Classic Crime: Kate Rhodes on her favourite classic crime novel

Kate Rhodes, author of the ALICE QUENTIN crimes series talks about her favourite classic crime novel, Graham Greene’s BRIGHTON ROCK.

Posted on June 29, 2016 in Classic Crime, Guest Author

Chaucer and Shakespeare never stood a chance after I stumbled across Brighton Rock at the age of thirteen. The first sentence mesmerised me: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ I raced through the book compulsively, desperate to know whether the speaker’s dire prediction had been correct. The beauty of Greene’s novel is that it can be appreciated on many levels. As a teenager I was intrigued by the danger pervading every page, and the insights into how a criminal gang might operate, through bullying and macho displays of bravery. The characters stuck in my memory too, particularly Rose, a vulnerable teenage waitress, caught up by the powerful tide of events like a piece of driftwood.

I avoided rereading the book for many years, in case it lost its magic, but my worries were unnecessary. When I returned to the novel in my thirties it seemed even more dazzling. Greene is the ultimate stylist, his prose alternating between lyricism and extreme simplicity. His portrait of Brighton in 1938 still resonates, because he portrays a town that exists at the edge of the world, literally clinging to the margins. Greene seems fascinated by borderlines; between the land’s solidity and the sea’s mystery, the different outlooks of men and women, the powers of good and evil. One of the story’s most troubling aspects is that the sociopathic teenage gang leader Pinkie is a Roman Catholic, more able to accept the concept of suffering than redemption: ‘Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.’ Pinkie’s moral codes have failed him, as society gears up to fight yet another war. He feels safer with the pure reality of evil than the Sunday school prayers he memorized as a child.

One of the lessons I learned from Brighton Rock is that crime writing can also be stunning literature. Greene’s set pieces are second to none. When he describes the sea as ‘poison bottle green,’ we sense the inescapability of evil in the novel’s environment; the ocean air Pinkie inhales every day has been tainted by terrible acts committed on land. It also taught me that complexity builds interesting characters: Pinkie is full of contradictions, which make his persona fascinating to explore.

The measure of any great book is the envy it inspires in other writers. I’m sure that many authors wish they could have written the glorious, terrible tale that unwinds in Brighton Rock, because it appears in so many lists of most admired novels. I’m sure I will continue to return to its pages whenever I need a shot of inspiration, for many years to come.

Kate Rhodes’ latest novel featuring psychologist Alice Quentin, BLOOD SYMMETRY, publishes on 14th July.

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