“People in my job nearly always get sent the wrong half of a marriage.”
I read an article in which the name of author and screenwriter Nigel Balchin (1908-1970) is mentioned–along with the claim that he’s one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of 20th century British fiction. Well that’s certainly true in my case as I’ve a number of his books on my shelf–all unread. I’ve been interested in Balchin for some time, and I’m drawn to his books not so much for the neglected contributions to British literature idea, but because a few of his books have been made into films. And a couple of them are noir films, so I finally pulled one of those books off my shelf and read it.
I’d say for about the first 2/3 of Mine Own Executioner, I enjoyed what seemed to be a decent, but fairly average, novel. This is the tale of a London psychologist, a few of his patients, and his troubled relationship with his wife. At about the point of the last 1/3 of the book (just guessing here as I didn’t mark the actual turning point), the novel evolved into something else entirely. I was ambushed by the book’s turn, didn’t see it coming, and by the book’s conclusion, I was ready to believe that there’s something to this business that Balchin is a greatly neglected writer.
The protagonist of Mine Own Executioner is London psychologist Felix Milne, a man who splits his working time between treating wealthy patients who bore him to tears and poor patients who have a range of serious problems. When the book begins, it’s clear that while Felix is busy devoting himself to the problems of others, he has a number of unresolved problems of his own. In a typical ‘physician heal thyself’ manner, Felix is often unfairly short-tempered with his pleasant, far-too understanding wife, Patricia, even while he extends endless, patient sage counseling to those who seek his advice. Felix’s marriage is in trouble–nothing terribly dramatic, but there’s the sense that the spark has long gone, and what’s left is an old, tired machine that just barely manages to do its job. Felix and Patricia are at the point of acknowledging that their marriage may be over. The domestic situation isn’t helped by the fact that Felix is attracted to Patricia’s long-term friend, the very dangerous blonde Barbara. This attraction is painfully obvious to Patricia while Barbara’s patsy of a husband, Peter, remains oblivious to the warning signs. He’s so idiotically oblivious, in fact, that he corners Felix and asks him to take Barbara on as a patient in order to discuss her “sex complex.”
Whoa! Sex complex? Isn’t it a bit unethical for a psychologist to agree to accept a friend (he lusts after) as a patient? Well this took place on page 17, so I was expecting the novel to concentrate on Felix’s unhappy personal life and the dangerous relationship he has with man-eating Barbara. While the novel delves into Felix’s rather bad behaviour, for the most part the novel focuses partly on the inner politics behind the scenes at the Norris Pile Clinic where Felix works for a pittance treating charity cases. Another large section of the novel concerns one of Felix’s most disturbing cases, the very damaged Adam Lucien.
Lucien was shot down while flying a spitfire during WWII. He ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese, and after a long period of torture, interrogation, and imprisonment, Lucien managed to return home, but according to his wife, he’s different. He has a permanent leg injury, but the mental damage is far worse, and Mrs Lucien pleads for Felix’s help after Lucien tries to strangle her. Felix agrees to take on Adam Lucien, a tricky subject, as a patient, but he has serious reservations. Mainly Felix is concerned that he may be out of his depth….
I have a weakness for novels that include therapists, so Mine Own Executioner had a special appeal for me. Here’s Felix discussing the benefits of therapy to Barbara:
Barbara took her cup and lit another cigarette. “seriously, though, Felix, what do you do to people? I’ve always wanted to know.”
“Well, it’s like this,” said Milne slowly. “The theory of the thing, very roughly, is that in most of us there are two people. One is the natural person, that has various desires and instincts; and the other is the conventional person that believes in the law, and morality, and religion and so on. So there tends to be a scrap between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do.”
The irony of that little speech, of course, is that while Felix can see this in other people and help them resolve their problems, he cannot manage to help himself. He sees his relationship with Patricia as appealing to one side of his nature while Barbara appeals to the dark side, and he tries to explain away this attraction to his wife:
“There’s a bit of me,” he said slowly, “that’s never grown up. It stays at about mental age twelve. Most of the time I’m very grown up indeed. If I weren’t, I couldn’t do my job. But outside the job I come up against this thing. It takes all sorts of forms. You know most of them. I get fun–and not such very nice fun–out of teasing and bullying you. I sulk if a certain sort of thing happens that I don’t like. All sorts of things like that. You know them, don’t you?”
“Some of them, I think.”
“Yes. Well this business with Barbara is a part of that thing. The thing that attracts me about Bab is that it’s so obvious–a sort of deliberate childish wantonness. When she throws herself at your head, she does it like a naughty kid trying to get another kid to be naughty. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t mean that there’s anything charming about it at all–not to an adult. People always talk about a ‘naughty child’ as if it were something too, too sweet. A naughty child isn’t sweet at all. It’s usually rather ugly and a nuisance. But it’s often attractive to other children.”
Patricia said, “And of course Bab does it all very well. It’s always been her technique.”
“I don’t know. In my saner moments it always seems too crude for anything. But it exactly rings the bell for my twelve-year-old bit.”
He sat for a moment in silence.
“What I’m trying to show you is why it happens, and yet why I’m so sure it doesn’t matter fundamentally. It happens because Barbara exactly appeals to a messy twelve-year-old, which is what I am in some ways. And it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere it could possibly lead. It’s simply a childish game whose whole point is that it’s forbidden.”
That’s Felix’s rationalisation, presenting his attraction to Barbara, in a nutshell. While he tells his wife it’s innocent and childish, he calls Barbara a “bad little slut” to her face. Wonder how he’d handle a patient stuck in the same dilemma. While the novel begins with Felix dwelling on his own problems, he soon faces the greatest challenge of his career when he tries to treat Lucien.
Since this was published in 1945, there are some derogatory references to the Japanese. But aside from that, Mine Own Executioner really is a terrific novel, a wonderful example of WWII British noir. The film version cuts out some of the uglier (interesting) aspects of the book–I doubt that the 40s were quite ready for some of the aspects of this tale, but in spite of the fact that the film is bleached for public consumption, it’s well worth watching–especially if you’re drawn to noir or tales which involve aspects of psychology.
For more information on Nigel Balchin, check out the website http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/