Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941)
Until recently, Patrick Hamilton was a mainstay of "forgotten novelists" lists, touted by a distinguished group including J.B. Priestly, Doris Lessing, and Nick Hornby. Many of his best books have finally slipped back in print over the last few years, only to be marketed to the minor British novelist crowd. In noir circles, he's best known for the plays that were the basis for the films Rope and Gaslight.
Which is too bad, because Hangover Square is truly one of the great noir novels. The grim setting--a London neighborhood of dank rooming houses, cheap hotels, greasy coffee shops and, above all, seedy pubs on the very eve of World War Two--oozes with dark atmosphere. It was a world Hamilton knew intimately. A life long hard drinker (one of his bios was entitled Through a Glass Darkly), he was a Boswell of the barroom, unsurpassed at capturing the boredom, loneliness and above all, the hopelessness of the habitual public drinker.
At the center of Hangover Square is George Harvey Bone, a large, weak, and amiable man in his mid-30s. He is desperately in love with Netta Longdon. Alas, not only is his love unrequited, Netta is a femme fatale of a sort that gives the rest of the subspecies a bad name. Vicious, cruel, and utterly self-absorbed, she is described as looking "...like a Byron beauty, but inside, she was a fish." She is at a center of a crowd that even George recognizes to be a "Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant pub crawling cheap lot of swine." Yet George can't bear to tear himself away, putting up with an endless stream of humiliations in the forlorn hope that maybe somehow, someday, Netta would care. Not that she ever will. She only tosses George an occasional bone of civil treatment because he does have his uses: an ever-handy stooge, a reliable source of small loans, the possessor of tenuous connections that may further her "acting" career.
There is no shortage of darkness and desperation in George's plight, and doom is just around the corner. But Hangover Square is more than a beer-sodden take on Of Human Bondage. Periodically and without warning, a loud "Crack!" sounds in George's head. He snaps into a "dead mood," a fugue-like state (that is completely unrelated to schizophrenia) where he continues to act more or less normally. But when he snaps out of it, he has no idea what he's been up to. It just happens that during these "dead moods," he's planning to kill Netta Longdon. In the true noir tradition, every time things are looking up for George--he's cutting down on the drink, he's not hanging around with Netta, he's breaking free of his dead-end life--Crack!
Any list of best noir novels that doesn't include Hangover Square is merely joking.