Category Archives: Balchin Nigel

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin

“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.”

“Always kids?”

“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.

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A Way Through the Wood (Separate Lies) by Nigel Balchin

“For there is nothing awe-inspiring about a personal mess. It is a thing for the sensible man to forget, rather than to try to remember.”

I was very impressed with Mine Own Executioner , a tale of a psychologist and his patient set in London, post  WWII from British novelist Nigel Balchin, so I turned to A Way Through the Wood–also known as Separate Lies. A Way Through the Wood is a psychologically complex, Graham Greenesque tale that explores the moral tug-of-war that takes place between three characters.  There’s a film version of Separate Lies, featuring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett, and while it’s an excellent film, it’s quite different from the book. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Woods are a fascinating study in contrasts; the former book with its almost claustrophobic intensity begins as the marital and professional trials and tribulations of a London therapist but ends up as a thriller. While A Way Through the Woods may ostensibly be about a crime, the novel ultimately focuses on the moral fallout of a man’s death. The plot goes global as its characters trot around the world in a vain attempt to solve their problems: Venice, Spain, Paris–all these glamorous exciting places, but they serve as mere background noise to the central character’s internal drama as he wrestles with a difficult moral dilemma which challenges his conflicting obligations to class, duty, love and justice.

A Way Through the Wood is narrated by 39-year-old James Manning, who would appear to be, when the novel begins, a very lucky man and the envy of his peers. He’s survived WWII intact, and he’s been married for eleven years to his beautiful wife, Jill. While James has a stellar, lucrative career in London, he lives in the country, and commutes from his large manor house, Crossways. James is one of those true-blue characters–dependable, strait-laced, conservative and someone who prides himself on his position of magistrate within the community. James would appear to have the perfect life, but there are a few distant rumblings of trouble and these faint signs are manifested in the very public roles Manning and his wife, Jill, a shallow, superficial woman, assume with the locals during the village Easter Fete. Manning excels at playing lord-of-the-manor, but Jill is neither interested in nor capable of playing Lady Bountiful to the locals. Manning’s role with Jill is fatherly and corrective rather than passionate, but as is so typical with relationships, it takes both people to play their roles and so while Manning is the disapproving father, Jill is the naughty child to be scolded, but also spoiled & indulged. This sort of arrangement has apparently worked for some years, and according to Manning, Jill simply “has never picked up the knack of living in the country. ” This is a polite way of explaining her crass behaviour with some of the locals.  This seemingly small crack in the Manning’s marriage rapidly expands into an unbreachable fissure when a local man, Joe, the husband of the Manning’s cleaner Elsie, is found in ditch following a hit-and-run accident.

At first, Manning, true to form, is determined to discover the identity of the driver who left Joe dying in a ditch. He reasons that it can’t be too difficult to track down the owner of a large car that careened down that isolated country road. Manning suspects that the driver is Bill Bule, and Manning’s quest for justice is at least partially motivated by the fact that he loathes Bule–an irresponsible playboy who is the antithesis of Manning.

Balchin involves the reader initially by presenting the crime and then we are committed to its solution, sharing Manning’s outrage at the callousness of the hit-and-run accident. As Manning makes subsequent choices, it’s inevitable that  most readers will come to a parting of the ways with the decisions he makes. However, Manning ultimately remains true to himself, and that is the issue at the heart of this marvellous novel. Here’s a quote which captures the tepidness of the Mannings’ marriage. This is Manning on a trip to Paris with his wife who “has always been a confirmed buyer-of-tickets-to-somewhere-else”:

We went to Paris. it wasn’t very imaginative of us, but we went there because it was a place where we had always been happy and very much together. There must be a lot of people who still go to Paris, just as they used to go to Vienna, not because of what it is, but because of what it was when they were younger. Indeed, I can imagine that if you take your happiness with you, Paris would still be a very nice place to sit and enjoy it, just as any field is a delightful place for lunch–as long as you have remembered to bring the lunch. But it is no good just going to a field and expecting it to provide the lunch for you; and it is no good going to Paris nowadays, if it ever was, and expecting to be able to order happiness at a cafe. You can still nearly do it in some other parts of France. But you can’t do it in Paris.

A Way Through the Wood explores how our certainty regarding moral positions is a mere chimera until that position is tested, and when competing moral obligations clash, Manning enters a private hell as he shoulders toxic knowledge about the crime. Through the three characters: Jill, Bule and Manning, Balchin shows how some people sail through life untouched by their actions while others in their sphere pay a heavy price–it’s contamination by association. But A Way Through the Wood, an extremely clever, multilayered novel also shows that Manning’s interest in Joe’s death is hardly self-interested as he intuitively suspects Bule and also intuitively sees Bule as a threat to his marriage. Also as the plot unfolds, it’s certainly arguable that Jill’s immaturity is at least partly the result of Manning’s insistence on acting as a father-figure. There’s simply no room in their relationship for Jill to be anything other than a child, so who do we hold responsible when she continues on with her feckless choices? As the story unfolds, Balchin strips away the layers of deceit in his character’s lives, and what’s underneath is not pleasant. It’s all done with infinite politeness and good manners, and perhaps it’s all the more chilling for the utter lack of passion.

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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/

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