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by Bamber Gascoigne

Geoffrey Household (1900-1988)


British author of thrillers, who published some thirty-seven books including children's fiction. Household's flight-and-chase novels, which show the influence of John Buchan, were often narrated in the first person by a gentleman-adventurer. Among his best-know works is Rogue Male (1939), a suggestive story of a hunter who becomes the hunted. It appeared just before the outbreak of World War II, and started with a scene in which an English sportsman looks at his target, an unnamed European dictator, through the rifle sight. The book was filmed by Fritz Lang in 1941 as Man Hunt. Household's fast-paced story foreshadowed such international bestsellers as Richard Condon's thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal (1971), in which a ruthless hit man plans to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Ken Follett's novel Eye of the Needle (1978), a story about the tracing of a German agent in the wartime England.

"The ethics of revenge? The same as the ethics of war, old boy! Unless you are a conscientious objector, you cannot condemn me." (from Rogue Male, 1939)

Geoffrey Household was born in Bristol, the son of Beatrice (Norton) Household and Horace W. Household, a lawyer, who became secretary of education for Gloucester. Household was educated at Clifton College, Bristol (1914-1919) and Magdalen College, Oxford, receiving his B.A. in English in 1922. Between the years 1922 and 1935, Household was engaged in commerce abroad, though he had dreamed of being a poet. In his autobiography, Against the Wind (1958), Household described himself at that age as "impulsive, extremely sensitive to feminine beauty and overfastidious." While in Bucharest he worked for four years as an assistant confidential secretary for Bank of Romania. In 1926 Household went to Spain, where he worked as a marketing manager for Elders and Fyffes, banana vendors for the United Fruit Company. During this period he learned to speak and write Spanish.

After moving to the United States in 1929, Household wrote for children's encyclopedias and composed children's radio plays for Columbia Broadcasting System. From 1933 to 1939 he was a traveling salesman for John Kidd, a manufacturer of printing ink, in Europe, the Middle East, and South America. During World War II Household served in the Intelligence Corps, and was later decorated for his service. He led a unit in Greece, and in Romania, he was to assist in blowing up the Ploesti oil fields if threatened by the German army – Household had received demolition training from the Royal Engineers. After the collapse of the operation, Household went to Cairo. Much of the war he spent in the Middle East, learning that in the world of counterintelligence, nothing is assumed to be as it seems. Moreover, his  experiences provided him extremely valuable material for his future novels, which often take the reader to different parts of the world.

Several of Household's of heroes have a bicultural background – as the Ecuadorian-English Claudio Howard-Wolferstan of Fellow Passenger (1955), the Argentinian-born English botanist of Dance of the Dwarfs (1968), and Adrian Gurney of Red Anger (1975), who is half Rumanian. Household started to write sporadically already in the 1920s. His first story, 'The Salvation of Pisco Gabar' was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936. As a novelist he debuted with The Terror of Villadonga, which came out in the same year. This adventure story for children described the discovery of a prehistoric sea-beast. The Prisoner of the Indies (1967), another children's book, told about the adventures of a young sailor on one of Sir John Hawkin's ships. 

Rogue Male appeared first in serialized form in the Atlantic Monthly, between July and September 1939, on the eve of WWII. The novel, which marked Household's breakthrough as a thriller writer, was then issued in a special edition for distribution to the British Armed forces.

The anonymous protagonist is a big game hunter, who is caught stalking the sinister dictator of nameless state and perhaps trying to alter the course of world history. Household do not not specifically mention German, Hitler and the Nazis, but he doesn't on the other hand leave much other alternatives. "Like most Englishmen, I am not accustomed to inquire very deeply into motives... I remember asking myself when I packed the telescopic sight what the devil I wanted it for; but I just felt that it might come in handy." The narrator-hero is tortured and thrown from a cliff, apparently to his death, but he survives miraculously and escapes to England. However, his pursues do not give up the chase. After showdown on the moors of Dorset the hero writes in his confessional diary, that one must hunt animals in their natural surroundings - and the natural surroundings of human beings is the city. "I shall not miss," he promises. Rogue Male deals with a basic moral problem: if the death of one person could save a number of lives, does it justify the killing of the person in question?

Fritz Lang's movie version of the book, entitled Man Hunt, was released in 1941, some months before America's entry into the war in Europe. However, Lang did not water down its antifascist message, although Hollywood's Production Code Administration ordered the removal of some of its brutal scenes. At the end the hero (Walter Pidgeon) joins the RAF and makes an unauthorized parachute jump to Germany to finish his mission.

Household himself had a keen interest in shooting. The hide and seek formula was used in several of his works, among them Dance of the Dwarfs, set in the South American jungle, which also provided the milieu for the search of Utopia in The Third Hour (1937). Twelve of his novels dealt with international intrigue and espionage. In Rogue Justice (1982) Household returned to the paranoid, doomsday atmosphere of Rogue Male. The hero in Watcher in the Shadows (1960), Charles Dennim, abandons his civilized life and retreats to rural England to trap a relentless ex-Resistance fighter, who wants to revenge the death of his wife at the hand of Hitler's minions. The roles of hunter and hunter are repeatedly exchanged. In The Dance of the Dwarfs men are hunted by feral prehistoric survivals.

Besides writing thrillers and children's books Household also published several collections of short stories, which he himself considered his best work, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and fantasy stories. The Cats to Come (1975) told about a future world run by felines, The Sending (1980) involved witchcraft and murky mysticism. Hostage London: The Diary of Julian Despard (1977) was a near-future thriller and Summon the Bright Water (1981) was set in a post-Holocaust UK, where the narrator, an economic historian named Piers Cole, tries to unravel in a commune of farmers the mystery of a gold cauldron. ". . . a turgid farrago," the New York Times said of the book. (January 10, 1982)

In one of his short pieces, 'Tell These Men to Go Away,' set in Hungary, an old English lady, Miss Titterton, keeps her principles of truth, courage and good manners in the middle of the war. With all the stiff dignity of a governess, who has taught two generations of spoilt children, she defies the German Army and refuses to give her furniture to SS. Finally she is thrown into jail, receiving no special privileges beyond permission to decorate her cell with curtains and chintz covers and to invite selected prisoners to coffee. "Miss Titterton felt that it was very forgiving of the Family to rescue her and fly her back to London immediately after the war. When they explained to her that prison had been the only way of preserving her from a quite certain concentration camp and the very possible attentions of the Gestapo, she tried hard to believe them. But in her experience, she said, justice was always done. She was afraid it stood reason that she had deserved her sentence – perhaps for not taking enough care with the unruly member, my dear. It was very kind of them all to accept her disgrace so l ight-heartedly." (from The Europe That Was, 1979)

Household was married twice, first to Elisaveta Kopelanoff, a Romaian-born American, who encouraged his early writing attempts. His second wife was the former Ilona Zsoldos-Gutmàn; they had one son and two daughters. Household met her during the period, when he was posted in Jerusalem as a field security officer. Household noted in Against the Wind  that everybody rated the Arabs as better soldiers than the Jews. He recalled the time the most consistently and consciously happy year in his life, but he hated Baghdad, his next stop, where he went early in 1943. He did not have the comforts and conveniences that he had taken for granted in Jerusalem.  "For my evening relaxation I was reduced to a couple of shots of palm toddy in the privacy, when there was any, of my literally stinking bedroom. There were two beds in it, and the other was reserved for visiting officers. I never knew to what pillowed head I should be compelled to be polite, nor whether it would prefer to snore, to converse or to vomit." An exeption among the visitors was Alec Waugh, "always on enviably good terms with his surroundings." 

After the war Household spent his time writing and as a country gentleman, first in Dorset, where the hero of Rogue Male had hidden from his pursuers, and later near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where much of the action of Watcher in the Shadows took place. An individualist with a natural dislike for bureaucracy, Household felt a foreigner in the British welfare state ‒ "I loathe the state control which is inseparable from socialism," he said. When the critic and reviewer Paul Kincaid went to interview Household in Oxfordshire, he was given tea and biscuits, but the author himself answered simply "yes" or "no" to his questions, not revealing details of his personal life. Household died on October 4, 1988, in Banbury, Oxfordshire. His last novel, Face to the Sun, appeared in the year of his death. 

For further reading: Encyclopedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, edited by Karen Karbiener et al. (2009); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); St James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980 by LeRoy Panek (1981); 'The Lives and Times of Geoffey Household' by Michael Barber, in Books and Bookmen (Jan. 1974)

Selected works:

  • The Terror of Villadonga, 1936 (rev. ed. The Spanish Cave, 1940)
    - Espanjan luola (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1968)
  • The Third Hour, 1937
  • The Salvation of Pisco Gabar and Other Stories, 1938
  • Rogue Male, 1939 (Man Hunt)
    - Ihmismetsästys (suom. Yrjö Kivimies, 1958)
    - Films: Man Hunt (1941), prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, written by Dudley Nichols, dir. by Fritz Lang, starring Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders. "The film opens with a close tracking shot that moves along a forest, revealing a man aiming his rifle at Hitler. He pulls the trigger, and we hear only the sound of a clock. He smiles, starts to leave, pauses, places a bullet in the chamber, re-sights, brushes away a leaf that has jus fallen, and is arrested by Nazi guards. As did the opening of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, this sequence starts the movie off in media res, and thus maintains suspense by keeping the viewer unsure exactly what is happening." (Paul M. Jensen in The Cinema of Fritz Lang, 1969); TV film Rogue Male (1976), produced by BBC in collaboration with 20th Century-Fox, directed by Clive Donner, starring Peter O'Toole, John Standing and Alastair Sim.
  • Arabesque, 1948
  • The High Place, 1950
  • A Rough Shoot, 1951
    - Film: Shoot First / A Rough Shoot (1952), prod. Raymond Stross Productions, dir. by Robert Parrish, starring Joel McCrea, Evelyn Keyes, Herbert Lam. In the story an US Army officer accidentally shoots a poacher, panics, and hides the body. Eric Ambler wrote the screenplay.
  • A Time to Kill, 1951
  • Tales of Adventurers, 1952
  • Fellow Passenger, 1955 (U.S. title: Hang the Moon High, 1957)
  • The Exploits of Xenophon, 1955 (UK title: Xenophon's Adventure, 1961)
    - Kymmenen tuhannen paluu (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1969)
  • Against the Wind, 1958
  • The Brides of Solomon and Other Stories, 1958
  • Watcher in the Shadows, 1960
    - Varjoissa vaanija (suom. Mario Talaskivi, 1976)
    - Film: Deadly Harvest (1972), dir. by Michael O'Herlihy, prod. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), screenplay Daniel B. Ullman, starring Richard Boone, Patty Duke, Michael Constantine.
  • Thing to Love, 1963
  • Olura, 1965
  • The Courtesy of Death, 1967
  • The Prisoner of the Indies, 1967
  • Dance of the Dwarfs, 1968
    - Film: Dance of the Dwarfs (1983), prod. Dove, Panache Inc., screenplay Larry K. Johnson, G.W. King, Michael Viner, dir. by Gus Trikonis, starring Peter Fonda, Deborah Raffin, John Amos.
  • Doom's Caravan , 1971
  • The Three Sentinels, 1972
  • The Lives and Times of Bernardo Brown, 1973
  • Red Anger, 1975
  • The Cats to Come, 1975
  • Escape into Daylight, 1976
  • Hostage London: The Diary of Julian Despard, 1977
  • The Last Two Weeks of Georges Rivac, 1978
  • The Europe That Was, 1979
  • The Sending, 1980
  • Capricorn and Cancer, 1981
  • Summon the Bright Water, 1981
  • Rogue Justice, 1982
  • Arrows of Desire, 1985
  • The Days of Your Fathers, 1987
  • Face to the Sun, 1988

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