Friday, May 05, 2023

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

This is a classic thriller, obviously. There's a lot of good and interesting things about it, and I'll get into them. But I need to start with the dumb, idiosyncratic stuff, because that's the way I am.

I'm the kind of reader who connects random things in his head, so both the title and the author - both Rogue Male and Geoffrey Household - confuse me, by reminding me of other things I barely remember in roughly the same way I barely remembered this book before picking it up from the shelf.

So Rogue Male keeps getting confused with Rogue Herries, which is of the same vintage, though they're otherwise utterly different. And I keep wanting to call the author Geoffrey Householder, because I remember the actor Geoffrey Holder.

As I say a lot, those are Me Problems. But, if you live in the same media stew I do, here in the 21st century, you may have similar problems, and so I name them up front.

Anyway, on to this actual book. It's a short, sharp thriller, told in the first person, published in 1939 and taking place very much in that exact time. The unnamed narrator is writing it down - we eventually learn all of the times and places where he wrote sections of the book; Household plays fair with the found-document genre - even as he is on the run and often in pretty dire conditions.

You see, this man is a big-game hunter and some sort of landed British gentry - he probably doesn't have a major title, but I bet the men in the town he mostly owns call him "squire," at least. He's of the leisured class - he'd say something more expansive, that his class is the one trained to rule or some such bullshit - and he's spent his early life mostly running around the world doing interesting stuff rather than working. He's in his late thirties as the novel takes place.

Somehow - he concealed his motives even from himself, and doesn't explain his real reason until very late - he decided to "do a stalk" for what another author of that vintage called "the most dangerous game." And that gets us into the sneakiest, most interesting part of Rogue Male: Household also doesn't say who it was that this man was attempting to get into position to assassinate. [1]

Household wrote a sequel, forty years later, that collapsed that wavefront, but I'm going to ignore the sequel. Rogue Male, itself, is perfectly poised between two Great Men, either of whom could have been the subject of its hero's stalk, and Household went out of his way to keep it poised that way.

So our hero went into Poland, and then made his way across borders and rough terrain to a country villa where the Great Man was. We know this must be either Hitler or Stalin. Throughout the entire book, that's the case: it is either Hitler or Stalin.

From the very first line, we know he was unsuccessful, that he was captured. Once we realize he is writing this, we understand that he survived somehow, and he very quickly gets into the "somehow." All of Rogue Male is how he survived: first from being dumped over a cliff, expected to die there. Then how he got out of this unnamed country next to Poland and back to England. And even then, how he went to ground, far from home, with foreign spies and the British police both searching for him for strong reasons.

He frankly compares himself to an animal over and over again, as he sneaks about and digs hidey-holes and lurks at night on various moors to hear snatches of conversation. He is alone nearly the entire book: that's the point. He is the Rogue Male, like an elephant cut out from the herd for bad behavior.

Household writes sharply: this is a taut, sparse book, almost novella-like in its focus and pointedness. There are no subplots; there are no other serious characters. There are a few other names, a few people who our hero interacts with, and their psychology is occasionally important. But this is a book about him, from inside his head: both what he does and how he writes about it and comes to admit the how and the why.

It's a fascinating book, and I can see why it's still read. It's the epitome of a certain kind of really tightly focused thriller, entirely bound up in its protagonist's head, and Household writes strongly and precisely to make this guy very specific but also essentially unknowable in the way real people are. He doesn't quite understand himself, but he'll tell us what he can, as he can, as quickly and correctly as possible. The result is at least a minor masterpiece of crime fiction, excellent on a pure reading level as well as more deeply about its craft.

[1] The man demurs, early in the book, claiming he just wanted to see if it was possible and saying he probably wouldn't have taken the shot, if he'd had the chance. He probably doesn't even believe that himself.

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