Darkness Falls from the Air by Nigel Balchin

Darkness Falls from the Air by Nigel Balchin

& The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin

published 1942

The Rest Centre itself wasn’t a bad place. It was nearly new, and looked as though it had been meant for a chapel or some social do or other. There wasn’t a lot happening. There were only about a dozen people there besides the helpers and they were all sitting round having cups of tea. ‘Hallo, darling!’ said Marcia, getting up and coming to meet me. She was wearing a white overall with the sleeves rolled up. She looked good. ‘What-ho!’ I said, ‘Picture of vigorous social endeavour.’ ‘Oh, this is the slack bit,’ she said rather apologetically. ‘We’ve cleared most of last night’s and now we’re waiting for the next batch. The last two nights have been quieter anyhow…’

Picture by Mabel Hutchinson shows a Rest Centre in Bermondsey in 1941 and is from the Imperial War Museum.

As it happens, I was reading a new book about Mozart at the same time as Darkness Falls From the Air - Jane Glover’s very enjoyable Mozart in Italy - and came across a passage in which Glover quotes from a letter sent by the composer, but gives her reasons for thinking that it was actually written by his father Leopold. The handwriting gives it away, but so does the tone:

By turns petulant, bossy, self-pitying, rebellious, recriminatory, and always seeking to inhabit the higher ground of moral superiority…

Reading these two books simultaneously I was much struck by how VERY much this description fits the protagonist, Bill Sarratt, but also just about every other Balchin hero. It summed up what I find infuriating about them – that you are intended to take their word for it that they are so much better than everyone else, surrounded by idiots. Passive-aggressive nightmares, all of them. You meet people like that in real life – the first time someone tells you that their boss is a fool, and no-one knows what the hell is going on: well, it might be true. If they are forever telling that tale, in a series of different jobs…. Mmm, start to have doubts. (The result for the Mozarts was that they were sacked from their jobs in Salzburg, oh sorry, I mean they were given ‘permission to seek their fortunes elsewhere’. Leopold had to reverse ferret very quickly to get his post back. Feel this would have done Balchin’s Sarratt the world of good.)

A good Balchin hero is the most Mary Sue of them all – surely this was Balchin himself, forever being given a good laddish name for the book and a long-suffering attitude. He is world-weary and self-righteous.

Clive James wrote a most illuminating piece, Books: The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin | clivejames.com  which explains him away somewhat, gives some lines for the defence, and I liked his useful description of the books as featuring ‘conflict on top of puzzle on top of background.’ (and shocking for me to realize that James was writing much closer to publication dates than to now...)

There is also an episode of the Backlisted podcast on the book, well worth a listen (Backlisted always is anyway) 12. Nigel Balchin - Darkness Falls from the Air — Backlisted

Balchin’s are the ultimate bloke-ish books, very much a male pov, though not at all in an action-filled thriller way: this is the life of the mind. [I cannot ignore the opportunity to send you to this clip from the Coen Bros film Barton Fink – ‘I’ll show you the life of the mind’. After seeing it you will never hear the phrase in the same way]

Presumably many a junior civil servant was able to identify – ‘Yeah, I’m like that, quietly doing all the work in an unappreciated way’. Balchin invented the phrase ‘back-room boys’ I believe (in terms of office politics rather than Marlene Dietrich singing ‘See what the boys in the backroom will have…’).

Of course the men have what we politely call ‘attitudes of the time’, and surprisingly this doesn’t bother me too much – even in this one where he tells us how he can smack his secretary’s bottom as she goes past, and she loves it. Balchin men always have tortured relationships with enigmatic women, and often quite unconventional partnerships – in this case an open relationship with Marcia. Nothing makes them happy though. Marcia is a very unreal character, like all his females: it doesn’t give you much hope for Balchin’s relations with real women.

Marcia finished straightening the stocking and started to pull it up. I found myself as interested as though I’d never seen her pull a stocking up before. I thought maybe it was because we didn’t seem to know one another very well just then.

Picture by Delphin Enjolras. 

All that said, I very much enjoy reading a Balchin book from time to time, and was surprised to find I hadn’t blogged on him before. And I do always like a home front book, as demonstrated many times on the blog, and particularly one written at the time: ie he doesn’t know that GB will win the war, he is writing very much what he sees, no hindsight.

He is very good on office life, which is always a joy. (The other two authors who I believe to have talent in this direction in that mid-century era – Anthony Powell and Dorothy L Sayers. I wish they had both written more about that side of life). The chat as people go past your desk, catching someone’s eye in a meeting…

The picture (IWM again, of course) actually shows fashion designer Norman Hartnell working on utility fashion – but weirdly I thought had a look of Bill and his secretary. ‘Doris was looking very decorative….’

And he does have moments of being entertaining:

I’d decided that, what with work and Marcia and one thing and another, I was getting out of touch with the war. So I got out an atlas and Whitaker’s Almanack and so on and studied the war. That took about ten minutes.

And this:

As I got near the office I suddenly wondered what would happen if they’d written the place off in the night. I thought it might be quite a good thing if they had. Then we could start again. But they’d need to do it in daylight, so as to get most of the staff, if it was going to be any good.

The descriptions of moving through London during the Blitz are fascinating, with details such as Bill realizing he mustn’t open the door and let his wife out first into the street – as peacetime etiquette would demand – because it was not safe.

I do have a question for anyone who has read it: What happened to the traitors plot, and the typewriter, did I miss something?

Bill and Marcia visit the all-night Boots the chemists branch in central London – this same shop featured in a  post I did last year on a John Dickson Carr book (The Nine Wrong Answers, 1952). I feel this must turn up in other books – a bit like that coffee stall that 1930s poshos were always going to after a dance. Three is really the minimum mentions to justify a Clothes in Books [X]-watch (see eg bedjackets and furniture – specifically the items after which Credenza Davenport was named). So just one more to find before we can officially announce a Clothes in Books 24-hour Boots Watch (implying an urgency that, truly, won't exist). Please report to me if you spot a mensh.

The title – isn’t it excellent? trying not to say best thing about the book - is a take on Brightness Falls from the Air, which in turn is a line from the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe poem  A Litany in Time of Plague, 1593, which gives the epigraph to the book

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!


Bonus book: Last year I also read Balchin’s The Small Back Room from 1943, about a bomb disposal expert, and also watched a very British black and white film based on it. Most of the generic remarks above apply to this book too - office, women, relationships. I didn’t have much to say about book & film, but here is what there is:

Enjoyable read, too much detail, but fascinating because written during the war. About research and office politics - more depressing and nuanced than the film, which was however surprisingly faithful.


  1. Hmm....Like you, Moira, I like a solid office setting (I was thinking of the Dorothy L. Sayers novel, too). And the home-front context is fascinating. I'm not really keen on the blokey sort of book, although I've read a few I truly enjoyed. And the passive-aggressive, superior protagonist doesn't appeal to me. Still, I can see how there are things in this one to enjoy.

    1. I'll forgive someone a lot for a good setting, and an office can provide such varied joys! However, I am not recommending this book to absolutely everyone. I hope I give enough info for people to decide if this is one for them or not...

  2. It's thought the original for Nashe's line was "Brightness falls from the air" - a description of plague symptoms. it may be more accurate, but the typo - or its Elizabethan equivalent - is better. Nashe also wrote a novel, The Unfortunate Traveller.
    The exemplar of office/work novelists is surely C.P. Snow, but he's interesting in what he writes about, rather than the writing itself.

  3. Whoops.
    It's thought Nashe wrote hair, not air.

    1. Thanks - and thanks for correction, makes perfect sense.
      That is very interesting, and would make for its own telling image. Not surprisingly, these lines appeared a lot around covid time. They resonate still.
      I don't get on with CP Snow, though was surprised to see I have never posted on any of his books. He is mentioned in this post https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-last-tresilians-by-jim-stewart.html
      I am much more of a fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, to whom he was married. And when I read William Cooper's Scenes books, I was very surprised to eventually realize that CP Snow was the original of the friend Robert. (I love that it's so easy to find those things out now, because Internet. I can remember reading the books and trying to work it out, with no help...)

  4. Which nun gave us a close reading of that poem? Think it was Sister McLoughlin.

    1. I don't know about this, and don't know Sister McLoughlin. I will look it up...

    2. I meant at school! We studied that poem in depth and probably recited it as well. Sister McLoughlin was our English teacher at the time.

    3. Oh that's funny, I thought it might have been like Sister Wendy Beckett! (At least that explains why I couldn't find Sister McLoughlin on Google)

  5. I'm halfway through the Nigel Balchin. I like a first person narrator who writes as he speaks. But I can't help wishing one of the mandarins would be brained with a Remington typewriter, leaving Bill (obviously) to spot the murderer in the last scene in the conference room.

    1. Now that would be splendid. I do enjoy them, but I can only read one then have a pause - I can only spend so much time with those heroes...

    2. Finished it now and will be forever haunted by the ending.

    3. 'I always knew it would happen. Of course it would happen. Any fool could see it would happen.’
      I have my arguments with him, but he knew how to write a scene, and make a structure.


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