Thursday, June 26, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household

A review by Rich Horton

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male is a classic thriller. It's not really forgotten, but it has, I think entered a phase of slow drifting out of any sort of general consciousness. Though perhaps not: it has been reprinted as recently as 2007, and it has been cited by David Morrell as a significant influence on First Blood (the Morrell novel that introduced Rambo to the world).

Household was a British writer, born 1900, died 1988, who spent some time in the US "just in time for the Depression". He began writing in the US, then returned to England. This is his second novel, published in 1939. He spent the War as an Intelligence Officer in Rumania, then returned to a fairly successful career writing. Rogue Male remains his most famous novel, though Arabesque (made into a movie with Gregory Peck, as I recall) is also well known. Rogue Male itself has been filmed at least twice, as Man Hunt in 1941 and as Rogue Male for TV in 1976.

Rogue Male opens with the never named first person protagonist aiming a rifle with a telescopic sight from 550 yards at a certain Head of State. It's never made precisely clear who that is -- a country on one side or the other of Poland, which leaves two pretty evil candidates as of the late 30s. The cover of my 1977 Penguin edition shows a picture of Hitler in the crosshairs, which to be fair is pretty likely who Household intended. But the book takes care never to reveal which of Hitler or Stalin was the target -- on purpose, I think -- and I think the cover illustration is a blunder.

The protagonist claims he had no intention of shooting -- he was just "stalking the most dangerous game" for the fun of it, to see if he could be successful. This doesn't play well with the local secret police, who torture him and leave him for dead. But he rather incredibly escapes, and makes his way down a river, soon pursued by his enemies. He stows away on a boat for England, but soon is again pursued. When he is forced to kill one of his pursuers, he becomes wanted for murder by the British police. He flees to the country, planning to literally hole up for the duration. But even his careful plans aren't quite enough -- some bad luck leads to the British police getting a lead, and though he can elude them, the bad guys are able to track him down.

It's pretty good stuff. Exciting, not too ridiculously implausible, and at least somewhat interested in exploring the moral basis of the protagonist's decisions. (Though there is plenty of guff, too, in particular lots of stuff about the wonderful ineffable qualities of the English Upper Class.) (Some of the book is the protagonist's own coming to terms with his real motives and intentions.) It helps of course that the protagonist's target is a real-life maximally evil sort -- even if we continue to disapprove of his assassination attempt, it's hard not to sympathize at some level. The book is also quite dryly funny on occasion. The ending is interesting in retrospect. The protagonist, having again escaped, decides his only recourse is to finish the assassination job. And there the book ends. But it was published in 1939. Then it was a very "open" ending. Now -- any time since 1945 really -- the ending has closed somewhat -- we can only conclude that the protagonist failed in his attempt and was presumable summarily executed. (Though there was a sequel, Rogue Justice, published much later (in 1982).)

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