Never Come Back was prophetically titled, since it proved to be John Mair’s one and only novel. My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books was first published in 1941, when the author was just 28. It met with acclaim, and George Orwell, no less, wrote in a review that it might be a new type of thriller, ‘in which political events subsequent to 1920 are considered mentionable’.
Most of the book was written after the outbreak of war, as Mair awaited call-up. He joined the RAF, and was killed in a training accident off the Yorkshire coast in 1942, when two planes collided. The book appeared as a Penguin paperback, but even though Julian Symons, who admired it greatly, included it in his list of the ‘hundred best’ crime novels in 1958, it remained out of print until 1986, when Oxford University Press reissued it as a ‘20th century classic’. Symons contributed a typically intelligent and unsentimental introduction.
The central character of the book, and the reason it remains memorable, is Desmond Thane, whom Symons describes as ‘the first anti-hero in crime fiction’. Thane is in Symons’ opinion, to an extent, a self-portrait of Mair. He is conceited and sometimes cowardly, and his lack of scruple is sometimes startling, but this ‘cool-hearted epicurean’ is a thoroughly believable individual, and we can’t help hoping that he will survive when he finds himself pursued by a shadowy organisation bent on turning wartime uncertainty to its own advantage.
Symons describes this as ‘a young man’s book…At times it is serious and at others frivolous. It is ingenious, exciting, in places implausible, but borne along always on a wave of high spirits’. As usual, he sums it up perfectly. I need only add that it seems to me that the last sentence captures the flavour of Mair’s writing: ‘For what, after all, were two small murders in the midst of so much slaughter?’
Friday 15 January 2010
Forgotten Book - Never Come Back