The novel begins: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ A short time later the journalist is dead at the hands of Pinkie and Cubitt and the gang, all within the sound of fun-fair mechanical music and the screams of delight from rail-rides and merry-go-rounds. Through the killings and malicious injury, and the determination of young Pinkie to murder the girl who loves him, the concentration is on moral and religious dilemma, and not all of it is very good.
We are treated to good passages. The drawing of the criminal lawyer Prewitt shows the standard the novelist Greene will become.
To think,’ Mr Prewitt said, ‘an old Lancaster boy – to be married to that mole in the cellarage down there and to have as only client’ – he gave his mouth an expression of fastidious disgust – ‘you. What would old Manders say? A great Head(master).’
The death of Pinky is written in an impressionistic scene, as he accidentally fires acid into his own face.
‘he was at the edge, he was over; they couldn’t even hear a splash. It was as if he’d been withdrawn suddenly by a hand out of any existence – past or present, whipped away into zero – nothing.’
The hand of God perhaps? Greene will become better than this. His greatest novels will come when he has deserted the ranks of the conservative right, distrusts the political motives behind the Vietnam War, the US support for Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, its antagonism for Castro’s Cuba. Then we will have The Comedians, The Quiet American, The Honorary Consul.
Young gang criminals of Brighton Rock, and an admiration for evil, bring to mind Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The authors of each held these novels in low regard, Greene listing his as ‘an entertainment’ distinct from his novels; Burgess describing his as an effort to make some money, run off in three weeks. These writers knew and detested each other. I wonder if antagonism wasn’t a spur to Burgess’ ambition to write a better young gangland thriller than Brighton Rock.
Each became an eminence in British letters. Burgess because of Earthly Powers, and he was not only a celebrated writer, also a poet, translator, linguist, musician, a combination of talents we find close to home, in our Paolo. Ten years after Brighton Rock Greene was eminent enough that The New Statesman offered a prize for any writer who best parodied Greene writing style. Entering under a pseudonym Green won second prize. In 1966 he entered again, awarded an honourable mention.