It has been more than four decades since the publication of Geoffrey Household's "Rogue Male," one of the most intelligent and imaginative suspense novels in the English language. Set in the period just before England's entry into World War II, it is the first-person account by a nameless narrator of his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate a nameless "great man," and his desperate yet crafty flight from various agents subsequently dispatched to do him in. As a work of fiction it transcends the suspense genre, ranking with the best of Graham Greene's "entertainments."
It's a novel with many distinctive qualities--though less distinctive now for the simple reason that it has been so widely imitated. The dry, aristocratic, self-mocking wit of its narrator; the mounting sense of psychological as well as physical danger; the gradual disclosure of the passionate desire for revenge that motivates the narrator--all of these elements make "Rogue Male" a unique, immediately recognizable work. And more than any of these, it is notable for Household's determined reticence, his refusal to disclose to the reader any more information than is necessary, his depiction of an otherworldly atmosphere that transcends history: In the deepest and truest sense of the word, "Rogue Male" is a mystery.
But "Rogue Justice," alas, is not. Devoutly though we may have wished for a sequel to "Rogue Male," Household would have served us better had he denied us one--had he left his narrator nameless, his future undisclosed. To be sure, by the standards of most suspense novels it is a superior production, and the reader will look a long time before finding a more graceful and amusing prose stylist than Household. But as is so often the case with sequels, this one proves nothing so much as that the original remains sui generis.
It begins promisingly, with a preface by Saul Harding, the London solicitor to whom the manuscript of "Rogue Male" had been sent. He writes that after his escape from a would-be killer, the nameless narrator had taken the fellow's Nicaraguan passport and returned to Germany, "getting himself known as a prize exhibit of Latin-American admiration for the Nazi system" and insinuating himself ever closer "to a private and deadly interview with Hitler." But soon "his true identity was discovered," and "while he was temporarily held in Rostock his prison was wrecked by the devastating British air raid of April 1942." Here the narrator takes over:
". . . I had lived with risk so long that I was weary of it. I was at war, had been at war ever since I had tried to kill Hitler and very nearly succeeded. Now my country too was at war, and the fact that I was in the heart of the enemy homeland pretending to be a sympathetic neutral no more inhibited me from killing than it would a franc-tireur of any resistance movement. So my conscience was clear. The extreme brutality of my act was justified."
The act in question is the first in a long series of bloody engagements that takes the narrator from Poland to Romania to Greece, and at last to North Africa and the resolution, for once and for all, of his tale. Along the way, detail after detail that had been kept tantalizingly mysterious in "Rogue Male" is made unnecessarily explicit: that it was in fact Hitler whom the narrator had attempted to assassinate; that the narrator's name is Raymond Ingleram; that the lover whose torture and murder by the Nazis he seeks to revenge was Jewish. At the end, the best that Household can do is sermonize:
"Somehow I could exist. Poland and Greece had proved that I could endure privation. But there could be no living off the rifle . . . That lesson and my oath under the conscience-searching skies of Palestine were reinforced when the brigadier asked me how many of the enemy I had killed. Seventeen, I answered, omitting the uncounted. By what right had I killed? Was my justification self-defense or was it sheer anger and a savage eagerness to return blood for blood? But blood would not resurrect my beloved nor fetch from the void the children we might have had."
The point is true enough, of course, but it is also entirely unremarkable. That, unfortunately, must also be said of "Rogue Justice." It is literate and suspenseful, but there is little to distinguish it from the many other literate and suspenseful works of fiction that contribute so much to England's gross national product. "Rogue Male" was one of a kind, but "Rogue Justice" is merely one among many.