Tag Archives: British noir

But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

but-a-short-time-to-live

Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane

“Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did. She was a rarity among those of her profession, in that she didn’t have the usual curtained cabinet, or use trumpets, tambourines, guitars or any of the trappings synonymous with spiritualism; at her séances there were no table-movings, or raps or materializations; she didn’t even have a spirit control. But she understood why many sensitives, even highly gifted ones, employed all the fancywork; the public wanted a show, and even a medium has to live. But Myra couldn’t stoop to it, though she was sure that these manifestations sometimes had supranormal causation. She wanted no hint of charlatanism connected to her work. It was sacred to her.”

 Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a middle-aged British psychic named Myra Savage who longs to be famous in her field. She holds séances three times a week in her modest home, and while these séances grant a “bare living” for Myra and her pliable husband, Bill, money is not the motivating force behind her desire for fame. Rather, she longs to become “established as a sensitive of the first order.” Although Myra holds séances, she doesn’t believe that she communicates with the dead. Instead she relies on her powers of telepathy–several instances of this are revealed over the course of the book, and she also believes in the existence of discarnate spirits. Once Myra becomes famous and respected in her field, she fully expects to be embraced by the other “sensitives” and perhaps cross “the bourne of nature.” Finally, she wishes to develop a relationship with an older para-normal, “one almost ready for the journey beyond the veil,” so that she may then later have an “entity” to contact “on the other side.” Whether or not readers share, or partially share Myra’s beliefs is really beside the point because that’s not the issue here. Instead the novel concerns a woman who’s prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants:  she’s about to commit a criminal act in order to achieve her goals.

When the story opens, Myra has concocted a plan that will make her famous, and for that plan, she pressures her asthmatic husband into becoming her accomplice. The plan is to kidnap a child of wealthy parents, issue a ransom note and for Myra to then make an appearance on the scene and announce the location of the child–through her psychic powers–to the worried parents, the press and to the police. According to Myra, this will catapult her to psychic success. And here’s the curious thing about Myra–while she refuses to “stoop” to cheap tricks in order to enhance her professional image, she’s perfectly ok, morally, with kidnapping a child and thus manufacturing an event that will supposedly reveal her psychic powers:

The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn’t disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.

Myra’s intensity (bordering on fanaticism) combined with her twisted morality have made her a dangerous person. There are no limits to her burning desire for psychic fame, and on her own perhaps Myra would spin endless fantasies that die a natural death, but she browbeats her husband into becoming her accomplice and then she’s unleashed….

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a fascinating, unique read. Myra ultimately settles on crime as the solution for her desire for fame–just as bank robbers are driven to make the one ‘big score.’ In this sense, Myra isn’t so different from all the other people who dwell on their fantasies and then decide to take action to make those fantasies into reality through a criminal act.

On another level, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a marriage, and as the story plays out, it’s clear that Bill and Myra, pathetic people individually, make a toxic combination. With a husband, who was less complacent, Myra would be de-fanged; Bill, who’s clearly afraid to refuse Myra’s demands, empowers her insane ambitions, and make no mistake, Myra is insane. As the chapters unfold, Myra’s history is gradually revealed along with the significant psychic events of her youth and her past employment as a conjurer’s assistant, a clairvoyant’s aid, and a mind-reader’s assistant. It’s the introduction of the six-year-old kidnapped child into Myra and Bill’s household that highlights the true pathological nature of their marriage and their twisted thinking, for to Myra, the child is merely a means to an end–an object who exists to fulfill her greatest ambition.

While Myra is supremely confident about her plan, Bill is increasingly nervous and troubled, and here’s his twisted moral justification for the kidnapping diluted down from Myra’s arguments:

He hadn’t been able to concentrate, on anything, since the conception of the Plan. There was always a little worry nagging at the back of his mind. It wasn’t the implementation itself; he’d done the first of the two major jobs scheduled, and was so pleased with the way he’d succeeded that the fear of doing the second had been reduced; the rest was up to his wife. It wasn’t the rights and the wrongs of the scheme now;  although he had never in his life knowingly done a wrong thing, he condoned the illegal act because Myra said it was a means to an end that would benefit mankind, and he believed what Myra said; she also said it was only technically illegal, since they had no intentions of keeping the money and the child would be returned safely; she conceded that it was in a way morally wrong to abduct a child, but it was only for three or four days, and there was no question of ill-treatment; it was almost like a little holiday. 

For film fans, Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made into an incredible film directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Mysterious Press, via Open Road Media. Read on the kindle.

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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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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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