Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
In his classic thriller Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household unwittingly provides one important key to the appreciation of his writings. “I am not content with myself,” his then-nameless hero proclaims. “With his pencil and exercise-book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.”
The quest for that clarity and for better gauges of “the man of the present” preoccupied Household in his stories. His education and maturation came during the devastations and disillusionments born of World War I and the profound economic, political, and social tumults of the years between the great wars: worldwide economic depression; the eruptions of Soviet communism, of fascism, and of National Socialism; widespread criticism of established capitalist practices and values in Great Britain and in the United States; the acceptance, superficially at least, of new personal mores; rejection of liberal individualism in favor of mass movements of one complexion or another; and the waning of traditional religions as a source of solace for many individuals in industrialized nations. Such transforming forces were the stuff of Household’s characters’ discourse in several novels (for example, The Third Hour), and in none of them are they absent from the background.
Although he was a cosmopolite, a man whose writings attest his wide tolerance, Household consistently projected values that harked back to those of Great Britain’s upper and middle classes during most of the nineteenth century. His eschewal of greed as an acceptable source of private motivation, however, prompted him to strip these classic liberal values as nearly as he could to their noble or aristocratic common denominators, particularly as they continued to be accented in England’s elite schools, colleges, and universities.
These denominators, refined from the nineteenth century’s perceptions of Greco-Roman civilization, furnished a code of personal conduct that was chivalric. Nobility—which had little to do with one’s station or rank in life—was the central concept of this code. Not always easily definable—for example, as it applied to complex issues in love and war—the concept for Household certainly embodied the Englishman’s sense of fair play. It demanded “playing the game” in spite of the imcompetence of one’s leadership, the failure of one’s friends, the deceptions and treacheries of one’s enemies, or the preponderance of unfavorable odds. It was undeniably quixotic, as exemplified by the hero of Rogue Male as he attempts a sportsman’s stalk and possibly the assassination of a dictator and then tries to survive against “all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power” when its minions seek to kill him. Again, it is exemplified by Charles Dennim, hero of Watcher in the Shadows (1960), figuratively tethering himself like live bait for a tiger to foil a killer from his concentration-camp past, and by Claudio Howard-Wolferstan, seeking through half a dozen disguises to evade a misguided pursuit by Scotland Yard, his compatriots, and the Russians.
These chivalric elements clearly reflect Household’s profoundly optimistic convictions, which he unhesitatingly expounds through his protagonists. “I myself,” exclaims Howard-Wolferstan, “consider this earth upon which we are privileged to carry out our duties a most pleasurable dwelling place.” He adds,Let that be my assurance to those who flatter my colleagues and myself by supposing that we are not only able but resigned to effect destruction which the infinite dangers of a hostile cosmos have, since the birth of the planet, been inadequate to accomplish.
Though under deadly provocation, though physically or psychologically trapped, Household’s principals cheat their expected fate by consciously reducing themselves to intelligent animality and then making shrewd use of nature’s aid. Like an experienced naturalist, Household placed a high premium on people’s nature-given powers of observation. Flights of birds repeatedly warn one hero of an enemy’s presence. Angles of vision, light and shadow, minute changes in local flora and fauna, and natural camouflages all serve Household’s desperate champions. One ingenious hero makes use of a dead cat’s gut to string a primitive bow while trapped underground in his last refuge.
Rigorously clinging to their concepts of honor, playing the game against formidable odds, Household’s principal characters differ markedly from their hard-boiled, cynical, often seedy counterparts, developed by a number of other thriller writers— Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, for example—in his generation. Household’s figures are better educated, better advantaged, and more civilized in the face of crisis. They are men driven to extremes, but they are individual versions of Man Thinking. They are able by their own intellection—not by tediously following police procedures, by knowing the streets, by pumping snitches, by mastery of martial arts, or by excellence as marksmen—to penetrate the minds of their enemies and engage—somewhat like the great Sherlock Holmes—in deadly chess with them. They are more rational than reflexive, more intelligent than vulgarly tough.
Without being didactic or sententious, Household effectively transports his optimistic, liberal nineteenth century individualism—strengthened by his cosmopolitanism and enriched by his personal adventures—into the twentieth century. Though he wrote crisply and the threat of violence is ever present, his stories develop rather than explode on the reader. In the midst of a society that is fascinated by violence, Household handled plots of danger and suspense with the gentlemanly aplomb of a more genteel tradition—but, at his best, not less adventurously than his peers.
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