Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

They were beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth. (p.7)

This novel is much stranger than its blurb and reputation suggest. It is marketed as a thrilling ‘manhunt’ and while this is not untrue, it doesn’t capture the real essence of the book which is something weirder and more pagan.

The set-up

Rogue Male is narrated in the first person by an unnamed upper-class Englishman who has an odd way of telling a story. It starts rather confusingly in media res, at the moment just after he has been caught trespassing by the security people guarding the country house of the leader of a foreign country, beaten up, then thrown over a cliff and left for dead. For the narrator was – in his airily lackadaisical, Jeeves-and-Wooster kind of way – stalking the Great Leader of this country, at his rural estate. Why? Bored. For fun. Because – he claims – he had stalked most other game available and fancied it as a challenge, ‘for the fun of the stalk’. Characteristically, he defines this Quixotic quest with reference to the quintessential English upper-class sport:

… as I found myself getting a little nearer to the House with each night’s lodging I became obsessed by this idea of a sporting stalk. I have asked myself once or twice since why I didn’t leave the rifle behind. I think the answer is that it wouldn’t have been cricket. (Penguin paperback edition, p.15)

(The assumption is that the unnamed country is Germany – the narrator leaves his bags in Poland to cross the border and Hitler is pictured as seen through a telescopic sight on the book cover – but he isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the text. )

You won’t of course mention my name, nor the name of the country to which I went from Poland and to which I am about to return. Let the public take its choice! (p.191)

After he has been caught five hundred yards from the Leader’s house, with the great leader actually in his gunsights, he is interrogated and horribly tortured by the Gestapo and then disposed of by being thrown over a nearby cliff. He bounces gruesomely on the way down but, as luck has it, lands in a deep soft marsh and so survives, reduced to a welter of agonised nerves, a bloody pulp.

It is at this moment that the author chooses to open the narrative and, after a brief recap of how he got there, the first third or so of the novel goes on to describe his slow, painful recovery in the (German?) woods, before he manages to steal some clothes, beg food and finally buy a small sailing boat which he lets drift downriver to a major seaport (Hamburg?) where he persuades an officer on an English ship to take him aboard and conceal him for the journey back to London.

Posh

Household went to Clifton public school (£32,000 per annum fees 2014/15) and Magdelen College, Oxford, before becoming a banker. This Rogue Male is the kind of plummy, all-competent and terribly posh hero Eric Ambler was reacting against with his rather left-wing engineers and journalist protagonists, much more everyman figures.

It is typical of Rogue Male (RM) that he is not only on first name terms with the (presumably German) ambassador to London, but rather inevitably has his own Jeeves-and-Wooster nickname for him – dear old ‘Holy George’. This breezy superiority extends to having influential friends in the Foreign Office and, when the police arrive in Dorset on his trail, he is, of course, on first name terms with the boss.

Half an hour later a police car came bumping over the turf and decanted an old friend of mine into the cottages. I had quite forgotten that he was now Chief Constable of Dorset. (p.101)

As soon as he talks to an Englishman (on page 40, when he has arrived at a port and spotted some English ships) he becomes conscious of his class, and there is a three-page-long and rather confusing disquisition about class in England. When he thinks of Devon his first thought, as a pukka gentleman, is of course of the county fox hunt: ‘I had never hunted with the Cattistock.’ (p.68)

When he goes to the cinema, a novel experience for such a posh outdoors man, he is typically stand-offish and disdainful of what was, obviously, a run-of-the-mill experience for most Brits then as now:

When the main feature, as I believe they call it, was at its most dramatic quarter of an hour… (p.65)

The narrator at one point says his home has been continually lived in for fifteen generations. We can assume this refers to a significant country house and an eminent family. Beyond posh.

Bruised and battered

If it is a familiar thriller trope that the hero experiences not only life-threatening situations, but also gets badly beaten (sadistic beatings in Bond, superhuman batterings in Alistair MacLean). If so, Rogue Male is a kind of high water mark or extremity: thorough torture by the Gestapo, thrown off a cliff, reduced to a bloody pulp, blind in one eye with no fingernails, the protagonist starts the novel very badly beaten up indeed.

Although he recovers physically, it is open to debate whether he really recovers mentally. The first-person narration gives us a window into a very peculiar mind. After a spell in London our hero realises foreign agents are on his tail and so – after very Woosterishly ordering a complete set of camping equipment from his man at Harrods, which is delivered to him on the platform of Wimbledon station – he heads down to Dorset where he finds an isolated bit of country, between two thick hedges and laboriously creates a modern version of Robinson Crusoe’s stockade, complete with entrances, chimney, camouflaged door and so on, and he lives on tinned food, slopping out his waste and never washing or changing.

And it is here that the enemy agents track him to his lair, where they simply place barricades over the main door and the chimney to trap him. The final third or so of the text is the account of RM going more or less mad, trapped inside his badger sett for over a week while his antagonist, an enemy agent masquerading as a plummy huntin’ and shootin’ military man, Major Quive-Smith, tries to persuade him to sign a confession saying he was put up to his assassination attempt by the British government. Which he refuses to do. Impasse.

Something has to give and the dénouement sees our man cunningly getting the better of the enemy, killing the main agent and forcing his underling to get a car and clothes etc and help him escape by ship to North Africa. From here, with a new look and identity, RM sends his account (the text of this novel) along with a covering letter to his friend and lawyer to publish if he choses, saying he is setting back out to the enemy country, this time to do the job properly!

Tarka

This summary makes Rogue Male appear a much more rational reading experience than it actually is. In fact, so totally does RM immerse himself in his natural environments – in escaping through Germany (?), but especially living wild in Devon – that it is like being inside the mind of an animal. Rather than an Ambler or Deighton thriller, it reminds me of Henry Williamson’s classic Tarka the Otter (1927) or the poems of Ted Hughes, which really take you inside the mind of a wild animal in all the crude single-minded functionality of animal life.

In one section the police come searching for him with bloodhounds so he mashes up some tin sardines with fertiliser, attaches them to a string and sets off to create a completely false trail leading miles in the wrong direction. This passage is a typical combination of low animal cunning and physical endurance, observed and written up with a lofty patrician ironic detachment, with the narrator’s characteristic ‘healthy insolence’.

The dry bottom began to look like a meet of the Cattistock. The couple of bloodhounds that I had expected turned up, towing a bloodthirsty maiden lady in their wake. She was encouraging them with yawps and had feet so massive that I could see them clearly at two hundred yards – great brogued boats navigating a green sea. She was followed by half the village of Sydling and a sprinkling of local gentry. Two fellows had turned out on horseback. I felt they should have paid me the compliment of wearing pink coats.

Away went the bloodhounds on the trail of the fertilised sardines, and away I went too; I had a good half hour’s law while they followed my bag through the hazels and heather. I crossed the main road – a hasty dash from ditch to ditch while the constable on watch was occupied with the distant beauty of the sea – and slid along the hedges into a great headland of gorse above Cattistock. There I wove so complicated a pattern that boat-footed artemis must have thought her long-eared darlings were on the line of a hare. I skirted Cattistock and heard their lovely carillon most appropriately chime ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ at my passage, followed by ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. It was half-past five and dusk was falling. I waded into the Frome, passed under the Great Western Railway, and paddled upstream for a mile or so, taking cover in the rushes whenever there was anyone to see me. Then I buried the sardines in the gravel at the bottom of the river, and proceeded under my own scent. (p.102)

Madness

At several moments, trapped in his underground lair, the narrator himself wonders whether he’s gone mad, and the narrative, supposedly written into an old notebook he’s taken with him, at moments questions why he’s doing what he’s doing, what his real motivation is, and whether he might not in fact be going mad. Writing the text is therapeutic.

I must try to make my behaviour intelligible. This confession – shall I call it? – is written to keep myself from brooding, to get down what happened in the order in which it happened. I am not content with myself. With this pencil and exercise-book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second man, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured. Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press. (Penguin paperback edition, p.14)

He isn’t a hero. Clear-headed and practical and loftily ironic in some respects, he is almost out of his mind, profoundly adrift, turning into a wild animal, in others.

Style

The alienness of the mindset which emerges from the book is partly created by the narrator’s odd way with the English language, a style askew, aslant from normal linear grammar.

Disgraced. A nasty word, that. I am not disgraced, and I will not feel it. (p.54)

I told him that if he ever got one postcard, he’d probably get a lot more; it was ever living to write the first that was doubtful. (p.55)

By God in all this immobility and carrion thought it does me good to think of the man I was! (p.94)

I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object. (p.129)

The continual peculiarity of this idiosyncratic style might explain why Household, despite being a prolific and successful writer in his day, is now so little known today and the rest of his books sunk into obscurity. When you consider that Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, was published this same year of 1939, it is like comparing the Future – a type and style of plot which will go on to become wildly successful in books and TV and movies – with a strange, preserved-in-amber oddity, a memento of a vanished class and a forgotten country. Which makes Rogue Male all the more worth reading for its unwitting opposition, on numerous levels, to our present-day all-enveloping consumerist culture.

Related links

The movie

Given the rate at which Hollywood gobbled up novels by Hammett and Chandler and Greene and Ambler, it’s no surprise to learn that Rogue Male was converted into the movie Man Hunt, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Walter Pidgeon, in 1941, just two years after the book’s publication. It was redone in a TV movie for the BBC in 1976, starring Peter O’Toole who helped get it commissioned, apparently as a present to his wife, Sian.

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