Fowler “jumps back” to describe what happened after the end of Part 2, when Pyle left Fowler’s home. In the weeks afterwards, Fowler would sometimes come home to find Phuong, and sometimes he’d go days without seeing her. Fowler suspects that she’s going to see Pyle, but can’t prove it.
Fowler has no control over Phuong—and curiously, this is refreshing to read. Phuong has been so passive in the novel that it’s pleasant to be reminded that she’s an adult, capable of making her own choices.
A few weeks after last seeing Pyle, Fowler becomes aware of the “incident of the bicycle bombs.” Dominguez, who’s recovered from his illness, tells Fowler about a story worth reporting, and sends him into the center of the city. When he arrives, Fowler is surprised to see a group of police frantically searching through a group of bicycles that are parked by a large fountain. The police officers confiscate three bicycles and wheel them away.
Greene is talented at building a sense of danger and suspense out of the most banal of things. Thus, we’re told straight away that the danger in this scene has something to do with a bicycle, but Greene doesn’t give us any more information than that. This creates a mood of anxiety and uncertainty.
Fowler notices Mr. Heng standing near the bicycles. When Fowler greets him, Heng, looking at his watch, advises Fowler to stay away from the fountain. Fowler obliges, though he points out that Heng’s watch is about four minutes fast. A few moments later, at exactly 11 AM, the fountain explodes. Heng and Fowler look at the destruction coolly: a few buildings have been destroyed. Heng casually points to a bicycle pump lying near the bicycles, and asks Fowler if it looks familiar. Fowler realizes that he’s looking at the same mould he saw in Heng’s warehouse. Heng explains that he and Chou have inadvertently been making cases for plastic explosives, all of which have been detonated across the city at 11 AM.
Fowler’s cynicism is on full display at this moment—it’s as if he’s seen so much death and destruction during his two years in Vietnam that a little more can’t hurt him. Here we also realize that the stray details Greene has mentioned before (plastic, the warehouse, the moulds) were all part of a “master plan”— Pyle’s, it would seem. Pyle’s obsession for York Harding seemed amusing when he was just talking at a bar, but when Pyle is suddenly in control of explosives, his ideas—disconnected from the reality of Vietnam—become deadly.
Fowler writes a story about the “Bicycle Bombs,” in which he blames General Thé for the damage. He thinks that Pyle must have been responsible for the bicycles, and thinks that it’s better for Pyle to “play with plastic” than to concentrate on Phuong. Shortly after he finishes his story, Fowler goes to visit Mr. Moui, the man Mr. Heng had mentioned when Fowler visited his warehouse.
Fowler’s journalism is both true and misleading—clearly, Fowler himself believes that Pyle, along with General Thé, is responsible for the explosions, but he doesn’t say this in his story. Fowler remains curiously detached from this potential for violence and death—another sign of his apathy and depression.
At Mr. Muoi’s warehouse, Fowler finds a dirty cluster of machines. On some of the machines there is a fine white powder, exactly like the powder Fowler noticed at Heng’s warehouse. Because there is no one in the warehouse, Fowler leaves and returns to his home. Phuong is not there, and it seems to Fowler that she has taken some of her possessions—scarves, books, etc.
At the end of this chapter, Greene establishes the basic tension between the two halves of his story: the love triangle between Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong, and the political/ideological conflict between Pyle’s idealism and Fowler’s cynicism. Ironically, it is Pyle’s idealism that ultimately seems more dangerous—he is perfectly happy to kill people “for the greater good.”