Book Review: Brighton Rock

The first sentence of Brighton Rock is possibly one of the best first sentences of literature ever. And that’s not a statement that I throw around lightly. But it hooks, excites and intrigues instantaneously, evoking crime, mystery and, above all, a thrilling suspense.  ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’.

Brighton-Rock-1947
Image credit: Brighton Rock, 1947

Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock chronicles the aftermath of a murder: after seventeen year old Pinkie, a ruthless and menacing new gang leader, kills Hale, his retribution for the death of his mentor Kite is assured. The plot is simple enough: a violent conspiracy slowly unravelled. But Greene’s avid storytelling has the ability to transform the seemingly hackneyed into something new, fresh and exciting. His world is crafted with true authority, his writing is unassuming but beautiful and his characters are real, with their undeniable humanity and unpredictability.

The most obvious character that meets this description is the protagonist Pinkie: although uncompromisingly evil, he is also extraordinarily human. He is not treated as a villain amongst his fellow gang members, and his weaknesses, flaws and virulent desires create a compelling, if avowedly repugnant and callous humanity. An excellent character – possibly one of the best in literature? This unassuming, but keenly felt, control over his novel is all the more impressive considering the vast differences between Greene’s novels: he does not rely on one plot, or on a series of similar characters or settings, but each world is fully realised, a clear and admirably executed vision.

As Ian McEwan astutely states, Brighton Rock was, to him, the first example of the fact that ‘a serious novel could be an exciting novel’ – a rare thing to discover, and one that still holds firmly true today. The novel immediately grabs the reader, and its swift-moving plot enhances rather than detracts from the overall impression. Although the novel ended as I predicted it might, its denouement was by no means certain and was difficult to guess. Upon finishing the novel, I was a little underwhelmed.  he novel had ended; and the lives of the characters seemed to progress as they always had done. But it is only now, when writing this review, that its full effect has been underlined: it is an episode among episodes, an interlude that happened and is now over. What a fitting testament to the ethos of Greene’s work.

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