Friday, 15 January 2010

Forgotten Book - Never Come Back

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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?’

10 comments:

Fiona said...

That quote at the end made me wince! I don't know the book, but what immediately comes to mind is that magnificent TV series Foyle's War, where crime and morality are equally important and the ethos behind every episode is: can one justify doing wrong for the greater good?

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for this review. How truly, truly sad that Mair came to such an early and tragic end. The war changed so much, including the crime fiction landscape...

Evan Lewis said...

I'd say there were plenty of anti-heroes in crime fiction prior to 1941. Symons must have led a sheltered reading life.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It seems like implausibility didn't matter so much then. People read enough books that they didn't critique such things as seriously.

Martin Edwards said...

Fiona, I've only seen a couple of episodes of Foyle's War, but that intersection of crime and ethics did interest me a lot.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Margot. Yes, Mair's is a very sad story, I think.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Evan. Not that sheltered, but I have to agree that occasionally his determination not to sit on the fence led him into judgments that don't stand up to scrutiny. But by and large, I think he was a brilliant critic.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Interesting quote, Martin. It does seem unusual, when you thing about it, that crime and war dead are treated so differently.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

John McCabe said...

Martin

I read this book shortly after missing the 3rd episode of the BBC dramatisation that starred Nathaniel Parker as Desmond Thane. I really enjoyed it, especially as I'd been desparate to know what happened in the end!

I eventually bought the DVD of the BBC mini-series but haven't been able to find the book at a reasonable price since.

Martin Edwards said...

Good to hear from you, John. The book was a paperback reprint some years ago, so I hope you can track down a copy before long.