Is Brighton Rock a true ‘detective’ novel?

It can be said that Greene’s Brighton Rock subverts the essence of a detective novel. After all, by its nature as a ‘howdunnit’, there is very little in the way of conventional detection, and in many respects, it is the reader rather than a protagonist who is invited to investigate through the act of ‘reading’.

A key element of the detective novel is the inclusion of the omniscient ‘detective’ figure who investigates with the aid of superior logical reasoning. Yet, far from the Tales of Ratiocination of Edgar Allen Poe; Greene presents Ida Arnold as an amateur sleuth far removed from her literary lineage. Greene in a way mocks Ida throughout the narrative. With “the leap of the heart” the “ruby port” and the “baritone laugh”, her lack of spiritual reasoning undercuts her authority and ability to interpret events. In this almost comedic prose, it is convincing to consider Ida as something of a parody to the Holmesian investigator. With her “ouija boards”, her presentation is divergent to that of the logical, classical detective figure. 

Greene establishes Brighton Rock as a detective novel by engaging the reader in the process of investigation. Although not the traditional ‘whodunnit’ that evolved from the journeys of Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Brighton Rock invites the reader to, in areas; piece together the meanings which Greene has intentionally left vague. This is demonstrated in the notorious stick of Brighton rock. A symbol of great evil, its presence as murder weapon elicits much ambiguity. Pinkie’s response to Rose, “only the devil […] could have made her answer that” after she chose “Brighton rock?” is ambiguous. Although it is chilling: is Greene suggesting that, by inadvertently choosing the murder weapon, Rose identified herself as Pinkie’s next victim? Ultimately, we must investigate this. Indeed, the stick of rock has become what T.S Eliot has called the objective correlative; requiring the reader to participate in the creation of its meaning. Rather than simply describing Pinkie’s brutal act, Greene scatters occasional references to Brighton rock, leaving the reader to imaginatively reconstruct the horror of Hale’s murder.

Contrary to most detective novels, Greene establishes Brighton Rock as a social commentary, exploring not just the crime committed, but the conditions under which the perpetrator developed. Throughout the text, the murder of Hale is overshadowed by the mitigation of Pinkie’s criminal activity by poverty, as we are exposed to the bleak social reality behind the facade of a tourist ‘honey-trap’ like Brighton. According to Greene “… man is made by the places in which he lives”, and this message resonates indefinitely in the narrative, to the extent that Ida’s power of ridding the menace of Pinkie is undermined as she never truly rids society of the conditions that created him, the source of evil remains, just as his voice remains on the record and permanently ingrained in the reader’s mind as Rose walks “towards the worst nightmare of all”

A key element of detective novels is a focus on the specificities of place, which are vital as the setting being described often introduces to the reader the crime of which the narrative will ultimately focus.  Indeed, Greene achieves a vivid effect by describing the intricacies of Brighton “the music and the miniature

cars” but also making the reader aware that Hale “knew before he had been in Brighton three hours that they meant to murder him”. Here, Greene’s panorama of Brighton is not delivered as neutrally as we may think and his adoption of Barthes ‘Reality Effect’ not only creates a scene, that from the perspective detective fiction resembles elements relevant to common experience; but also presents the surface of Brighton, with its “miniature cars” as nothing more than a tawdry veneer, beneath which an organised and sinister criminal underworld lurks.

Oliver Murphy 24 Articles
Oliver is currently an A-Level Politics student. He is also a contributory writer, campaigner for MakeVotesMatter and Media Manager for DARROW. His work focuses on British politics, contemporary political events and European politics. Supplementing this is a passion for Literature and History.

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