This read was long over-due – my friend and I were actually due to have a readalong for this but then I read Don’t Point That Thing At Me, which was very much a pastiche of this style of novel so I felt as though I needed a breather in order to appreciate Rogue Male properly. And then I got distracted – but anyway, here we are. Very much a classic of the genre, Rogue Male reminded me slightly of reading Spectre in that it feels familiar due to all of the works that have come since which have used it for inspiration. Fortunately, this was the only similarity to Spectre and I at no point wished to throw the book at the wall. The nameless protagonist is a British aristocrat and sportsman who went for a ‘sporting stalk’ in a European country which rather closely resembles Germany and points his gun at that country’s nameless dictator. Caught at the very final moment, the man finds himself in the clutches of his target’s diabolical and imaginative security forces, who try to devise a convenient and convincing accident for him to fall into. The man is able to foil him however and with that, he is on the run with nobody to turn to.
The reader follows the man as he hides in the forest as his torturers seek him, hoping to find only a corpse. We watch as the man staggers and struggles to get to a place of safety, breathe a sigh of relief as he is able to scrounge fresh clothing. The man slowly makes his way back to Britain, knowing that he cannot seek the help of his government. He is the most guarded narrator I can ever remember coming across, refusing to even give us his name, since it is apparently instantly recognisable and connected to wider disgrace. The mystery at the centre of Rogue Male – namely why on earth an apparently clear-thinking individual would hike across Europe just to see if it was theoretically possible to point a gun at a world leader – is kept secret not through the twists and turns of the plot but from the fact that the man himself is being very choosy on how far he wishes to reveal himself to the reader.
I read this in the same week that Lord Lucan was finally declared dead and despite the thirty year or so disparity, I did find myself picturing a Lucan-esque figure at the story’s centre. The hero of Rogue Male is the kind of classic British aristocrat figure that was so popular in 1930s spy fiction. I was also heavily reminded of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was interesting since the action of that one was so tied-up with World War I, whereas the rogue male’s target is obviously Hitler.
There is something so incredibly British about this story, and I mean that in the very best of ways. The narrator is unwilling to get his friends into trouble by calling on them, and does not want to bring disgrace on the nation by either appealing for aid or through taking the easy way out and blaming everything on the government. He withstands torture through resignation and generally keeping a stiff upper lip – he is utterly stoical throughout. The man describes his various injuries with a kind of forensic detachment; he is not disinterested and indeed they are pretty messy, but he refuses to waste time in going over how painful they are. Other, deeper, hurts are ignored in a similar manner.
There are so many nail-biting moments in Rogue Male, so many times when the man battles to keep one step ahead of his pursuers. One of my personal favourites was when he was being chased from three directions on the Underground, with a beautifully drawn moment of social awkwardness when he was alone in the carriage with one of the men who was following him and yet neither of them acknowledged the other. Having wrestled free of this situation, the man decides that the best thing to do would be to lie low in Dorset until things die down. He finds an old shepherd hut, adopts a feral cat which he names Asmodeus and hopes for the best. Inevitably, things pan out rather differently.
The relationship between the man and Asmodeus is interesting in how far it contrasts to the general detached tone of the novel. Asmodeus is not a particularly friendly cat, he hunts for his food and takes little interest in people but the man wins him over by providing a small piece of fish on a string which functions for entertainment purposes. Asmodeus is the being within the story for whom the man has the most apparent warm feelings and the communication between the two, despite being of different species, adds life to what what might otherwise have become a rather monotonous section.
As the man reveals himself further, the reader realises how far they have been hoodwinked. We have seen the stalker sportsman becomes the hunted prey and so similarly we see the straightforward Englishman become something quite different. I was reminded of Clive Candy from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, another well-known big-game sportsman. He also espoused British values and right over might but his story ends with his realisation that his codes and ethics will need to be set aside in order to win the war. It is interesting to consider rogue male in this context – this other Englishman from the good home has quite literally gone rogue and so hopes to bring down Hitler.
Rogue Male starts and ends at break-neck speed and never particularly slows down at any point. The various stages of escape, pursuit, further escape and further pursuit explore the concept of a manhunt narrative from every conceivable angle, and the man’s acerbic asides give an added layer of understated wit. There is a subtlety and an apparent effortlessness that puts to shame so many of the more bombastic recent manhunt thrillers – Household conjures the tension and the nervy feeling of being on one’s guard with so little, there are no unnecessary descriptions of sweat or gory details of his injuries. The man’s internal monologue reveals him to himself as well as to us, so that the finale is a true triumph – no sequel could ever match this, so I intend to avoid Rogue Justice at all costs. A diamond of the genre.
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Published by Hachette UK on December 8th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers, General, Suspense
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