by Roy Horniman
Chatto & Windus
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Roy Horniman's 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is an interesting novel in that most people who are familiar with its story, probably know it better from either the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hears and Coronets or the more current Tony Award-winning musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. All three follow the same basic idea, although the details are changed in interesting ways between the three versions, as is the name and background of the protagonist.
In Hornaman's original version, the narrator is the eponymous Israel Rank, the son of a Jewish clerk and the great great granddaugher of an Earl. Upon her marriage, his mother was disinherited by the Gascoyne family, and while she and her husband, and eventually their son, made a happy family, once Israel's father died, his mother was left to fend for herself, still rejected by the family. Following her death, Israel decides that he needs to avenge her treatment and sets out to systematically kill of everyone who stands between himself and the family title. Along the way, he uses and it used, by a variety of people, most notably his childhood friends, Grahame and Sibella Hallward, whose family took him in when he was orphaned.
Rank is the very epitome of an unreliable narrator. His opinion of himself is too clever by half as he describes, occasionally in tedious detail, his circumstances and the way he is able to one-up each of the Gascoynes or cuckold his lifelong rival, Lionel Holland. Rank comes across as a sociopath who is aware of the concerns of the people around him, but is completely at ease taking advantage of their feelings while dismissing them entirely if it serves his purpose. Perhaps the worst victim of this is his cousin, Edith Gascoyne, who he wooed and used. While Louis Mazzini, Israel Rank's analog in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Montague Navarro, the analog in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder are both sympathetic characters, even as they commit murder after murder, Rank never engenders that sort of emotion in the reader, perhaps because the is a distance created by the stark print on a page as opposed to the portrayal on film or stage.Written in 1907, the prose is very definitely of the period, more formal than most novels written in the twenty-first century. While this adds to the distance, it also provides a strong sense of the time period, as much as any of Horniman's descriptions. The early twentieth century also comes across in the attitudes exhibited by the characters. Some reviewers have commented that the novel is anti-Semitic, however reading the actual texts, Horniman appears to be using the anti-Semitic sentiment of Edwardian England in a manner that satirizes the beliefs which were endemic at the time. Rank's character and crimes are not caused by his Jewishness, but that very trait causes him to be as much an outcast from society as his mother's original decision to marry without her family's approval.
Israel Rank is a dated novel and pales in comparison to either of the properties is inspired. Rank is not a particularly likeable protagonist and he can be extremely long-winded. The novel is leisurely when read from a different era. The Edwardian England and the attitudes depicted aren't the work of an historical novelist, but of a satirist who was writing about the society in which he lived. Rank demonstrates a loathing of the upper classes even as he desires to take on their trappings and position.
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