Set in London during the middle of World War Two, the central figure of the novel is Sammy Rice, a scientific back-room boy employed by ‘Professor Mair’s research group’, an autonomous outfit with strong connections to a government ministry. In an archetypal Balchinesque way, Rice is romantically involved with Susan, the research group’s secretary. As Rice is an amputee (he has an aluminium prosthetic foot) and is also burdened with a drink problem and a lack of self-confidence, he considers that his girlfriend has been dealt a pretty rotten hand in having to live with him. For her part, Susan thinks that many of her partner’s problems are of his own making: “You’ve made up your mind that you can’t do things, and so you don’t even try”.
The book opens with fascinatingly detailed accounts of both theresearch work being carried out by Rice—who is charged with examining and reporting on new developments in military technology—and the political machinations occurring at a more exalted level. Some of this material is extremely funny, as for example when the researchers discuss the merits and demerits of bright ideas sent in for their attention with the aim of revolutionizing modern warfare:
“Poisoned barbed wire,” he said. “You scratch yourself on it and die in agony two hours later. Any bidders?”
“What’s the poison?” I said, “Curare?”
“Oh, he doesn’t go into that,” said Joe. “He said he isn’t a scientist himself. He just has ideas.”
“If I had ideas like that I’d see a doctor,” I said.
The Small Back Room changes direction and moves into darker territory when Rice is asked to assist Captain Stuart, who is investigating a new type of Nazi weapon that has already claimed several lives. Mysterious black cylinders, believed to have been dropped from enemy planes, have blown up soldiers and civilians alike who have come into contact with them on the ground and Stuart is uncertain as to their mode of action. What is not in doubt is the lethality of Jerry’s new toy:
“Do you realise that every single one of these damned things he’s dropped so far has killed at least one person, and sometimes more? You compare that weight for weight and cost for cost with most bombs.”
After a personnel shake-up in his workplace, and having quarrelled several times with Susan, Rice receives a phonecall from Stuart. Two of the booby-trap bombs have been found, intact, lying on a sandy beach. Stuart proposes to tackle one of them, with Rice detailed to have a crack at the other, should it prove necessary. The army officer dies before he can solve the deadly puzzle of the bomb’s inner workings, and so Rice is forced to tangle with the second device.
The ending of the novel is left beautifully unresolved. Rice hopes that his ordeal will have one of two outcomes: either, in his own words, he will “blow himself to glory”, thus putting an end to both his work and personal problems, or else he will emerge triumphant and his new-found confidence will enable him to cope much more adeptly with his difficulties. In a classic confounding of expectation, and in accordance with what so often happens in real life, when one anticipates that either A or B will happen but the actual upshot more closely resembles J or K, neither eventuality befalls him and he is left in limbo, unsure whether his status should be that of hero or failure:
If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy.