Friday, January 08, 2021

the last book I read

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.

Our unnamed narrator has been a bit of a silly boy. Not content with the life of a slightly bored upper-class well-off playboy, he decides to make use of his big-game hunting expertise to bag the biggest prize of all: a coyly-unnamed dictator in a coyly-unnamed middle-European country (but absolutely no prizes for guessing who the author had in mind in a novel first published in 1939). His motives for such an adventure are, at this stage, unclear, and he claims to have done the stalk purely for sport, never intending to pull the trigger. At least, that's what he tells his interrogators when they capture him, his plan having been foiled by a momentary change in wind direction causing him to pause with his finger on the trigger for long enough for a patrolling guard to spot him and cosh him on the back of the head.

Clearly his captors aren't going to let him live, although, having tortured him and generally roughed him up quite a bit they need to make his death look like an accident. So they dangle him off a nearby cliff and leave him to fall off at his leisure, which he duly does, only to land in a bit of marshy ground that prevents him from dying, though not from leaving substantial amounts of back and arse skin and the occasional lump of flesh attached to the cliff face on the way down. 

Finding himself unexpectedly alive, if a bit scraped, our muddy hero takes himself off to a nearby tree to convalesce, having the presence of mind to lay a false trail to a river a short distance away to throw his pursuers off the scent. Once his arse cheeks have knitted together enough to allow him to walk he heads off to try and make his way out of the country and eventually back to England. This seemingly impossible task is aided by his acquisition of a boat, thanks to an interaction with a sympathetic native he meets near the river. Using the boat to reach a port where British ships dock (again unnamed but quite likely Hamburg) he wangles his way onto a boat headed for London by striking up a rapport with the ship's mate, hides out in an unused water tank for a few days and eventually slips off the boat and into London.

It soon becomes clear that his pursuers aren't going to do anything as civilised as shrug and go home again once a national boundary has been crossed, though, and our hero finds that he has a tail, which he loses in the most emphatic manner by dragging him onto the live rail at Aldwych. This is great in the short term but does mean that the British police are now very interested in him as well, so a swift exit from London is required. So after collecting a wedge of cash our hero makes his way to Dorset, a place he knows well, and decides to go to ground until things blow over. Going to ground is what he literally does, in fact, finding an old holloway choked with vegetation where he can dig a primitive shelter into one of the side banks. Even here he is not safe, though: although evading the police is relatively straightforward, evading the agent that the enemy have sent to flush him out is less easy. 

After the enemy agent, masquerading as an Englishman called Major Quive-Smith, has picked up his trail and made an abortive attempt to shoot him, our hero retreats to his hideout, only to find that the Major has taken up residence in the farmhouse across the next field on the pretext of doing some shooting. There follows a game of cat-and-mouse which ends with the subterranean hideout being discovered and barricaded shut with its occupant inside it, whereupon Quive-Smith conducts an interrogation through a ventilation-hole to discover the would-be assassin's motives. These are opaque even to the would-be assassin, but are teased out over a few days of questioning: the narrator had a lover whom he brought to this location but who was involved in international relations in some way and was eventually captured and shot by agents of the power that Quive-Smith represents. This was what prompted the hunting expedition, and yes, of course he intended to pull the trigger.

What Quive-Smith does not know, though, is that our hero has been busy inside his cramped quarters, in gaps in the conversation, and has been building a MacGyver-style makeshift ballista out of some animal innards and wood. And the next time Quive-Smith puts his eye to the ventilation tube he finds himself getting ventilated in a pretty big-ass way with a catapulted piece of ironmongery through the frontal lobe. Our hero quickly digs himself out of his shit-infested hellhole, nicks Quive-Smith's clothes and passports, waits for the obligatory villainous sidekick to show up, kicks the shit out of him and makes him drive to Liverpool to make good his escape by boat to Tangier. Once there he assumes one of Quive-Smith's many identities (finding, fortunately, that they look quite similar) and slips back into mainland Europe, resolved to having another pop at taking out the dictator, and not fucking it up this time. 

When I was a teenager I had a hardback compilation (sadly I don't have it any more) of stories called something like Great Escape Stories, which contained extracts of various classic works including Airey Neave's They Have Their Exits, Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, almost certainly The Great Escape, this chase sequence from Dick Francis' Dead Cert and the opening chapter of Rogue Male, which plunges the reader into the action immediately after the narrator has dropped off a cliff into some mud and is a quite ridiculously thrilling piece of writing. Almost more remarkable than that is how the action is never allowed to flag, even when the narrator spends (in a novel of 180 pages) most of the time between about pages 70 and 160 hiding in a hole in the ground. 

It's easy to see Rogue Male's influence by reading just about any thriller written since; in particular you can see its echoes in the character of James Bond: capable, resourceful, laconic, intensely interested in women but wary of attachment, not blinded by patriotism but with a keen sense of right and wrong and capable of merciless brutality when the situation demands it. In terms of Rogue Male's own influences, I have never read John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915) but it seems an obvious influence as a tale of pursuit, although of course part of the point of that (as I recall anyway) was that Richard Hannay was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused, whereas our narrator here is not.

It's only fair to point out that, in common with most novels published in 1939, this contains a fair amount of the old racism and sexism. Among the good things that it contains are a genuine affection for the outdoors, nature and the natural world; the only sentimental moments that the narrator allows himself are with the large cat that co-habits the sunken lane with him and he calls Asmodeus, whose innards (after Quive-Smith kills him) provide the twangy bits for the makeshift crossbow, in an it's-what-he-would-have-wanted sort of way. It's easy for this sort of admirable twig-whittling enthusiasm (enabled by the privilege of being well-off enough to have leisure time) to curdle into a scorn of the squishy townies with their full-time jobs and no idea how to gut a stoat and make it into a hat, and it's a short journey from there to the sort of blood-and-soil ideas that, ironically (given Rogue Male's central plot premise), Hitler among others espoused. Robert Baden-Powell, for instance, the poster-boy for robust outdoor pursuits and plenty of jolly campfire songs and whittling, was quite a big fan of both Mussolini and Hitler.

None of that matters, though - this is an absurdly thrilling read which I recommend unreservedly to anyone. The introduction by Robert Macfarlane (who I previously mentioned here) recounts his (ultimately doomed) efforts to find the location of the hideout in the vicinity of Chideock in Dorset, We did some walking round here when we stayed in a holiday cottage near Bridport in 2013 so we may have come close to stumbling across it ourselves. Robert Macfarlane also, as it happens, wrote the foreword to two more novels which I got for Christmas (all in the overdue-reissue-of-neglected-classic genre); no clues but I will mention it here when I get to them.

Rogue Male has, it hardly needs to be said, been filmed a few times, firstly as Man Hunt in 1941 and then as  a TV movie starring Peter O'Toole in 1976, which also saw Michael Sheard aka Mr. Bronson from Grange Hill in the role of Adolf Hitler which he reprised in the third Indiana Jones movie in 1989. 

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