"We don`t face this war all the time. In fact, most of the time we really dodge the stupendous terrifying reality of it...but now and again, when you`re tired and dispirited, the whole weight of it suddenly comes down on us. Then it`s as if you woke up to find yourself walking at the bottom of the sea. I had one of the worst of those moments on my way to the hotel in Gretley that night. The fact of the war came down on me like a falling tower...It was a vision of Evil triumphant. It was the idea of Hell let loose...All Gretley was on the edge of it...Here, behind the dark curtain of the black-out, was deeper evil within evil. But where ?"
Priestley`s central character and narrator Humphrey Neyland is in the Midlands on a mission, one that is partly personal, partly professional. More by chance than by judgement he has been drawn into the world of counter-espionage when his two closest friends, both German Jews, were murdered by Nazis. By the time he arrives at the small industrial town of Gretley, he is an experienced operative who one suspects has avenged the death of his friends over and over again. Although he claims to derive little satisfaction from "creeping about in blacked-out alleyways baiting traps", it is clear to everyone but himself the work has become second nature to him. There is more than a hint that he is on a personal quest for redemption after the death of his wife and son in a traffic accident for which he holds himself responsible. This closeness to tragedy, coupled with the nature of his work, has by his own admission soured his disposition , "so anybody who must have Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover had better turn elsewhere", but he remains oddly likeable.
He is world-weary, but sharply dispassionate ;
"I`d never seen this man before. He was a tall, straight, clean-shaven man, possibly about fifty, with stiff grey hair, and he was wearing dark clothes. For a moment, while he stood there glaring at me, he was one kind of man, and then as soon as I spoke he turned himself into another kind of man. It was as if one character had been sponged out, to be replaced by this other one, smaller, humbler, far less dangerous. It was superbly done, but just not quick enough."
The way in which Priestley describes this encounter is interesting. He never tells the reader directly that the man is dangerous, but air of menace is underlined more emphatically when the character is described as adopting a humbler and "far less dangerous" demeanour. The last sentence, of course, tips the reader off that Neyland is confident he is more than a match for the man.
Later that same evening, Neyland listens as a Nazi sympathiser expounds her views. "It was just when she showed you what she was really thinking and feeling that she became theatrical and artificial" he reflects. "They are all alike, these dupes of the Fuhrer, somewhere at the back of their minds there`s always a grand opera going on, with Adolf and themselves in the leading roles."
You may have noticed that there`s a hint of Chandler creeping in here and there, and it works quite well simply because Priestley remains himself whilst incorporating elements of a new influence.
A very sombre note is struck when an exhausted Neyland accompanies the Police to inspect a corpse ;
"There were piles of old junk and rubbish about. It seemed just the end of everything down there. We weren`t far from being a lot of old junk and rubbish ourselves. There didn`t seem any particular reason why the black weight of the night shouldn`t press still harder and flatten us all out. "
The corpse is that of a young woman our hero has met repeatedly in the early part of the book. As the scene develops, he becomes convinced they are looking at a murder. Unexpectedly,he gives voice to an outburst that slaps you in the face like a wet mackerel coming after the numbed-with-shock tone of the rest of the scene ;
I looked down at the wretched thing they had fished out of the canal. I remembered the impudent nose, the ripe smiling mouth, the oddly-coloured bright eyes. "And if my guess is right, she`s as much a war casualty as any lad torn apart by machine gun fire. And she`s also just another casualty in another and worse battle, ordinary human nature versus a social system that`s diseased in every part of it..."
"I didn`t know you felt like that" said Dr Bauernstein, softly and wonderingly.
"You don`t know what I feel."
Reading the analogy with a "lad torn apart by machine gun" fire, one is forcibly reminded that Priestley was said to be haunted by his memories of World War One for the rest of his life. Apparently he never claimed the medals he was entitled to, though he made light of the matter whenever the question was raised.
Perhaps because the lean-and-mean Neyland is pretty obviously not the avuncular-but-high-minded Priestley, he gets away with putting some of his own thoughts into the characters mouth without it really sounding too forced or artificial. Thankfully, the book never becomes a fully-fledged propaganda exercise, though certainly it is moralistic.
The plot has it`s dafter aspects, though then again, it`s no worse than, say, The 39 Steps in that respect.
The only other obvious weakness is that some scenes involving Neyland and a couple of the female characters seem stilted and really quite unrealistic, but that doesn`t really detract from the book as a whole.
Not a `typical` Priestley offering ( is there such a thing as a "typical Priestley offering" ?), but well worth reading.