Sundry Creditors (1953)
Synopsis: In Sundry Creditors we are presented with a Midlands engineering firm in transition. The firm’s Chairman, Gustavus Lang, a paternal, Quaker-style employer, keen on Works Councils and treating his staff like human beings, dies early on in the story and the reins are passed to his younger brother, Walter. A ruthless, hard-nosed businessman, Walter wastes no time in trying to seize control of the company by becoming the majority shareholder. Understandably, whilst he is busy transforming himself into a tyrant, he fails to notice that his young daughter is running around with one of his factory employees. As opposition starts to mount to Walter’s plans for domination, he has to fight to preserve both his daughter’s honour and his dreams of power and influence.
Context: This book would seem to have had a lengthy gestation period. Balchin wrote a “factory novel” in about 1937. Although it never saw the light of day, the desire to write a book about industry stayed with him, finally achieving realization in 1953 with Sundry Creditors. This book represents a second assault on the same territory as Balchin’s debut novel, No Sky, and the details of factory life would appear to derive largely from his employment with the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in the early 1930s. One or two of the characters in Sundry Creditors seem to have been based at least partly on senior figures at Rowntree’s, a company with which Balchin had a long-running association. See Chapter 17 of my book His Own Executioner for more details on this.
Verdict: This has long been one of my favourite Balchin novels. There are three main reasons for this: (i) the diverse cast of interesting characters; (ii) the fascinatingly detailed description of the day-to-day running of the factory; and (iii) the clipped, economical writing style (which harks back to Darkness Falls From the Air and The Small Back Room). The ending is a little weak, which prevents the book from being the classic it ought to have been.
Praise for Sundry Creditors:
“Anyone who has worked in a factory will read Sundry Creditors with delighted recognition” — New Statesman
“Immediately and lastingly readable” — Evening Standard
Availability: Second-hand copies are relatively plentiful.