You know you have read a good novel when you pick something out of a bin by chance or happenstance, something that would not normally catch your eye or capture your imagination but laziness or curiosity causes you stop, flip a little bit through the pages and then shrug “What the heck” as you pay the dollar or two without any real expectation. But then something happens, you become engrossed in the story until you finally whisper to yourself in the quiet of night or (for me) at 3:00am suffering from insomnia “This is a great writer.” The writer, not what is written about, becomes the centerpiece of your engagement.
That is what “Rogue Male” is like. Even the title is bad, isn’t it? This short book, billeted as one of the first “thrillers” and written by Geoffrey Household – a British writer of that genre. Thriller in America connotes extraordinarily bad writing, sort of Dan Brown or Tom Clancy; people running around rapidly without ever catching their breath from one scene more incredible than the next and punctuated by either gratuitous sex or clichés which were tiresome even before they were first uttered; to say nothing of decades later. (Incidentally the movies are even worse.)
“Rogue Male” avoids all of this – it is slow moving, rhythmic. Not accentuated by unnecessary violence or action for action’s sake. In point of fact most of the story is that of the protagonist – an unidentified British man of that nation’s nobility – as he seeks to avoid capture by agents of the state of the dictator who he attempted to assassinate; or did he? Literature is different from pop fiction, as pop fiction is the cotton candy of the publishing industry while literature is about the inner life of the characters. This is particularly challenging in the case of “Rogue Male” when we get to know the protagonist and his thoughts and motivations without ever knowing who he is or anything about him – and Household pulls it off.
What particularly interested me was the protagonist’s detachment; something which we stereo-typically attribute to the British upper class, that stoic passionless coating but in the case of the protagonist here seemed to descend into Jean Paul Sartre “Abserdism”: “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is “being-in-the-world,” the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” The protagonist, while experiencing what was the most harrowing chase any of us might have to endure, seems somehow detached from his own experience; his motivations for the assault remain throughout somewhat unclear, even when he admits the reason when caught by the dictatorship’s spies. He does not sorrow for his condition; he does not rage or despair.
All that to say, “Rogue Male” is a novel certainly worth reading and internalizing; not for any great reason of personal betterment but because Household is a master craftsman whose skill is meant to be enjoyed.