BOOK REVIEW / An even chance for the odd man out: Patrick Hamilton: A Life - Sean French: Faber, pounds 20

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THE CRAZE for literary biography that has swept British publishing takes a curious new turn with the appearance of a second book within two years on that steely-eyed chronicler of English low life in the mid-century, Patrick Hamilton.

The author of compulsive tales of loneliness, obsession and criminality, such as Hangover Square and The West Pier, Hamilton was an intriguing odd man out among British novelists.

In his own life, which ended in 1962, he shared the alcoholic and some of the sexual hangups of his dark personae. Politically he was altogether weird - a self-styled Marxist who despised the working class, viewed Stalin as a romantic hero and went Tory in the late Fifties. .

In short, Hamilton well merited biographical attention. But Sean French's book comes after Through a Glass Darkly by Nigel Jones, now an Abacus paperback. In that respectably comprehensive book, Jones had the wit to treat his subject in a Eurppean rather than a merely English context.

Pointing to Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Celine, he suggested that Hamilton seemed less incongruous in the shadow of that company, sprung from societies in turmoil, than against the background of a bland and relatively stable Britain. Thus he made Hamilton's apparent outlandishness seem more a reflection on English provincialism than on the novelist himself.

French's biography, though more pithy and polished, might have gained from drawing on, or contending with, perspectives like those in Jones, or at least taking account of the earlier work for the large fund of information already amassed there.

Yet, apart from perhaps a greater emphasis on the sometimes censorious estimates of Hamilton by his brother Bruce, there is little fresh material here beyond what can be found in Jones, and not much revisionist interpretation. Time and again the same quotations appear - not as a matter of plagiarism, but because the documentation on Hamilton's life must be as limited as his own chosen sphere of existence.

Moreover, any reader aware of the 1991 life might have expected some explanation from French for the appearance of a second within so short a time. Perhaps the enthusiasm of publishers for literary biography is now so intense that such explanations are no longer deemed necessary, with successive lives of the same subjects to be allowed to tumble out higgledy-piggledy on to a market judged insatiably eager for such revelations.

Possibly from politeness, French seems to have contented himself with no more than a coded suggestion that Jones's book left room for the swift provision of something better. Among eight quotations setting the scene for his account, he includes one from Francis Wyndham.

This asks why anyone, confronted with the 'elaborate, coherent and consistent' world distilled by Hamilton the novelist from the raw material of his life, would want to try to reduce it to 'its dull and often debatable original components'. French refrains from saying that this formed part of a hostile review by Wyndham of Jones's book.

The cognoscenti could be expected to know this and to draw the appropriate conclusion. But others not so bibliographically informed would be left to assume that French had totally ignored the findings and viewpoints of the earlier book.

His duplication is such that he might have done better to assert his differences with the already published work in a detailed review rather than launch another full-scale life on a public increasingly addled with the personal ordeals of the literati.