The book begins with Henry Payne, the narrator, receiving news that an old friend of his has got into trouble with the police. Jason Pellew is being held in prison, awaiting trial:
‘There are half a dozen main charges – dud cheques, false pretences, stealing while bailee, stealing a car, and so on.’
After a brief dramatization of the court case up to, but not including, the passing of sentence, Balchin then delves back into Pellew’s past to find out why he turned out the way he did…
Payne first meets Pellew in the mid-1920s when they are both small boys and notices that Jason bears a distinct resemblance to a cherub (“…his mouth was very full and red and pouting, and he had a tangled mop of very fine, silky, light yellow hair.”). Jason’s father, a retired sapper General with eccentric tendencies, is an irascible martinet who treats his son as if he were a recalcitrant junior officer and Jason in consequence is terrified of him.
A few years later, Jason joins Payne at his public school and soon makes himself unpopular by committing multiple misdemeanours and then fabricating excuses as a way of trying to avoid punishment. A ‘house beating’ is eventually administered, although Payne declines to participate in it. Shortly afterwards, Jason is informed that his father has died in a lunatic asylum, whence he had been committed having gone mad and started taking potshots at the police. When he returns to school after a period of mourning, Jason is garlanded as a loveable eccentric and given considerably more leeway than before.
The two principal characters are then reunited at Cambridge. During his time at the university, Jason falls in love with a young Jewish girl with Communist sympathies called Leah, and the couple take Payne to the East End to disrupt a Blackshirts rally. When the Spanish Civil War breaks out, Jason goes to Spain to assist in the fight against Franco. Payne, who had studied medicine at Cambridge, is employed by a physiological research outfit during the Second World War and encounters Jason—who enlists in the army—on a number of occasions during the conflict. Jason disports himself with reckless gallantry at Dunkirk and wins the Military Cross for his part in a cloak-and-dagger operation in Italy. But he then starts to unravel mentally, and becomes still more psychologically unstable when he learns that Leah has been killed whilst employed on a clandestine mission for the navy. Following a breakdown he is invalided out of the Services, thanks largely to Payne and his contacts.
Jason’s fortunes take another turn for the worse after the war. He struggles to find work but then seems to resolve his financial predicament by marrying a rich socialite. However, she evidently sees him only as an amusing plaything for, having encouraged him to lead an extravagant lifestyle and live beyond his means, she then abruptly pulls the rug from under him, leaves him penniless and disappears.
Payne insists that Jason should see a psychiatrist friend of his, Parsons, whose diagnosis is an unpromising one:
‘He just spins yarns and tells lies, and if people believe them it gives him a feeling of power – of being clever and out-smarting people. It’s a typical child’s trick. But the danger is that with his immaturity and insecurity, if he ever comes up against something tough, as he did in the war, or he has recently over his marriage, he’ll crack up. Finding he can’t handle the world he’ll withdraw further and further from it into fantasies, until he doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t. And the end of that’s schizophrenia.’
We are then back to where we came in, with the judge condemning Jason to a year in prison. Afterwards, Parsons and Payne discuss the verdict:
‘It was pretty hopeless from the start.’
I said, ‘Yes. Right from the start.’