“The Midnight Bell” by Patrick Hamilton

 “The Midnight Bell” by Patrick Hamilton   (1930) – 307 pages

 “The Midnight Bell” is the first book of a trilogy called “Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky” by Patrick Hamilton that has just been republished by New York Review Books (NYRB).        

 “The Midnight Bell” is a little bar in London near Euston Road.  Bob, a young man of twenty five, is the waiter at the bar, and Ella, a young woman in her early twenties, is the barmaid.  Together Bob and Ella keep the bar running smoothly, making sure the regulars are taken care of and keeping the place as neat as a pin.  Bob’s dream is to someday be a writer, and he has managed to save eighty pounds in his bank account.  Ella, a placid, sensible, and efficient girl, secretly is attracted to Bob.

    “The slightly mocking and non-committal demeanor which she (Ella) employed as her professional manner toward those who leered and laughed at her across the bar was carried into ordinary life.”

One day, two girls not yet twenty come in to the bar and sit at a table.  Everyone in the bar including Bob and Ella can tell by looking at them that they are prostitutes, but Bob has a strong fascination for one of them, Jenny.  Jenny is very pretty, and Bob is flattered to be seen in her company.  After accidentally running into Jenny on the streets a couple of times, Bob falls deeply and hopelessly in love with her.  In this case, “falling” is definitely the operative word.   From her place behind the bar, Ella wryly observes. 

Bob is so in love with Jenny he doesn’t even want to have sex with her, unlike most every other man on the streets.  Bob wants to save her from the life of streetwalking.  He tells Jenny how much he loves her, and looks for any and all signs that she is returning his emotion.  Yet she is always standing him up on their next “date”.

Everything Jenny says to him is calibrated to extract as much money from Bob as possible.  Thus she mentions she doesn’t have any money for her rent, but says she can earn it.  Then Bob says, “Yes. But it’s not a pleasant way of getting it.”  Soon he is making regular withdrawals from his bank account savings. 

The Atlantic describes “The Mitnight Bell” as a “Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story”.  I would simply describe it as a “She done him wrong.” novel.

According to Wikipedia, “The Midnight Bell” is based on a true story.  Patrick Hamilton actually did fall in love with a prostitute.   This is probably why Jenny is portrayed much more subtly and skillfully than prostitutes are usually depicted in novels and stories.  Usually prostitutes are presented with broad strokes either as evil or as a joke, but here Jenny is credibly human.  The scenes in the bar are also meticulously realistic down to the smallest details.  Patrick Hamilton must have spent many, many hours of research in bars for this novel. 

I admire Patrick Hamilton as a writer, because he has the courage to deal with utterly realistic human stories that most writers shy away from.  Graham Greene, another strong realist, was an admirer of Patrick Hamilton.  I have read “Hangover Square” and watched the movie “Gaslight” for which Hamilton wrote the screenplay.  I would describe the style of Patrick Hamilton as sensitive street-level realism.  “The Midnight Bell” is an excellent novel which at least equals the level of achievement of “Hangover Square”.

Patrick Hamilton died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962 at the age of 58.        

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6 responses to this post.

  1. This is a great reminder that I really must dust off my Patrick Hamilton novels. I have a couple in my TBR but have never gotten around to reading them. I have only ever heard great things about his writing.

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  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    Hamilton’s entire trilogy, “Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky”, looks interesting. Book Two tells the backstory of Jenny, while Book Three according to The Atlantic tells the story of a “50ish bore’s pursuit of barmaid Ella.” The old classic movie “Gaslight” is fun to watch too.

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  3. I’m so glad you blogged about The Midnight Bell. I love Patrick Hamilton and discovered him through NYBR, but haven’t seem much about him online.

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  4. Hi Kat,
    Yes, Patrick Hamilton is one of those underrated English writers who wrote some excellent novels that will gain their rightful place in literature over time. He is sort of a Dickens for the twentieth century. Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Hi, I found your blog very insightful. Not just another blog on novels…
    Just subscribed!

    Vanessa.

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  6. Hi Vanessa,
    Thanks for the kind comments. I’m happy you stopped by.

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