Thursday, 10 September 2020

Book review: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene (1938)

Like others reviewed recently, this volume came from an op-shop near Wollongong. It cost me $3 and was a complete revelation, being a literary novel with genre roots avant la lettre. The use of genre tropes – the unsolved murder, the missing husband, the grizzly find – in our day is widespread and Greene appears, to me, to be a harbinger of such riches.

The book is not long but it wastes no time and a good amount of action is packed into a series of eventful seaside days. Greene’s inventions – Pinkie, the 17-year-old gangster, and Ida Arnold, the middle-aged local who likes a laugh and a Guinness in the afternoon – are fabulous. Ida reminded me strongly of Vera Stanhope, the detective in the ITV network’s crime drama ‘Vera’ which is a favourited of mine on Sunday nights (a series regrettably ended at the end of August). 

Like Vera, Ida feels a deep compassion for her fellow human beings and it is this that drives her to investigate the death of a man she’d met only briefly one day in Brighton. Ida tipples during the day and has a generous figure that she uses to her advantage but she’s smart as well as sentimental. Pinkie is also smart but he’s anything but sentimental, so the two characters act as a foil, each to the other, like diametrical opposite components in an interlocking pair that makes a different shape. Almost yin and yang.

The way that Pinkie tries to force people to accept his version of reality has a lot in common with certain totalitarian governments today (another thing to regret, alas). There are other characters of note, such as Spicer, whose bloodshot eyes and calloused feet make him sympathetic despite his life of crime, and Rose, a 16-year-old waitress who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Greene portrays these unheroic individuals with a kind of awareness and delicacy born of empathy.

A seaside resort close to London, Brighton in this book is a dark and menacing place animated by unseen forces. Good and evil reside there, and people yet go about their errands in peace. 

Without the overt racism it contains – disgusting caricatures of people of African ancestry and of Jews – ‘Brighton Rock’ might have turned out to be a piercing meditation on contemporary Britain, a society with enormous disparities of wealth where anyone’s upbringing is recorded in their voice as much as in their clothes. For a youth growing up in such a place, it must’ve seemed that financial security – as evident in the kinds of establishments you’d normally visit or the clothes you wore – must be achieved as quickly as possible, and damn the consequences for anyone unwise or unlucky enough to get in the way.

Unfortunately, what I found in the first half of the book was too unambiguous to ignore, so I gave up before finishing it. Ian McEwan’s endorsement on the back cover is also disturbing in the light of the repellent ideas I found expressed in the book.

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