A few weeks ago I was listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra and happened to hear an episode of Rogue Male. Many many years ago I had read this remarkable novel - probably in a cover like the one in the picture - and the chunk I heard recently reminded me how great it was. So I was delighted when a friend sent me a copy for my birthday.
It's interesting that Penguin dressed the book up in a green overcoat, suggesting that it was a crime novel. But really it is not, or not in any conventional sense. I've seen it described as a "man-on-the-run thriller", and that is exactly what it is.
The story is told in quasi journal form by an un-named narrator, who tells us that it is intended to be a confession. His account is concise and often quite unbearably tense. Some months before the journal begins, he travelled to Europe with a view to assassinating a dictator -- neither the country nor the dictator are named, but as the novel was published in 1939, it seems pretty clear that it was Hitler. But he was caught while stalking the man from nearby undergrowth, beaten, tortured, and left for dead. He managed to escape and return to England, but soon realises that agents of the foreign country are on his tail. He makes his way to Dorset, where he creates a seemingly impenetrable and invisible hideout in the thick undergrowth, but he is discovered by a man going by the name of Major Quive-Smith, who is clearly not what he pretends to be. Quive-Smith tells him that he will give him his freedom if he agrees to sign a document saying that the British government was behind the assassination attempt, something he has no intention of doing. Can he ever escape?
Sounds like a boy's adventure story, doesn't it -- and certainly that is not my normal choice of genre. But leaving aside the extraordinarily gripping nature of the events described, I found the narrative itself absolutely fascinating. The narrator never gives a full account of himself and his history, but he drops in bits of information from time to time which allow the reader to build up a picture. He is evidently an English landed gentleman whose home territory is somewhere in the West of England, though not in Dorset. He is a sportsman, and indeed at first presents his attempt on the dictator as a form of sport, though later in his account we learn that there was another reason behind it, connected with a woman who had been an important part of his life. He has clearly already got a reputation as an adventurer, has remarkable survival skills and great ingenuity, witness his use of the remains of his cat as a weapon. Yes indeed. As you might expect from a man of his background and upbringing, he has an intense class consciousness, but not a wholly conventional one, as the members of what he refers to as Class X are not necessarily wealthy or aristocratic but rather possessed of an intangible something which he can recognise immediately. As for women, he denies at first having any deep feeling for them -- but later in the account it becomes clear that he has been, as we (but not he) would say, in denial.
At less than 200 pages, this is quite a short novel, and one you could gallop through in a sitting. And why not? This is a real classic, obviously hugely influential on many novels and films that followed it, not to mention being made into a film itself and also adapted several times for radio. Have you read or listened to it? If not, go for it.