David Hughes’ 1964 novel, The Major, is a perfect example of the gems one can find by picking through the rubbish heap of literature. Out of print, like Hughes’ nine other novels (including his W. H. Smith Award-winning The Pork Butcher (1984)), it would likely escape notice by even the most diligent book scavenger, given the ho-hum covers provided its various U.K. and U.S. editions.
Like a real gem, The Major is made of incredibly dense material. Just slightly more than novella length, it features one of the most vile characters I’ve come across in years, and packs into its short pages a remarkable amount of violence and malevolence.
Major Kane is a Royal Army officer whose best days were spent crashing through the Italian and French countryside in a tank, and whose most noteworthy combat exploit involved shooting three escaping German officers. Enjoying a cushy assignment as a liaison officer in Hamburg, he’s brought back to his regiment near Salisbury Plain for reasons unknown. A truly blood-thirsty man, he’s given his first quarry when his renters, an elderly knight and his lady, refuse–with the utmost grace and delicacy–to vacate and give him back his house. This launches the Major into a campaign of harassment through a variety of malicious schemes. He eventually gets rid of them by sabotaging their heating system, which leads Sir Austen to contract pneumonia.
Major Kane’s motivation for taking back the house is purely territorial. There is not the least bit of love or tenderness in his heart for his pregnant wife or their teen-age daughter, and, in fact, there are subtle clues that Kane could be capable of incestuous rape if he let his guard down. The battle for the house, though, is just the prelude to his fight to evict the few families living in a hamlet on the edge of the Army’s exercise range. “If you can keep the Jerries happy,” his General tells him, “you can certainly bash some sense into this lot of wets.” As it turns out, the General knows full well just how Major Kane will approach the problem and is careful to have distanced himself when the sordid affair finally blows up in the press.
Hughes is a meticulous writer, and many of his sentences are honed to a razor-sharp edge. At the same time, however, he is able to introduce dozens of different perspectives on the story, so that Major Kane’s narrow and vicious outlook is offset by that of everyone from his patient but bewildered wife to a group of young thugs who decide to interfere with his plans. And in the end, Hughes manages to draw from this story not just the portrait of a mean-hearted man made all the nastier by his experiences in–and since–the war, but of an institution–the Army–willing to use its people in the most cynical and cold-blooded manner, and of a Britain learning to step away from two centuries rich with battles and military memories. Major Kane himself would likely be impressed by its power and efficiency.