Brighton Rock by Graham Greene begins with the news reporter Charles Hale drinking alone in Brighton on a tourist-choked holiday weekend. Hale, in Brighton as part of his newspaper’s “Kolley Kibber man” promotion, knows that Pinkie and his gang are after him for a story he wrote about Kite, the gang’s now deceased former leader. His only hope for survival lies in securing company for the day. At a bar, he runs into the curvy and flirtatious Ida Arnold. The two share a cab ride and a kiss, after which Ida insists on ducking into a ladies’ restroom for a wash. Hale begs her to stay with him, but Ida, confusing his desperation for ardor, promises to be right back. When she returns, Hale is gone.
Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old tough-guy Pinkie Brown is killing time, waiting for the members of his gang to show up and tell him that their job is done. Eventually, Spicer, Cubitt, and Dallow all join Pinkie in a café on the pier, informing him that Hale is dead and the remaining Kolley Kibber cards have been placed around town in such a way to throw the authorities off their trail. Pinkie worries that Spicer might have been seen when placing a card under a restaurant tablecloth, thereby leaving them vulnerable to discovery. Pinkie decides to return to the restaurant himself. There he meets Rose, a plain and timid waitress who says she found the card. He decides to woo her in order to keep her from talking to the cops.
A few days pass, and Ida pays a visit to Henekey’s, her favorite pub. She soon learns that a Kolley Kibber man has been killed. She insists on reading the newspaper account herself and is horrified to learn that the victim is Hale, whom she knows by his pseudonym, Fred. Ida is likewise shocked by what she sees as an error-filled news report, and she finds his death not only sad and tragic, but suspicious. A firm believer in ghosts, Ida thinks Fred’s might be talking to her, asking her to investigate. She decides to go to his funeral, the impersonality of which strikes her as almost as tragic as the death itself. Back home, she gets out her Ouija board, and she and her neighbor, Old Crowe, ask it about the circumstances surrounding Hale’s passing. The board offers up a word jumble that Ida thinks is pointing to forced suicide. She vows to get to the bottom of what killed Hale that day, telling Old Crowe that she is confident her firm and unshakable knowledge of right and wrong will serve her well.
Pinkie begins his campaign to woo Rose by taking her to Sherry’s nightclub. Over drinks they discover they are both Catholics. The way they see and practice their faith could not be more dissimilar, however. Pinkie believes in a God that punishes and damns his subjects; Rose believes in a God that redeems. While they talk, Pinkie fingers a bottle of vitriol, or sulfuric acid, that he carries with him everywhere. The bottle is an odd, almost alive thing, and it whispers to Pinkie that, while he keeps the acid around for his enemies, it will, in the end, be the death of him.
Pinkie receives an invitation to visit Colleoni, the top mob boss in Brighton who is living in luxury at the Cosmopolitan hotel. The two men talk about the upcoming races and Kite’s killing, which Pinkie blames on Hale and on Kite himself. Pinkie then threatens Colleoni, but the older man is not intimidated, only amused. He suggests to Pinkie that he join his gang. Colleoni would love to have someone so young, skilled, and hungry working for him, but Pinkie is offended at the idea and storms off. In the hotel hallway, he meets a cop who asks him to come to the station and talk to the police inspector. Pinkie goes, afraid that perhaps Rose has squealed, but the inspector’s purpose for calling the meeting is to ask Pinkie not to commit any violence at the upcoming races at the horse park. The inspector is worried about a mob war between Pinkie’s gang and Colleoni’s. He warns Pinkie that Colleoni is too powerful to compete with, and Pinkie storms off again, angry that no one will give him the respect he deserves. He begins to think that a blood bath is in order. Kite and Hale’s deaths started something; Pinkie wouldn’t mind finishing it, even if it means more killing.
Ida is making headway in her investigation. She hears about Kite’s death at the hands of Colleoni’s men from a chatty barman and goes to Snow’s café to talk to Rose, whom she learned found a Kolley Kibber card on the day of Hale’s death. Ida begins to question Rose good-naturedly, and pieces together from Rose’s scattered answers that it wasn’t Hale who left the card in the café. In the company of Phil Corkery, a rather spineless, middle-aged man, she goes to the police station with her information, but they laugh off any suggestion of foul play.
Spicer, the oldest member of Pinkie’s gang, has grown restless and fearful since Hale’s murder. He was against the murder from the start. Now he worries that his dropping of the Kolley Kibber card in Snow’s has exposed him to unnecessary danger. At Frank’s boarding house, he answers the phone; it’s Rose, wanting to talk to Pinkie. The call further rattles Spicer, who goes for a walk on the pier, dreaming of retiring to Nottingham to open a pub. Spicer understands, though, that Pinkie will never let him escape, since Spicer knows too much.
Pinkie, too, is restless. Having been insulted by Colleoni and the cops, he is eager to prove his manhood. He goes in search of Rose, demanding that she come with him to the country. They take a bus to Peacehaven, a neighboring seaside town, where, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Rose tells him about Ida’s visit. Pinkie is alarmed, but Rose assures him she told Ida nothing.
Pinkie returns to Frank’s and finds Spicer there. He tells Spicer that it’s not safe for him and Rose to be in the same town. Pinkie worries that Rose will see Spicer again and recognize him as the man who left the Kolley Kibber card. Spicer says he could always take a holiday to Nottingham. Pinkie replies vaguely that Spicer will have to disappear. Then, after Spicer leaves to go to his own room, Pinkie phones Colleoni with a job for him. The job is to kill Spicer at next week’s races.
The hit, however, goes wrong. Colleoni’s men attack Pinkie as well as Spicer, forcing Pinkie to flee into the surrounding countryside to hide. When he gets back to Frank’s later that night, he discovers that Spicer is injured but alive and packing for Nottingham. Furious, Pinkie throws Spicer down the stairs, killing him. Dallow and Pinkie’s lawyer, Mr. Prewitt, are the only witnesses.
Ida continues to question Rose, but Rose stubbornly refuses to give her any information. What Ida does not understand is that Rose grew up desperately poor, and Pinkie’s criminality does not scare her. What frightens her is the prospect of having to return home to the dirty and dank apartment she shared with her parents. She’ll do anything to avoid that fate. Pinkie, found guiltless in a cursory police investigation into the murder of Spicer, visits Rose in the apartment she shares with two other Snow’s waitresses and proposes marriage. Rose gladly accepts.
Rose is thrilled at the idea of marrying Pinkie, but Pinkie, a virgin with a negative view of marriage, sex, and women, grows more and more brittle over what he sees as his shrinking prospects and over the fact that he has had to shoulder all the burden of the deaths of Kite, Hale, and Spicer. He picks a fight with Dallow and Cubitt over shared responsibilities within the gang, but only Cubitt takes the bait. In the course of the fight, Cubitt comes to understand that Pinkie murdered Spicer, and Cubitt quits the gang then and there.
Still smarting from the fight, Cubitt proceeds to get extremely drunk and, at the Cosmopolitan bar where he’d hoped to speak to Colleoni about a possible job, he runs instead into Ida Arnold, who starts peppering him with questions about Hale, Kite, Spicer, and Pinkie. Cubitt blurts out just enough information to convince Ida that her theories about Pinkie’s guilt are well-founded.
Pinkie and Rose’s wedding day arrives. They tie the knot in the spartan and depressing municipal office, and, afterwards, go out to drinks with Dallow and Mr. Prewitt. Then Pinkie and Rose wander around Brighton and Rose begs Pinkie to make a souvenir record of his voice for her—a way to mark the occasion. Rose assumes Pinkie will say something sweet on the recording; instead, he records a hateful rant about how she has trapped him. Pinkie doesn’t worry about the record, though; they don’t have a gramophone, so he assumes she’ll never hear his message.
The newlyweds go back to Pinkie’s room at Frank’s and make love. Pinkie discovers, much to his surprise, that the sex act is not nearly as repulsive as he assumed it would be; it is, indeed, almost pleasurable, and it fills him with a new sensation of power and dominance. He is also surprised to find that Rose has known all along that he and his men killed Hale, but she never mentioned it because she doesn’t care. All she cares about is Pinkie and their new life together.
That life wears on Pinkie, as does Ida’s tendency to pop up wherever he and Rose are, haunting and hounding them. He grows paranoid that Rose will tire of him and tell the authorities all she knows, and that Cubitt and Prewitt will likewise turn, dooming him to prison or even death. One day, after spending hours on the pier with Ida and Phil Corkery watching them, Pinkie snaps, dragging Rose back to Peacehaven in order to fulfill a suicide pact. In reality, Pinkie has no intention of going through with it. His plan is for Rose to kill herself first, thereby freeing him. The plan goes awry, however, when Ida shows up on the cliff with the police at the last moment, confronting Pinkie and Rose with all she knows about Hale, Kite, and Spicer. Cornered and desperate, Pinkie spills vitriol on himself and runs off a nearby cliff to his death.
With the crimes solved to her satisfaction, Ida returns to Henekey’s bar in triumph. She is happy with herself not only for bringing Pinkie to justice but for saving Rose from him. Rose, however, is anything but free. She is in deep mourning for Pinkie. The only comfort she takes is in the hope that she might be carrying his child. She goes to confession to talk to a priest about all that has happened to her, and, rather than damning her, the priest tells her that God’s mercy is infinite. She leaves the church, relieved and full of anticipation. She has found a store whose owner will let her use his gramophone. She can’t wait to listen to the record Pinkie made for her on the day of their wedding. She wants only to hear his voice telling her he loves her.