History: Published in 1942, , it is often cited as Hamilton's finest novel, exemplifying the author's concerns over social inequalities, the rise of Fascism and the hovering doom of World War II. Patrick Hamilton was never a happy man. His mother committed suicide, his sister was a drunk and his father seems to have cast a long shadow over his life. Patrick Hamilton’s love life was a greater disaster even than his family life. In 1927, he fell disastrously in love with a prostitute named Lily, the details of which are replicated almost blow for blow in his early acclaimed novel, The Midnight Bell. His most lasting relationship was with the bottle. His brother, Bruce, said that by the end of the Second World War, Patrick had spent nearly £2,000 a year on black market booze. After he was run down by a car in the late 1920s and left permanently disfigured, Hamilton, in the words of JB Priestley, ‘spent too many of his later years in an alcoholic haze, no longer a social drinker but an unhappy man who needed whisky as a car needs petrol’.
Plot: Set against the backdrop of the days preceding Britain declaring war on Germany, the main character is George Harvey Bone, a lonely borderline alcoholic who suffers from a split personality. He is obsessed with gaining the affections of Netta, a failed actress and one of George's circle of "friends" with whom he drinks. Netta is repelled by George but being greedy and manipulative, she and a mutual acquaintance, Peter, shamelessly exploit George's advances to extract from him money and drink.
George suffers from 'dead moods' in which he is convinced he must kill Netta for the way she treats him. Upon recovering from these interludes, he cannot remember them. However outside these he embarks on several adventures, trying in vain to win Netta's affections, including a 'romantic' trip to Brighton which goes horribly wrong (Netta brings Peter and a previously unknown man with whom she has sex in the hotel room next to George's).
Apart from being a source of money and alcohol, Netta's other reason for continuing to associate with George is because of Johnnie. He is one of George's long-time friends who works for a theatrical agent, and Netta hopes that through him she will get to meet Eddie Carstairs, a powerful figure in the theatre. However in a final reversal of fortune it is George, not Netta, who ends up attending a party amongst the theatrical great and good whilst Netta is cast aside by Eddie who (unlike George) has immediately seen her for the unpleasant person she is. George suddenly realises what it is like to be surrounded by 'kind' people who are interested in him as a person rather than what he can provide.
This potentially promising turn of events in George's life is, however, dashed, when he suddenly clicks into a dead mood and resumes his murder plans. He executes his murder of Netta (and also of Peter, whom the narrative describes as a 'Fascist' moments before he is murdered) before escaping to Maidenhead. Throughout the novel Maidenhead represents for George a semi-mythical new beginning, and representing a picture of traditional Englishness in contrast to the seaminess of Earl's Court. However in the closing pages of the novel the stark fallacy of that dream becomes apparent to George. It is the same as everywhere else. Now penniless, he gasses himself in a dingy Maidenhead boarding house.
The last lines of the book are an extract from a cheap tabloid newspaper about the murders and George's suicide, and contains what is perhaps Hamilton's blackest pun.
Review: No novel has better conveyed what it means to be in love with someone who does not love you, who, in fact, has no interest in your existence, but from whom you cannot, or will not, escape. In Bone’s case, knowledge that his loved one is a heartless, sexual freelancer, that she isn’t even nice, can’t dent the hammer-blown infatuation. The figure of Netta Longdon squats across the novel, her evil beauty smothering the whole.
Bone, it becomes clear, is a schizophrenic. A ‘CLICK!’ in his head triggers a new personality - a personality which does not long for Netta in a pathetic way, but seeks to kill her. Netta becomes an objective correlative for fascism, When the war does come, Netta will be purged.
Hamilton paints a searing portrait of the defeated classes, those drifting from place to place and finding commune only in bars. He ushers us into shabby hotels, dingy boarding houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet’. The prose drips with drink. The dialogue is sodden with the mutterings of drunks. But the bleakness of the detail does not mean the experience of reading is a struggle through a personal misery; rather it is a page-turning romp into the loneliness of a sweet alcoholic, in love with a woman who had nails dripped in blood, and who, when Bone has spent all his money taking her to an expensive restaurant, will flick ‘the ash of her cigarette into her coffee saucer’. Bone loves her but longs to hate her. ‘For the time being there was a certain joy in his hatred. Like a local anaesthetic round a tooth, it numbed the pain around his heart - the heart which, normally, ached with the pain of Netta continually.’ The other characters note his schizophrenic moods, when his brain goes ‘CLICK!’ and of which he has no memory. They are his ‘dotty’ moods, his ‘dead’ moods, his ‘stooge’ moods, and suspense is maintained - as despite declaring from the very outset that he will destroy Netta, it seems till very late on impossible that he would do her any harm. It does not seem likely that this man who ‘seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded’ is capable of inflicting harm. But there remains no doubt that Netta is an evil like Nazism itself, that his ‘eternity of longing’ for her is a longing for freedom and peace, which she will never allow him.
Opening Line: “Click. Here it was again. Click!”
Closing Line: “Found gassed. Thinks of Cat.”
Quotes: "It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or snap. It had come over his brain as a sudden film, induced by a foreign body, might come over the eye. He felt that if he could only "blink" his brain it would be at once dispelled."
Rating: Okay, kind of depressing.