Graham Greene’s vivid, grubby vision of Brighton’s seething underworld gives a whole new dimension to the sunny – or more often than not leaden-skied – seaside town. Amusements, seagulls and fish and chips on the pier it ain’t. And it will make you look at those innocuous sticks of candy in a whole new way.
Greene’s tense thriller traces the fallout from the murder of Hale, a journalist with links to the town’s criminal network. He is killed by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, all curdling resentment and soured youth, desperate to prove himself as newly established leader of his small gang. The murder seems to come off without a hitch, but Pinkie had not counted on two very different but equally dangerous obstacles.
The vivacious, life-embracing Ida Arnold was the last person to see Hale alive and is not one to let a mystery drop, taking up the scent faster than a prize bloodhound. Rose, meanwhile, is a young innocent who becomes unwittingly tangled up in the crime when she stumbles across a piece of incriminating evidence and is increasingly drawn in by Pinkie’s cold attempts to silence her. All the while, rival mob leader Mr Colleoni is closing in and he doesn’t like anyone else causing a stir on his patch …
What distinguishes this from any other edge-of-your-seat crime thriller, however, is the quality of Greene’s evocative, occasionally even poetic prose and the high plane on which his protagonists’ moral battles are fought. For Pinkie and Rose, both Roman Catholics with a rudimentary religious education, their crimes are lofty matters of mortal sin and eternal damnation – never can these children of bleak council estates quite envisage a heaven, but the flames are all too real.
Placed in direct opposition is Ida, who has a no-nonsense, common sense moral compass of Right and Wrong with capital letters, combined with a rather earth-bound understanding of what exactly these concepts might involve. Murder is Wrong without doubt, but a few glasses of port in the afternoon and a quick grope in the back of a taxi are all part of life’s harmless pleasures.
Greene’s own standing in all of this is a little ambiguous. Famously Catholic himself, religion is a recurring theme in his novels (and his plays, such as the long neglected Potting Shed, though perhaps someone should have told him to stick to the day job). In Brighton Rock, however, it is difficult to identify with the principal believers, Pinkie and Rose. For all their contemplation of hell, they are still content to yield to their respective sinful desires – Pinkie’s for blood, Rose’s for Pinkie.
The one hope for salvation is confession before the end, but if an insincere act of repentance is sufficient to gain passage to heaven then what does this say about Greene’s God? As much as Greene emphasises the religious understanding of Rose and Pinkie, it is inevitably the rather lower motivations of Ida that readers find themselves sympathising with.
In addition to his moral ambiguity, Greene refuses to give us a hero in this novel. Pinkie is lost in a deep pool of hatred, fear and ambition, Rose is weak, naive and blinded by her irrational love for Pinkie, and even kind-hearted Ida is driven more by pursuit of physical pleasures than by any desire for truth or justice. For her, hunting down a murderer is no different to any other amusement that might be sought in the pleasure haven of Brighton.
Each character is a unique struggle to identify with, which should be a barrier to enjoying the novel but strangely isn’t. Instead the characters are alluringly intriguing and complex, puzzles to attempt in vain to solve. As the thriller reaches its climax and flows away like the tide over the pebbles on Brighton beach, you are left fixed with the stare of Pinkie’s cold, brutal, older-than-his-years eyes, continuing to muse frustratingly over this lost and damaged soul.