Literature often struggles to convey the intangibles but Patrick Hamilton manages to convince you of the mental condition that his main character George Bone is suffering from with his mind going Click as he struggles to remember what he has been doing.
All he can remember when he comes out of his periods of amnesia is that he has to kill Netta a woman who is tormenting him with cruelty. But he keeps postponing the moment when he will carry out the deed and carries on a life of misery punctuated by bouts of unfounded optimism supported by drinking. But this is a story not of just about alcoholism as much as of a life of idleness where the public house plays the function that the workplace would in other lives. it is against the backdrop of the bar that Bone, Netta and the others in the gang can meet, dream, scheme and bully.
Bone is always the butt of the jokes and the love, which he never hides, that he has for Netta is used to abuse and torment him. She takes his money and his favours ands constantly throws them back in his face. When he hopes to have a moment with her alone someone else is also dragged along and he is used as part of a scheme Netta has for trying to break into films. Because Bone knows an old school friend with connections with a theatrical agent he is in a position to be played for a fool. The climax comes in Brighton and a depressed Bone suffers his final agonies and triumphs before his mind clicks and he forgets them all.
As Bone drifts through his empty life dreaming of becoming a golf professional and moving to Maidenhead or developing a friendship with the cat of the hotel he is staying in London, and the microcosm of Earls Court, is used to show a city on the brink of war. Those laughing and wasting their time in the bars had only months left to do so before the bombs come and the front arrives at their door. Hamilton is painting out a world than for some needed change. But he is also making the point here that while the politicians were trying so hard to make peace and Hitler’s armies were marching across Europe it was possible, even easy for some, to indulge in naval gazing.
The final twist as the mid clicks with one final and devastating effect leaves you mourning Bone but also wondering just how the inter-war generation could get it so wrong. As their final minutes of peace were disappearing they were drinking themselves into oblivion with no ambition other than to court other drunkards or to find more money to keep buying the booze.
At points the story is so well described it is like watching old black and white footage of London and the characters that Hamilton describes are believable and engagable. But the intervening years between when the book was written and published means that the moral compass has shifted direction somewhat and it is not as immediately clear as to what conclusion you should be making about these people.
The arguments about the good and bad of Bone and Netta keeps running in your head long after the book has finished.