I have read a couple of prolific author Graham Greene’s novels to date, but have always been most intrigued by his most famous work, Brighton Rock (1938). I watched the film adaptation some years ago, which I enjoyed, but found rather disturbing. After forgetting some of the details in the following years, I deemed that it was high time to pick up the highly-regarded novel, which focuses upon gang which is ‘raging through the dark heart of Brighton’ in the 1930s.
The Vintage edition which I read features an introduction by J.M. Coetzee. He writes of the ‘nest of criminal activity’ which has Brighton’s racetrack at its core, and speaks of the way in which Greene dives into the darker side of the town. Coetzee describes the ‘tracts of shabbily built houses, dreary shopping areas, and desolate industrial suburbs’, and then goes on to write of Greene’s exploration of the place. The novel, points out Coetzee, was ‘initially planned as a crime novel easily adapted for the screen’.
Pinkie, aged seventeen, is the novel’s protagonist, and is described by Coetzee as ‘a product of the dreariest Brighton shores’. He is described as ‘malign and ruthless’, and by Coetzee as ‘amoral, charmless, prim, seething with resentment… a chilling specimen of the Adolf Hitler type’. Pinkie’s worst crime is the murder of a man. He comes to believe that he can ‘escape retribution’ for this, but is ‘unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold’, a secondary character in the novel. Brighton Rock, which is essentially a thriller, ‘exposes a world of loneliness and fear’. Greene also follows the meek and sweet Rose, who marries Pinkie quite early on in the novel.
I loved Greene’s initial description of Brighton’s more glamorous and welcoming side. He writes: ‘… the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes… the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour… a band playing, clover gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.’ The novel also features a great deal of interesting, multilayered character descriptions. Of Ida, for instance, Greene writes: ‘She smelt of soap and wine: comfort and peace and a slow sleepy physical enjoyment, a touch of the nursery and the mother…’.
Brighton Rock, like its film adaptation, is dark and gritty. Greene’s writing oscillates between beautifully descriptive, and matter-of-fact. The novel did have a flow to its narrative, but it did feel a little disjointed in places to me. I find Greene’s prose style a little difficult to initially get into, and although on the whole it is readable and well-written, the tone of Brighton Rock was a little too dark for me.
Whilst I’m glad that I’ve finally read this novel, in order to see what it was like and how it compared to the film, I am not going to rush to pick up any of Greene’s other books. Brighton Rock is not a story which entirely gripped me, and I did not believe in any of its characters or their motivations, with the exception of the rather endearing Rose.