The West Pier

The West Pier – Patrick Hamilton

I first came across Patrick Hamilton some years ago when I read his Hangover Square. He is another writer who has fallen out of fashion, but his legacy lives on through the modern predilection for the term gaslighting which came from his novel, Gaslight. Published in 1951, although set in the period between 1914 and 1921, The West Pier introduces us to Ernest Ralph Gorse and is now regarded as the first of the Gorse Trilogy. Hamilton intended a fourth volume, although his death from alcoholism prevented him finishing the series off.   

The West Pier in the title is the famous structure at Brighton, the town in which the book is set. At the time it had a reputation as a place where young men and women met in the prospect of some romantic attachment. Gorse is what we would now know as a psychopath, although Hamilton makes no attempt to psycho-analyse the monster that he is portraying. Gorse has no redeeming features, the classic anti-hero, a monster who draws the reader in to find out what his devious and sadistic mind will turn to next and whether his hapless victims will eventually have the sense to realise what is happening to them. Hamilton’s commentary does not attempt to rehabilitate Gorse, but to emphasise the downwards trajectory of his behaviour.

In essence, the book focuses on two short periods of Gorse’s early life. The first is when he is at school with two of his friends, Ryan and Bell. Even at an early age Gorse displays an unfeeling attitude towards others and a cruel streak exhibited, initially, in a cruel joke when he puts a boy’s prized torch into another boy’s pocket and stands by to watch the accusation of theft. The second example is more disturbing and a harbinger of what to come when he lures a young girl into a shed and ties her up.

It is tempting to see Hamilton painting the young Gore as a proto fascist. The victim of his torch trick happens to be a Jewish boy. Although far too young to serve in the First World War, he is fascinated by military uniforms and enjoys mindless army drills. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, although by the time Hamilton wrote this, the consequences of fascism were there for all to see.

The second time we see Gorse is when he returns to Brighton on holiday, again with Ryan and Bell. They wander down to the West Pier in the hopes of encountering young girls and soon pick up Esther and Gertrude. Both Ryan and Gorse fancy Esther and while she recognises that Ryan is the better catch, she falls under Gorse’s spell. Gorse engages in a two-pronged attack to break up the Ryan-Esther relationship by sending a series of anonymous notes, planting the seeds of doubt in their minds about the fitness of the other, and to relieve Esther of her life savings which she foolishly boasted about in an early encounter when he treated her to a drink in a posh hotel, the Metropole.

Gorse’s campaign is successful. While the reader is invited to express disgust at Gorse’s behaviour it is difficult to find much sympathy for Esther. How could she be so stupid? But that is the way a confidence trickster works, making their victim seem loved and valued only to destroy their self-worth with a cruel trick. In the scheme of things Gorse’s fraud is small beer, but confidence tricks of this nature are the meat and drink of the fraudster. Hamilton’s insight into the workings of a fraudster are as relevant today as they were then, even if the medium of the fraud has changed.

Easy to read and with flashes of wit, it was an enjoyable and slightly disturbing read. I shall follow Ernest Ralph Gorse into his next adventure.

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