathroom. He finds a letter hidden under the cap of the cistern.
The captain bursts into tears and says he hates the war. It is only a letter to his daughter, he insists, but Scobie, uncomfortable, says it is still necessary to turn it over. The captain learns that Scobie is Catholic and appeals to his religious beliefs in hopes of gaining leniency. The captain then tries to bribe Scobie, who will not give in.
Scobie takes the letter back to his room. It lies on his desk and makes him feel weary about life. He wishes that life passed by more quickly. Even though it is forbidden to read clandestine mail, Scobie decides to open the captain's letter anyway. Upon reading it, he realizes that the captain was telling the truth - it is actually a letter to the man’s daughter who happens to be living in Germany. Scobie decides to tear up the letter and the report. Afterwards, he feels corrupted by sentiment, which is more dangerous than corruption by money because there is no price.
Scobie dreads going home and telling Louise he does not have the money for her to go to South Africa. He compares going home to marching towards an execution: “sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery” (56).
Predictably, he and Louise engage in brief small talk before she outwardly she asks Scobie if he has had any success. He sadly tells her no and she becomes upset. He says he has some more ideas, but she tells him morosely that he not love her anymore. She says he has not loved anyone since their daughter Catherine died; maybe he does not even love himself. Louise knows that her husband is unhappy, and thinks that he will be happier when she is gone. Grudgingly, Scobie thinks how well she knows him. He desires the peace of her absence.
When their is fight over, Scobie tells Louise that he loves her and that he will find a way to secure her passage. He wonders if the impossible goal of making her happy is setting him up for failure and despair.
It is clear from the beginning of The Heart of the Matter that Graham Greene requires a certain amount of effort from his readers. He does not provide the name of the West African colony where the story takes place nor does he offer a cultural background of the effect of World War II. He also starts the novel with Wilson when in fact Scobie is the main protagonist. Greene introduces each major character with very little fanfare or explanation. The reader must peel back the layers of each character like an onion and put together the pieces of the narrative carefully and slowly.
In Book One Part One, the reader meets Scobie, his wife Louise, the aforementioned Wilson, Yusef, and a host of minor characters. Scobie is a dutiful police officer committed to his job and his wife, whom he does not love anymore but is driven to protect her by a sense of duty and overwhelming pity. He is enamored with the place he is stationed, which, according to critics and biographers, Greene likely modeled on Sierra Leone, which was then part of British West Africa. Staid, responsible, and long-suffering, Scobie yearns for peace and quiet. This Commissioner denies him this simple desire by refusing to promote Scobie and thus causing tension between Scobie and Louise.
Louise is extremely unhappy in the hot, dirty, and isolated wartime colony and wants to leave or at least see her husband promoted to Commissioner so that their quality of life can improve. She is beset by depression and she also knows deep down that "Ticki" does not love her. However, she needs Scobie to participate in a constant ritual of validation by assuring her of his devotion and fidelity. Scobie does not to try to fool himself into thinking he loves his wife. but he feels bound to her and obligated to ensure her happiness. Because of this, Scobie becomes furious when he overhears his fellow officers laughing at "'Literary Louise'" (31). Scobie also encourages Louise to strike up a friendship with the lonely Wilson, thinking it might cheer her up. He promises to find a way for her to leave the colony that makes her so miserable; he comments that he would have done this "even if he could have foreseen all that would come of it" (60).
Scobie describes Wilson as "defenseless" (30) and lacking humanity. As Wilson's motives unfold, he will prove to be one of novel's antagonists, if it is possible to assign such a term in a novel full of alternately sympathetic and self-interested characters. Greene clearly establishes Wilson's loneliness and his chameleon - like tendencies in these early chapters. He desires to look and act like other men, but his "brown dog's eyes, a setter's eyes" (12) betray his sensitivity. Finally, Scobie encounters Yusef on his way home from the club. Yusef is a charming but dangerous man, and Scobie's entanglement with him will facilitate his undoing later on in the novel.
Scobie experiences a major turning point during his raid of the Esperanca. He goes against his professional mandate by overlooking the Portuguese captain's clandestine letter to his daughter in Germany. He even destroys the letter and his report about the illegal correspondence because it reminds Scobie of his own daughter, Catherine, who died many years ago but still haunts his memories. Critic Daniel Scott notes that this incident is the first time that Scobie is "unmoored from [the] stability" of his ordered life and "sets in motion his hopeless battle with fate." Whereas his conduct has been unblemished until now (despite the rumors), Scobie finally joins "the ranks of the corrupt police officers" because he has been "corrupted by sentiment" (55). This is where Scobie's trail of lies begins, and it will end up destroying his soul. Greene foreshadows the major changes in store for his character by writing that Scobie feels like he is "on the verge of a new life" (53) as he prepares to break the law and read the captain's letter.