Tag Archives: psychological tales

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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Eleven by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those novelists I’d meant to read for some years–mostly I’ll admit for film-book connection, so when I picked up my first Highsmith, the logical choice was Strangers on a Train. That’s my all-time favourite Hitchcock film, btw, and I was delighted to discover that the book was even darker than the film. Then earlier this year, I read The Cry of the Owl. It’s the story of a wreck of a man who moves away from New York for a fresh start in a small Pennsylvania town. Lonely and depressed, he becomes obsessed with watching the domestic routine of a young woman, and when she catches him (and thinks he’s a peeping Tom), instead of screaming and calling for the coppers, she invites him in. The Cry of the Owl is an exploration of the horrors of small town life complete with gossip, judgment and condemnation, and for any one interested, like me, in film, Claude Chabrol made a film of The Cry of the Owl.  But now to Eleven, Highsmith’s first short story collection.

After reading Eleven, the main thing that struck me about Highsmith’s work is that she’s firmly rooted in horror. That conclusion surprised me as I considered the two Highsmith books I read primarily as psychological novels. I’m not talking about the slasher type of horror gore, but something that’s harder to peg–something a lot more sophisticated.  The short stories in Eleven give the reader a concentrated dose of Highsmith’s view of life, and Highsmith’s horror is the horror of everyday life, the suffocating routine and the sometimes-sick power dynamic in relationships, a touch of the supernatural and even in the case of two of the stories in this collection–the horror of snails. It takes a special mind to create  two stories in which snails appear as destructive terrifying creatures. These eleven stories cover a range of various subjects. The Barbarians explores bullying and the strain of living under the threat of violence while in  The Birds Poised to Fly, we meet Don, a man whose disappointment in love leads to a cruel deception.

For those interested, here’s a complete list of the contents:

The Snail-Watcher

The Birds Poised to Fly

The Terrapin

When the Fleet was in at Mobile

The Quest for Blank Claveringi

The Cries of Love

Mrs. Afton among thy Green Braes

The Heroine

Another Bridge to Cross

The Barbarians

The Empty Birdhouse

In this collection, some of Highsmith’s protagonists are deranged, others are strange, and still others endure various types of stress until they crack….

 The Terrapin yields a slice of life in a particularly sick household shared by a young boy, Victor and his mother, an over-bearing Hungarian-French woman. Victor’s parents are divorced and his absent father, who’s managed to escape the domestic yoke and now lives in Europe, is  a successful businessman who exports perfumes. Victor’s mother still receives money from her ex-husband, and the money is much-needed. She used to be a children’s book illustrator, but recently there’s little work:

a few illustrations now and then for magazines for children, how to make paper pumpkins and black paper cats for Hallowe’en and things like that, though she took her portfolio around to the publishers all the time.

Although Victor is 11 (same as the title of the book, so Highsmith is consistent here), he’s infantilized by his mother. He’s inappropriately dressed in shorts that are “too small” and tight, and this makes him the object of ridicule from boys his own age. His clothes are just one symptom of his unhealthy relationship with his mother. She constantly reinforces her view of Victor as a baby–at one point, for example, she makes Victor recite the days of the week. She seems oblivious of the constant degradation she subjects him to. This is a woman with problems:

His mother put her jewelled bands on her hips. “do you know, Veec-tor, you are a little bit strange in the head?” She nodded. “You are seeck. Psychologically seeck. And retarded, do you know that? You have the behaviour of a leetle boy five years old,” she said slowly and weightily. “It is just as well you spend your Saturdays indoors. Who knows if you would not walk in front of a car, eh? But that is why I love you, little Veector.” She put her arm around his shoulders, pulled him against her and for an instant Victor’s nose pressed into her large, soft bosom. She was wearing her flesh-colored dress, the one you could see through a little where her breast stretched it out.

The already-poisonous relationship between this troubled pair turns even nastier when Victor’s mother brings home a terrapin. He sees it as a pet, and to his mother, it’s dinner….

Of the entire collection, my favourite story is When the Fleet was in at Mobile. When the story begins, Geraldine chloroforms her husband, Clark who’s sleeping deeply after an all-night booze-up:

She ran in her silk-stockinged feet to the rag drawer below the kitchen cabinets, tore a big rag from a worn-out towel, and then a smaller one. She folded the big rag to a square lump and on second thought wet it at the sink, and after some trouble because her hands had started shaking, tied it to the front of her nose and mouth with the cloth belt of the dress she’d just ironed and laid out to wear. Then she got the claw hammer from the tool drawer in case she would need it, and went out on the back porch. She drew the straight chair close to the bed, sat down, and unstoppered the bottle and soaked the smaller rag. She held the rag over his chest for a few moments, then brought it slowly up toward his nose. Clark didn’t move. But it must be doing something to him, she thought, she could smell it herself, sweet and sick like funeral flowers, like death itself.

Leaving him for dead, she makes a break for freedom and ‘happier days’ spent in Mobile.

She still had that combination everyone said was unique of come-hither plus the bloom of youth, and how many girls had that? How many girls could be proposed to by a minister’s son, which was what had happened to her in Montgomery, and then had a life like she’d had in Mobile, the toast of the fleet? She laughed archly at herself in the mirror, though without making a sound–but who was there to hear her if she did laugh–and jogged her brown-blonde curls superfluously with her palms.

Geraldine, an unreliable narrator, is reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche Dubois for her insane, or is it highly sanitized, version of events regarding the men who’ve helped her in a comfort-0f-strangers-way?

These eleven stories, which offer concentrated doses of Highsmith’s familiar themes also illustrate Highsmith’s range. From the macabre to the mundane, Highsmith’s world reveals that danger, cruelty and injustice are just one step away–lurking in the shadows, and as Graham Greene points out in the excellent introduction, Highsmith’s vision is of a “world without moral endings.”

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