Book review

“People change,’ she said
‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”

Greene’s 1938 novel of gang warfare in Brighton pulls off a rare achievement – it is atBrighton Rock By Graham Greene once both an adventure story and a serious mediation on good and evil. I was blown away by it; not necessarily by the plot (the ending is largely predictable) but by the quality of the prose. Greene’s control of language is masterful throughout, and virtually every sentence is a gem.

Charles Hale comes to Brighton to distribute cards for a newspaper competition. Hale has somehow underestimated the antipathy felt for him by a local gang, a mistake he quickly comes to regret. The novel tells the reader as much with the ominous opening line:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

To avoid being isolated by the gang who begin tracking him through the crowds of day-trippers, Fred picks up Ida Arnold, visiting Brighton for the races. This helps keep the gang at arms length, but he is then briefly separated from her, long enough for them lead him away to his fate.

Pinkie Brown, (also known as The Boy), is the leader of the gang that murders Hale. Pinkie struggles through the remainder of the novel to avoid the consequences of this killing. Although he has carefully planned the timing of his alibi, things quickly unravel. One gang member, Spicer, is tasked with distributing Hale’s leftover cards around Brighton in order to confuse any investigation into the timing of his death. But a witness, Rose, the waitress at a café, sees him leaving one of Hale’s cards, and is able to identify him. Pinkie knows that the waitress’s evidence could reveal his complicity in Hale’s murder. Rose is an innocent and vulnerable 16 year old, a fellow Roman Catholic, and she falls into a destructive and abusive relationship with Pinkie.

Pinkie is the novel’s central character, and much of the story is told from his perspective. He is a highly damaged individual – only 17 years old and already a killer. We are told repeatedly that he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and is a virgin. He inherited control of the gang following the death of the original leader Kite in a fight on St Pancras station, and rules the gang through fear of his instability and propensity for sudden violence. As well as his weapon of choice, a razor blade, he carries around a bottle of acid (“vitriol”) with which he threatens Rose. He aims to silence her with fear, before later deciding to marry her, as wives were unable to testify against their husbands law at the time.

The police are peripheral figures in Brighton Rock – a gang fight at the races doesn’t merit an investigation; neither does Spicer’s obviously suspicious death. Pinkie is floundering with the challenges of his new role – his immaturity is emphasised by his diminutive nickname. The local police persuade a witness to an attack by the gang to withdraw his evidence, make a mess of the investigation into Hale’s death, if any, and encourage Pinkie to join forces with the mobster planning to take over his territory.

Hale’s death does not go completely uninvestigated however. Ida Arnold, who was with him moments before his murder, doesn’t believe the inquest verdict, and decides to try to discover how he came to die. The novel’s narrative voice consistently if gently mocks Ida, but she sets about the investigation in a very systematic manner, following up leads and persuading the local police to let her see the report into Hale’s death. She takes all the steps that one would expect a traditional investigator to follow, including starting at the scene of the crime and attempting to trace Hale’s contacts on the day. But we are encouraged throughout despite all the evidence to the contrary to see Ida as a clumsy, rather foolhardy figure.

Ida is a fascinating character. The narrator tells the reader that

“You thought of sucking babies when you looked at her”

says she has

“A touch of nursery and the mother”

and describes

“Her Guinness kindness”.

In other words she is the last person one would expect to bravely confront murderous gangsters and bring them to justice. But she does just that. I can’t think of any other character in fiction to can compare to Ida. Women in detective and thriller stories usually are given a subordinate role, and those that do feature are usually young and sexually attractive. The exceptions – Miss Marple for example – are usually shown as eccentric and devoid of sexuality. Ida’s actions  consistently undercuts the narrator’s depiction of her as an ineffective slightly comic figure.

The novel also contains a serious discussion on the Christian concepts of good and evil, damnation and salvation, without being in any way didactic. Rose is terrified that she might be damned, but is prepared to lose her mortal soul for the sake of Pinkie; Pinkie is certain about the existence of hell, but less convinced about its counterpart:

“But you do believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments.”
“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, “maybe.”

Pinkie is a Roman Catholic and knows that his crimes are sins for which a price will be paid at some point. Ida is the counterpoint to Pinkie in the novel. Her ideas about sin are in stark contrast to Pinkie’s – she says:

“It doesn’t do anyone any harm that I know of. It’s human nature…It’s only fun after all…fun to be human.

Reflecting on an afternoon of sex with her gentleman friend Corkery:

“She knew what was right and what was wrong. God didn’t mind a bit of human nature – what he minded – and her brain switched away from Phil in pants to her mission, to doing good, to seeing that evil suffered”.

All these elements come together in the climax of the novel with extraordinary pace and flair. The thriller element of the story is highly effective, and perfectly balanced with the ideas about morality – the two elements complement one another rather than providing a distraction. Without the discussion of good versus evil this would just be a quite limited detective story, albeit one that introduces a new kind of amateur detective to fiction. Without the detective element this would be a tedious debate about what makes people commit crimes. Together they form a compelling story.

There’s much else of interest in this novel. The prose is luxurious and complex without being in any way obscure. For his gangster characters Greene adopts a limited version of Polari – a slang dialect initially derived from travellers which in the 1950’s became popular within the gay community to allow ideas to be openly discussed without being overheard or understood by others.

The novel is crowded with vividly realised portraits of characters, especially Pinkie’s gang and their base at Frank’s. For example, Pinkie’s rival, Colleoni, is an aging Italian mobster

“in glace shoes, with a white slip to his waistcoat and a jewelled pin”

who stays at the Cosmopolitan, a world away from Frank’s, the seedy boarding house which acts as the base for Pinkie’s gang. Frank’s telephone number is 666, either Greene’s or Pinkie’s joking reference to Revelations and the number of the beast. There is also a strong sense of place about the novel – the streets of Brighton and the local landmarks are vividly captured. 

At the close, Greene provides us with an understanding of the cruel events of the novel, in a line quoted in Jed Bartlett’s extraordinary Two Cathedrals speech from the West Wing:

“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.”

But there is still time for one last shock, as Greene allows Rose to discover Pinkie’s true feelings toward her, described as “the worst horror of all”.

Brighton Rock is a magnificent, rewarding, complex book that demands to be read and reread for a long time. It has its flaws, but in my view is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, 1938

Aside

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