The Plains of Cement (1934) is the third and final book of Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy - the other two are the first one, The Midnight Bell (1929), and the second one, The Siege of Pleasure (1932).
Each book focuses on one of three different characters. The Midnight Bell (1929) is Bob the Barman's book, The Siege of Pleasure (1932) is Jenny the Prostitute's book, and The Plains of Cement (1934) is all about Ella the barmaid.
As with the other two books, it works as a stand alone story, however the reading experience is even richer, for those that choose to read the trilogy in sequence.
When writing this book, Patrick Hamilton saw himself as a Marxist, and, in common with the previous books, part of the book deals with the limited options for someone with no capital. Ella, in addition to herself, has to support her Mother, and Step Father, from her meagre earnings at The Midnight Bell. She also acknowledges that she is a plain looking woman.
Unexpectedly, she is courted by one her customers, Mr Eccles, an older man. Mr Eccles is at pains to point out he has Something Put By, and for Ella's benefit He's Letting Her Know (Patrick Hamiltonagain employing his customary "Komic Kapitals" to emphasise key phrases, and/or cliches, homilies etc).
Mr Eccles is another of Patrick Hamilton’s monstrous males (which start with Mr Spicer in Craven House (1926), continue with Mr Eccles, and which reach its apogee with Mr Thwaites in The Slaves of Solitude (1947) (although perhaps Ralph Gorse tops them all in The West Pier (1952); and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953)).
I digress, Mr Thwaites at first appears absurd, but quickly becomes more sinister, using his creepy and evasive conversational style, along with this financial independence to trap and coerce poor old Ella. He is lecherous and exploitative. However, Ella is not the naive fool he assumes, and is able to see through him. Some of the book's most appalling scenes are a result of Ella's internal thoughts on Mr Eccles' absurd conversation, conduct and attitudes.
Anyone looking for a happy conclusion, in this the final part of the trilogy, should look elsewhere. The final story continues the tragic arc of the previous books, and perhaps more distressingly - and unlike Bob and Jenny - Ella is not the architect of her own situation, she's a victim of circumstance.
Ella is one of the most sympathetic characters ever created by Patrick Hamilton and this makes her tale even more affecting. This story confronts the loneliness and sorrow of existence and concludes that all we have is our humour and humanity to confront and counteract this cold truth.
Is it a masterpiece? On its own, perhaps not. The answer is a resounding "Yes" however, when considered alongside the rest of the Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy.