Friday 9 June 2023

Forgotten Book - On the Night of the Fire

If you're looking for 'cosy' escapism, you'd probably better give F.L. Green's On the Night of the Fire a miss. This book, published in 1939, reads almost as if it was written to demonstrate that crime fiction of the 30s was not all about nostalgic make-believe. It's a doom-laden tale and was the basis of a film released in 1940 and also known as The Fugitive, which has been claimed as the first British film noir. The movie starred Ralph Richardson.

Frederick Laurence Green (1902-53) was born in Portsmouth and died in Bristol, but after marrying an Irish woman spent much of his life in Belfast - and he was himself of Irish descent. He is perhaps best known as the author of Odd Man Out, filmed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason, but it was his second novel, On the Night of the Fire, that made his name. It's the only crime novel I can think of in which the protagonist is a barber.

The book is a sort of  'inverted mystery' in that we follow Wal Kobling's journey from petty thief to burglar to murderer, but there is no puzzle element in the story. And it must be said that the events of the book are as bleak as the drab back streets of the unnamed port town (scenes for the film were shot in Newcastle) in which it is set. This isn't a mystery that will cheer you up. But it's well-written and compelling and Francis Iles (a very good critic as well as a very good writer) was among those who approved.

Green's literary style, on the evidence of this book, is interesting. His material is sensational but he handles it in an almost relentlessly unsensational way. To an extent I was reminded of Patrick Hamilton, but that's mainly because of their shared fascination with the tawdry side of life. I'm not sure I'm 'selling' this book very well, but I must say that I found it distinctive and powerful and whilst it won't suit everyone, I'm very glad I read it. 



Michael Lydon said...


As a Geordie, I've wanted to read this book for ages. As a fan of Patrick Hamilton, you make it sound even more intriguing.

As for barbers as protagonists, there's Dorothy L Sayers' "The Inspiration of Mr Budd" and - not sure it might count - "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street". (Incidentally, the best film version of Sweeney Todd starred Todd Slaughter, who was a Geordie. There must be a connection.)


Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Michael. I'd forgotten about Mr Budd!

John Beattie said...

And, in addition to the books mentioned above, there's an entire series by Douglas Lindsay based around the barber Barney Thomson.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John, that's a new one on me.