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Murder Slim Review: HANGOVER SQUARE

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You'd be hard pressed to find anyone mentioning HANGOVER SQUARE anymore. Well, unless you're a Murder Slim Press writer picking their favourite novels...

To play Devil's Advocate, it might be because Patrick Hamilton only wrote this one great book. His others are substandard clones of Graham Greene's stuff. HANGOVER SQUARE remains the most personal of his novels, and the one he wrote while fully tuned in. As time went on Hamilton increasingly became a drunk who, as it says in JB Priestley's introduction, "needed whisky like a car needs petrol."

HANGOVER SQUARE tells the story of George Bone, a drifting guy in the months leading up to World War II. The book is very evocative of the mid-war years, with Londoners grabbing onto pleasure where they can get it. They're not far removed from memories of World War I, and they also have the increasing threat of further hassle from Germany. It's a gin-soaked, unemployed world, much the same as Bukowski's picture of the US Depression in HAM ON RYE.

There are great descriptive passages on 1930s life in London, but HANGOVER SQUARE is essentially a suspense novel. George Bone flips out at times, going into what he calls "dead" moods. He's aware of doing things, of functioning, of answering questions, but also of being obsessed with the idea of killing Netta, his unrequited love.

Bone's obsession for Netta is beautifully realised. She is cold and callous, using Bone when she needs more booze. But Hamilton manages to avoid completely demonising her. She is, sometimes, vulnerable. Ultimately she's just crushingly stupid... trying to grab pleasure when she can no matter what the consequences.
At the beginning of the novel, Bone is stupid in his own way. But his acknowledgement of his psychotic admiration of Netta is both honest and touching. The passages where he describes how the love affects him are some of the best pieces of literature I've read. From describing the spheres of influence that resonate from where she lives - the closer he gets the dizzier he feels - to the self-awareness of his own obsession:
"And yet he wasn't such a fool, either. They thought him silly, but he had his own thoughts, and maybe he thought them silly too. They wouldn't think of that, of course: it wouldn't cross their minds. But he had his thoughts all the same...
"He could see through them and, of course, he hated them. He even hated Netta too - he had known that for a long time.... The fact he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathed, that he could think of nothing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn't really 'in love' with her: he was 'in hate' with her. It was the same thing - just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta!...God - how he loved her!"

Approach HANGOVER SQUARE happily if you're a fan of confessional or crime novels. The twist at the end is a savvy - if very bleak - one. It'll raise a smile from crime fans. Equally, the confessional honesty of the book never fails to interest. Although it's written in third person, you get a beautiful picture of Bone's mentality and life. I thought it was much more of a novel about the psychosis of unrequited love as it was a straight, boozy crime story. But it will work for all readers.

HANGOVER SQUARE also feels modern. For a book written in the late 30s, it has a fluidity to it. The dialogue isn't stagy. The prose isn't overblown. It's also good to see an older book with swearing utilised well. From an era where writing was very precise, HANGOVER SQUARE is loose in all the right ways.

As a side note, don't bother with the 1945 film adaption of the same name. It rips much of the heart out the book, turns Bone into a pianist (complete with a leaden central performance) and plays down the obsession with Netta. A "nurturing woman" is also introduced to try and save Bone (a classic noir technique). The movie is only worth it for a great (changed) ending... while the novel has a great ending, a great start and everything in-between.

Just check out HANGOVER SQUARE, ok?

Review by Steve Hussy