Forgotten authors No 59: Rex Warner

"Important" books can sometimes be a chore, so here is the author of a masterpiece with the pacing of a soap opera. The forgotten member of the Cecil Day-Lewis/WH Auden circle at Oxford in the 1920s, this dandyish vicar's son and disillusioned Marxist led a life packed with colour, incident and, by his own admission, lechery.

After teaching in Egypt, Rex Warner returned home and produced his first novel, The Wild Goose Chase, in which three brothers stumble into a bizarre totalitarian kingdom. In The Professor, an academic is compromised and destroyed by life under a regime similar to Hitler's.

Warner subsequently wrote propaganda films for the wartime Ministry of Information, then moved to Greece, producing historical novels and a translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that became a bestseller. He returned to England after various amorous misadventures and remarried his ex-wife, but before all this he wrote The Aerodrome (1941).

And what a perversely beautiful, horrific novel it is. Taking a contrary position to the prevailing attitude of the time – that the British Air Force pilot represented a pinnacle of pure order in a time of dark chaos – The Aerodrome tells the story of Roy (clearly Rex), a young man at first fascinated and later repelled by the airmen whose sinister outpost slowly absorbs a lowly country village. Roy admires the ill-mannered flight lieutenant who casually offends villagers and steals his girl, because the pilots operate according to higher moral laws that place them far above the drunken, rowdy locals. But his respect proves misplaced; the flight lieutenant is a pen-pusher who has never flown, and as other secrets begin to tumble out, events are set in motion that lead to murder.

This vision of England has a clarity that descends directly from Dickens and Wilkie Collins. As Michael Moorcock says in his introduction to the new edition from Vintage Classics, there is something quietly and stubbornly confrontational in Warner, which helps explain why he must periodically be rediscovered.

Most mysterious of all is the order of importance Warner chooses for the book's sensational disclosures, so that the shooting of a mother in a crowded church or the adulterous betrayal of a friend is of little consequence in the pilots' minds, because they are merely an expedience on the path to higher glories. No wonder JG Ballard was a fan.