Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock
Chris Pak is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Liverpool. He specialises in Science Fiction, with a thesis focused on the theme of terraforming, but is also interested in other Fantastic and Genre Fictions. He teaches several undergraduate modules at the University of Liverpool and is scheduled to begin teaching a new module on Noir writing in early 2011. More information, and links to other essays and reviews, can be found at www.chrispak.webs.com.
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) is a disturbing novel revolving around the murder of a newspaper personality, “Kolly Kibber” (Fred Hale), who distributes business cards as clues in a competition challenging the public to identify him and report his whereabouts for prize money. The calculated atmosphere of paranoia at the novel’s opening disorients the reader; attempts to put together the circumstances surrounding the fear Hale experiences during his assignment to Brighton soon gives way to the no less mysterious question of his relationship to an unnamed young man who he appears to know and dread. We later learn that he is Pinkie Brown, the young, cruel leader of a local gang. After Hale’s murder the self-righteous Ida Arnold, who meets Hale for the first time just before he is killed, sets out to investigate what to her is the suspicious report claiming that Hale died of a heart attack. As the novel develops, the narrative alternates between Brown and his further efforts to cover his tracks while maintaining his farcical relationship with Rose, and Arnold’s amateur yet persistent investigation of Brown and his involvement in Hale’s murder.
Brown tries to eliminate all evidence of his gang’s involvement in Hale’s murder, but his relative youth and inexperience lead him to overcompensate. Perhaps the most striking aspects of the novel are its gritty portrayal of Brown’s ambivalent relationship with Rose, a waitress whom he marries so as to prevent her from testifying against him, and the decline in strength and influence of Brown’s gang under his leadership. Theirs is a marriage of convenience; Brown struggles with the idea of murdering her and with his sympathetic yet abortive affection for her throughout their short and troubled relationship. The naive Rose turns out to be less than completely innocent and, regardless of her suspicions, chooses to marry Brown in rebellion against her domineering family and against her Catholic background, an upbringing that she has in common with Brown. Brown, on the other hand, is revealed as a less experienced gangster than this reader expected. He comes up against the sophisticated mob boss Mr. Colleoni, who moves into the power vacuum vacated by Brown’s mentor (the previous leader of Brown’s gang) and establishes supremacy over the corrupt world of Brighton.
The novel is named for the famous Brighton Rock candy which, Arnold claims, she resembles: ‘“I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down. That’s human nature”’. Hard and merciless, cheap yet sweet, Brighton Rock stands as a symbol for Brown and Arnold’s (among others’) lack of compassion, for the squalid life led by many of these characters amidst a town of booming luxury and for Brown’s failure to adapt to new circumstances. Brighton Rock has been adapted for film in 1947 by John Boulting, with a remake by Rowan Joffe scheduled for release in February 2011.
By Chris Pak