Sunday 8 November 2009

Patrick Hamilton

There are three interesting biographies of Patrick Hamilton – few writers who work in the crime genre are so blessed, although maybe this is because Hamilton is not always described as a ‘crime writer’ (though he would be if he were working today, I think.) One of the books is Through a Glass Darkly, by Nigel Jones, a sound piece of work that is well worth reading.

Jones is in possession of many private papers relating to Hamilton, and was generous enough to make these available to Sean French, who wrote another biography not long afterwards. Sean French is now better known as one half of the best-selling crime-writing duo Nicci French, but his Patrick Hamilton: a life shows him to be a very accomplished biographer as well.

Rather spookily, French describes the sociopathic Ralph Ernest Gorse as an ‘oblique self-portrait’ of Hamilton. Like Jones, he doesn’t try to place Hamilton in the context of crime writing history generally (a missed opportunity, I feel) but he describes with some poignancy the bitter life of a man who knew great success, but also tragedy – he was disabled and disfigured when a motor car ran into him while he was crossing the road, his sex life was often depressing, he suffered mental problems, and his addiction to alcohol ultimately cost him his life. His judgment, it has to be said, was hopeless – a Marxist who never joined the Communist Party, he was a big fan of Stalin, and was bemused when the truth about his hero came out.

The third biography is The Light Went Out, by Patrick’s elder brother, Bruce Hamilton. There was a close and curious relationship between the two men. Bruce was also a writer, and much of his work unquestionably falls within the crime genre. His frustrated devotion to Patrick shines through the pages, even though, according to Sean French, the longer and unpublished version of the memoir casts a rather different light – he seems to have been jealous of Patrick’s greater literary talents.

Because Patrick was a fine writer, Bruce’s own literary achievements tend to be under-estimated, even by Sean French. I’ve read several of Bruce’s books, and they are interestingly different from the run of the mill whodunits of the time, though one or two of them show the same weird adoration of Stalin and Soviet Russia. But there’s no doubt that Patrick is, and will remain, better remembered, and these three books, taken together, provide copious fascinating nformation about a life of soured brilliance.

Another thing about Bruce, by the way (sorry, I just can’t resist trivia.) His godfather was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Paul D Brazill said...

Good piece. Hamilton was as weird as he was wonderful, I think.

Martin Edwards said...

A perfect description of him, Paul!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this biography piece, Martin. I didn't know much about Hamilton, much less of his skill as biographer. And, for what it's worth, I like trivia very much, too!

Martin Edwards said...

I'm glad you said that about trivia, Margot, because I don't want to bore people with it. But it does fascinate me, constantly, as do unexpected connections of all kinds.

Minnie said...

Fascinating post, Martin - shall now seek out those biographies, as well as have a closer look at Bruce Hamilton.
'(a) life of soured brilliance': lovely phrase!
Re final note: mo need to apologise for 'trivia' of this kind - these apparently contingent connections do much to make life interesting.
BTW Apologies for straying off-topic, but R7 has been serialising some of Martin Gilbert's Petrella stories; would love to know what you think of this, other solicitor-crime writer.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Minnie. I haven't heard the radio versions, but I am a huge fan of Michael Gilbert, a truly marvellous and very versatile writer.

vegetableduck said...


I had an email correspondence with Sean French about the Bruce Hamilton papers (which were literally about to be tossed out when he stepped in and rescued them) and was disappointed that French was so dismissive of Bruce Hamilton as a writer. Bruce wrote some worthwhile genre books, even if they are not seen as crossing over to the level of serious, mainstream novels.

I talk about him a bit in my introductory survey on the puzzle concept in the detective novel. He was one of the people trying to loosen up the genre. He was also a great admirer of Stalin's Russia, as you point out. In retrospect, extremely mistaken, but interesting to see in the Golden Age.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Curt. Bruce does interest me a great deal. It's interesting that he and Iles wrote, at times, in a similar type of way, and yet their politics were at opposite ends of the spectrum.