|Apr/May 2011 Book Reviews|
Random House. 2011 (reissue). 269 pp.
"He knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him."
It is many years since I first read Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, but that opening sentence immediately drew me in again. Brighton, being just one hour by train from London, is still the seaside resort to which Londoners flock on hot weekends, public holidays and race-days. The Palace Pier is still almost as Greene described it—a place for strolling couples, deck chairs, amusement arcades and music; and the Aquarium and many of the other places mentioned in the book are still there. But the 1930s slums have been replaced by trendy apartments and the trams no longer run from the Railway Station to the sea. Whether there is still "a nest of criminal activities, centering on its racetrack," (as J.M. Coetzee put it in his introduction), I have no way of knowing but Greene's chilling young gangster "Pinky" Brown surely has a modern counterpart amongst the drug-addicted, disaffected youth in any populous city such as Brighton.
Pinky's determination to avenge the death of his gang boss, Kite, and his unwilling but increasingly necessary entanglement with the innocent local girl, Rose, who inadvertently threatens his alibi for murder, is at the centre of the story. With his casual, unfeeling violence, his dislike and distrust of women, his bravado and his repressed sexuality, Pinky is a very unpleasant character. But ranged against him is the indomitable Ida. Big bosomed, sympathetic, fun-loving and easy-loving Ida, with her firm belief in Right and Wrong, is determined to see that justice is done and that Rose is saved from her misguided love and loyalty to Pinky. Ida follows the thread of mystery surrounding the sudden death of her chance acquaintance, Fred (Kolley Kibber) Hale, to the bitter and dramatic end.
From this seemingly simple scenario, Greene wove a gripping story. He intended it to be filmed (and it was) and all the elements of cinema are there in its structure. "When I describe a scene," Greene once told an interviewer, "I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements." In Brighton Rock, this makes for vivid scenes, fast action and sharp dialogue, but there is depth to Green's characters, too, and maybe more to think about (as J.M. Coetzee suggests) that is immediately apparent.
Coetzee's introduction, however, is prefaced with a spoiler alert: it reveals details of the plot. Predictably, he also discusses Greene's Catholicism and its possible relevance to this story. Greene once rather tetchily said that he wanted to be viewed as an author who happened to be a Catholic, not as a Catholic author, and certainly Catholicism is part of this story (both Pinky and Rose are Catholic) but it is by no means an obvious part of the plot. Nevertheless, Coetzee's comments are worth reading for the different perspective they offer.
Graham Greene was a masterly story-teller and Brighton Rock is still an exciting and enjoyable read. Now, thanks to Random House's new paperback series of Vintage Classics, it is again easily and cheaply available.