Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is his lone entry on the Bloomsbury 100, yet more evidence that as much as critics agree that Greene was a great novelist, they can’t seem to agree on what his best work was. Modern Library had The Heart of the Matter on their top 100; Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put both that work and The Power and the Glory on theirs; the Guardian put The Quiet American; and I believe I’ve seen similar praise (that I can’t locate) for The End of the Affair. And for all of that, I loved the half-serious/half-satirical Our Man in Havana*.
*Apropos of nothing, this is now the 11th Greene novel I’ve read, including all of his “serious” novels. That puts him sixth on the list of authors when ranked by the number of titles I’ve read – your challenge is to guess who the top five are in the comments. One hint: I’ve never written up a book by #2 or #4 on this site.
Brighton Rock is lumped in with Greene’s “Catholic novels,” but while there’s certainly a lot of discussion among the characters of religion and its relation to right/wrong, I think that’s at most a secondary theme in the book. The novel focuses on a teenage delinquent nicknamed “Pinkie” who has taken over one local gang of street toughs who run, among other things, small-time bookmaking outfit. Pinkie’s gang commit a murder before the book has started, which leads to a string of murders and attempts all aimed at covering up the initial crime. Pinkie himself starts out as just an amoral, power-hungry killer, but as the book progresses and Greene peels back the layers of Pinkie’s character, we see more that he is driven by a raging feeling of inadequacy, set off when others show a lack of respect for his abilities, and driven by a desire to be seen as a capable adult.
Pinkie is pursued by an amateur detective named Ida Arnold, whose passing acquaintance with one of Pinkie’s victims turns into a quest to identify the killer(s) and see them brought to justice, a quest that itself changes shape as the story progresses. While Pinkie has clear, dogmatic views on life informed by inexperience and a superficial form of Catholicism, Arnold is a spiritualist with an independent moral compass of less certain origin. Pinkie hooks up with a girl who could provide testimony against his gang for one of the killings, and saving her becomes part of Ida’s quest, but the girl herself (Rose) is a cipher of a character who is childlike in her thoughts and actions.
Greene’s novels are short and tend to move along quickly, but despite the detective-novel portion of the plot, Brighton Rock was slow and plodding, especially when the camera focused on Pinkie, who is more interesting as a character to study and dissect than as one whose actions we might want to follow.
Next up: I’m a bit behind on reviews, as I finished John Cheever’s Falconer last night.