Geoffrey Household’s classic novel Rogue Male was published in 1939, which gives it immediacy for that time. The unnamed narrator, a British aristocrat, has just failed to assassinate the tyrannical leader of a European country – whether it’s Hitler (probable) or Stalin is not explained. He is captured by secret service men and tortured and questioned but tells them nothing. They believe he is working for the British government; he insists he is a private individual and was simply hunting near their leader’s House.
The survival and escape from pursuit are Household’s strengths in this tale. He describes the difficulties well, and we can empathise.
To begin with, we don’t know why he should have set out on this mission. As he says, ‘I am not an obvious anarchist or fanatic, and I don’t look as if I took any interest in politics.’ (p1) I have to wonder how does someone look who is interested in politics. The first clue to his motivation is here, however: ‘One can hardly count the upsetting of one’s trivial private life and plans by European disturbances as a grievance.’ (p9)
The ploy to use an unnamed narrator is to bolster the feeling that this is in effect a true story. ‘Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known.’ (p8)
More than once, Household’s narrator appears to judge people by appearance, attributing base motives. While hiding in a field, he fears he may be detected. ‘There were several peasants on their way to the fields. I could only pray that they wouldn’t enter mine. They would have had some sport with me before handing me over to the police; they seemed that sort.’ (p22)
Where Household’s narrative falls down, and thus diminishes the ‘believability’, is in his description of the characters he encounters during his escape. They are virtual cyphers, without colour in their eyes, without facial features of note. ‘Mr Vaner received me in his cabin. He was a dashing young man in his early twenties, with his cap on the back of a head of brown curls.’ (p35) Plenty of writers don’t over-describe, arguing that the reader can visualise the character however they like. But in a novel that purports to be ‘real’, every tiny detail adds to the verisimilitude. The intimacy of detail lends credibility.
As a thriller, it succeeds in several aspects: the chase, the suspense engendered by hiding and the risk of discovery. The action, when it occurs is muted, reported rather than visualised. There is little ‘show’, only ‘tell’. The deathly struggle in the Underground is without visuals; fine, it’s dark, but there’s no visceral feeling of being there. (p55) The dramatic moment is lost.
Writers must observe, and Household was a keen observer, and described the world well: ‘… wandered through the quiet squares which smelled of a London August night – that perfume of dust and heavy flowers, held down by trees into the warm, well-dug ravines between the houses.’ (p57) And, another: ‘I have noticed that what cats most appreciate in a human being is not the ability to produce food – which they take for granted – but his or her entertainment value.’ (p76) Yes, there is humour, despite the tense situation. And, surprisingly, considering the beginning of the novel, ‘To be shot from ambush is horribly unnerving.’ (p105)
The narrator decides to go to ground – literally – and constructs an under-earth burrow, stocking up with tinned goods. ‘Space I have none. The inner chamber is a tumbled morass of wet earth which I am compelled to use as a latrine. I am confined to my original excavation, the size of three large dog-kennels, where I lie on or inside my sleeping-bag.’ (p118) The description of the construction of his lair is well done, to make it very real and claustrophobic. Here, in a hedgerow (there were a lot more in England in 1939!) he makes the acquaintance of a cat. ‘We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice.’ (p119)
One of his persistent pursuers goes by the name of Quive-Smith and the final confrontation with him is quite suspenseful. Here, we learn from Quive-Smith that ‘It’s the mass that we are out to discipline and educate. If an individual interferes, certainly we crush him; but for the sake of the mass – of the State, shall I say?’ (p136)This might indicate the Soviet frame of mind, rather than that of the Nazi. Hence, the leader could conceivably be Stalin, not Hitler; it matters not, both were worthy of assassination, as millions of dead souls would testify.
It is only when we get to p143 that we glean the motivation behind the narrator’s abortive mission. A nameless woman, his only love, put up against a wall and shot by followers of the leader. This section is woolly. We don’t know why she was done to death, though it’s likely she objected in some manner to the leader’s creed. And we certainly don’t see her in the narrator’s mind’s eye; so we have no empathy.
The story is told in three chapters, originally scribbled in an exercise book, which he posted to his solicitor friend, Saul (another character without description).
Reading this now, we know that whatever the narrator’s intention at the end of this written record, he failed. [However, there is a sequel, Rogue Justice (1982), in which we follow the narrator on his subsequent killing spree against Nazis.]
This book has been considered superior to Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), but I don’t believe it is. Certainly, it employs much that became familiar in thrillers – long flight and pursuit and the resourcefulness and pluckiness of the hero as exemplified by Buchan’s novel. They are both books of their time, and indeed both have inspired future thriller writers. If you’re a fan of thrillers and you haven’t read either of these, now is a good time to remedy that omission.