Brighton: famous for several things. Its pier, its beaches, seaside arcade, and the red-and-white striped candy known as Brighton rock. A genial place overall, touristy but friendly. It’s a far cry from the world we encounter in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.
The book is set in 1930s Brighton. A journalist named Fred Hale has, in the past, written an article on mob activities in Brighton and is now terrified of this gang finding him. He seeks out the company of bon vivant Ida, but after she loses sight of him he is murdered by the gang’s brand-new, seventeen year old leader, Pinkie. After Ida discovers this, she decides to relentlessly pursue Pinkie. Pinkie, meanwhile, seeks out the company of Rose, a plain-looking and naïve waitress who, though she doesn’t know it, has the power to destroy his alibi and send him to prison.
The plot is fairly straight-forward, but what really gives the novel its power is the characterisation of the main players. Pinkie, only seventeen, is ruthless but ill-equipped to deal with his new-found leadership position. He is both repulsed and fascinated by sex and doesn’t understand social interaction, lacking both charm and friendliness. Rose first appears as dowdy and dim-witted but is smarter than she lets on, and her slavish devotion to Pinkie in spite of her knowledge of how he feels about her confuses and angers him to no end. They are both Catholic and though they only have a rudimentary understanding of their faith, they worry a great deal about living in sin. The part where he visits her parents’ house, a rank worker’s terrace whose occupants dejectedly accept their daughter’s bad life choices, is fantastically painful and awkward.
Ida Arnold, on the other hand, is force majeure, someone willing to flirt and threaten and spend her way into getting what she wants for no other reason than that she feels it is the decent thing to do. Interestingly, she is completely unreligious; her idea of right and wrong is simple and fixed, whereas Pinkie and Rose’s understanding of good and evil is much more complex. Ida knows what she believes and that’s that, whereas Pinkie and Rose worry and weigh their thoughts and actions.
Brighton Rock is not a cheerful novel, nor is it a very good advertisement for Brighton. What impressed me about it is how vivid Greene portrays everything: Brighton itself, its shiny storefronts and glitzy hotels a flimsy façade hiding eons of human misery, but also of the characters, particularly of Pinkie, whose confidence slowly begins to slip as his loses his grip on his tenuous gang of half-hearted lowlifes and whose horrified rejection of sex and physical intimacy is almost endearingly childish. He is utterly charmless, disappointed by a tough life, absent parents, poverty and playground bullying, and is decidedly puzzled by Rose’s adherence to him and her unconditional kindness in spite of knowing what she knows about him. He despises her for it but it confuses him to no end, too.
The book’s narrative is a bit muddled sometimes and I occasionally had problems following it, which is really my only criticism of the book. The pictures it paints are somewhat dour and bleak, but they have heart.