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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks