Patrick Hamilton is my favourite novelist. His body of work is small, his scope limited, and his reputation relatively minor, but his understanding of the human condition, his ear for dialogue, his sense of humour and, most of all, his ability to create unforgettable characters with a few well chosen words makes him, for me, if not a major writer, a major talent.
Hamilton’s milieu is the pub and the hotel, the park and the pier, the rented flat and the boarding house, the seedy, transient locations where human beings gather for shelter and to look for companionship, but often end up as emotional battlegrounds, places where irreparable psychic damage takes place.
Hamilton suffered an enormous amount of setbacks in his life, including falling in unrequited love with a prostitute and being hit by a car and having his nose ripped off, as well as (perhaps unsurprisingly) being a chronic alcoholic for almost all of his adult life. The roots of Hamilton’s deep personal unhappiness find their way into his fiction in form of disastrous love affairs, mistakes made whilst under the influence, and a morbid fascination / abhorrence for the motor car.
In ‘Hangover Square’, for example, a lonely schizophrenic longs for a conceited 'actress' – she abuses him, spends his money, flatters him, cuckolds him and helps drive him further and further out of his mind. Eventually, in a fugue state, he kills her and gasses himself.
In ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, the epicentre of World War Two is relocated to the dining room of a dingy suburban guest house, where an unhappy spinster tries to hold the line against fascism in the form of the odious Mr. Thwaites, an appalling bully, who becomes her very own Hitler.
Despite the synopses, Hamilton is not simply a miserablist or a misanthrope – for every deceit and disappointment there is the glimmer of honesty and goodness, even if his characters don’t always recognise it until they’re at the very end of their rope. Hamilton seemed to see the world as an essentially petty place, an arena where small mistakes and mean acts can destroy lives, just as little kindnesses can save them. For Hamilton, sadly, the bad always outweighed the good, but he remains a fascinating and rewarding writer, and, almost fifty years after his death, his situations and characters are as vivid and relevant and recognisable as anything from his better known contemporaries.
Recommended works:'The Slaves of Solitude', 'Hangover Square', '20,000 Streets Under The Sky', 'The Gorse Trilogy', i.e more or less everything.