The Gorse Trilogy consists of The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant. Each tells of an episode in the life of Ernest Ralph Gorse, a resoundingly unpleasant human being with a burning social snobbery, a complete disregard for others and a Hitler moustache. The plot of each is roughly the same: Gorse encounters, flatters and robs a gullible woman (and in one case, her father too) and generally blights lives . But the plot is really just an excuse to explore character, to expose vanity and affectation and to be very – if bleakly – funny.
We are first introduced to Gorse at school where he deliberately moves one boy’s beloved torch to another boy’s pocket, then sits back to watch and gently prod at, the ensuing conflagration. Shortly after he ties a young girl to a roller and steals her pocket money. This is essentially his modus operandi for all three books, if on a slightly larger scale.
There are references throughout the novels to Gorse’s future career, which will be written about in books glamorising and analysing his crimes, his resemblance to other notable criminals, his ‘hypnotic eyes’. In fact, he is simply a figure of petty evil. His thefts are small, his aspirations are small, he has little thought for anything or anybody beyond himself, except as assorted masses of flaws which he can use to his own advantage.
Self-deception is an important theme throughout the books. Gorse himself, while sharp at spotting weaknesses and gifted at fluent, intuitive lying is far more stupid and clumsy at deception than he realises, as well as being an atrocious and painfully ridiculous actor. His victims, too, often assist in their own deception by their own vanity and/or naivety. Esther Downes is easily fooled because she is young and because the glamour of Gorse’s introduction into what looks like a flashier, better world is too tempting to resist, despite her secret doubts and greater attraction to Gorse’s friend Ryan. Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce – an affected, shallow, middle-aged widow – has a self-image in which she is some kind of perpetual kittenish schoolgirl, irresistible to men and so she can swallow (along with a cathedral in one memorable passage) the idea that Gorse – more than ten years younger – is overcome with passion for her. Ivy and her father, in the last book, are caught in different ways – Ivy, because she is simple and accepts Gorse at face-value; her, far more unpleasant, father, because he is easily flattered and wishes to flaunt himself as someone of consequence through his speculation in theatre and association with aristocracy.
In fact, Ivy, though in some ways the most foolish, is also the least deceived and her essential kindness and lack of affectation leads to a rather happier ending than for the others. And, although the books show people generally in a very unflattering light (Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, in particular, reminds me a little of an extra-caustic Lucia novel) and allow evil to triumph, there is humanity in there, touches of kindness and redeeming features in most of, even the more ridiculous, characters.
This is well worth reading for the excellent writing, the humour and the insights into the time and human nature.