Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, Rogue Male, was the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. Not knowing much about it, I had added it to my Classics Club list after seeing it included in The Guardian’s Top 10 novels of the 1930s. It sounded very like The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, which I thought was fun, if a bit repetitive, but while there are definitely some similarities, I found Rogue Male a more satisfying book.

The novel opens in 1938 just after our narrator has been caught aiming a gun at the dictator of an unspecified European country. Despite insisting that he wasn’t planning to pull the trigger and was just enjoying the thrill of ‘hunting the biggest game on earth’, the narrator is tortured and thrown over a cliff, where he is left to die. Somehow, he survives and manages to make his way back to London. On his arrival, he discovers that agents of the dictator he’d tried to shoot have followed him to England. Staying in London is obviously now out of the question, so he heads for the Dorset countryside where he is sure his pursuers will never be able to find him.

The identity of the protagonist’s target is kept carefully hidden, with very few clues throughout the novel, but it’s not difficult to guess who it was supposed to be and Household later confirmed that it was Hitler. As the book was published just before the start of World War II, it’s easy to see why he decided to be vague about it. His reasons for also leaving the narrator unnamed are less clear, but it does add an extra layer of mystery to the novel; while the narrator hides himself from the enemy agents, he also reveals very little of himself to the reader, leaving us wondering who he really is and what his true motives were for carrying out the assassination attempt.

For such a short book (around 200 pages), there’s a lot of plot packed between its covers and the tension builds as we wait to see whether he can continue to evade his pursuers. There’s a sinister villain, Major Quive-Smith who, like everything and everyone else in the book, is shrouded in mystery: we don’t know his nationality, his background or who he represents – all we do know is that he’s determined to force a confession from the narrator that the British government was behind the assassination attempt, something the narrator continues to deny even while his real motives are slow to emerge. Yet although I did enjoy the book, I still felt that there was something missing. The vagueness of it all, and the guarded and secretive nature of the protagonist, made it difficult for me to care what happened to him on an emotional level and this meant I found the story slightly less thrilling than I would have liked.

This book was adapted for film in 1941, under the title Man Hunt, and again as a BBC adaptation, Rogue Male, in 1976. The BBC version stars Peter O’Toole, with Alastair Sim as the Earl (a character who doesn’t appear in the book). It’s on YouTube and definitely worth watching. I’ve also discovered there’s a sequel to this novel called Rogue Justice, published much later in 1982, which is more open about the target being Hitler. I’m not sure if I want to read that one as the reviews aren’t very positive, but it seems Household was quite a prolific author, with more than twenty books published for adults and young adults, so I’ll see if any of his others appeal.

This is book 37/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

12 thoughts on “Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

  1. FictionFan says:

    Hmm, it does sound intriguing but that vagueness that stopped you feeling involved would probably have the same effect on me. I can’t help feeling it’s a pity he didn’t shoot when he had the chance! I have an odd feeling that I may have seen the TV adaptation at the time, because as soon as you mentioned the name Quive-Smith it rang a faint bell. But if I did watch it I don’t remember anything else about it.

    • Helen says:

      Quive-Smith is such an unusual name I’m sure it would stick in your mind! Yes, I wished the narrator had just shot the dictator at the beginning and saved everybody a lot of trouble – but then I suppose there would have been no book!

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    One of the things I liked about this was the ‘asides’ on British culture of the time. As a natural-born social historian I found them very interesting. I read somewhere that this book was given out to British soldiers as an easy guide to escape & evasion techniques. I can see why!

    Like you I’m not 100% sure about the follow up. But his novel of nuclear terrorism aimed at London – ‘Hostage: London’ (1977) – looks intriguing…

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