Patrick Hamilton, The Gorse Trilogy (The West Pier; Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse; Unknown Assailant), Black Spring Press, 2007
The reappearance of The Gorse Trilogy, originally published throughout the 1950s, have been well timed to coincide with the recent Patrick Hamilton revival. The playwright behind Rope and Gaslight was the subject of a recent film season at London’s NFT, while last year’s BBC adaptation of his novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky brought him a considerable degree of posthumous attention.
The Gorse Trilogy — comprising The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant — charts the career of Ernest Ralph Gorse, a con artist who specialises in extracting money from women using slick and carefully engineered seduction techniques.
The writing of these novels coincided with Hamilton’s own descent into alcoholism, a decline which can sadly be traced in this collection. The West Pier, an enjoyable adolescent romp, indicates a great deal of promise. In particular, one looks forward to the increasing mercilessness of Gorse’s crimes, but Hamilton never totally fulfils the potential for black humour.
However, while the attempt to reach a dark tone may feel lacking, we can certainly applaud Hamilton’s knack for comic prose, most evident in the second novel in the trilogy. Building on the gentle cheekiness of The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse shows the development of a diligent voice into one that is confident, witty and entirely at ease with itself. It is in this novel that Gorse’s targets move upwards in terms of class and sophistication, an analogy for the trilogy which, though essentially flawed, to all intents and purposes works.
The sad fact remains, however, that it doesn’t get any better than this. Unknown Assailant – a novel which, as a direct result of his alcoholism, had to be dictated by Hamilton – is a flabby, unstructured climax to the trilogy. There is, somewhere in this tale of a barmaid come unstuck by Gorse, an adequate enough story, but nothing about it matches the relatively successful and competent formulae of its predecessors. Where the rest of the book is constructed with flowing and easily digestible prose, the final episode feels clunky and laboured. It is a pity that Hamilton’s early promise concludes in this way, although in truth there are in fact certain consistent flaws throughout that are impossible to ignore.
The most irritating thing about The Gorse Trilogy is the indignity that its female characters suffer via their relentless, wide-eyed naïveté. In the final novel, especially, barmaid Ivy is repeatedly described in terms of her “irredeemable stupidity”. Gorse is not portrayed with such indefatigable cunning that he is, himself, beyond being outwitted, so it is frustrating that his victims are never in a position to do so.
Additionally, there are unresolved sexual issues throughout the trilogy, none of which are ever expanded upon. Despite going through the motions of seduction, Gorse maintains a cool ambivalence towards his female victims. Although we are never explicitly invited to do so, the mind is nonetheless drawn towards notions of repressed homosexuality. However, without any degree of psychological depth in these novels, the whole thing merely feels empty and bereft of some nameless, crucial feature. The bizarrely casual revelation, in the final part of the trilogy, that Gorse derives sexual pleasure from sadomasochistic relationships with women lacks much further discussion, and as a result is somewhat unconvincing.
The space made for Hamilton on the literary landscape is forgiving, however, with plaudits from writers such as Doris Lessing, Keith Waterhouse and L.P. Hartley. His evocation of early twentieth-century England is painstakingly accurate with just the right measure of satirical substance. Much of it seems rather dated, but harmlessly so – permitting what has so far been a slow-burning Patrick Hamilton revival. With several genuine masterpieces already reinstated into the cultural consciousness, it will be interesting to see how successfully Gorse manages to manipulate his way on to the scene.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 6th, 2007.