Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 256 pages; 1998.
A month or so ago I watched the documentary Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene, which I had recorded on my SkyBox for rainy day viewing. It immediately made me want to rush out and read everything Greene had ever written, and so I pulled Brighton Rock, first published in 1938, from my shelves, where it had been sitting for almost a decade.
A murder by the seaside
The book is set in Brighton, on the south coast of England, in the 1930s. It’s a completely different world to the one we know now and the grim reality of a life hard lived resonates off the page.
The story largely revolves around two characters — the teenage gang leader and Catholic thug Pinkie Brown and the buxom Guinness-swilling woman, Ida Arnold, on his tail — whose lives are brought together through the murder of Charles “Fred” Hale, a newspaper reporter on business in Brighton, one sunny weekend.
In some circles the book is billed as a detective story, because it traces Ida’s steps to track down Hale’s killer, but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the genre. What it does do is explore the battle between good and evil — represented by the sociopathic Pinkie and the decent law-abiding Ida — as well as highlighting how one small crime can spiral out of control into a series of crimes, the tracks of which become increasingly harder to cover.
The book is also classed as one of Greene’s “Catholic novels”, because Pinkie’s behaviour makes a mockery of the church’s doctrine on marriage and morality, while Ida’s behaviour suggests that you don’t need to follow faith or religion to be a good person. It also juxtaposes Pinkie’s virginity and his revulsion at the idea of the sexual act (or any kind of intimacy), with that of Ida’s rather liberated view (and experience).
Exceedingly well-drawn characters
Bearing all this in mind, including Greene’s literary legacy the weight of which I could almost feel pressing on my shoulders as I turned each page, I have to admit I had trouble getting into this novel. It felt old-fashioned in a way I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but I also had difficulty identifying with any of the characters — and that’s despite the fact they are exceedingly well drawn: Pinkie is loathsome and nasty, capable of carrying out abhorrent acts with no care for the consequences; his girlfriend Rose is lonely, weak-willed and naive, but desperate to be loved by anyone who shows her the slightest bit of attention; while Ida is headstrong, determined and independent, beholden to no one.
Yet I didn’t feel “engaged” with the way in which their story unfolded — Ida painstakingly trying to track down the man she believes has killed Hale; Pinkie “wooing” Rose, the young waitress he believes could spill the beans, and marrying her so that she cannot testify against him — and think it may have something to do with the complete absence of warmth in the story. Indeed, I felt one step removed from it throughout, almost as if I was reading it through a layer of ice, which, in turn, had made the narrative feel cold — and detached.
That said, I admired the book’s take on the importance of justice and the way in which Ida so cleverly and single-mindedly pursued it. While she’s described in an overtly sexual way throughout, it seems rather refreshing to have such a strong female lead in a book written at this time.
And there’s no doubt that Greene is a master at creating atmosphere: the dark, seamy Brighton he depicts here resonates with unseen dangers and unknown tensions, while the razor gangs and the rivalry between them feels genuinely scary.
Brighton Rock may not have won me completely over, but it’s a heady mix of psychological character study and criminal thriller, and I’m glad I read it. And it certainly hasn’t deterred me from exploring more of Graham Greene’s work.