Book review: Brighton Rock

Graham Greene is one of those famous writers who’s name I nknew but who I’d never read. Even though we have at least two books of his on the shelf. When I went to see Travels with my Aunt at the Citz last year, that was the first experience of Greene’s fiction that I’d had. Brighton Rock, meanwhile, had been sitting ignored since I picked it up on a whim in the Waterstones in Aviemore, oh, four years ago? It’s still been waiting less time than many.


Brighton Rock takes place, unsurprisingly, in Brighton. The seaside town is alays ready for the tourists and has plenty to entertain them, but there’s also a gritty underworld of mobsters. Mostly, it would seem, they are trying to make money out of gambling rackets. This being Brighton, no one has a gun – our bad guys go around armed with razors. The thriller has one hell of an opening line, “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton for three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

But the story isn’t about Hale, not really, it’s about the very young Pinkie. Pinkie is in many ways an innocent, he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t know about women. He frequently expresses disgust at the idea of sex. He’s also a murdering lunatic and a scared, confused and angry man. To avoid the possibility of his crimes getting out he has to keep a young lady, Rose, quiet. Rose is a waitress in a cafe who saw and heard enough to know what happened to Hale, and Pinkie decides he either has to kill or, or marry her.

Meanwhile, Ida Arnold, who had met Hale, wants to find out what happened to him. She has no particularly good reason for doing so, except that she doesn’t like it when the baddies get away with things and she’s determined to set things right.

The male characters are well written and believable. I felt sorry for Hale, scared for Pinkie’s gang and more or less terrified and repulsed by Pinkie himself. The female characters are less convincing. Ida Arnold is basically a big set of breasts. Slightly tipsy, chuckling, middle-aged breasts. I’ve never known a writer dwell on large breasts so repeatedly and yet so completely unerotically, but since I’m in danger of competing in this paragraph I think I’ll leave it there. Meanwhile, Rose is unbelievably damp and her main character traits seems to be that she isn’t very pretty and that she’s Catholic. Nice.

That aside though, the novel works. The tension builds steadily and it’s unclear how things will end until they do. As much as it is a thriller, it’s also a study of poverty in 1930s Brighton. Both Pinkie and Rose come from no money, and Ida seems to not have much either. It’s from this that Pinkie gets his desperation and Rose, apparently, her resignation. It’s the kind of sucking poverty that takes away possibilities and, apart from making the novel tense and grim, it makes it cold.

I don’t know if I’d read this again, and it’s not the kind of thing I’d recommend to most people, but I am now somewhat curious about the 2010 movie. After all, it has Helen Mirren as Ida, and I’m curious to see how that works out.


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