Monday, January 31, 2011

*Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household

NYRB Classics, 2007
182 pp.
originally published 1939

I first noticed this book some time ago when perusing the CWA list of Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, first published in 1990.  With the hope of someday being able to get through all of these books,  I bought the NYRB edition of Rogue Male to add to my ever-growing mountain range of books to read.  Funny though -- it's not what I would consider a crime novel, per se; imho it reads more like a spyish/thriller type thing, somewhat reminiscent of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. Nevertheless, it was quite intriguing (and I can now cross it off of the list), well written and life outside of this book just sort of melted away as I was reading it.  It's the sort of story where once you get comfortable with the action, things take another turn, so that you never quite get into a complacent mode and it ends up leaving you a bit unsettled.

As the novel opens, the narrator, an unnamed man (likely someone of importance and means in Britain)  has just escaped death after he misses his target of an attempted assassination somewhere in Central Europe, an unnamed dictator. He has obviously been held and questioned, his captors wondering whether or not he was an agent of the British government on a mission. His answer was that he was "a sportsman who couldn't resist the temptation to stalk the impossible," hoping to make them believe that he was a "bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game" who found "perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth." In the long run, he realized that no matter what they believed, his days were numbered, and that his captors would have to kill him. After being severely tortured, he was taken to the edge of a cliff and put over, but he managed to hold on until he dropped, crashing into a deep marsh. The plan -- his body was to be discovered for some time at the foot of the cliff so that it would look like an accident. But the narrator has other plans that did not include dying.  The authorities realize soon enough that he's still alive, and he has to make his escape without leaving any traces. That story is harrowing enough, but the main thrust of the novel is what happens once he makes it back to England ... it is then that  that the reality becomes one of the hunter becoming the hunted as he realizes that no matter who or where he is, his enemies cannot allow him to stay alive. He has to literally "go to ground," in hopes of surviving.

Rogue Male is written in the first person, a look back at events that transpired some time earlier.  The narrator doesn't always put things in a linear perspective, and if not read carefully, the story might seem a bit confusing; above all, the why of how our narrator finds himself with a rifle in his hands aiming at this dictator is not so clear.  He claims not to be an anarchist or to have any specific political leanings, says he's not on a government mission, so the question is one of how all of this came to be.  Eventually even the reader doesn't know whether or not he can actually trust the narrator on that point.  But the in the long run, what makes this book such a  good read is how the author sets the tension level high to begin with, then ratchets it up bit by bit to pull off a rather nail-biting tale of suspense.  His use of first-person narrative offers his readers a more  more human and realistic perspective of the plight of the main character, and there's no space or time wasted on superfluous dialogue that would have little or no bearing on the story. And by keeping the whys until the very end of the novel, the reader finds him or herself focused only on the immediate action at hand.

As noted, once I started reading, things outside of me and this book just disappeared and I managed to finish this novel in one sitting.  There's a certain element of the whole "cat-and-mouse" game here, especially toward the end, and it was a delight to watch events transpire as I felt my own tension level rising wondering how the heck the narrator was going to get out of his various predicaments.  This is one of those novels you have to read for yourself to fully appreciate, but it's wholly satisfying as far as action, writing and especially getting into the psyche of the narrator as he fights to stay alive and out of the clutches of his enemies.  People who enjoy well-written suspense will enjoy this book, and those who are interested in the early days of the genre will probably also like it.

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