Book review: Brighton Rock

Brighton RockBrighton Rock by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d known about Brighton Rock for ages – a combination of general awareness of Graham Greene and the Morrissey song ‘Now My Heart Is Full’ but I’d never read it. Now that I have, I can see why someone like the Smiths frontman would namecheck it: it’s a sordid, grimy window on the thirties, a look at the world of tough men and the children who wish to become them. Rough trade under the garish lights of a seaside town, immortalised in fiction and iconic film.

This is the second Greene I’d read (The Third Man being the much shorter first) and it pulled me in from the outset. I’m intrigued about the rest of his work, now. The story’s pretty simple: a murder is committed by Pinkie, a sociopathic pup with distinct lady problems. Ida, a voluminous seeker of good times, takes umbrage at the foul play she suspects has befallen a brief acquaintence, and decides to root out the truth. What follows is a sea mist-shrouded examination of the mental life of both the pursuer and the pursued, framed by the prospect of turf takeover from larger interests.

Pinkie, a terrible person, is drawn as an amazing void, fuelled by idiot pride and a thorny violence, he’s the quintessential nasty piece of work. As with any bully, he’s also weak as piss, and the incidents where he fails as a tough guy are wonderfully satisfying. They allow no sympathy for the guy, no – but they contribute to a deft portrait of an unlikeable schmuck. He’s burning out, his gang being lost in his wake, a sinkhole pulling in the innocent and the guilty alike with very little awareness of his impact on the world. As far as solipsism goes, it’s pretty evocative.

As well as the consideration of the descending hammer of the law, there’s a fair amount of theological musing found here, too. Greene, like Pinkie and Rose, was a Roman Catholic, and a lot of the latter part of the book is concerned with the idea of sin and redemption, the life-or-death stakes at play where sex and death are considered. It’s something which could bog the book down – the Catholicism of Pinkie and Rose versus the non-religious pragmatism (and belief in the all-powerful pull of Justice) of the pursuing Ida – but it doesn’t. It’s something which – aside from the perceived horrors of virginity- gives Pinkie some welcome emotional depth.

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers here, so read the book – it’s not that long – and wait for the last line. It’s a delicate in its awfulness, thrown out so trippingly that its malice appears all the more awful. As far as closers go, this one has zoomed to the top of my list.

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