This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Rogue Male (1939) is one of Geoffrey Household’s best-known works, and as a study in genre fiction it’s a bit hard to pin down. Though my copy is from Orion Crime Masterworks series, it’s by no means a traditional crime novel. As there are definite espionage angles, I would place it on the quest or ‘flight-and-chase’ branch of spy fiction, which John Buchan made famous 25 years earlier. he story is a loose journal, the ‘true confession’, kept by an anonymous narrator, begun after he has been forced to go into hiding. It was his own fault, really, and he wouldn’t dispute the fact. He is a gentleman-adventurer who has gone after perhaps the most dangerous prey of all: an unnamed European dictator. At least that’s what his captors and eventual pursuers believe. The narrator has taken pains to convince himself and the reader that it was only sport. He just wanted to see if it could be done. Though he is caught with the dictator in the sights of his rifle, he is adamant he had no intention of shooting.
Because he is a well-known figure and an English gentleman, and because this dictator claims to have no wish to cause any strife between their countries, rather than execute him, after his interrogation his captors arrange an ‘accident’. He is left, badly beaten and hands mangled, clinging to the edge of a cliff.
This is the earliest in the genre I’ve really seen of the necessary detachment between mind and body during times of intense physical pain. In later novels, particularly in the Bond and Quiller series, there often comes a moment wherein if the hero is to survive, he must shut down the emotional, thinking part of his brain. I wrote about this with regard to Bond in my MA:
As a machine, there is no mind to distract, no thoughts of moral right and wrong, no hesitations; as a machine, there is merely action and reaction. Thus his body must be dissociated from his mind: that is, ‘the thinking, feeling apparatus of [the hero must] no longer be a part of his body.’ It must instead ‘move alongside his body, or float above it, keeping enough contact to pull the strings that make the puppet work.’
Here it’s not yet the atomic age; rather than machine, the Rogue Male must replace the ‘thinking, feeling apparatus’ with sheer animal instinct. He cannot survive as the thinking human, but as an injured mammal… Somehow he manages to fall without killing himself, hide his tracks and climb to safety in a copse of trees. So begins his flight to freedom. He was left with his money and passport, to make the accident seem more realistic, and thus is able to carry on well enough until he secures passage as a stowaway on a vessel back to England.
However, even once he’s landed he is not safe. Terrified of the police, of ‘making a scene’, he decides to lie low for a while. But the theme of man-as-animal nevertheless continues as the dictator’s agents track him to London. He is eventually hunted down by an enemy agent in the tube lines just outside Aldwych station. They fight and his attacker is killed on the empty platform. Thus he becomes an outlaw in his own country. Interestingly, his near-capture in the warrens of London foreshadows his fugitive existence on the Dorset downs. After evading capture yet again, he at last finds relative peace and safety by burrowing out a home for himself in a thorny briar on the border between two farms. For the next few months, he lives in his burrow, he makes friends with a feral cat (who he names Asmodeus), and barring three trips into town for provisions, he avoids all human contact.
Unfortunately, living like an animal makes him forget how to think like a human. Eventually the enemy agent, going by the name of Major Quive-Smith, catches up with him and his burrow becomes a trap. His escape hatches are boarded up and he is held, literally like an animal mired in his own filth, for nearly two weeks. Every day Quive-Smith attempts to cajole and bully him in turns into signing a confession. The confession states that his attempt to assassin the dictator was approved by the British government. Though he is promised freedom, because the confession is ultimately false, the narrator refuses with ‘all the obstinacy of [his] people’.
It is only after Quive-Smith stuffs a dead Asmodeus in the burrow’s ventilation shaft out of frustration that the narrator is moved to action. He dissects the cat and uses its sinews to create something of a bow, and with one of the burrow’s support irons as an arrow, he kills Quive-Smith. Thereafter he blackmails Q-S’s assistant and they both escape to Portugal.
As well as the lasting impact of using the hero to investigate ideas of man-as-something-other, there are two things that should be noted. First, his attempt on the dictator’s life is due to the dictator having ordered his fiancee to be killed for treason. Revenge narratives were nothing particularly new by 1939, but considering the influence Rogue Male has wielded, in terms of the spy genre, this cemented assassination as both something that is done for revenge for love as well as for country and something that can be made a sport. Second, he writes his confession in order to create a ‘second self’ through which he can find clarity. We see this come into effect time and again in first-person spy narratives. Just as the mind can detach itself from the body during times of physical duress, there must be an emotional detachment in times of moral duress. In order for the hero to be allowed to be ‘whole’ again (and thus cease to be something-other), there must be some scope for examination and release. The written confessional enables that.
While Household clearly imitates Buchan’s hunted-man themes, he does so in a way that is uniquely his own. As a result, the concept of the Rogue Male has had seemingly endless influence over popular culture’s obsession with the hunter who becomes the hunted, as well as the rogue assassin who kills as much for sport as for profit (in particular in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal ). Fritz Lang put the story to film in Man Hunt (1941), yet we find traces of it in Rambo (David Morrell claims to have been a fan) and The Fugitive (1963, 1983).