Author Laura Wilson talks us through a classic crime novel.

the other woman

To celebrate the paperback publication of The Other Woman, journalist and author Laura Wilson talks us through classic crime novel Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

Posted on April 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

To celebrate the paperback publication of The Other Woman, journalist and author Laura Wilson talks us through classic crime novel Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

In many ways Hangover Square (1941) is Patrick Hamilton’s most intense and powerful work.  Praised by critic James Agate as ‘a masterpiece of frowst’, it is an extraordinary study of infatuation as well as a pre-apocalyptic vision of a country on the brink of war. Aimless, dopey George Harvey Bone, living off a rapidly diminishing inheritance in a ‘large glorified boarding house’ in Earl’s Court, is obsessed with beautiful, callous Netta Longdon. He hangs about outside Netta’s flat for the ‘miserable pleasure of mere proximity’, agonises over the best time to telephone her, analyses her every word for a sign of encouragement and allows himself to be repeatedly humiliated by her friends. His only real source of comfort is the hotel’s cat, who comes to his room in search of a warm place to sleep.

Netta is a failed actress, and Hamilton really goes to town on her, describing her as ‘like something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering sideways without fully conscious motivation.’ Impervious to everything – even the fact that a member of her clique, Peter, routinely forces himself on her when she is drunk – she harbours a secret ambition to become the mistress of a theatre impresario (the ’30s equivalent of a WAG) and strings Bone along, cadging money while reviling him at every turn.

The novel begins on Boxing Day 1938, two months after the Munich Agreement, and the sense of impending catastrophe as the country heads inexorably towards war is mirrored by the reader’s knowledge, right from the start, that the characters are also heading towards a violent climax. Bone is subject – when not drunk or inhabiting the realm of compounded depression, shame and remorse that is ‘Hangover Square’ – to periods of amnesia, during which his unconscious mind is fixated on killing Netta as a means of freeing himself from his conscious mind’s infatuation. It’s a fairly clumsy device – Hamilton biographer Sean French describes it as a ‘literary mechanism rather than a medical condition’ – but an effective one, illustrating the self-hypnotising nature of obsession.

Bone sees Munich as ‘a phoney business’ but Netta and Peter have fascist sympathies and are admirers of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. This strikes me as writing with the benefit of hindsight (the novel was finished in March 1941), as public opinion was generally in favour of Chamberlain in 1938, although I can’t imagine many British citizens went so far as Netta who, ‘without admitting it to herself,’ finds Hitler sexually alluring. She is also attracted by the fact that Peter has twice been gaoled, once for violence at a political meeting and once for a drunken driving incident which resulted in the death of a pedestrian. Characters connected with cars in Hamilton novels are always suspect: he had been knocked down and badly injured in 1932, and – surely not coincidentally – Netta’s flat is located on the stretch of Earl’s Court Road where the real accident took place.

Hamilton spent most of his childhood in Hove on the south coast of England and frequently used its more famous neighbour Brighton as a setting. For him, Brighton was a place of escape, extending – but never actually keeping – the promise of emotional and sexual fulfilment. In Hangover Square, Netta ruins Bone’s chances by turning up drunk with two male hangers-on. Ejected from the hotel for their appalling behaviour, they return to London, leaving Bone with the bill. It is this that finally rouses his conscious mind to anger – ‘he felt he would like to beat [Netta] up, do her some physical damage’ – and, although he tries to compartmentalise his life in order to achieve some distance from her, his ego and id come together to lethal effect at the end of the book. Bone murders both Netta and Peter to the accompaniment of Chamberlain’s radio broadcast declaring war, killing the fascist sympathisers at the very moment when Britain ends its policy of appeasement.

I first read Hangover Square in my early teens, with a teenager’s black-and-white view of the world, turning the pages with fascinated disbelief. Where was the hero? How was it that I could be both massively irritated with and hugely sympathetic to George Harvey Bone at the same time? How could Netta and Peter be so monstrously, eye-poppingly horrible, and why did I care so much about what was going to happen to them? Why did everyone keep on getting drunk when it had such disastrous consequences? How could an author be so contemptuous of his characters, and yet, at the same time, so engaged and compassionate?

I came back to the book twenty years later with a feeling of trepidation, having discovered that much of what enthralled me as a teenager (books, music, art, people) had proved, on adult inspection, to be embarrassingly disappointing. Hangover Square was one of the few exceptions: quite simply, a magnificent piece of British noir.


The Other Woman by Laura Wilson is out now!


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