“In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time. It would be alright for a bit, and then any one of about fifty things would start it off and it would give me hell.”
So begins Nigel Balchin’s novel, The Small Back Room, published in 1943. The filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, working as their production team, The Archers made an exquisite film version of the novel. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s well-worth catching. I discovered Balchin’s fiction, finally, in 2011, and The Small Back Room is my third Balchin novel. That should give you an idea as to how much I like this writer. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Wood aka Separate Lies both feature a troubled male protagonist who wrestles with various moral issues. The protagonist of The Small Back Room also struggles with a number of issues: pain, alcoholism, and office politics. The latter, while fundamentally petty, could ultimately cost lives.
It’s WWII and Sammy Rice is a weapons scientist who works in Professor Mair’s obscure research department under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. While the work of the department is vital to the war effort, the research is also bogged down by trivialities and petty office politics. There’s also no real organisation to the work, and one huge time-waster is the so-called “Keystone Komics.” This is the term given to “bright ideas” for weaponry and various military/defence equipment (“poisoned barbed wire,” a “retractable bayonet,” and migrating birds carrying “plant diseases” ). These ideas come in the form of letters sent in, mainly from the public, to Professor Mair. Some of these ideas have promise and others are ludicrous, but Mair seems unable to distinguish between the promising and the ridiculous. When the book begins, Sammy is quite sick of it all. He’s just attended a weapons trial with grumpy General Holland for the Reeves gun. As far as the army is concerned, the gun has problems, and as far as Sammy is concerned “the thing was pretty but darned complicated.” Sammy knows that the gun’s disappointing performance will cause more arguments at work as both Professor Mair and R.B. Waring favour the gun. Waring is a political game player who fancies himself as the number 2 man in the department. He’s a big, good-looking fellow– ”rather like a film star playing a successful business man.”
There’s one positive to Sammy’s life and that’s his secret relationship with Susan, a secretary in the research department. Sammy and Susan live together, and rather like Felix’s wife, Patricia in Mine Own Executioner, Susan deserves some sort of award for tolerance, patience and understanding. Both Felix and Sammy take advantage of the women in their lives, but in The Small Back Room at times Susan’s patience is stretched to breaking point. Sammy is rather emotionally dependent on Susan, and he tends to treat her badly when other areas of his life aren’t going well.
When Sammy returns to work, he discovers that Waring has bagged a large office, and this is a sign of things to come :
I glanced around the room. Waring had done himself very well. He had a whacking great partner’s desk about six feet square, with a leather top. There were three telephones on it, with a filter extension to Susan. One was a green Secret phone. He had a big swivel desk-chair and an arm-chair for visitors. The whole thing made our rabbit-hutch upstairs look pretty poverty-stricken.
That night, Sammy gets a call from Pinker, a civil servant who claims to be a “harmless Assistant Secretary” and yet at the same time appears to have an incredible amount of inside knowledge about the Ministry of Defence:
Pinker was in the pub looking as dapper as ever. He always looked as though he’d just had a hair-cut. I was never quite sure whether Pinker was one of my closest friends or just a bloke I knew, until we started to talk. Then it was all fixed for you in the first two minutes. He insisted on buying me a drink and said it was a long time since we’d met, so I thought this must be one of the times when we were blood brothers.
An exchange of information takes place which would initially seem to be the normal sort of complaining about one’s workmates, but there’s an undercurrent to the conversation that indicates that Pinker is a power-monger:
“Look,” I said. “Just what is your job? I’ve never really known.”
Pinker grinned. “I’m a harmless Assistant secretary in Gower’s outfit,” he said. “But don’t let it worry you. Dion O’Banion kept a flower shop in Chicago.” He looked at me and said suddenly, “why do you stick with your job?”
Considering Dion O’Banion was a gangster who operated a legit flower shop as a cover for his criminal activities, we can speculate about Pinker’s comment especially when he hints at a shake up within Sammy’s department.
A large portion of the novel concerns a new secret explosive that is responsible for the deaths of a number of civilians, namely children. Captain Stuart contacts Sammy and asks for his help:
Stuart lit a cigarette. “It’s the fourth this week,” he said abruptly. “Always the same sort of circumstances, and always after Jerry planes have been over.”
I said, “You mean they’re dropping booby traps?”
“Yes. It looks like it.”
“No. Three kids and one man.”
“No survivors, of course?”
“The people who’ve touched the things have been blown to glory. Frightful mess. This time we’ve got a survivor–the kid’s little brother. By some miracle he wasn’t touched. But as he’s only three he isn’t a lot of help.”
And so Sammy agrees to help Stuart with the defusion of the mystery explosive device when and if they find one intact. Stuart draws up notes for a disposal:
I read through the notes. He was quite right. They were a very careful and intelligent analysis of what we did know, but we knew darned little. The most interesting thing was his conclusion.
“As you said, there are three main possibilities over fusing
(a) Time fuse
(b) Magnetic (metal response)
(c) Trembler (movement response)
Photo-electric seems fundamentally improbable. One assumes that the thing will be designed so that there is the least possible chance of it being found unexploded and examined. This seems to put a time fuse out of court. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that the things explode only when they are approached or touched. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to see how a simple trembler fuse could be made to stand up to being dropped from a plane.”
It’s clear, of course, that before the novel has concluded Sammy is going to face one of those unexploded devices and wrestle all of his demons as he dismantles it…
At 192 pages this is a very tightly written story, an excellent character study of a man who suffers from a range of problems and who isn’t exactly what you’d term stable. He battles pain and alcoholism, wrestles with self-pity, and tries desperately to avoid conflict at work. Ultimately his greatest battle will be with an unexploded device. Obviously Sammy is the novel’s hero, but he’s a flawed hero–someone who’s just trying to do his job with the least conflict and for someone whose nerves are shot, he does remarkably well–especially when you consider that Sammy is tempted to crawl into a corner with a whiskey bottle and forget the rest of the world. It’s mainly thanks to Susan that he doesn’t do this. While this story of dark despair contains a number of damaged people–stuttering Cpl Taylor for example, there are others who appear to sail through life with no permanent scars, and these two sets of people rub shoulders and mingle with discordant results. Sammy struggles with self-doubt and self-loathing while people like Waring commit unconscionable acts and still sleep well at night. But in the final evaluation, Sammy like most people, is his own worst enemy. Here he is waiting for Susan to come back late from work:
I suddenly found myself hating Susan and telling myself it was her fault. She knew it would happen, and yet she hadn’t even taken the trouble to ring up about it. I thought, “She’ll come in with her worried expression on, and she’ll say, “Darling, I’m so sorry” in that way I hate, and fuss about, and it doesn’t mean a damned thing.” I remembered her dancing with Iles, and Dick kissing her. I knew she’d liked it. Why shouldn’t she? I thought, “She tries, but she’s just a bitch really, like any other woman. I’m a damned fool not to face up to it, and to make her.” I began to see what a fool I’d been to let myself get used to relying on her so much. There was something bloody humiliating in sitting there sweating and shaking because some damn woman was half an hour late. Anyhow, it was Susan who’d always made the fuss about it. If she couldn’t take more trouble about it, the quickest way seemed to be just to have a drink and be done with it.