The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 21: June 2017
Firstly, apologies that this latest issue of the Newsletter is appearing towards the end of June when it should have appeared at the beginning. I’ve been busy with other projects for most of the month. To my knowledge, very little is happening in the world of Nigel Balchin at present. It is rumoured that a film of In the Absence of Mrs Petersen may be made at some point although that project has been spoken about for quite a while. I also hear occasional whispers about a film of Darkness Falls from the Air, which would be very welcome indeed. However, like all film projects, it is likely to take a long time to come to fruition. As I said in His Own Executioner, it is astonishing to me that Darkness Falls from the Air has never been adapted even for radio, let alone for film or television.
I have recently been in touch with my contact at Orion Books, who tells me that the three Balchin novels (Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Back Room and A Way Through the Wood) that his company reissued in 2015/2016 only sold a few hundred copies each. That surprised me at first but perhaps it shouldn’t have, given Balchin’s continuing ‘under-the-radar’ status. Orion have no plans to reissue any other Balchin novels in the foreseeable future. In the light of that news, I took matters into my own hands last month and applied to Balchin’s agents for permission to republish Mine Own Executioner, with other examples of the out-of-print novels to follow in due course if the first reissue goes ahead and is a success. I will update you all on this subject next time. Eventually, I do still hope to reissue No Sky, Simple Life and Lightbody on Liberty as well, as oft-mooted in this publication, although the better-known novels are my current priority.
Finally, enjoy what remains of the summer and I shall return with a final issue of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter in December.
With best wishes,
I have just finished reading the novel illustrated above. After a slow beginning, it built towards a satisfyingly exciting and absorbing climax and I would recommend it as a good example of the wartime political thriller genre. It reminded me a lot of Eric Ambler, a writer I have eulogised in this publication on many previous occasions, but it also had distinct echoes of Balchin’s In the Absence of Mrs Petersen. Above Suspicion is not a great novel but it is certainly enjoyable and very readable. One has to make allowances for the fact that this was the first novel in Ms MacInnes’s lengthy career as a novelist. I shall certainly try to read a couple of later examples from the MacInnes canon and would not be at all surprised should they turn out to be a vast improvement on this early one.
I only became aware of Helen MacInnes a few weeks ago. She was acclaimed in her time (1940s onwards) and wrote more than twenty thrillers, several of which were filmed. She is therefore just another sobering example (see also Balchin and Ambler) of a writer who enjoyed considerable success whilst alive but whose reputation went to the grave along with her body.
If You Like Nigel Balchin Then You May Also Like These Writers
I am always amused when I buy something on Amazon and a notification then pops up to say “If you liked that, then you may like this”. Usually, the recommendations are so wide of the mark as to be utterly risible. So in this article I thought I would have a go at identifying some writers whose work reminds me of Balchin’s. This is not intended to be an exhaustive survey by any means. I am sure that there are some writers who I have forgotten to mention and others who wrote in a somewhat similar vein to Balchin but who I am unaware of. And then there are novelists such as Hammond Innes whose work I have never read but my understanding is that it may well be redolent of Balchin’s. Please do get in touch with me if I have missed out any writers who remind you of Balchin or if you feel the need to put me straight on anything that I have said below: this is a brief, very personal and highly subjective overview of the subject.
Balchin’s first three novels, which are among the least characteristic examples of his work, remind me of a number of writers, including Henry Green (see later), George Orwell, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. In his mature period (say from 1942 to 1955), Balchin’s work is probably closest to that of Nevil Shute but never very close to be honest. As I have said before (see Newsletter 16), there are a lot of similarities between Balchin and Shute but some crucial differences too.
During World War Two, Balchin’s prose was sometimes likened to that which emerged from the American ‘hard-boiled’ school, as exemplified by the likes of John O’Hara, whose work I have yet to read. I have read all of Raymond Chandler’s novels though and, on a recent re-read, it struck me that they did have something in common with Balchin’s in terms of the extensive use of dialogue and the economy of both men’s writing styles.
Eric Ambler (see Newsletter 16) wrote exclusively political thrillers so there is little overlap with Balchin in terms of genre. However, one does occasionally detect something of the flavour of Balchin novels such as A Sort of Traitors and In the Absence of Mrs Petersen when reading Ambler’s work.
As a writer, the career of Victor Canning had marked similarities with that of Balchin. From the late 1960s onwards, Canning wrote a series of tense thrillers describing the workings of an MI5-like organization. The two that I have read to date—Firecrest (1971) and The Rainbird Pattern (1972)—sometimes recall some of Balchin’s darker novels, such as A Sort of Traitors and Sundry Creditors. They are also excellent novels in their own right and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone in search of good, intelligent reading in the Balchin vein.
A bit Balchinesque: Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern.
Set in a factory, Living (1930) by Henry Green reminds me strongly of two Balchin novels, No Sky and Sundry Creditors, and particularly the latter. Although the weight of critical opinion considers Living to be the greatest factory novel ever written, I find Sundry Creditors a lot more accessible. But Living is certainly a very considerable achievement and is similar to Sundry Creditors not just because of its ‘men at work’ theme but also because it contains a broad cross-section of characters from board-room level down through foremen and shop stewards to the lowly factory-floor workers.
The poet Roy Fuller wrote novels sporadically throughout his career. Most of them are nothing like the work of Balchin, but Image of a Society (1956) emphatically is. Set in the offices of a building society, the author’s compassion, dry sense of humour and psychological examination of his characters all strongly evoke the work of Balchin. A splendid book, Image of a Society has the distinction of being the most Balchinesque novel I have ever read (excluding the work of Balchin himself of course!) and is heavily reminiscent of Sundry Creditors in particular.
C.P. Snow is frequently compared with Balchin by virtue of being a trained scientist who also wrote novels. Snow’s magnum opus Strangers and Brothers comprises the life story of Lewis Eliot narrated over the course of eleven novels. As Eliot is a temporary civil servant during the war and later serves on governmental scientific committees, it can quickly be appreciated that we are very much in Balchin territory here. Personally, I have never cared much for Snow’s writing, finding Balchin’s much more alive and interesting to read. But the intersection of the private and personal dimensions of the lives of professional men is very much Snow’s theme, as indeed was the case with Balchin.
David Footman is a novelist who has been so comprehensively forgotten by posterity that he doesn’t even merit an English-language Wikipedia page (curiously, there is one for him written in German). I cannot therefore comment personally on his similarity to Balchin although I think it is worth noting that, when he reviewed The Small Back Room early in 1944, the critic Philip Toynbee observed that the style in which it was written was “literally indistinguishable” from that of Footman’s novel Pemberton (1943), released just a few weeks before Balchin’s finest novel. In 1954, Balchin wrote a preface for a reissued edition of Footman’s early novel Pig and Pepper (1936). In this, he lauded Footman for his readability, described him as a very serious artist and remarked that “the young man has eyes and ears, and sensitive ends to his fingers. These are notable gifts”. It is largely because Balchin admired Footman’s work so much that makes me want to sample it. I have just purchased a copy of Pemberton on AbeBooks (www.abebooks.co.uk), a site I recommend for finding some of the obscure titles mentioned in this article. If it meets my expectations, I will review Pemberton in the next (and final) edition of this newsletter.
As mentioned on page 2, I have just discovered Helen MacInnes. Her novel Above Suspicion (1941) deals with the politically motivated European adventures of a married couple and as such had echoes for me of In the Absence of Mrs Petersen (although I admit that the couple in that book are only pretending to be married, and are not legally joined in matrimony) and, to a lesser extent, A Way Through the Wood.
Finally, in the course of the very lengthy research process that I underwent in order to write His Own Executioner, I frequently read that, as a writer, Balchin was like Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. The Hemingway comparison seems to have arisen because, in his 1940s novels, Balchin adopted a terse, economic style consisting of short, punchy sentences. But as Clive James once said “Balchin nowhere sounded very much like Hemingway” and I heartily agree with that opinion. I’m not sure where the Greene comparison originated. I suppose that one could draw some parallels between The End of the Affair (1951) and A Way Through the Wood, which coincidentally appeared in the same year, given that they are both post-break-up novels, but I am struggling to think of any other links between the two writers.
For more information about some of the writers mentioned in this article, see the feature ‘Contemporaries’ on the Nigel Balchin Website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com).