Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

67 thoughts on “Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

  1. OK, this one definitely goes on the wish list, FictionFan (It’s not one that I’ve read, either). I do admire an author who creates fully-rounded characters, especially right at the beginning of a novel. And the setting sounds nicely atmospheric. That’s an interesting setup for a story, too (although I don’t generally go for the ‘psychopath’ motif unless it’s really well done. Thanks for sharing this one.

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    • This definitely isn’t standard psychopath fare – Pinkie is much more complicated and real than the usual monster-type. The writing’s great and it’s so tense – I think the slowness of listening rather than reading actually made the tension worse! Hope you enjoy it if you get to it! 😀

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  2. My goodness, such high praise for this book! You really must have enjoyed it immensely. I haven’t read it (or listened to it, for that matter), but it sounds as if it’s got to go on my reading list. Drat, and that TBR is already suffering from pandemic bloat!!

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    • I did, Debbie, right up there with the very best! Haha – I know the feeling! I might be struggling to read much but I seem to have no problem adding books to my wishlist! If you do get to this one sometime, I hope you enjoy it… 😉

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    • The suspense is incredible, isn’t it? I was actually beginning to get anxiety symptoms towards the end, and because it was an audiobook I couldn’t kinda rush ahead the way you can in a paper book… 😂

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  3. Well worth your 5 star rating by the sound of it. Fortunately, it was already on my list, so I don’t need to add it, and I like Samuel West as a narrator, so I’m looking forward to reading it now.

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    • Right up there as one of the best for me! This was my first Samuel West and I thought he was great. As you know I struggle with concentration on a lot of audiobooks, but he held my attention and I found I was listening in much longer chunks than I can usually manage, and that always helps when a story is as tense as this one. Just as an aside, I’m loving Steven Crossley’s narration of the Shardlake book…

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  4. This was the first book I read on my undergraduate course and it has remained with me ever since. Like you, I’ve had a mixed experience with my more recent Greene reads but at some point I ought to revisit this.

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    • I “did” The Comedians for my Higher English way back in the deep past and then raced through about half of his books, loving them all. But my recent attempts to read some of the ones I missed back then have been very mixed, so I was delighted that this one rekindled my love for him. I now want to read The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory again… 😀

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  5. I’ve heard of Graham Greene all my life, but don’t recall reading any of his novels. I just checked my library app and this one is part of a collection that also includes The End of the Affair and Our Man in Havana. I’ve tagged it for my wish list. Will the other two be worth my time, as well?

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    • I haven’t read Our Man in Havana, but I think I remember my brother recommending it to me. I fear I wasn’t a fan of The End of the Affair – the religious stuff all got really silly, which is odd, because he normally handles it extremely well. However, I must say vast numbers of people think it’s his best book, so don’t let me put you off! The ones I loved most in my youth were The Heart of the Matter (which for years I declared to be the best book ever written by anyone who wasn’t Dickens) and The Power and the Glory. I want to re-read them both now… 😀

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      • Both of the others you mentioned are in a second collection in my library app, along with The Quiet American. I’ve tagged it for future reference, as well! 😃

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            • Even though I know you re-read all the time, I think we should go with one that’s new-to-you. 😉 Our Man in Havana has this comment following the blurb in my app: “High-comic mayhem… weirdly undated… [and] bizarrely prescient.” – Christopher Buckley, New York Times – bestselling author .

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            • 😂 But…but…I don’t really want to read Our Man in Havana next – I never think his comedies work very well, and they always feel much more dated than his serious novels. I want to re-read The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory! See, this is exactly why I don’t join book clubs – everybody always ends up reading books they don’t actually want to read… 😉 😂 How about we maybe have a Greene day – we each choose which of his books takes our fancy and review them on the same day?

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            • Ahaha… well it really makes no difference to me. I’ll read whatever you choose (or skip out if it doesn’t appeal at the time). It’s not like I don’t have enough to read to keep me busy for the next century! 😉

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    • That was my introduction to Sam West as narrator and I thought he was great. I was hoping he’d maybe done all the big Greene novels, but sadly not – I wonder if he could be persuaded… 🙂

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  6. I read through Greene novels with a passion a long time ago, especially loving The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case and The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock didn’t work for me, but again, it was a long time ago and reading habits change (I was much younger). What you write here makes me want to revisit Greene, and give Pinkie’s world another chance.

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    • I haven’t read A Burnt-Out Case. but loved The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory in my youth – I now want to re-read both of them. I’d be interested to hear what you think of Brighton Rock on a re-read – I suspect I may not have enjoyed it so much myself if I’d read it at the same age as I read the others. I think it might be one that requires a kind of distance in the reader from the youthfulness of Pinkie and Rose, if that makes any sense…

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      • That does make sense. The distance you mention may be the very reason I couldn’t love the book as I did the others…I was too young. There are many books I want to reread for this reason (for example, I just reread “The Bell Jar” and had a much different appreciation of the novel than I did when reading it in my 20s). Will add Brighton Rock to the list.

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        • Yes, I feel there were quite a lot of classics I read when I was really too young to have the required perspective. Happily my memory is terrible so I can re-read them now as if for the first time! It’s many years since I read The Bell Jar – I may well appreciate it more now too…

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  7. I loved Brighton Rock when I read it a few years ago and I think it might be nearly time for a reread. I agree, I think his Catholic themes are very well integrated here (as opposed to The End of the Affair, for example). Pinkie is one of the best-rendered villains I’ve ever seen on the page. My read was that he was actually attracted to Rose but was very repulsed and alarmed by his own feelings, and therefore not able to recognise them – which made me more frightened for Rose because it made him even more unpredictable.

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    • I’m glad it wasn’t just me who struggled with the way he handled the religious aspects in The End of the Affair! Pinkie is fantastic – entirely believable and strangely demanding of sympathy despite his actions. Yes, I suspect you may be right – his reaction to her was so disturbing. I can’t remember when I was last so anxious for a character as I was for Rose – she wasn’t perfect by any means, but like Pinkie, you could see why she’d turned out that way…

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    • I loved him so much when I was young but he seemed to go out of fashion for a while. I think he’s been around long enough now to be seen as “classic” and that’s kinda brought him back…

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  8. I read this last year and it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read. What has really stayed with me is their background, the world these characters came from is so bleak and grimy. Are they the children of parents suffering trauma from the 1st WW? the alcoholic father rocking backwards and forwards in his chair. I was amazed at the age of the other gang members, middle aged men following a teenager. They’ve never had any responsibility , never grown up and just follow the toughest. As you say we always see them in a very human way, what could have been? Thank you for a really great review, and I must listen to this, I can imagine how good it is.

    I watched the recent film version which sets it in the 60’s and I didn’t think it worked at all. Post National Health Service all the characters looked too well fed, they didn’t have the air of squalid meanness that the book conjures up.

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    • Yes, I think we tend to forget that men who came back from WW1 and later WW2 must have been affected in some way by their experience. The old stiff upper lip and the tendency not to talk about their war experiences doesn’t mean it wasn’t all bottled up inside. He’s fantastic at creating unforgettable places and characters, and at making the reader sympathise with the most unlikely people! The audiobook is really great – I thought Sam West read it excellently and actually the slower pace of listening made the tension even worse.

      I haven’t seen either of the film versions but I think I’ll watch the original one with Richard Attenborough – I rarely find remakes of classic films are as good as the originals. Makes me wonder why they do it…

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  9. I’ll keep this title in mind too, specially as I’ve never read GG yet, and I’m now reading The End of the Affair -I started last night-. I think it’s a necessary literary stop. I also own The Power and the Glory, but I see me going for this title and the movie looks familiar. Thanks for the review.

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    • It’s many years since I read The Power and the Glory but I thought it was a wonderful book, as is The Heart of the Matter. Personally I didn’t enjoy The End of the Affair quite so much, but I’m in the minority so I hope you’re in the majority! He’s definitely an author worth exploring… 😀

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  10. I can’t remember what now, but I read something of GG which left me feeling he wasn’t for me. Brighton Rock sounds an excellent revisiting for me. The library has the Sam West audio too – even better!

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    • I find him variable, and I don’t think his lighter books have aged well at all – some very uncomfortable depictions of race and gender. But mostly he avoids that in the more serious novels, or at least they have enough else going for them that it’s possible to overlook it. I do hope you enjoy this one!

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  11. I was about to say that the only GG I’ve read is The End of the Affair, which I rather liked! Now I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t own up to that one! 😂 But Brighton Rock sounds terrific. Definitely one to look out for.

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