Thursday, January 11, 2018

Unnamed Hunter, Unnamed Prey

Geoffrey Houseman's 1939 novel Rogue Male has a great premise. A skilled hunter decides--just for the sport--to see if he can successfully stalk the dictatorial ruler of a totalitarian nation. He doesn't intend to actually pull the trigger (though that is called into doubt later in the novel). He just wants to see if he can do it.

The dictator and nation are unidentified. Houseman wanted his readers to decide for themselves if it was Hitler or Stalin, though he admitted he considered the target to be Hitler. That, I think, makes the most sense. In fact, as least one later edition of the book used Hitler in the cross hairs on the cover.

Also, the 1941 movie version---Man Hunt, starring Walter Pidgeon--overtly used Hitler as the target. I saw the beginning of that one years ago on TV, so I'm just gonna go with that and, for the remainder of this review, I'll refer to the bad guys as Germans.

I can't give a name to the book's protagonist, though. The narration is all first person from his point-of-view, but he's careful never to give us his name.

Whoever-the-heck-he-is is captured by the Germans while stalking Hitler. He's tortured even after he freely admits his motivation. Without excusing the torture, it's actually not surprising the Germans don't believe he wasn't actually planning to pull the trigger. Who would believe that?

They decide the best way to dispose of him is to fake an accidental death, so they toss him over a cliff. But he lands in a bog, which at least partially breaks his fall.

This sets up an incredibly tense sequence in which the protagonist is unable to walk on his injured legs, has hands that are nearly useless after his fingernails were torn out during his interrogation, and has one eye swollen shut from the beatings he took. Despite all this, he needs to successfully hide from those who will soon arrive to "discover" his body and then he needs to escape the country.

The novel can be said to have three long acts and a short fourth act to bring it to a close. The first act is the escape from Germany, which is breathlessly suspenseful. Despite his injuries, the man still has his quick intelligence and his skills as a hunter (which translate into skill at foiling those hunting him). He crawls, painfully climbs trees, and lays false trails as he gradually regains the use of his legs. Because his fall off the cliff was supposed to be accidental, he'd been given back his money and papers. The papers don't do him much good, but the money is enormously useful in acquiring a small boat and drifting down a river until he reaches a port city.

Eventually, he gets back to England, where he realizes that he can't approach his own government for help and that enemy agents are still on his trail. When he's forced to kill one of them, he's then pursued by the cops as well, though the cops don't know who he actually is. His escape from London, his efforts to again lay false trails and his establishing a hidden lair in the country makes up the book's second act.

He successfully eludes the cops, but Germany's top agent is soon dogging his heels. This is the third act, ending with an extraordinarily tense sequence in which the agent has trapped him in the small underground hiding place he had established. Now, to get out, he'll need to use scraps of wood, metal and brick--along with a dead cat--to improvise a weapon and kill the agent.

It is one of the few times in either fiction or real life that a cat has actually served a useful purpose.

The last act is an escape from England and his decision about what to do next. He considers himself as waging a personal war against Germany by now and this informs his future plans.

Rogue Male is full of action, but it is more accurately defined as a novel of suspense, especially during the first and third acts. And it works wonderfully well in this regard. The tension builds on the very first page of the novel, when the protagonist finds himself at the bottom of the cliff the Gestapo had thrown him off. The tension stays high until the story ends.

So the author is successful in keeping us in suspense for 191 pages AND actually finds a use for a cat. He's two-for-two.

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