Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Hale is a journalist with a strange job – he tours British seaside towns on behalf of the Messenger newspaper in the guise of a character called ‘Kolley Kibber’ – spot him, or find one of the cards he leaves around town, and you win a prize. It’s what people did before book blogs.
When the novel opens, Hale is nervously walking around Brighton trying to keep a low profile. He has enemies there, and they spot him almost immediately. Desperate to give them no chance at getting him alone, Hale hooks up with a day-tripper called Ida Arnold, ‘a little drunk in a friendly accommodating way’ with a thin summer dress and frequently described breasts. Ida likes Hale enough to want to stick around, but all the Guinness she drinks has to go somewhere and she eventually pops to the ladies. When she comes back, he has vanished.
Brighton Rock is the story of 17-year-old Pinkie, the razor-toting leader of a provincial race-gang taking protection money from book-makers. It is one of the nastiest books I have read for a while.
Pinkie – ‘the Boy’ in the early chapters – is a thorough-going little scumbag. Despite his youth he has assumed leadership of his gang after his predecessor’s murder – through sheer viciousness. After Hale’s death, the Boy gets fish and chips and ice cream for his colleagues: ‘they all three left their fish untasted as they stared at the Boy – like children before his ageless eyes’.
The text is almost contemporary in its depiction of a socially disadvantaged, sociopathically violent youth – in a more contemporary book he’d be equipped with a hoodie and some miaow-miaow (whatever the hell that is). He’s so evil he can’t keep it contained:
‘Suddenly the little spurt of vicious anger rose again in the Boy’s brain and he smashed a salt sprinkler down on the table so hard that the base cracked.’
Pinkie is also ambitious – so ambitious he can’t put it into words. He is spurred on by a meeting with Colleoni, leader of the much larger race-gang which is trying to sweep away Pinkie’s organisation. Colleoni is a proper gangster – gold cigarette lighter, portable dictaphone, ‘small with a neat round belly’, who stays at the Cosmopolitan hotel. Pinkie hates him, but wants to be him.
Meanwhile, he has a more immediate problem. Rose, a 16-year-old waitress, saw a member of Pinkie’s gang leave a Kolley Kibber card in her teashop (in an attempt to build an alibi), and might have spotted that he wasn’t the real Hale. Pinkie asks her out to intimidate her into keeping quiet. The little charmer takes a bottle of vitriol on their first date.
The imagination hadn’t woken. That was his strength. He couldn’t see through other people’s eyes, or feel with their nerves.
Rose is drab, drippy, stupid and neglected, ready to fall in love with the first worthless little monster that comes her way. Unfortunately, that monster is Pinkie. They share a background, growing up in squalor a few streets from one another.
He was aware that she belonged to his life, like a room or a chair: she was something which completed him.
She therefore represents everything Pinkie wants to escape. But in true noir fashion, he can’t.
Pinkie and Rose also share a faith – both are ‘Romans’ and have a deep-seated belief in salvation and damnation. Pinkie can’t envisage salvation for anyone in his little world (probably correctly) – and more to the point, he is absolutely convinced that he himself is going to burn in hell, even taking pride in it. Ironically he makes an exception for Rose, taking pride in corrupting her goodness, when all the while she is planning to damn herself just to be with him.
He was going to damn himself, but she was going to show them that they couldn’t damn him without damning her too. There was nothing he could do, she wouldn’t do: she felt capable of sharing any murder […] she wouldn’t let him go into that darkness alone.
Pinkie’s undoing is Ida Arnold. She’s utterly amoral – unlike Pinkie and Rose she is a cheerful sinner – but she is a ‘sticker’. She liked Hale, feels she owes it to him to find his killer, and she will not let it drop. As soon as Ida meets Rose she adds the girl to her list of people to save.
As Ida works ever closer to Pinkie, he gets more and more desperate to cover his tracks, and he’s not afraid to go to extremes. Things do not turn out well, but the real kick in the guts comes with the very last sentence. One of those endings that nobody can feel good about.
Is Brighton Rock the first British noir novel? I’d be interested in hearing other nominations.
Final destination: Back to the library
I am entering Brighton Rock in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Scene of the Crime category.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.