"In most fields of creative endeavour in which I am interested—painting, music, cinema, etc.—I tend to be attracted primarily to those artists who have been forgotten by the mainstream and are consequently hiding in the shadows, to the extent that the majority of the population are blissfully unaware of their existence. So it is with literature too and the novelist Nigel Balchin can certainly be described as a writer who has gone missing since his death in 1970—very few people remember him nowadays.
I discovered Balchin’s work entirely by accident. In the early 1990s I had the good fortune to watch an enthralling three-part BBC Television drama. The novel from which this entertainment had been crafted was Never Come Back by John Mair. Is anyone still reading this superb 1941 political thriller these days? If not, then I can heartily recommend it. About a year after watching the TV series, I managed to find a copy of Never Come Back in my local bookshop. Nestling in the endpapers was a notice for another book that caught my eye—The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. The blurb sounded promising: ‘As an account of the war experience, the book is realistic and unsettling, and as a study of a personality under stress, it reveals perennial truths.’ I quickly tracked down a copy of Balchin’s 1943 masterpiece, read it, loved it and proceeded to read all of his other books. Things snowballed from there and my quest to discover all that I could about Balchin has recently culminated with the publication of His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin, the first biography to have been devoted to this fascinating individual.
Like his friend, the painter and sculptor Michael Ayrton (the two men remained friends even after Ayrton had run off with Balchin’s wife), Balchin was a polymath. He succeeded not just as a novelist but also as an essayist, non-fiction and short-story writer, BAFTA-winning screenwriter, broadcaster and industrial psychologist (his crowning achievement in this sphere was playing a pivotal role in the introduction of Black Magic chocolates in 1933). During World War Two he excelled in the army, working first in personnel selection and then in Whitehall as a ‘boffin’. So impressive was he whilst clothed in khaki that he was made a brigadier. Even in his leisure hours, Balchin found the time to be a skilled woodcarver, a talented musician, an authority on subjects including Oriental rugs and Norse sagas and a gifted sportsman adept enough to have played Minor Counties cricket for his native Wiltshire in his youth.
Aware of the nature of the website on which I am kindly guesting, I should point out that there are some links between Balchin and the crime genre. He was an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle, remarking on one occasion that “I don’t read detective stories […] except Sherlock Holmes”, and I believe that a scene in his excellent 1945 novel Mine Own Executioner may well be an homage to the Holmes story The Sign of Four. Balchin wrote a screenplay for the interesting fog-bound thriller Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street (1956), a film based on a novel by crime writer Philip MacDonald, and, thirteen years later, penned the script for a murder mystery of his own devising, Better Dead, which was the subject of a blog in this same corner of cyberspace last year. The custodian of this site has the advantage of me here because I have to confess that I have never seen Better Dead, my excuse being that I was still a grizzling toddler when it was broadcast during the Apollo-landing summer of 1969!
Balchin’s finest novels (Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Back Room, Mine Own Executioner, A Sort of Traitors, Sundry Creditors and The Fall of the Sparrow) deserve to earn him a place in the literary hall of fame. If my biography of Balchin succeeds in dragging him out of the shadows in which he has been lurking for the last fifty years and pushing him back towards the edge of the mainstream then I will be delighted. He is definitely worthy of renewed attention.
His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin by Derek Collett is published by SilverWood Books on 1 September."
Yes, it was seeing Better Dead that sparked my own youthful interest in Balchin. Wish I could trace the script..I echo what Derek has said about Mair's book, by the way.