Monday, November 13, 2017

an October random read: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Penguin, 1977
originally published 1938
247 pp


"It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature." -- 198

Between the back-cover blurb of my old Penguin edition shown here that reads
"Pinkie, a boy gangster in the pre-war Brighton underworld, is a Catholic dedicated to evil and damnation. In a dark setting of double-crossing and razor slashes, his ambitions and hatreds are horribly fulfilled...until Ida determines to convict him of murder. But Pinkie, on the run from her pursuing fury, becomes even more dangerous..."
and the first line of the novel,
"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him"
I was all set to dive in to what I fully expected to be a crime novel, but as things turned out, Brighton Rock became something entirely unexpected. To label this book as a "thriller" is to do it a grave injustice -- while there are certainly murders and other violent acts throughout the story, this book goes far beyond the reach of a crime novel and deep into complex existential and metaphysical zones.

As far as the crime aspect goes, in Greene's Brighton, violence is just an ordinary fact of life; here the focus is on the competition between gangs over who will end up with the greater part of the protection racket now that the gang boss Kite has been killed.  It's the death of Kite (from A Gun for Sale, which I haven't yet read) that leaves Fred Hale with a target on his back; evidently he'd sold out Kite to the rival gang headed by Colleoni, causing him to be murdered.  Now young Pinkie Brown, a sociopathic seventeen year old,  sets out to avenge Kite's death since 
"... when Kite had died in the waiting room at St. Pancras, it had been as if a father had died, leaving him an inheritance it was his duty never to leave for strange acres." (130)
By killing Hale and thus taking revenge for Kite's death, he sets out to prove himself to the older members of the gang, setting himself up as the new Kite ("He had inherited even the mannerisms, the bitten thumb nail, the soft drinks") ready to stand up to Colleoni and his gang.   Hale's death is put down to natural causes, so basically Pinkie and his gang have gotten away with it, but there is a big loose end that needs to be taken care of.  Hale had been in Brighton drumming up newspaper sales as Kolley Kibber (based on the real-life Lobby Lud), leaving cards all around town. After his death, Pinkie insisted that the cards be distributed so that it would look as though Hale/Kibber had been on his regular route, and at a cafe, one of Pinkie's men is noticed dropping off the card by Rose, a young waitress who could, if questioned,  easily testify that the man who left the card was not the dead man.  Pinkie decides to take care of the situation himself by courting Rose and getting her to tell him if anyone comes asking.  But Pinkie hasn't counted on Ida, a woman with whom a very frightened Fred had spent his last moments before disappearing and ending up dead.  Having read about his death, Ida is determined to find out what really happened to him, and refuses to quit until she has the answers she seeks.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, 1947 -- from The New York Times

This beginning sets up what definitely sounds like a crime thriller, and in truth, considering what was going on in British crime fiction at the time, Brighton Rock was something entirely different in the genre.  However,  there is much more here than just crime.   What follows on the heels of that one loose end turns  into multiple problems (and creates other loose ends that must also be tied up) for Pinkie, whose own existential angst deepens and becomes more apparent,  more desperate as the story progresses.  If read solely as a crime novel, the reader misses out on the depth of the metaphysical dimension Greene has constructed, which I feel  is absolutely critical to understanding these three characters, Pinkie, Rose, and Ida, and their relation to the interplay of good and evil that dominates this book. Other thematic issues arise as well, including innocence, damnation and salvation, so thinking of this book merely as a crime thriller sort of undermines its deeper brilliance. And while  I can't really give Brighton Rock the justice it's due either, I will say that these characters haunted me for a very, very long time after finishing the book, making it one I will never, ever forget.

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