“BRIGHTON ROCK began as a detective story and continued, I am sometimes tempted to think, as an error of judgement . . . yet perhaps it is the best I ever wrote.” So opined Graham Greene, looking back in 1970 on his work of 1938. Greene’s conflicted evaluation reflects something of the novel itself: a mood of twisting ambivalence runs through Brighton Rock from first to last.
The novel offers a richly textured sketch of gang wars in Brighton in the 1930s, and yet defies the conventions of detective fiction. The death of the former crime reporter Fred Hale at the hands of mobsters early in its pages is no normal “whodunnit”. From the outset, we know exactly who murdered Fred and why. Thanks to a clock on Brighton Pier, we even know the precise time of Fred’s death.
Greene achieves narrative suspense by innovative means: tantalising concealment from the reader — and even from Fred’s killers — of exactly how he dies. Uncertainty hovers over whether justice will, indeed, prevail, and also how many more murders might be needed to remove witnesses of the first.
The book’s central mysteries, however, are moral and metaphysical, not plot-based. Can human character change fundamentally, or is it, in the words of one protagonist, “like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton”? What are the limits of “the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God” spoken of by a priest in the last pages?
Nearly all the characters are memorable, but the key drama is played out between a tight trinity: the gang leader, Pinkie; Rose, the witness whom he marries to secure her silence; and Ida, the amateur sleuth, set on solving Fred’s murder and rescuing Rose from Pinkie. The unfolding dynamic between the three becomes a matter of both dramatic contrast and paradoxical conjunction.
Greene held that “human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” The novel’s exploration of this maxim hinges, ironically, on the vivid use of a colour: pink. The colour links the satanist Pinkie implicitly to Brighton Rock confectionery. More obviously, it ties him associatively to Rose — a cypher for a shared Roman Catholic upbringing that leaves him with fear of hell and her with hope of heaven.
The colour connects even Pinkie and Ida. Pinkie’s “faint nostalgia” for childhood faith is captured by a flashback to “the tiny dark confessional box, the priest’s voice, and the people waiting under the statue, before the bright lights burning down in the pink glasses”. Yet it is also pink lamps by which his brashly secular nemesis Ida “sees clearly” at key turning-points in the plot. Pink thus stands for shared humanity — maybe even “common grace”.
Alamy/© Pathe Pictures LtdCarol Marsh and Richard Attenborough play Rose and Pinkie in the 1947 film noir Brighton Rock
Brighton Rock is usually referred to as Greene’s first “Catholic novel” — the first, even, of that French-pioneered sub-genre in English literature. The label irritated him profoundly. “I am not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be a Catholic,” he complained (often). Prone to both depression and metaphysical doubt, he abstained from the sacraments between the 1950s and 1980s.
Even in Brighton Rock, seeds of doubt appear. Greene hints that Ida’s “right and wrong” may be preferable to Rose’s “good and evil”; lack of concern for the “hereafter” arguably allows Ida to help others more in the “here and now”. There are suggestions, too, of Christian truth’s being transmuted into a guide to reading the patterning of this world, hence Greene’s repeated likening of the underside of the pier to a cathedral with “a great iron nave”, in which a seagull, “half vulture-half dove”, swoops towards the sea — eerily recalling the Holy Ghost descending on baptismal water.
That view is strengthened by pondering how questions of “the afterlife” haunt Brighton Rock. Our posited relationship to others beyond death becomes more concrete as the novel progresses. The early dubious spiritualism of ouija boards gives way to the possibility of finding immortality through lasting psychological impression on others. Greene’s choice of a criminal “underworld” setting suggests that hell may be a terrestrial reality — destabilising received Christian cosmology.
The 1947 film adaptation underscores this by giving visual prominence to “Dante’s Inferno”: an amusement ride on Brighton Pier. Because Greene wrote the screenplay, it offers important authorial commentary on the text.
Brighton Rock has itself enjoyed a significant afterlife. Mario Puzo’s Mafia boss “Corleone”, in his novel The Godfather (1969), pays homage to Greene’s similar character “Colleoni” — Pinkie’s rival. Both novels use motifs from Catholic ritual to probe the criminal psyche.
Readers often finish Brighton Rock with tangled feelings of awe and frustration: caught between its hypnotic atmosphere and puzzling ellipses. Ultimately, these sentiments are alternate faces of one coin: the book’s brilliance lies precisely in what it leaves hovering just beyond our grasp. An adolescent Ian McEwan found it proof “that a serious novel could be an exciting novel — that a novel of adventure could be also a novel of ideas”. It is hard to disagree.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-09-947847-8.
BRIGHTON ROCK — SOME QUESTIONS
- What, in your opinion, is behind Pinkie’s relentless drive towards death and destruction?
- Why do you think Rose places so much faith in Pinkie?
- What motivates Ida Arnold’s actions? Is she right to do what she does?
- In the novel, the Catholicism of Pinkie and Rose is pitched against Ida’s secular world-view. Does one view triumph? Why/why not?
- Graham Greene was a prolific film critic. Has cinema or the cinematic influenced the novel for you? If so, how?
- What effect has poverty had on the characters and their actions?
- Why is Rose not more upset about having committed mortal sin?
- “She ought to be damned.” Why does Rose think of Ida as evil?
- “She had experienced as much as any woman.” How do Rose and Pinkie reveal their youth?
- “A Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone.” Why does the priest suggest this to Rose? Is he right?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 March, we will print extra information about our next book, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. It is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-14-043785-0.
Published more than 50 years after the events, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a chronicle of London in 1665, covering an outbreak of the bubonic plague in which nearly 100,000 Londoners are estimated to have died. Defoe’s narrator provides an account of the city’s responses to the plague, and the attempts to curb its spread, as well as a vivid insight into the transformed streets of London and the experiences of its suffering inhabitants. The book is widely considered historical fiction, but may have been partially based on contemporary accounts by Defoe’s uncle.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a merchant and author of political pamphlets, journals, poetry, and fiction. He is often credited with helping to develop the genre of the English novel. A Presbyterian dissenter, he attended the Dissenting Academy in Newington Green, and continued to be an active proponent of religious freedom throughout his life. Defoe was outspoken about religious and political matters, and found himself imprisoned and pilloried several times for seditious libel. He also faced several imprisonments for debt. His most famous novels, including Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), were written in the later years of his life.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
April The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
May Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour