Peter James is one of this country's best-known crime fiction writers. His Roy Grace novels - Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Not Dead Enough and Dead Man's Footsteps – now translated into 30 languages, have sold more than a million copies in the UK and four million worldwide. The latest title in the series, to be published next month, is Dead Tomorrow. Below Peter discusses Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.
Peter James on Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Brighton Rock is quite simply the book that made me want to be a writer the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is also the inspiration behind my setting the Roy Grace series in Brighton.
I was born and raised in this city (then a mere town) and even as a teenager, growing up, I was scarily aware of the dark criminal undertow that permeated every street and every passageway. There were certain crime family names that brought a shiver to my spine, and when I talk to old coppers who policed Brighton and Hove back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, they remember these villains only too well. They terrorized the place, with their protection rackets, their nascent violence, their weapons, their sheer impunity. The police, it seemed then, were powerless.
Greene's timeless novel is both a thriller and a crime novel, although police actually play a small part, and the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the villains and two women who believe they can redeem them, the garrulous, tart-with-a-heart Ida, and the dim, fervent Rose ('She... was about to mutter her quick "Our Father" and "Hail Marys" while she dressed, when she remembered... What was the good of praying now?... she had chosen her side: if they damned him they'd got to damn her too'). Greene has a way of describing characters, in just a few sentences, that makes you feel you know them inside out and have probably met them, and his sense of place is almost palpable.
The one thing that makes any great novel – or, indeed, any novel that is compelling – is, in my view, the characters created by the author. If there are characters you care about enough, you would stay with them whilst they read 300 pages of the phone directory out aloud. Graham Greene is one of the grand masters of characterization. Within a few brushstroke lines he makes you feel you would recognize a character walking down the street. Here is the flawed but vivid Ida:
Life was sunlight on brass bedposts, Ruby port, the leap of the heart when the outsider you have backed passes the post... Death shocked her, life was so important.
Brighton Rock is for me an almost perfect novel. It has one of the most grabbing opening lines ever written:
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.
I defy anyone, having read that, to put the book down! And it has one of the finest last lines - very clever, very tantalizing and very, very 'noir' - yet apt. Greene captures so vividly the dark, criminal underbelly of Brighton and Hove, as relevant now as when the book was first written, and the characters are wonderful, deeply human, deeply flawed and tragic. It is far more than being just an incredibly tense thriller; Greene uses the novel to explore big themes of religious faith, love and honour. And in addition - a bonus - it is also unique for being one of the few novels where the film adaptation is so good it complements rather than reduces the book.
The big bonus for me is the sense of place that Greene, not a native of Brighton, conveys. I have a theory that the common denominator between all the most vibrant cities of the world is a dark undertow of criminal activity. You only have to look at the USA: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans, are alive in a way few of the other great American cities are. Look at Australia – Melbourne is by far the most vibrant city, and in my view it is no coincidence that there have been 37 gangland shootings in that city in the past decade. Here in the UK, we have plenty of pleasant seaside resorts, but only one, Brighton (for 70 years known as 'The Crime Capital Of England'), has global iconic status. Graham Greene put it on the map. I guess I'm doing my best to keep it there!