Book review: Brighton Rock
The opening sentence of Graham Greene’s first masterpiece offers a masterclass on how to wrest a reader’s attention — swift and unrelenting.
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Not only does that hook you like a bait, there is a lot of information packed into less than the length of a tweet: we are told the man is not from Brighton, that his life is in danger, of which he knows. It has all the flavours of a tantalising thriller.
But as Greene noted, “The first fifty pages of Brighton Rock are all that remain of the detective story,” which is true, for after that this novel invests itself in a lush of characterisations and complex issues surrounding religion.
17-year-old Pinkie, who leads a criminal gang in the 1930s Brighton, must cover up his involvement in Hale’s assassination when Ida, a middle-aged lounge singer who shared the deceased’s last hours, takes it upon herself to unravel the truth behind an innocuous autopsy.
To do so, Pinkie has to marry Rose, just so she could not be made to give evidence against him, a fate he often feels as worse than death.
Through this 1938 novel, Greene offers his portrait of pre-war England. While this is mercilessly cast in a profane light, his astounding skill in sketching the desolation of internal landscapes through painting the bleakness of external ones is compelling.
With a cinematic view, he describes Pinkie’s lonely ambivalence on the first morning after the young couple’s civil ceremony in poetic prose: “In the street the lamps were out … he could see basement railings, a cat moving, and reflected on the dark sky, the phosphorescent glow of the sea. It was a strange world: he had never been alone in it before. He had a deceptive sense of freedom as he walked …”
We learn that coming from an impoverished neighbourhood, his parents’ sexual rituals had been carried out beside the boy’s bed. This had left young Pinkie feeling marginalised, even if for a few minutes every Saturday night, provoking his unusual aversion to fornication and fuelling his appetite for control. It was with wild ambitions that he had left home, holding “intimacy back … at the end of a razor blade.”
So when Rose, from the same town, becomes privy to his crime, he is deeply resentful. “He thought he had made his escape and here his home was back beside him, making claims.” And seeing “the skin of her thigh for a moment … a prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness.”
Greene’s careful in preserving him as an (anti-)hero, nonetheless. Although cruel, Pinkie is not altogether unfeeling but allows only the most superficial engagement with his emotions.
When Rose expresses her devotion, saying: I don’t care what you’ve done, “the astuteness of her simplicity … touched him like cheap music. What was most evil in him needed her: it couldn’t get along without goodness.”
It comes as no surprise to us, though, that when Rose asks for a gramophone recording from him with a heartfelt message, Pinkie speaks (unbeknownst to her) the most heartless words.
It is not unthinkable, either, that when unnerved by the thought of not only having to sustain her love forever so as to keep out of gaol, but of eventually having children, Pinkie strategises to silence her for good, and free himself for real.
Still, it is Ida for whom Greene has reserved his ultimate vitriol. Beginning with a vulgarised Grecian name, she is portrayed as tawdry: big breasts, big legs, hiccupping from oysters and Guinness. He even decorates her shelf with books by JB Priestley and Warwick Deeping, authors he abhored.
But most of all, because she, unlike Pinkie and Rose who are Roman Catholics, does not believe in “heaven or hell, only in ghosts, ouija boards, tables which rapped”, Greene wants us to see Ida as inconsequential, one who does not know “what mortal sin is”, despite her compassion and sense of justice.
In spite (or more likely because) of this unflattering depiction, the author ironically accrues her goodwill in his readers. After all, for all her uncouth attributes, Ida is well-meaning, believes in moral rectitude, in fair play, in righting wrongs. And what she believes to be saving Rose from Pinkie.
The real point of the novel, in Greene’s own words, nevertheless, “is the contrast between the ethical mind (Ida’s) and the religious (Pinkie and Rose’s) in thriller terms.”
In a cogent irrational way, he convinces us that by living in the grey and obscure land of Right and Wrong, rather than the definitive world of Good and Evil, Ida does not really exist. Much as it defies logic, we find ourselves persuaded into thinking it is better (gasp!) to do evil than not to live at all.
The famously Catholic novelist says of Ida, through Rose “Oh, she won’t burn. She couldn’t burn if she tried,” who then goes on to repeat to Pinkie, “I don’t care … I’d rather burn with you than be like Her.”
It is Greene’s particular skill to disgorge us into his characters’ minds. We trace Rose’s mental steps she takes to stretch out hope she could flee from the fate Pinkie has carved out for them. We battle alongside her to reconcile how she might live a life of repentence and of goodness, of the “crib at Christmas”, whilst remaining faithful to Pinkie’s wishes: “If it was the guardian angel speaking to her now, he spoke like a devil — he tempted her to virtue like a sin.”
In his inimitable style, the consummate writer has woven a thriller into elegant literature. The only thing that confounds me is how he does not wring out a connection between Ida’s singing profession and Pinkie’s love of music: “it didn’t matter what music — any music moved him, speaking of things he didn’t understand.” Greene leaves any such association to wilt like a line of seaweed along Brighton’s shores.
Like Rose, we don’t know Pinkie’s destination. The priest at confession says to her, “If he loved you, surely … that shows there was some good …” As Rose retrieves the gramophone recording, she’ll know he didn’t. Yet, the priest adds, “You can’t conceive the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God,” through which he throws the whole existence of hell into doubt.
Regardless, I was hooked like a fish, and caught under the tidal spell of Brighton Rock.