BOOK REVIEW / Gin in the afternoon: 'The Gorse Trilogy' - Patrick Hamilton: Penguin, 7.99 pounds

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THE NOVELS that make up the Gorse trilogy were first published as recently as the early Fifties, but it is difficult to imagine their author as the contemporary of Amis, Wain and Murdoch. With the exception of The Slaves of Solitude (1947), set in wartime Maidenhead, Patrick Hamilton's great days and the focus of his fictional stare belonged to the inter-war years, and his rapt absorption in a flyblown milieu of saloon bars and hotel foyers must have convinced even the reviewers of the time that they were dealing with a historical artefact.

More so than perhaps any of his contemporaries - though there are similarities with Priestley and the early Orwell - Hamilton was the chronicler of 'ordinary life', those mundane Thirties existences lived out in tap rooms, seedy lodging houses and spiritless stucco bungalows; envy and aspiration boiling away beneath the cigarette smoke.

He can conjure a whole world out of an intonation or a casual remark - the way a woman accepts a drink or answers a question - and the result, in a novel like Hangover Square (1941), is genuine tragedy, desperation stalking the dingy Earls Court bedsits, hope cancelled out by a routine whose solace lies in gin in the afternoon or the chance of cadging a pounds 10 note.

The Gorse Trilogy seems an odd item for Penguin to have included in its Modern Classic series - the early Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky would have been a much better bet. Written towards the end of Hamilton's life - he died in 1962 - when the drink and marital turmoil were breaking him up, their inferiority to what had gone before was plain even to the author.

Nevertheless, at their best - for example in The West Pier, the first novel, or in parts of its successor, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse - they give a very good idea of Hamilton's conspicuous merits as a writer and why, 30 years after his death, he deserves to be taken seriously.

Curiously enough, this has nothing to do with his protagonist or the conceit on which the three novels were erected - an evocation of evil which owes rather more to Hamilton's highly successful stage plays, Rope and Gaslight, than to his early books.

In Ernest Ralph Gorse, Hamilton tried to create a monster, a great fictional anti-hero on a par with real-life contemporaries such as Neville Heath or George 'Brides in the bath' Smith. He failed.

We see Gorse first in 1921, swindling a working-class Brighton girl of her savings; then, in 1928, he practises a much more sophisticated fraud on a credulous colonel's widow; finally, in 1933, in the third novel, Unknown Assailant, he is bamboozling a dreamy barmaid.

Throughout, he is not so much unbelievable as unrealised. Hamilton hardly ever - a few psychological commonplaces aside - succeeds in explaining his motivation. This, together with the extraordinary stupidity of his victims, their almost pathological willingness to be duped, turns each novel into a sort of exercise, a 'how to' manual of deception where the conclusion is fixed fron the start.

Where Hamilton succeeds, even here among the stretches of oddly lifeless detail and the flabby characterisation, is on the one hand in the sureness of his psychological touch, and on the other through his ear for speech patterns.

Unknown Assailant is an inferior piece of work, but it provides a convincing enough explanation of the mental processes that might persuade a certain type of person to put his or her savings into a bogus theatrical production. The bar- room colloquies of Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, with which Gorse blithely insinuates himself into Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce's social circle, are naturalistic to an almost impossible degree: their grasp of nuance and contemporary cliche is often enough to make the reader put down the book in sheer embarrassment.

These are not happy pieces of writing. The calamities of Hamilton's own personal life shine through them; the humour is of a particularly vindictive sort - as if the author knew the people he was writing about and wished to transfix them with his hatred. Every so often, though, the revulsion slips away and one is left with the joke or the sideways glance, the twitch upon the psychological thread that guarantees Hamilton a singular place as one of the great minor English novelists.

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