Thursday 29 October 2009

Ripley and Gorse

The first book in the Patrick Hamilton’s Gorse trilogy, part of which sourced the excellent tv series The Charmer, was The West Pier. Graham Greene generously described it as ‘the best book written about Brighton’. It was published in 1951, and was followed by Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953) and Unknown Assailant (1955). The series was actually meant to be a quartet, but the fourth book never appeared.

These were the last books written by Hamilton, who is better known as the playwright who wrote Gaslight and the Hitchcock-filmed Rope. He remains a cult favourite as a novelist, with many prominent admirers, though his life ended in 1962 (when he was only 58) in misery and alcoholism. The sourness with which he viewed life when he wrote the books is reflected in the character of Gorse, a man wholly without consicence.

I wonder if Patricia Highsmith read Hamilton before she created Tom Ripley – whose first appearance was in 1955. Of course, there are many differences between the two men, but there are also similarities. They are superficially charming, and can behave in an attractive manner, but their only real concern is themselves.

The fact that both characters first appeared within four years of each other is fascinating, regardless of whether Highsmith knew of Hamilton’s work (he isn’t mentioned in her exhaustive biography). It’s quite common for two different writers to come up with ideas that seem similar, independently of each other. Something in the ethos of the times, perhaps. There are suggestions, for instance, that Hamilton was influenced by the crimes of Neville Heath in his creation of Gorse, and I think that is possible (gorse, heath, get it?) although some have suggested that the fact that the stories are set before Heath started his crime spree means that a likelier inspiration for Gorse was Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer.

I’m not aware of any critic of the genre who has made any sort of a connection between Gorse and Ripley – perhaps it might be said that there isn’t much of a connection to be made. But I can’t think off-hand of any series protagonists before this odd couple who display so clearly the grim conscienceless of the sociopath, however apparently affable, that has proved such fertile ground for modern writers such as Ruth Rendell.


Anonymous said...

Martin -
Thanks for making that connection; I hadn't thought of it, but it's perfectly logical.

seana graham said...

It's interesting that these ruthless sociopaths prove to be very fascinating protagonists to read about. They apparently exert a kind of charm even on the reader, even though we know full well what they are like under their charming surfaces.

Martin Edwards said...

It occurs to me that perhaps Jeff Lindsay's Dexter is of the same lineage.

seana graham said...

That is definitely an apt comparison. I haven't read them, but I've seen a few of the TV episodes.

Minnie said...

Very interesting connection, Martin - as ever. Sociopaths interesting - albeit only at a remove - possibly because they cannot control/affect us?
But rather doubt GG was being entirely complimentary. His comment sounds a mite sting-in-tail to my ear, as novels 'about Brighton' aren't exactly numerous ...