Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (Shane's book 14, 2010)

Patrick Hamilton is probably best known for the plays Rope and Gas Light. The former was made famous on film by Alfred Hitchcock and the latter ran for three years on Broadway and was filmed twice. However, in recent years the reputation of Hamilton's novels has been growing. [amtap book:isbn=0141185899]

Hangover Square is typically considered part of the crime genre - indeed, that's how I heard of it - but it's a broader book than that. Though it's clearly a thriller - in large part a study of a murderous mind - it's also a moving story of unrequited love, a black comedy and a portrait of Britain on the edge of war.

The book opens at Christmas 1938 and ends just days after Britain declares war on Germany. The main character, George Harvey Bone, is a borderline alcoholic who is obsessively in love with Netta Longdon, a sometime actress and member of his Earls Court drinking set. Most of the time Bone pines for Netta but when one of his 'dead moods' kicks in, all he can think of is killing her.

The dead moods - apparently some kind of schizophrenia - are a blank to Bone once they end so though we know what he is planning, he is unaware. The plot is complicated by the fact that Netta is such a horrible person. She uses Bone just for his money and otherwise prefers the attentions of Peter, a former convict with an interest in fascism. In some ways, the murderous Bone understands his situation better than his mild, love-smitten alter ego, even if his chosen solution is beyond the pale.

Hamilton's description of life in London in the late 1930s is vivid and detailed but it's his characters, particularly Bone and Netta who really give the book its life. Though Hamilton's portrayal of mental illness is, to say the least, simplistic, the rest of Bone's character is drawn with sophistication. We see the other characters only through Bone's eyes but Hamilton skilfully controls when we see their real motives and when they remain hidden.