Mine Own Executioner: Nigel Balchin (1945)

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/



Filed under Balchin Nigel, Fiction

20 responses to “Mine Own Executioner: Nigel Balchin (1945)

  1. Interesting. I’ve never heard of the author before but will explore it further.
    Of course the WWII element has a special appeal but alos what you write about the increase in interest in the first last 1/3 of the novel. Sounds like quite a twist.

  2. It took me completely by surprise.

  3. I’m a fan of Balchin. If you have The Small Back Room on your shelf, it might be time to take it down. The Fall of the Sparrow is also a good read and gives an interesting glimpse into how gay men were seen in the 1950s, among many other things.

    • I have The Small Back Room, The Way Through the Wood (Separate Lies) and Darkness Falls from the Air. I’ve seen the film versions of the first two, but I don’t own the Fall of the Sparrow. I’ll correct that. Thanks for the tip as if you say you like these, there’s a good chance I will also.

  4. Of course I’ve never heard of him. It sounds interesting and I’m glad you’ve discover a “new” writer and I’m intrigued by the last third.
    I see all the books available are used copies.

  5. leroyhunter

    Very interesting Guy. He’s a new name to me as well.
    I see the website you link to describes his as “an industrial psychologist”…a vaguely sinister title.

    I’m attracted by the apparent similarity to Highsmith as well.

    • Hello Leroy,
      I left you a message on Caroline’s blog the other day but I’m not sure you’ve seen it. Je tente ma chance ici.
      If you want to write reviews of the books you read for the German Lit Month, I can publish them as guest posts on my blog. Let me know if you’re tempted.

    • Emma & Leroy:
      The language is a bit stiffer than Highsmith, but there are certainly similarities. I read on the website that he was the driving force behind the Black Magic ads. (The man stealing into the bedroom and leaving the box of chocs).

  6. leroyhunter

    Hi Emma, sorry, I hadn’t seen that.
    Thanks for the offer, I’d love to try that.

  7. leroyhunter

    I saw that about the Black Magic. Apparently he also named the Kit Kat bar.
    How’s that for immortality?

  8. When you talked of how the first 2/3 were decent I expected you to say the final 1/3 went markedly downhill. Instead it’s a rare example of a book that suddenly improves. How very rare.

    Is it still in print? I’ll certainly check out the website link. I’d never heard of Baluchin before, an interesting find.

  9. Thanks for an interesting piece. As Balchin’s biographer (I’m about a third of the way through writing the book) and the author of the website you kindly namecheck (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk) perhaps I can be permitted to make a few comments?

    I would say that Mine Own Executioner is a book of three thirds. Although I enjoyed the first third the first few times I read it, I struggle with it when rereading the book nowadays. There’s too much “establishing” going on, too much chat, too much 1940s slang and the relationship between Felix and Patricia always makes me feel distinctly nauseous (modern-day sensibilities probably!).

    The second third is where the book really gets going for me, particularly when Adam Lucian enters the story. This is the part of the book where we learn what happened to Adam during the War (the description of his capture by, and subsequent escape from, the Japanese is one of the most gripping things Balchin ever wrote). Of course in the third (and final) part of the book Balchin enters thriller territory (something he was very good at) and this is why the book changes both style and pace at this point.

    Incidentally, it may be of interest to note that Balchin didn’t rate this novel at all. He felt it was written with too little first-hand knowledge of the subject (unlike most of his novels). When he finished the manuscript he was so disgusted with it that he tried to tear it up, failed, and threw the pages in the air in frustration! I think he felt that he’d come up with a good idea for a novel but muffed its execution.

    The film is impressive but very hard to get to see these days (at least in the UK). My copy is a VHS one imported from the USA via eBay. I believe that the film is still shown occasionally on American TV.

    Those who enjoy this novel should also try Darkness Falls From the Air, The Small Back Room and The Fall of the Sparrow, all of which I rate more highly than Mine Own Executioner. Others worth reading are Sundry Creditors, A Sort of Traitors, Seen Dimly Before Dawn and A Way Through the Wood. With the exception of the last named (which was renamed Separate Lies following movie adaptation) all of Balchin’s novels are out of print in the UK. Copies of all the above books should however be easy to find on the Internet (i.e. http://www.abebooks.co.uk) and in secondhand bookshops.

    By the way, I hope my website doesn’t claim that Balchin wrote the advertising copy for Black Magic! If it does, then that’s my mistake. He was a consultant on advertising strategy but didn’t write any copy (at least not to my knowledge). His two key roles on Black Magic were performing the initial market research for it and designing the distinctive black box.

  10. Thanks for the long and informative comment. I leapt to the conclusion that Balchin had something to do with the ads–all that cloak and dagger stuff.

    If you are interested in a DVD version and have an all region player, then http://www.moviesunlimited.com has this film on DVD. They are an excellent company and very easy to deal with.

    A bio on Balchin sounds like the sort of thing I’d be interested in reading.
    I found some of the language a bit old-fashioned but it was the 40s so I was willing to overlook it. In my film review (link elsewhere in the comments), I made some points about Felix struggling against the establishment in his efforts for professional recognition, and I also drew some parallels and contrasts between Felix and Lucian’s relationships with their wives.

    I intend to get back to Balchin very soon–Separate Lies is next.
    Thanks again.

  11. I don’t know of Balchin ever writing any copy for Black Magic (although it’s possible that he may have done so). He was a consultant on marketing campaigns and general advertising strategy from about 1938 until 1955 but the only copy that I know he wrote for sure was some for Horlicks in 1951.

    I enjoyed your piece elsewhere about the film of Mine Own Executioner. I will try to get a DVD copy as suggested because my old VHS one is pretty beaten up and difficult to watch.

  12. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  13. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong May 28 2012: Darkness Falls From the Air – Nigel Balchin « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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