Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ominously second-rate

The introduction by DJ Taylor to a single-volume reprint of Patrick Hamilton's Gorse trilogy to be published by Black Spring next month (oh! I'm so excited!) is available online:

Unquestionably, Hamilton originally conceived Gorse as a villain of the deepest dye, a walking encapsulation of the great criminal names of English folklore. This impression is reinforced by the eagerness with which Hamilton constantly mythologizes him, compares him to other criminals (he apparently has a touch of Burke and Hare, not to mention resemblances to Palmer the poisoner and Neville Heath, who mutilated a series of young women), offers scornful summaries of what journalists have said about him and, in Unknown Assailant, even manufactures a couple of biographers, "G. Hadlow Browne" and "Miss Elizabeth Boote", who have written full-length books about him.

The problem about these exalted standards is that Gorse can never live up to them. While it is perfectly possible that Hamilton intended to develop him into a figure of Heath-like depravity in later books, his early career is trivial in the extreme. Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, with her snaffled £500, rests at the top of a very small range: Esther’s savings amount to a paltry £68.15s, while the fleecing of Ivy Barton realizes a bare £50 (although to do Gorse justice he does manage to relieve her father of an additional £200). A really competent performer, you feel, would already be helping himself to thousands, hoodwinking Lloyds syndicates with insurance scams, issuing false prospectuses and retiring to the Riviera on the proceeds. But Gorse, as confidence tricksters go, is ominously second-rate, betraying his social origins from one phrase to the next — speaking French to Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce at one point he pronounces et as "eight" — bragging about his prospects and trusting to the extreme stupidity of his victims to see him through. Such is the number of people who have their doubts about him — these range from his prep-school headmaster to a theatre director met for a few moments in the pub — that the reader wonders why the procession of female dupes can't see through him as well. But while this may undermine Gorse as a character — commonplace when he should be exceptional, conceited when he should be discreet — from the point of view of the trilogy as a whole it works to Hamilton’s advantage. What starts off as the analysis of a particular "type" ends up as a series of psychological case studies and, more important still, an exposure of the milieu that gives them life.

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