These are three short novels written by the (mostly) playwright Patrick Hamilton in the early 1930s about his time as a youngish not quite writer making all the same mistakes we all made. He is best know for Rope and Gaslight which became movies.
The Midnight Bell
This first novel takes its name from the the name of the pub which is the center of all three novels. We meet Bob, the beloved half-Irish/half-American bartender who’s going to be a writer some day. For now, he’s saving up his money (has about 80 pounds/$1000 or so now) for his next big move. He’s not interested in Ella the plain but lovely barmaid or at too much of the life around him. He knows he drinks too much, but that’s ok because he’s got a system in place.
Then he meets Jenny, a chaotic and alluring prostitute, who ignores and avoids him, who is neither bright nor dim, and who never really puts up too much of a fight when he starts spending all his money on her. It turns out that Bob’s cache of money squirreled away over the course of six months or more of meticulous saving is not safe from Jenny. It’s important to point out that Jenny never asks him for money, and so Bob keeps committing self-inflicting wounds on his own bank account thinking that five more or ten more pounds will be what it takes to win her over. He tells her he loves, he plans on meeting her for a weekend away, and he even tries to buy out her time so she doesn’t spend it with other men. So of course enterprising Jenny realizes she can make double the cash that way.
This is a funny and sad book about the foolishness of young men. Jenny is not a fully realized person in the narrative, but also especially not in Bob’s understanding of her. She’s a walking ball of red flags, just like some person who came along in a lot of our lives to disrupt and destroy and move on without caring. The book doesn’t savage her; she’s a being on a different level of life.
The Siege of Pleasure
It turns out that maybe Jenny has a little more to her than we thought. Well kind of. Turns out she has an inner life and a lot more going on than Bob would eve have known, but that’s because she wouldn’t let him in. It’s funny then to turn in this second book to Jenny as primary focus. And that’s not to say that Jenny is the hero of this book. It’s more complicated than that. It’s also important to know that she neither comes across very well, nor totally depraved. Jenny is not a good person, and you know that within the first few sentences of this book. She let Bob spend his money, took it willingly, but what else could she do? He convinced himself that they were in love, mostly because he would say I love you and she would demure and say sure, I love you too. He kept wanting to marry her, but how many marriage proposals must she get in a week? And in the third book, we will see that these books do not like the ways in which men put pressure on women, whether they’re paying for it or not. But, here Jenny gets involved in a number of different crazy events and it culminates in something that is objectively awful, and subjectively so blithely lessened and ignored it becomes something like comedy.
Jenny is a whirlwind of internal and external chaos. She’s like a feral cat whose connection human society is tenuous at best. And we see all this by the end.
The Plains of Cement
In this final novel, we return to the bar, The Midnight Bell, but we don’t check in on Bob. Instead, we get Ella, the lovely barmaid, who for some reason loves Bob to death. In the early section of the novel, she is goaded by a customer, a nice enough older man, into going to the theater with him on her day off. He’s already bought the tickets, he knows it’s her day off, and even Bob gets in on saying “What’s the big deal?” But we know what the big deal is. It’s funny how 80 years later this kind of pressure of male customers asking out the female waitstaff/bartenders etc is still a conversation we have a lot.
As the novel progresses Ella’s inability to say no for fear of being disliked as well as how she takes to the actual theater performance becomes more and more troublesome as Mr. Eccles seeps his way into her life more. It’s not that he’s vile or anything, but she keeps finding it harder and harder to come up with clear reasons she shouldn’t, despite their age, despite their difference in class and education. She feels stuck.
Among all that of course is her love, or whatever she feels for Bob, who completely ignores her. As she has confront all these things, there’s a since of fear and pressure building up.
This is a good strong novel because her choices do not leave her with any of the options she truly can fathom or stomach, so she has to figure something out. It could end way worse, that’s for sure.