We all have those novels that we are drawn back to again and again because we love them so much, and because they inevitably remind us what great writing is all about. For me, one such novel is Patrick Hamilton’s melancholy Hangover Square.
This review, I warn you, may include *Spoilers* – but what the heck, the novel was only published 72 years ago.
Hangover Square is the story of George Harvey Bone, a lumbering loner who has succumbed to mental illness. George is obsessed with Netta Longdon, an ambitious but indolent fellow-drinker in the numerous low-rent public houses of Earl’s Court. Tormented by her cruelty and manipulation, George eventually kills her and another man.
There’s little reason why we should care for George Harvey Bone. He’s an unemployed drunkard who sponges off his Great Aunt. But George has been booby-trapped by life – he lost his beloved sister in an accident at an early age and all the people who have cared for him have slipped away. He’s alienated, slipping through the cracks of society, and Hamilton rings an awful lot of pathos from George’s desperate situation.
George is a shambling man, who is often described in uncomplimentary terms, as if seen through the eyes of Netta’s callous Earl’s Court gang: “They saw him as a poor, dumb, adoring, obvious cow-like appendage to Netta… Somebody you could really dismiss with easy conviction as an awful fool.”
Most of the novel is spent in his drink-addled and tortured mind, both in his everyday existence and in a schizophrenic state George calls his ‘dead moods,’ where he feels cut off from life around him: “It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap.” It’s in this state that George believes his salvation lies in the murder of Netta and Peter.
In his dead moods George isn’t some kind of homicidal genius. He’s still the same confused individual, it’s just that he has a muddled sense of how to fix his life. When he snaps out of those moods, George has no idea of his murderous instincts – Hamilton cleverly distances George from his own actions.
The antagonist, Netta Longdon, is an unworthy object of his desire. She’s manipulative and cold and self-obsessed, and utterly contemptuous of George. Netta’s wingman, the other object of dead mood George’s murderous musings, is the equally cruel barfly Peter. Peter is revealed as a fascist sympathizer, and a hit-and-run killer to boot. Netta and Peter are portrayed as hateful characters.
The other major character in the book is George’s childhood friend Johnnie Littlejohn. He’s a kind man, the antithesis of Netta, who has his friend’s best-interests at heart. Johnnie is the conscience of the book, and as a character, he carries many of its themes — of simple kindness; of lifting our fellow man high – on his shoulders. In order that we invest in George’s well being, he must have an escape from his dire lifestyle, and Johnnie’s character is a mechanism for that.
Hangover Square is a masterful novel that always plays against the reader’s compulsion to side with the victim of crime against the perpetrator. It’s a good example of how a novel of suspense can make interesting and unexpected choices, giving the reader conflicted emotional responses. We root for George. We’re desperate for him not to kill Netta, and to pull himself out of the dreadful tailspin he finds himself in in life.
Hangover Square is a crime novel in one sense — there’s a crime at the heart of it, or at least the prospect of one – and when he wrote it, the author Patrick Hamilton was at the height of his powers, terrifically successful and wealthy thanks to his smash-hit plays, Rope – a high-concept thriller if ever there was one – and Gaslight.
In that post-war period, Hamilton received the same acclaim as his contemporary Graham Greene. His other novels included the trilogy that makes up Thirty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, the Gorse trilogy – made into ITV series The Charmer way back when, and based loosely on the exploits of the wartime conman and murderer Neville George Heath – and, another of my favourite books, The Slaves Of Solitude.
But Hamilton became something of the forgotten man of British literature. The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in his work and his evocation of lonely city life between the wars, and rightly so.
What I liked: Just how ‘good’ is your protagonist? In these morally ambiguous times anti-heroes have become ten a-penny. But I still find myself having endless debates about to what extent readers will invest in books which feature murderers and career-criminals and professional assassins – the conclusion always seems to be that a reader may not have to like the hero or heroine of a novel, but must empathise with them in some way.
If you have a “bad guy” as your main character, one way to get the reader on your side is to make the antagonist even worse. Readers may not like double-murderer George Harvey Bone, but Netta and Peter are such hateful characters that part of us would quite happily see them dead.
Characters like Bone tend to be like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. What about you – do you write sick, deranged or violent characters? Anti-heroes who behave beyond the usual norms or society – who live by the sword and die by the sword?
Is it important to you that your readers like or admire your characters, or do you give the characters who populate your writing free reign to be themselves, and damn the reader?