As someone who loves to read spy thrillers, I often find myself reading books that – to put it simply – are ‘old’. And I’ll admit, that while I enjoy reading these historical pieces, that due to the advancement of civilisation and the presentation of literature as entertainment, that these books can be hard going. Then along comes a book like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. It was written in 1939, just prior to England entering WWII. Despite being written in peace time (well, you know what I mean – this is not a war story), and the story being over seventy years old, the first twenty-five pages of this book are some of the most heart-pounding and visceral story-telling ever recorded. I’d put Rogue Male alongside any modern thriller for pure and simple brutal thrills. I know I am over-doing the gilt-edged hyperbole, but damn this book is good.
The thing that separates it from so many other stories from the era is Household’s voice as a writer. Rogue Male is written in the first person and the character’s word and thoughts really drag you into the story despite the central conceit of the story – which is pretty screwy. But I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
The plot is about an un-named British aristocrat, who is a legendary sporting shooter. So much so that his reputation has spread throughout Europe (and one suspects India, as he mentions Tigers at one point). As a hunter he has very few peers. But our hero, while seeking diversion and thrills, decides to embark on the greatest hunt of his life – the hunt for a man – the most closely guarded and well protected man in the world.
In the book, the target of the hunt is never mentioned, or even the country in which the hunt occurs, but there is more than enough clues to suggest the target is Adolph Hitler – and the story begins in Germany. And of course, the book cover above – from the Penguin edition – with an image of Hitler confirms that indeed Hitler is the target.
The conceit of the story is that out hero claims to have never intended to shoot and kill Hitler. The stalk was a self-imposed test of his manhood and hunting skills. To get Hitler in his sights; to prove that he could do it, was simply enough. But as the character is caught with a rifle in his hands, drawing a bead on the Fuhrer, it’s a story that very few people are likely to believe. And even if it is true, the tale of such a monumental security breach, cannot be allowed to become public knowledge.
The story is not told in a linear fashion. It is more like the fractured ramblings of the participant after the fact, and as he remembers the individual episodes. As the story opens, after being brutally tortured, our hero is pushed off the side of a cliff to fall to his death. As England is not at war with Germany (at this stage), and so our hero is not the enemy, his death is to be staged to look like an accident. The trouble is that our un-named protagonist isn’t killed by the fall. He lives. Battered and bruised, racked with pain, he crawls to freedom, continually, and most importantly ‘instinctively’ outwitting and eluding his pursuers.
As our hero hits the shores of Britain, he believes that his position in society and his friends in the Government will protect him, but this is quickly revealed not to be the case. Assassin’s and spies are on his trail. Whether their intention is to kill him, or bring him back to Germany isn’t defined by this stage.
When a team of spies follow him to Underground Metro Station, he manages to allude most of them, but one man sees through his chicanery as he hops on and off the trains. Near Aldwych Station, the spy follows our hero into a train tunnel, and after a scuffle, the spy is electrocuted when he touches the third rail.
Now our hero is also suspected of murder, so not only are a cadre of Nazi spies on his trail, but also the local police are hunting him as well. He has become Great Britain’s ‘Most Wanted’. With his notoriety, he has even become an embarrassment to his friends, and he decides that it is best if he leaves London, so he buys a few items for a camping expedition and sets off to the wilds of Dorset – to lie low for a while. And then, if possible, once the dust has settled, catch a steamer to South America or Africa and start life afresh.
The key to lying low is to not be seen – by anybody, and he decides to live off the land. But he also has the presence of mind, to know that people will come looking for him, and attempting to flee, will only draw attention to himself. Instead, he ingeniously constructs a home for himself, burrowed underground. He camouflages the door, with weeds and other undergrowth and if anyone should come to the area hunting him, he can crawl into his ‘hole’, close the door and wait until the pursuers give up or move on.
His scheme works, and for months on end he lives in the wild. As winter closes in, he begins to spend more time indoors and over time he befriends a black wild cat, who he names Asmodeus (after a king of demons), who also makes his home in the burrow.
After all this time, you’d think he’d be in the clear. But not so. Our hero hasn’t been quite as careful as he would like, and soon his trail has been picked up by an expert hunter, named Major Quive-Smith. Quive-Smith is a patient man, and knows that his prey is hiding and living in the area somewhere. He waits…and waits, until our hero makes a mistake and Quive-Smith is able to track him to his lair.
My brief synopsis does not truly do justice to the why and wherefores of the story, and doesn’t even begin to relay the tension in the cat and mouse game that plays out as the hero is chased from Germany into the wilds of Dorset. Rogue Male is a compellingly told tale, and it is Household’s voice as a writer – the teller of the tale – that keeps the story riveting. It’s the type of story that could possibly be told from another angle, and without Household’s voice the main character could come of brutish user of people, who doesn’t have the guts to stand by his own actions. In fact, if you tune back to Permission to Kill on Friday, I’ll be looking at a recent book that features many similar plot elements to Rogue Male, but tells the tale in a very different way.
Household humanises the story, and this is despite the key piece of information – the piece that explains why our hero wanted to kill Hitler – not being revealed late into the story. The bulk of the story is told without our knowing why he did what he did. History now tells us, that Hitler was an evil man, and as such reading the story today, ‘a reason’ is not as important – we just take that as a given. But back in the day, when this story was written, England was not at war with Germany. Sure the threat of war was looming, but not everybody believed that Hitler was a maniac. I am sure he even had his supporters in Britain. So the hero’s motivation was quite significant when the book was originally published, and yet Household was confident enough to hide this nugget away till the end.
I think Rogue Male is an amazing book, and one, which if you are a fan of spy fiction you should obtain and read. You may not end up as enthusiastic about it as me, but I think you’ll agree, it has set the style for a certain type of thriller – a style that is still be used to this day.
Tomorrow on P2K – ‘Rogue Male goes to the movies’.