I mentioned Nigel Balchin recently, in relation to the screenplay he wrote for 23 Paces to Baker Street, a film adaptation of a thriller by Philip Macdonald. But Balchin’s screenwriting was a relatively minor aspect of his work. He was, in his day, a novelist of real distinction who often worked in or on the edge of the crime genre.
It’s often struck me how many novelists start their writing careers with rather improbable titles. Colin Dexter is one example, and my little tome Understanding Computer Contracts possibly takes a bit of beating in terms of quirky subject matter. But the title of Balchin’s debut was a classic oddity – published in 1934 under the name of Mark Spade, it was called How to Run a Bassoon Factory. (I think it was a satire…)
Balchin worked as a scientist, and also as an industrial psychologist. When he tried his hand at advertising, he is supposed to have popularised the Kit Kat brand of chocolate biscuit. His versatility is reflected in his writing. Although his most famous book is the war-time thriller The Small Back Room, other novels such as Mine Own Executioner and Darkness Falls From the Air were in much the same league in terms of quality.
Balchin seems to have had a tangled private life, and a wife-swapping episode resulted in divorce. One of his daughters is the childcare expert Penelope Leach, while another married John Hopkins, the screenwriter responsible for, among other things, Thunderball. He’s a writer who has fascinated me since my teens, and I’ll say more about his work in the future.