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Los Angeles Times: "as a character study and social portrait of the seedier side of London life in the 1930s, the book is a marvel."

Date: Mar 7 2007

The author of 'Rope' and 'Gas Light' captures the pathos of everyday British lives.

By Tom Beer

While reading Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel "Hangover Square," I began — with alarm — to tally the alcoholic beverages consumed by his protagonist, a sad sack who haunts the public houses of London's Earl's Court just before World War II. The drinks mounted frightfully: a pale ale, a lager, a few beers, several gin-and-French cocktails, a double shot of gin (drunk from a toothbrush glass). I began to feel a bit lightheaded myself, and still the river flowed on: wine, gin and lime juice, more beer, whisky. Around Page 100, I gave up counting.

This novel's plot unfolds in between the drinks its characters imbibe. (The title is one wag's way of describing the effects of all this drinking: "Taking a little stroll round Hangover Square.") George Harvey Bone is a large, sweet, simple man who has fallen in with an ugly crowd: a gorgeous and vile-tempered aspiring actress named Netta Longdon and the various lowlifes, including an English fascist, who squire her from pub to pub.

George is hopelessly infatuated with the contemptuous Netta, who is memorably described as having "the ghost of the ghost of an incomprehensible yet somehow mocking smile on her face." She permits him to hang around as long as he's buying rounds. George is also a schizophrenic, who has episodes (he calls them "dead moods") that he can't recall afterward but during which he calmly and single-mindedly plans to kill Netta. The reader is put in the deliciously perverse position of hoping he succeeds.

If this blend of suspense and morbid wit calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock, it's no accident. Hamilton (1904-62) is probably best known to U.S. audiences for his 1929 play "Rope," which Hitchcock made into a successful 1948 film with Farley Granger. Another psychological drama, "Gas Light" (1938), was adapted for the American screen in 1944 as "Gaslight," directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Both films are still watched and admired today. But Hamilton's fiction has been forgotten, making the reissues of "Hangover Square" and his 1947 novel "The Slaves of Solitude" a welcome opportunity for contemporary readers to discover him.

In truth, the suspense in "Hangover Square" is rather beside the point, since the outcome of George's murder plot is never much in doubt. But as a character study and social portrait of the seedier side of London life in the 1930s, the book is a marvel. These loafers live in hotels and rooming houses barely warmed by gas fires, and they frequent depressing pubs with names like the Black Hart. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — Hitler's appeaser — is heard on the radio, and the shadow of imminent war looms in the background.

Then there's all that alcohol. George's life is punctuated by drinks — if one has no job and no real purpose, what else is there to do but have another, and then another? "Hangover Square" conveys with terrible immediacy (and without a trace of "Lost Weekend"-style melodrama) the compulsive routines and rituals of alcoholism. The author had his own chronic drinking problem, exacerbated by a 1932 accident — Hamilton was struck by a car while walking on a London sidewalk — that left him with facial scars and partial paralysis in one arm. He eventually drank himself to death at age 58.

Drinking also plays a part in "The Slaves of Solitude." It is now 1943 and the war that was just beginning at the end of "Hangover Square" has absorbed England for four wearisome years. A middle-aged spinster named Miss Roach — we don't learn her first name until midway through the novel — has been bombed out of her London flat and has taken up residence at a boarding house called Rosamund Tea Rooms, in the bland suburb of Thames Lockdon.

Here the material and spiritual desolations of wartime life are made evident in a thousand small ways: the shabby décor of the Rosamund; the shortages of butter, gasoline and cigarettes; the nightly blackout that leaves the town unnavigable without a flashlight. The novel's genius lies in its grotesque and comical depictions of the various boarders, especially Mr. Thwaites, a bombastic elderly man in love with the sound of his own voice who relentlessly bullies Miss Roach.

Fleeing this wretched company, Miss Roach begins to frequent the local pub with an American lieutenant, who courts her in a bewilderingly half-hearted fashion. Although her motives (and tolerance for liquor) are vastly different from those of the deadbeat drunks in "Hangover Square," she comes to learn "the potency of this brief means of escape in the evening from war-thought and war-endeavour." The novel's conflict arises when a casual friend of Miss Roach's — an expatriate German named Vicki Kugelmann — moves into the Tea Rooms. Expecting an ally, she is gradually horrified to see Vicki join Mr. Thwaites in his bullying, put moves on her American lieutenant and generally make a drunken nuisance of herself.

Is there something petty about these boarding-house proceedings, viewed against the backdrop of an awful world war? Yes, just as the minor dramas of our daily lives can seem insignificant in the shadow of inevitable death.

This, perhaps, is Hamilton's great achievement in both "Hangover Square" and "The Slaves of Solitude": The author sketches the everyday with a deft, often comedic touch, yet never loses sight of the ultimate pathos of the human condition.

Tom Beer is a journalist and critic in New York.