In December 1956, the poet and architectural campaigner John Betjeman speculated about another English writer in the pages of The Spectator magazine: “I have never heard anything about the personality or appearance or age of one of the best of English novelists, Patrick Hamilton, whose Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, seem to me in the top class of novels. What is he like?” A statue of Betjeman stands in London’s newly reopened St. Pancras station, in recognition of his efforts to preserve the building from being demolished in the 1960s. As for Patrick Hamilton, he is best remembered for being an interwar British writer who demolished himself with drink. The novelist J.B. Priestley, an early champion of Hamilton’s work, described his protégé as “an unhappy man who needed whisky as a car needs petrol.” Since Hamilton’s death from cirrhosis in 1962, his books have struggled to stay in print, and despite the regular appearance of new editions with proselytizing introductions by his admirers, he remains, in the words of one of his three biographers (all of whose Hamilton books are out of print), “an eerie non-presence in modern British literary history.” In his introduction to the New York Review Books reissue of The Slaves of Solitude, David Lodge puts this down to a lack of academic interest in Hamilton’s work, which is “neither modernist nor consciously antimodernist” and contains “no anticipations of postmodernism.” It’s not an entirely convincing theory: by this reasoning very few English novels of the 1930s and ’40s would be read at all.
Patrick Hamilton was born in 1904, the youngest of three children. His father, Bernard, trained as a barrister, but after inheriting £100,000 on his twenty-first birthday he had no reason to practice law. Bernard Hamilton devoted the rest of his life to spending his fortune on mistresses and foreign travel (he combined both interests when he went to retrieve a mistress from Canada) and ignoring the decline in his family’s living standards. The last servants left when Patrick was 12, and his mother moved with the children into the first of a series of boarding houses. He left school at 15, and his brother-in-law rescued him from shorthand typing by offering him a job in a theater as an actor and assistant stage manager. Hamilton’s first novel, Monday Morning, was published when he was 21. (There’s no reason to read it now except to enjoy schoolboyish lines such as, “Have you ever noticed the topping way Betty looks worried about her homework?”) Two more autobiographical novels followed, the first set in a theater, the next in a boarding house. The most successful year of Hamilton’s life was 1929: The Midnight Bell, the first part of the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, was published, and his play Rope began a long West End run. (Hitchcock later turned it into a film.) Hamilton wrote to his brother Bruce about the thrill of success: “It is all a strange Byronic dream. For it is not only the money–it is fame.” Outlining his theory of the novel in another letter, he wrote: