Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Brighton Rock is the title of this first commercially successfully novel written by Graham Greene early in his long career. Brighton Rock is also the name of a kind of candy that bears the word Brighton on the stick of this confectionary characteristic of English seaside resorts. By shoving this red and white hard candy down the throat, Brighton Rock becomes the murder weapon, not just the location and title.  

The location of Brighton also provides the premise: during the summer season local newspapers organized promotions to award money prizes to anyone carrying a copy of the paper who identifies the reporter in public. The public chase after the reporter is a historical artifact of this era of gangsters and provides the trail of evidence to solve the mysterious death of “Fred” Hale.

In the day when authors complain editors and publishers they don’t read beyond the first page, Greene gives them plenty of reason why it isn’t necessary to finish a story before judging the potential. The first sentence, the first page, the first chapter are omens of all that follows. If you can’t captivate your reader immediately, they won’t get any further.
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” What an opening sentence.  The reader begs to find out more.

Greene reveals characters so complex they continue to haunt you long after the story ends. Getting inside the mind of a ruthless, cruel, sadistic punk provides the reader with a psychic voyeurism into his criminal actions. But it is his use of female characters I find so penetrating and disturbing. There are no heroes and no pretty girls.

“Pinkie,” referred to by the narrator as The Boy, works on getting an alibi for his involvement in murder by courting the waitress, an eyewitness to incriminating evidence on him. In his mind, the solution to his problem is to marry this plain girl so that she cannot be forced to testify against him. So what makes this good catholic woman-child fall in love with a mobster who pushes her to kill herself as her last act of undying love?  This incredible story is made credible by Greene’s telling.

He knows the power that falling in love with being in love can have on a woman. To be the object of desire — to be loved — is the primal urge. And Graham Greene gets inside her mind. This split between the rational and the moral is gendered by Greene. Pinkie’s criminal logic and Rose’s crazylove offer the reader emotional danger in the human process of rationalizing the irrational. But it is on the emotional plane where Graham’s female characters are so compelling. The sensibility of right and wrong, honor and trust, confession and sin, means and ends are entrusted to the women of the story.

Rose was a stranger in the land of mortal sin and she mistakes her first experiences as customary in this foreign terrain.The glory of intimate relations gets mixed with emotional sadism for her young heart. Greene garners the sympathy of the readers for this girl blinded by her good intentions and naiveté.

Pinkie’s nemesis is a woman whose intuition drives her to keep snooping and following the trail of evidence to Rose and Pinkie.  Miss Ida Arnold was the last person to see the victim alive. He had flirted with Ida and they agreed to continue their rendezvous around Brighton that summer day. Ida had left him just outside the Ladies’ Loo and when she came out, he was gone.

A ditched date is an insult and a scorned woman a driving force. But Ida Arnold had heard Hale’s premonition of his own death just before he disappeared. Their tryst wasn’t a mortal sin and Ida thought him a gentleman enough to honor him with the discovery of his cause of death: not natural.  Ida is the female of virtue; it’s in her meddling, interfering and pestering way as a woman that she rescues Rose and stops this rogue gangster in his killing spree. Ida is a little bit Angela Lansbury playing Agatha Christie in a seaside resort town. She’s annoyingly good.

These crazy kids today. Rose is underage and Pinkie a minor, too. The lawyer Prewitt fixes their marriage certificate and Rose escapes her parents’ moods and pathetic dysfunction with their written permission for their underage daughter to marry The Boy.

Boy indeed. Greene’s social commentary on the youth culture of thuggery reveals its derivation from adult culture. Pinkie has his own lawyer to bail him out jail and keep him from criminal conviction. The lawyer does the boys’ bidding in the legal defense of his gangster clients. The Italian gang leader with whom Pinkie and his homeys tangled treats the punk as a kid. Adolescent male rage is something Greene knows something about.

This novel of the 1930s with its criminal activity, racetrack betting, gambling rackets, is told in film noir layered over cinéma vérité. In 1947 the release of Young Scarface made its movie release, starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. Rowan Jaffee directed a UK film adaptation released earlier this year starring Sam Riley as Pinkie, Carol Marsh as Rose and Helen Mirra as Ida. This adaptation is set in the 1960s England instead of the 1930s. I’ve seen neither film and am not inclined to do so. The movie in my head that Greene created with his words couldn’t ever be appreciated on a big screen. It’s the internal life of the characters where the real action takes place and belongs in the interior and intimate space of the reader to play out.

Can you tell I liked it? Not a big murder thriller reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the distinctive voice of an American whose commentary comes to live inside the story. For most of the twentieth century, Graham Greene offered us the great American novels. His critical observations, national insights and generational reflections appear throughout his essays, memoirs, and short stories that tell us more about ourselves as Americans than about Greene himself.


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