This is one of Greene's early novels. One of the main characters, Pinkie, the villain, resembles the main character in This Gun for Hire, another of Greene's mob novels, the movie version of which starred Alan Ladd. The setting in this book is Brighton Rock or Brighton Beach in England. The action centers on the crime mobs that were active there prior to WWII. There are a couple/three mobs working the area, bookie mobs that take illegal bets on the nearby horse races. A newspaperman is murdered at the start. That is the Macguffin (we never learn the reason for the murder), and an Everyman, the main character, is implicated and tracked by the police for the murder, which Pinkie in fact committed. Therein lies the drama: Everyman must clear himself, and Pinkie must conceal his murderous actions.
An interesting aspect to the story is how the seasoned criminals surrounding Pinkie, who are all middle aged men, all cave to Pinkie's orders. And when anyone doesn't do what Pinkie orders, he ends up dead. Pinkie is some kind of pure evil. It's interesting to see how Green portrays this teenager as pure evil. You wonder how Pinkie became such a cold hearted killer. Greene never discloses enough background of Pinkie's childhood to account for why he is so evil, especially at such a young age, so we are left to believe that some people are just born that way. I don't guess I believe that, but I accept it at face value for the plot of the book.
A sixteen-year-old girl, Rose, witnesses an important detail linked to the murder of the newspaperman, so Pinkie perceives her as a threat. So he starts to manipulate her, part wooing her part dominating her, to put her under his dominion. Rose is such an innocent that she doesn't even know she can harm Pinkie. Pinkie pretends an interest in her in order to draw her into his web and prevent her from telling what she knows. She's too naive to understand she has the power to put Pinkie away, and in any case she naively falls in love with him. He pays her just enough attention to get her to his side so she won't be able to squeal on him. However, Pinkie realizes, unhappily, that the only way to seal her lips is to marry her because a wife cannot testify against her husband.
I very much appreciated Greene's nuanced depiction of Pinkie as a repressed gay man. This sixteen year old girl is in love with him, ready to marry him, yet he is repulsed by her available sexuality. Even the name "Pinkie" is somehow emasculating. The novel, written in the 30s, I suppose, could not come out and provide an explicit description of Pinkie as gay, so I think it is remarkable that Greene gets these ideas across without saying it in so many words. Greene does not make an equivalence between Pinkie's being gay and his evilness; "gayness" itself is NOT depicted as bad (it's not clearly depicted at all), but Pinkie's repression of his gayness is connected to his dysfunction as a human being. Greene was good at such complex psychological characteristics of his characters in all his novels. For example, as much as he loathes his girl and the flunky, more experienced criminals that he orders to do his dirty work, Pinkie loathes himself even more without knowing why. Greene is very good at depicting psychological complexity and exploring self-doubts in his characters, even to the point of self-loathing. It seems to me that many of Greene's characters in the many books of his I've read are self-loathing at times.
The book is somewhat dated but that doesn't bother me. I can appreciate stories set in other times and places. If one has never read a Graham Greene novel, this may be a little disorienting, but as you get to know Greene's fascination with the underbelly of society--spies, degenerates, backstabbers, criminal minds, and secretive types--you can appreciate that these types have always lived among us and always will. Greene is often called a major 20-century modernist, but he seems to be neglected in the anthologies of British lit, perhaps in the process of being relegated to a "minor" writer.