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Boston Phoenix: "Hamilton raises his hard-boiled, pulp-fiction world to the level of tragedy."

Date: Mar 2 2006

Major Minor

Hamilton raises his hard-boiled, pulp-fiction world to the level of tragedy. Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square makes almost all other hard-boiled writing seem phony. If Hamilton, who died in 1962, is remembered at all, it’s probably for the movie versions of his plays Gaslight (with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer) and Rope (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock). The difference between those chestnuts and Hangover Square (1941, just reissued by Europa Editions) is the difference between entertaining, well-constructed melodrama and the kind of work that, once you’ve read it, becomes forever after a part of your experience.

The book’s low-life setting, the gin mills and music halls, the cheap hotels and tea stalls around London’s Earl’s Court in the months leading to the August 1939 outbreak of World War II, links it to the work of American pulp writers from the ’40s and ’50s. But Hamilton has time for neither the easy nihilism of pulp nor its sentimental romantic fatalism. Hangover Square doesn’t encourage daydreams of slumming among the down-and-out. Spilled gin and cigarette smoke and stale sweat and the fug of damp rooms rise from its pages.

Its atmosphere is, in miniature, the fearful and stultified Britain of the ’30s, taking note of the rise of fascism and Nazism, though a world in which, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, “all was dark and quiet, a great reaction was abroad: and little stirred, and nothing resisted.” Hamilton’s protagonist is named, with ironic accuracy, George Harvey Bone. Thirty-five, unemployed, a big, gentle man not, you imagine, often very comfortable in his large, soft body. But befitting his surname, George seems to have been whittled down to nothing but raw, wounded feelings and his shyly proffered hopes. He is also schizophrenic.

At least that’s what seems to be happening when the “click!” in his head turns on, an effect Hamilton describes as “though a shutter had fallen,” rendering the world around George like a talkie suddenly become a silent. In those states (his funny moods, as his acquaintances call them) he is momentarily lost, not knowing who or where he is. When he recovers that information, he also knows with utter certainty that he must kill Netta Longdon. She’s the once-aspiring actress he’s in love with. He can see that she’s become a slattern, content to allow whoever wants to to spend money on her. Occasionally, that’s George, though Netta resists or ridicules his declarations of love. When that “click!’ comes, all the resentment George holds in, all the pain he sucks up as his due for being fool enough to love a woman like Netta, turns into his desire to kill her, to be free of her and the whole dead, soul-destroying existence she represents, and then to take off for Maidenhead, where George remembers being happy with his beloved dead sister, and whose very name implies a fresh, clean start.

Hamilton is a cruel artist, which is not to say he’s sadistic. He doesn’t spare our emotions. George is in some ways an insignificant man, yet with enough feeling in him for his story to be tragic. He’s a man led by circumstance and bad luck away from his innate decency. What’s heartbreaking in Hangover Square are the moments of contact and warmth that, because he doesn’t expect them, George receives as a gift: the affection lavished on him by a hotel cat; the kindness shown him by two music-hall stars who never for a moment think they’re better than he; the spur-of-the-moment camaraderie he finds with a young man in a pub who shares his love for Dickens. Hamilton is, as J.B. Priestley wrote in 1972, a master among minor novelists. But sometimes minor artists, by their specificity rather than their all-encompassing vision, can overwhelm you.

By Charles Taylor