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Rogue Male - Geoffrey Household ”I hold no brief for the pre-war spartan training of the english upper class--or middle class as it is now the fashion to call it, leaving the upper to the angels--since in the ordinary affairs of a conventional life it is not of the slightest value to anyone; but it is of use on the admittedly rare occasions when one needs a high degree of physical endurance. I have been through an initiation ceremony on the Rio Javary--the only way I could persuade them to teach me how their men can exercise a slight muscular control over haemorrhage--and I thought it more a disagreeable experience than any proof maturity. It lasted only a day and a night, whereas the initiation ceremonies of the tribal English continue for the ten years of education. We torture a boy’s spirit rather than his body, but all torture is, in the end, directed at the spirit. I was conditioned to endure without making an ass of myself.”

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The copy I read was a Folio Edition filled with wonderful art work.

In other words the guy is Bond before James Bond existed. Rogue Male was published in 1939 and Ian Fleming did not release the first Bond until 1953, but I can’t imagine that Fleming did not read this book. The influences on the Fleming creation are readily apparent. We find our hero, a man whose name was never revealed to us, in a jam. He has been captured attempting to assassinate a world leader, again the country and the leader are never revealed, but of course given the time period the best guess is that he was trying to kill Hitler. It is well indeed that he had taken the time to prepare himself for pain as they have tortured him severely. They have beaten him, torn out his fingernails, and smashed one of his eyes.

These villains like the villains in a Bond movie just can’t put a bullet through his head and call it a day. They decide to drop him off a cliff to make the damage to his body look more natural, and of course they muff it.

He escapes.

With a bit of daring, luck, and a disguise he makes his way back to England only to find that he is still being pursued by foreign agents.

”I began to speculate on what would happen if I reappeared quite openly in England. I was perfectly certain that they would not appeal to the Foreign Office or to Scotland Yard. Whatever I might have done or intended, their treatment of me wouldn’t stand publicity. They couldn’t be sure how the English would react; nobody ever is. After all, we once went to war for the ear of a Captain Jenkins--though Jenkins was an obscurer person than myself and had, considering the number of laws he broke, been treated with no great barbarity.”

Whoa hold the horses...Captain Jenkins? Britain went to war over an ear?

Yes indeed. Although myth does shroud some of the details it seems that Captain Robert Jenkins commander of the Rebecca was boarded by the Spanish on suspicion of smuggling. He was lashed to a mast and the Spanish Captain sliced off his ear and like a gentleman returned it to him with the statement. ”Same will happen to the king if he is caught doing the same.”

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Jenkins showing his ear

Jenkins returns to England, making stops along the way to showing his bloody piece of ear to any official he could find. He finally comes before the House of Commons and displays his ear to them, as well, now pickled for posterity and says something along the lines of “what the f**k are you going to do about my ear?” This barbaric treatment of Jenkins sparks off a war with Spain which lasts from 1739-1748 and the conflict is referred to as The War of Jenkins’ Ear.

Our hero decides to hide out in the countryside with poor results. It seems his trackers are adept at mapping his movements. At one moment they have him trapped in an earthen cave. He is not deterred. He fashions a Roman hand-drawn ballista made out of dead cat parts, yeah a regular Macgyver, and uses it to overpower and escape his captors.

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A more complicated version than the one our hero built out of a dead cat.

He holds his gun on one of his captors and has a very English response to his fear. ”The wretched fellow feared death as he would a ghost. I admit that death is a horrid visitor, but surely distinguished? Even a man going to the gallows feels that he should receive the guest with some attempt at dignity.”

Pissing yourself is not allowed unless you are of the lower classes for what more can be expected from such a muckish lot. Stiff upper lip and all of that if you are a member of the upper class. Our hero does not have a very good opinion of social inferiors even to the point of suffering from agoraphobia if he finds himself among them.

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There have been two films inspired by this book. The first was Man Hunt produced in 1941 directed by Fritz Lang and starred Walter Pidgeon. The second was produced in 1976 called Rogue Male and starred Peter O'Toole.

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Geoffrey Household’s father was a barrister. I’m not sure how the English classes work exactly, but he grew up well educated and landed a job as confidential secretary at the Bank of Romania in Bucharest. He then went on to be a marketing manager for United Fruit Company in Spain selling bananas. When World War Two started he joined British Intelligence and worked in Romania, Greece, and the Middle East. He described his writing style as: “sort of a bastard of Stevenson out of Conrad.”

I’ve always thought there was a direct connection between the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson to Graham Greene to John LeCarre to Alan Furst. There are hints of all those writers in this book. Household wanted to infuse style and courage into his writing and certainly his character displays those qualities throughout the book. There is not a book that I read more than Robinson Crusoe growing up and when the character reaches the point where he is living off the land I could feel that inner boy in me smiling and enjoying the descriptions of building a hidden shelter,acquiring food, and staying half a step ahead of capture. A blend of heady freedom and dire circumstances that keep the pages turning looking for the answers that only our reserved by nature hero can give us. Some of the answers to our questions will never be known after all it wouldn’t be proper to talk about such matters except with hints, winks, and obscure references leaving us all enthralled; and yet, ultimately knowing nothing.