Bob, a waiter at the London pub from which Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 novel, The Midnight Bell, takes its title, has saved—from tips, in shillings and pence—eighty pounds. On his days off, Bob likes to stroll past the bank that houses the fortune which, he imagines, will someday enable him to quit the bar and become a writer. But Bob’s plans for the future are disrupted when he falls in love with a young, beautiful, ferociously unredeemable prostitute, Jenny Maples. Unlike Bob, the reader soon intuits that Jenny will wind up with most, if not all, of those eighty pounds. But before we can think “Oh, that story,” Patrick Hamilton has us too busy worrying about Bob—and about his bank account in particular. As the balance drops and drops again to finance generous “loans,” to purchase a new suit, and to pay for a holiday trip to Brighton, we find ourselves anxiously subtracting these increasingly reckless sums from the original eighty as Hamilton evokes (in the reader, if not in his hero) the most upsetting financial panic in literature since Emma Bovary frantically counted and recalculated her debts.
With their intense, and intensely mixed, sympathies for the men and women who haunted the pubs and walked the streets of London’s tawdrier districts just before, during, and after World War II, Patrick Hamilton’s novels are dark tunnels of misery, loneliness, deceit, and sexual obsession, illuminated by scenes so funny that it takes a while to register the sheer awfulness of what we have just read. In The Plains of Cement (1934), the third novel in the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, about the Midnight Bell and its unhappy patrons, Ella, the barmaid at the pub, adores the handsome Bob. But she is insufficiently pretty and manipulative to attract the sort of self-destructive man at the center of Hamilton’s fiction.
Only Mr. Eccles, a patron of the bar, appears to see something in Ella. A nattily dressed older gentleman who spends the first part of their courtship mashing his face into Ella’s and the second phase lecturing her on his many tedious opinions and quirks, Mr. Eccles has snagged Ella’s attention with the hint that he might be planning to propose marriage. Ella knows she cares only about his money, but she is tempted by the most pitiful promise of pleasure. An evening at the theater and dinner at a Lyons Corner House are enough to make her seriously consider the grim stability of a future with Mr. Eccles.
But Mr. Eccles’s fantasies are more immediate and more carnal. At the end of their first date, he decides to collect what’s owed him. When he insists on walking her home, Ella must fend off his advances:
“It was ever so kind of you,” she tried, and since she could shirk it no longer, she turned her head and met his eyes.
“What?” said Mr. Eccles, gazing at her in …