Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE (1939)
An Oxford graduate with a degree in English literature, Geoffrey Household (1900-1988) rebelled from what seemed an inevitable career as an international banker and instead led an adventurous life that took him from England to Rumania, Spain, Latin America, the United States, and the Middle East, where he worked for British military intelligence during World War II. As he remarked in his autobiography Against the Wind, he couldn’t recall an occasion when, if asked to go somewhere, he did not accept. A prolific author of thrillers that draw on his global experiences, Household is at his best in Rogue Male (filmed by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt), Watcher in the Shadows, The Courtesy of Death, and Dance of the Dwarfs, as well as the frequently anthologized short story, “Taboo.” In his obituary, The New York Times praised him for developing suspense into an art form.
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Few authors influenced me more than Geoffrey Household. In the summer of 1968, while studying American literature at Penn State, I wrote a hunter-hunted short story that would soon morph into First Blood, and when I showed it to my writing instructor, Philip Klass, he said the outdoor scenes reminded him somewhat of Geoffrey Household’s work. Not knowing anything about Household (graduate school sheltered me from popular fiction), I borrowed Rogue Male from the library, finished it in one night, and eagerly set out to read everything else Household had written. Until then, my attempts at thrillers had felt scholarly and academic, but the visceral elements of Rogue Male woke me to the power that could be achieved in the high-action genre.
The pace of Rogue Male is stunning, as is its premise, which made Household famous among thriller writers. With war looming in the late 1930s, a British big-game hunter makes his way across Europe, stalking an unnamed dictator, who is almost certainly Hitler. The hunter (who is also not named) establishes a sniper’s position on a ridge above the dictator’s country estate. He focuses his telescopic sight on his quarry, pauses to correct his aim, and at that moment is discovered by the dictator’s security team. They torture him in an effort to learn if he works for the British government. When they finally decide that he acted on his own, they throw him off a cliff, hoping to make his death look like an accident while at the same time accounting for the serious damage that their torture inflicted on his body. But he survives, landing in mud that cushions his fall and prevents him from bleeding to death.
All of these incidents occur in the first four pages. Four pages. Astonishing. I can’t think of another novel that establishes so much story so quickly. The rest of the book moves with equal relentlessness as the main character musters all his wits to hide, regain his strength, and get out of the country. His interrogators pursue him. The chase narrows from Europe to England to a couple of miles of farmland and finally to a dozen feet where the main character lives like an animal, digging a burrow between two hedgerows, remaining underground for days at a time.
Few novels have a more claustrophobic atmosphere. The mud at the start and the burrow at the end are paralleled by an empty water tank in which the main character is compelled to spend a night. He survives a lethal fight in a dark subway tunnel. Chased, he squirms into clay amid soaked cabbages on a field drenched by rain. He hides in night-shrouded ditches. While these constricted settings add to Rogue Male’s tension, they also reinforce one of the elements that make the book distinctive—the vividness with which the protagonist merges with his surroundings, particularly fields, woods, and streams, as if Household felt a kinship with the transcendentalism of Wordsworth’s nature poetry.
But this is a version of Wordsworth channeled disturbingly through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Robinson Crusoe, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, antecedents that Household acknowledged. In the end, the big-game hunter is so absorbed into nature that he descends to the level of one of the animals he used to hunt, a theme suggested by the book’s title and by an epigraph that discusses the fear and cunning of a rogue animal who relies on ferocity after pain or loss separates it from its fellows.
In Rogue Male’s most harrowing moment, the protagonist’s hunters try to force him to sign a propaganda document that falsely links the British government to his assassination attempt. They close the narrow hole through which air comes into his burrow. He nearly suffocates amid the stench of his excrement until he manages the strength to pull toward him the object with which they stuffed the air hole. The object turns out to be the rotting corpse of a polecat that he befriended, one rogue recognizing another. This drives the hero to such a frenzy that he uses a knife to cut the polecat apart. He attaches strips of the animal’s gut to a primitive catapult, with which he fires a metal stake through the hole at one of his captors. “I noticed the surprise in his eyes, but by that time I think he was dead. The spit took him square above the nose. He looked, when he vanished, as if someone had screwed a ring into his forehead.”
The detachment of those sentences illustrates something else that makes Rogue Male distinctive. The main character writes most of his narrative during the fearful days he spends hiding underground. He tells his story partly to set the record straight in case he is killed and his diary survives, but the main purpose is to objectify his ordeal and preserve his sanity. The horror of what happened to him is presented in an unemotional, understated way, to the point that the contrast between his words and what they cloak can be shocking. The tension behind each subdued sentence dramatizes the narrator’s fiercely repressed pain and mental anguish. “By that time I had, of course, been knocked about very considerably. My nails are growing back but my left eye is still pretty useless.”
I eventually learned how much Household believed in his non-graphic approach to depicting violence. After I finished First Blood, my admiration for his work prompted me to send him a copy of the manuscript in the hope that my outdoor action scenes would motivate him to recognize a kinship and supply a publicity quote. It didn’t take long for him to reply. The author of a novel in which a rotting polecat is skinned and its guts are used to build a catapult to drive a stake through someone’s forehead told me that he couldn’t possibly give me a quote. “Your novel is far too bloody.”
(David’s essay about Rogue Male originally appeared in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, a non-fiction collection that David co-edited with Hank Wagner. The book was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards. One hundred modern thriller authors wrote essays about their favorite classic thrillers.)