JOHN MAIR – Never Come Back. Victor Gollanz Ltd., UK, hardcover, 1941. Little Brown & Co., US, hardcover, 1941. Oxford University Press, US, softcover, October 1986. Film: Tempean, 1955, as Tiger by the Tail; released in the US as Cross-Up.

JOHN MAIR Never Come Back

   I want to preface this review by saying that I have long suspected that there is no vast, secret conspiracy to weaken our nation, rule the world, or put mind-control drugs in our morning coffee. There may be a litany of irritating little organizations with these ends in sight, but no vast secret one.

   That’s what I suspect, anyway, and there’s a good reason why I know there isn’t any Giant Conspiracy secretly running our lives: If the Army taught me anything at all, it’s that the bigger the organization, the more the entropy — as Edward Snowden, Private Manning and Major Nidal have so clearly/tragically demonstrated. And I recently found my anti-paranoid suspicions pleasantly realized in this old book.

   I first heard about John Mair’s Never Come Back from a passing reference in (where else?) a reference book. Intrigued, I found a copy (and isn’t the internet a wondrous boon to curious readers?) and proceeded to enjoy a thriller like no other.

   Subsequent research has led me to discover that all the best things about it have already been written, but I’ll recap my thoughts here anyway, as this is a book that deserves notice, particularly for fans of John Buchan.

   The central character, Desmond Thane, starts out as a hack-writer for a syndicate, making up human interest articles that are sold to newspapers as filler. He quickly finds himself in Richard Hannay territory though, after leaving the apartment (or flat, if you must) of a murdered woman who turns out to have been involved with one of those Shadowy International Organizations that seem to have been rife in England between the wars. As one might expect, he’s soon in possession of the usual MacGuffin, suspected of the murder, and on the run from the SIO.

   But there are some telling differences here: Thane actually is guilty of the lady’s murder, and he commits another in the course of the narrative. He’s a writer, With a literary approach to intrigue, and also something of a smart-ass. While dodging bullets and brutes, he tends to view his plight with a jaded philosophical detachment:

   Happy the man, he thought, without mental or physical passions, ignoring with equal scorn the bookshop, the brothel and the travel agency. A pity one couldn’t sell oneself to the devil nowadays; the decline of piety had knocked the bottom out of the market, and reduced the wicked to an unwanted proletariat, with nothing to sell but their already conquered souls. Faustus had got twenty-four years power and glory for throwing over law, medicine, logic and philosophy; today every capital was crowded with scholars who were willing to abandon all four and a good many more for a guinea a thousand and an occasional lecture tour. There was over-production of vice as of everything else.

   That’s the attitude we get from Thane as Mair trots him through the usual paces of the genre with style and speed. We get kidnappings by various and sundry bad guys, narrow escapes, cross-country chases, phony cops, seductions, a criminal mastermind with dreams of global conquest… I could go on, but if you’ve read much of this sort of thing, you pretty much know what to expect.

   The difference here is Thane’s attitude and Mair’s canny view of the whole genre — not quite spoof but definitely dubious. The Sinister International Organization turns out to be rather bureaucratic and inefficient, Thane resists torture only because he doesn’t know what the hell the bad guys are after, and when he finds out how valuable it is, his first thought is to sell it back to them and retire in comfort.

   There are about a dozen pages of misplaced whimsy while he fakes amnesia, but things soon get right back on the sardonic track; It seems that the Chairman of the SIO board (and would-be Ruler of the World) has written a book and Thane, like any curious man of letters, feels compelled to read it. Which leads to a scene so unexpected and screamingly funny and perfectly Right that I won’t spoil it for you — check it out.

Biographical Note:   This was the author’s one and only novel. He died in 1942 in a training flight accident as a pilot for the RAF. The book has been reviewed elsewhere on the Internet by author Martin Edwards on his blog. Check it out here.