Man on the Run

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I have a good public character and a respectable position in society. I live by myself, and for years past have given no one any account of my movements; I am quick-witted and ready for nearly anything; I think I have little personal or social conscience. Above all, I am a murderer . . .

The voice is that of Desmond Thane, hero of John Mair’s only novel and one of the most extravagantly larger-than-life fictional characters I have ever come across. Though he displays an unappealing mixture of some of the worst human characteristics – vanity, arrogance, self-centredness, cowardice and mendacity to name but a few – Mair succeeds in making Desmond intensely likeable, and one can’t help rooting for him and hoping he will survive each fresh predicament that confronts him.

In 1990, I watched a drama series on the BBC called Never Come Back. It was a superb Second World War thriller with a fine cast including James Fox, Nathaniel Parker and Martin Clunes. Then about a year later, while browsing in my local bookshop, I pulled a volume entitled Never Come Back by John Mair off the shelf and realized that the television series must have been an adaptation of it. The book had obviously been on display in the shop window for a long time because its front cover was badly faded. I almost put it back on the shelf. Thank goodness I didn’t, because Never Come Back (1941) has since become one of my favourite novels.

I find it difficult to put into words exactly what it was that captivated me when I first read it all those years ago, but I do remember experiencing a delicious shiver of anticipation as I read the opening lines. Some writers are like that: you just feel very comfortable with them right from the start and sense that, in their hands, satisfaction is virtually guaranteed. So it was with me and John Mair.

I have reread Never Come Back many times since and always find something new in it. Like <

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About the contributor

Derek Collett is a scientific editor and proofreader, an occasional writer of magazine articles, a devotee of 1940s novels and the author of His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin.

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