Sammy Rice works as a scientist in a small outfit that seeks to produce and evaluate inventions that are useful to the war effort and which reports directly to the Minister for War. Despite his academic skills he suffers from poor self-esteem after having his left foot amputated in 1928 and replaced with an aluminium substitute. With a penchant for feeling sorry for himself, he often swaps whiskey for his pain-killing tablets, and waits for his girlfriend to leave him for somebody more worthy. Things are not made any easier by having to deal with endless rounds of petty politics at work between the scientists, civil servants and the army, for which he has little appetite. When the Germans start to drop a new type of booby trapped bomb, which explodes when disturbed, the army turns to Sammy in the hope that he can find a way to defuse them, and Sammy embraces the task sensing that this is a way to repair his esteem and make a real difference to the war effort.
Nigel Balchin started the war as a psychologist in the personnel section of the War Office before transferring to the Army Council, eventually becoming Deputy Scientific Officer. By the end of the war he’d risen to the rank of Brigadier General. His insider knowledge of how science was being employed to help the war effort gives The Small Back Room an authentic feel. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised that the book had been published during the war given that he paints a fairly negative picture of Whitehall politics, the organisation of the scientific research, and relations between the civilian scientists, the civil service and the army. It’s not difficult to suspect the novel might have been written as a means to highlight how things needed to change.
I found the story very engaging. Although told from a first person perspective, the story largely unfolds through dialogue with only a few reflective interludes. The conversations are exceptionally well written and give real insight to the nature of the main characters. And given this style it’s easy to imagine that the book was relatively painless to adapt for the big screen, which it was in 1948. In general, the plot is highly believable and the petty politics and manoeuvrings of personal and inter-departmental rivalries are well done and will be familiar to anybody who works in a university or the civil service. Some of the emotional turmoil is a little overwrought, but otherwise a highly enjoyable read and I’d certainly be interested in watching the film adaptation.