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Patrick Hamilton and Nothing But

I'll finish my week's bookish blog work with a word about Patrick Hamilton.

He's a writer you grow up knowing about without really knowing his writing: his two greatest successes were the play Gaslight, which became, more than once, a famous movie, and another play, Rope, which Hitchcock turned into the memorable "you-think-it's-one-continuous-shot" movie.

For years, Hamilton's novels were out of print. Then, a few years ago, the rock band Marah recorded an album called 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, named for one of Hamilton's two trilogies (consisting of the novels The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement, recently made into a stellar three part British TV series): it seemed like this was the first anyone had heard of Patrick Hamilton for years. I remember being asked if I'd read him, and I said I had, later realising I was muddling him with a writer from Rye called Patric Dickinson, who has nothing to do with Hamilton whatsoever.

When I realised I hadn't.... what a treat was in store. Though there was great difficulty in actually finding the novels, I finally located them and read them religiously. And, as so often happens, as though the world is all thinking the same thing at the same time, the better known of the novels slowly started being reissued. (In some cases, not very well: the recent reissue of 20,000 Streets has more misprints per page than any other book I've recently read, except the American edition of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten, which someone forgot to proofread.) By then, however, I was hooked: I remember finding a paperback of Craven House, written in 1926 when Hamilton was 22, then later revised, in the mystery section of a most unlikely bookstore in Troy, NY.

Prices of first editions were already through the roof, and I have never been able to find an affordable copy of the UK first edition of Hangover Square, considered his greatest work. I do however love the cover of the American first edition, so that's some recompense.

Hangover Square, the story of a schizophrenic composer — he loves Netta or he wants to kill Netta, depending on his mood which is governed by the arbitrary "click" in his head, and not helped by his amazing alcohol intake — is a masterpiece of tone and dark comedy. It was also filmed in Hollywood, though the finished version (without being a terrible dud, and despite a gripping Bernard Herrmann score that was highly influential on Stephen Sondheim) bears hardly any relation to Hamilton's novel.

My favourite of Hamilton's books — also made into an excellent UK TV series, The Charmer, some time back in the 80s — is Mr. Stimpson & Mr. Gorse, the UK first edition of which has this amazing, and amazingly appropriate, cover.

This is the second in Hamilton's other trilogy, now collected as The Gorse Trilogy, but it's hard to recommend The Gorse Trilogy unreservedly, for, although the first two volumes (the other of which is The West Pier), are fantastic, by the third, Unknown Assailant, the writer has lost all interest in his subject and is merely going through the motions.

Hamilton's was not a happy life — he was disfigured when he was run over by a car (similar to the accident in The Siege of Pleasure) and he fell ruinously in love with a prostitute, as does the dull but decent protagonist in The Midnight Bell. For anyone who has read his books, the least surprise is that he was an alcoholic — his descriptions of the interiors of British pubs, where an extraordinary percentage of the action in his novels take place, its clientele and customs, will never be bettered. (I gently pastiched it in one later passage in Charles Jessold. My narrator found himself, rather unexpectedly, in a pub, and I let him imagine himself into the scene as written by Patrick Hamilton.)

Hamilton's sentences are beautiful, and his novels are gripping, though they often seem out of date, their stakes small: Gorse, the conman and sexual predator, is always ruining people by conning them out of seventy-five quid — perhaps it is we who have been ruined by a world of easy credit. They are also screamingly funny, Wodehouse-funny. I recommend three passages: firstly, Chapter 3 in Mr. Stimpson & Mr. Gorse, where the would-be poet Major Parry, who has had some limited success in this direction, is attempting to write a weighty poem for the local newspaper on the subject of war, and gets stuck for rhymes; secondly, Chapter 4, where the men at the bar of The Friar ("a pub that had only recently been Ye-Olded, and this had been lavishly done") tell jokes, trying to one-up each other as they tell jokes or "one-about" — a brilliant, subtle dissection of the power-play in every seemingly innocent conversation. And in The Slaves of Solitude — the only one of his novels which deals directly with the war, and even has somewhat of a happy ending — read Chapter 5, where meek Miss Roach tries to stand up to Mr. Thwaites, the evil bully in the dining room of the Rosamund Tea Rooms, the shabby boarding house where they find themselves living during the war.

It's interesting that Hamilton's work is so easily, or rather so well, filmed and/or televised. But despite the quality of Rope, Gaslight, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky and The Charmer, go for the books first. The poise of Hamilton's tragi-comic tone cannot be reproduced by dialogue alone. Pour yourself a large whiskey and sit back.

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Wesley Stace's newest book is Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. He is also the author of the international bestseller Misfortune and By George. He has released 15 albums under the name John Wesley Harding. Get more information at his website,

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Charles Jessold, Considered as a... Used Trade Paper $4.50
  2. Misfortune Used Trade Paper $4.50
  3. By George Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. The Slaves of Solitude (New York... New Trade Paper $15.95

  5. Craven House New Mass Market $15.00
  6. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the... New Trade Paper $19.95

Wesley Stace is the author of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

One Response to "Patrick Hamilton and Nothing But"

    Nita February 14th, 2011 at 11:44 am

    What a wonderful week of blogs entries. So great to read the musings of a genuine and unpretensious bibliophile. It is quite refreshing that you collect (and gush about) the books you love and not just books the books that everyone else wants. Bravo!

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