The central figure of this novel is Felix Milne, a London psychoanalyst who chose to specialize in the field before he had completed his medical training and therefore does not possess a degree in medicine, a point that becomes increasingly relevant as the story unfolds. Milne has his own practice but also works at a clinic run by a philanthropist called Norris Pile and staffed by a collection of oddballs who give their time for free in order to treat members of the general public who cannot afford psychoanalytical treatment. Milne’s private patients are typified by wealthy middle-aged women who are bored with their husbands; at the clinic, in contrast, he has to deal with young working class bed-wetters or mousy typists with secret pasts.
When the book opens, Milne is on the cusp of splitting up with his wife, primarily because Patricia is clumsy and careless and Milne is frequently irritated by her imperfections. His psychoanalytic colleague, Garsten, sums up his friend’s predicament:
“From what you’ve told me, the facts are that you’re tired of Pat sexually and want somebody else; because of that you’re very critical of all her faults…”
The “somebody else” in question is the bewitching Barbara Edge, one of Patricia’s (married) friends. Milne’s unflagging attempts to begin an affair with Barbara are repeatedly scuppered by outbreaks of scruples afflicting the female party.
Adam Lucian, a young Spitfire pilot shot down over Burma during the Second World War, represents a tough therapeutic challenge for Milne. Having made two attempts to murder his wife, Molly, she persuades him to seek treatment. Lucian is initially taciturn and withdrawn and Milne forms the opinion that his patient is “markedly schizoid”. But when he administers the hypnotic drug sodium pentothal the psychoanalyst is able to unearth the pilot’s repressed memories of his brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese soldiers who captured him following his crash landing. Milne discovers that they subjected him to interrogation and then shattered his leg with a club in order to prevent him from escaping from the prison camp but that Lucian, by virtue of being a rapid healer (“there’s something rather queer about my bones, and they join up unusually quickly”), succeeded in slipping away from them at night.
Once he shamefacedly admits to Milne that he had divulged information to the Japanese under torture (“It was a bloody disgraceful business”), Lucian believes that his mental ‘boil’ has been lanced and that he is now cured. He therefore declines to submit to further analysis and walks out of the practice, to the obvious disappointment of Milne. The following day, Milne offers his resignation to Pile because the clinic has been offered a substantial grant if it kicks out medically unqualified ‘quacks’ such as himself.
Milne is once more in the process of trying to seduce Barbara when he is informed by Patricia that the police are anxious to speak to him. Lucian has put four bullets into Molly and then gone on the run. Milne speaks to Molly on her deathbed—who refuses to blame him for the tragedy that has befallen her—before returning home to find Lucian, armed with a Luger, talking to Patricia. Milne tries to wrest the gun from Lucian but fails and the schizophrenic escapes. The scene then shifts to a ledge atop a high building where Lucian has holed up. Milne ascends a fireman’s ladder in an attempt to talk his patient down but Lucian shoots himself and dies.
At the ensuing inquest, Milne is exonerated following an intervention from Garsten but the coroner, a highly abrasive person, is generally scathing about the benefits of psychoanalysis, as witnessed by his caustic account of Milne trying to talk Lucian down from his eyrie:
“All you know is that Mr. Milne went up to make him see reason and he promptly shot himself.”
The book then closes with Milne partially reconciled with Patricia but unsure whether he wishes to remain in the analytic profession.