Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ida Arnold and the Detective Story: Reading Brighton Rock

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ida Arnold and the Detective Story: Reading Brighton Rock

Article excerpt

In Ways of Escape Graham Greene says that while he began Brighton Rock in 1937 as a detective story "the first fifty pages . . . are all that remain of the detective story" and that they would have been removed if he had had the strength of mind to do so (WE 58, 60). However, there is something disingenuous about this claim, since the structure of the detective story is woven into the fabric of the novel and cannot be taken out with the surgical removal of a fixed number of pages. Whatever Greene may say, Brighton Rock, though it is many other things, is also a detective story. Like the detective story, which as Tzvetan Todorov and others note is a story of reading and interpretation, Brighton Rock makes reading a principal theme and so comments on how it is to be read. Within the narrative, scenes of reading abound while the residual structure of the detective story contains these within a larger interpretive frame that is the detective's investigation of a criminal's fictions. These thematic and structural concerns raise a number of points about reading in general and, by extension, about how critics have usually approached the novel. Like the stick of candy that gives the book its title and can be broken at any point to reveal its name "Brighton Rock," the novel, no matter where we look in it, always presents the critic with his or her own activity of reading and interpreting. The following discussion examines some of the critical issues that emerge from the critique of various reading strategies that the novel inscribes. By considering the narrative's handling of the detective-story plot, I hope to cast the novel in a new light and to expand the range of critical approaches that can be brought to bear on the text.

Central to the novel's presentation of interpretive issues is the character of Ida Arnold, who functions in a role analogous to the detective in classical detective stories such as those by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Dorothy Sayers. Ida is the amateur investigator whose self-appointed task is to sift various clues and statements of witnesses for information that will help her to construct a true account of Hale's death. She, in fact, reads and interprets others' texts so that she can produce a narrative which is the story of what happened to Hale; and in this way she is also a figure analogous to the reader or critic of Brighton Rock who sifts the text for meaning in order to develop his or her own interpretation of the text.

In Brighton Rock it is quickly made clear that Hale's death is in some way precipitated by Pinkie's gang, though how they do this remains unclear throughout the novel. As the story opens, Fred Hale, fearing for his life, strikes up an acquaintance with Ida Arnold, a fun-loving, pragmatic woman who repeatedly insists on her knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. After Hale's death, Ida begins her own investigation in order to bring Pinkie to justice and to save Rose the suffering that Pinkie will inflict upon her. As well, Ida sees her quest as a chance to have a bit of fun (37).

Also quickly apparent to the reader acquainted with detective stories is that Brighton Rock's narration treats Ida in quite a different manner from the way more orthodox detective stories treat their great detectives such as Dupin, Holmes, Poirot, Wimsey, or even Miss Marple. These characters are a part of Ida's lineage, yet, unlike them in their respective narratives, Ida is mocked by the narrative in which she appears: her understanding of the case and of the world she inhabits is clearly shown to be limited by her inability to see beneath the surface of things. Brighton for her is a place of fun and excitement, and life, though she takes it with "deadly seriousness" (36), is always "good" (19, 72), made up as it is for her with various physical sensations and corporal pleasures:

Life was sunlight on brass bedposts, Ruby port, the leap of the heart when the outsider you have backed passes the post and the colours go bobbing up. …

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