Already he was somewhere else, muttering explanations in a German I couldn’t follow. Suddenly he smiled, as if they were all friends again wherever he was and had begun playing Mozart, and a minute later he was dead.
I stared from one to the other of these dead Germans, so far from anything they really understood, already stiffening and growing cold in this old stable somewhere in the English black-out. One of them, the soldier-spy, had been lost in some mad Teutonic dream of world empire and domination. The other, the mild peering chemist, had taken one turning after another and had come to the dead end. And had saved my life. For what?…. I had a look at the bench and found that R had been making a small wooden chest, a sort of toy strong-box, which could be used for keep-sakes. Just an innocent Saturday night hobby, which probably made him feel that he hadn’t yet lost all contact with some old, simple, sensible life. (200-201)
Our narrator, Humphrey Neyland, English, but brought up in Canada, wishes that he too had died in a car accident brought about by his own recklessness and which had resulted in the death of his wife and little son. The deaths of his friends – Jews killed by the Nazis – makes him turn to revenge as he hunts down the men responsible for the killings. This brings him to the notice of the Department in England which ropes him in for counter-espionage operations. When the novel opens, Neyland, is already tired of his life of false aliases, lies, deceit, and secrecy while sniffing out enemy agents. Further, the monotony of life in crowded trains, stiffling conversations, and black nights is wearing him down
And if you think I spent most of my evenings in these places in luxurious flats, double-crossing girls who looked like Marlene Dietrich and Heddy Lamarr, take it from me that you’re reading the wrong yarn. (2).
He is thus not in a happy frame of mind when he is asked to go to the Northern town of Gretley, an industrial backwater, from where information has been leaking out about the new Belton-Smith Aircraft factory busy manufacturing the new Super-Cyclones.
Neyland’s assignment begins on a false step as a lady travelling along with him (alongside a fat ‘oily foreigner’, two air-force-officers on leave, and an old man who might be the Director of some company) states that she had seen him earlier in England though he claimed that he had but recently arrived from Canada.
This bad beginning is further accentuated when he get down at Gretley and finds himself enveloped by darkness:
Now I hate the black-out anywhere. It’s been one of the mistekes of this war. There’s something timid, bewildered, Munich minded about it. If I’d my way, I’d take a chance right up to the moment the bombers were overhead rather than endure this daily misery of darkened streets and blind walls. There’s something degrading about it. We never should have allowed those black hearted outcasts to darken half the world. It’s a kind of tribute, an acknowledgement of their power. We can almost hear those madmen chuckling as they think of us groping in the gloom they wished upon us. We made a darkness to fit the darkness deep in their rotten hearts. I tell you, I hate the black-out. But this black-out in Gretley was the worse I’ve ever seen. That station might have been wrapped in indigo blankets. You could have been stepping from it into far outer space. (9)
His assignment in Gretley brings him in contact with a varied cast of characters- the frivolous, the over-worked, the under-paid, the haunted, and the secretive as he hunts for German agents and Fifth Columnists.
The book begins well but I found the narrator to be unsympathetic, overbearing, and a little too judgmental for my liking. Nor am I enamoured of anybody who keeps on referring to his son as ‘The boy’, as though the little one was a stranger.
The foolishness of the German agents also beggars belief.
On the positive side, the description of the war as it destroys lives of the civilian population is evocative, especially in today’s scenario as the world locks itself down and we are confined to our homes.
And here’s a very perceptive prediction of the post-second world war scenario:
Even supposing we can beat Hitler – an we have shown no signs of beating him yet – we can only do it by bleeding ourselves white, with the result that even in the event of a so-called victory, one half of the world will be completely dominated by America, and the other half by Soviet Russia. And that, to me, is a hopeless prospect. Therefore… I see no point in continuing this war, and, I consider we’d do better to come to reasonable terms with the Germans – not necessarily Hitler himself, but at least with the German General Staff. (53)
First Line: Before we start out for Gretley, here are the essential facts.
Publication Details: London: Heinemann, 1942.
First Published: 1942
Other books read of the same author: The Old Dark House
Have you read the book? How did you find it? Any book related to black-outs that you would like to recommend.
Entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.