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Wednesday 6 September 2017

Victor Canning (1911-1986)

The  Golden Age
Victor Canning (1911-1986)
by John Higgins

Like several other writers of his time, Canning wrote fluently, readably, and too much. His output of sixty-one books, well over a hundred short stories and nearly forty TV scripts, along with radio and stage plays, leaves him well short of John Creasey and Georges Simenon, but it meant that a handful of brilliant books got submerged in a pile of smooth, efficient and rather escapist writing which brought him wealth but little enduring fame. Many of his books are becoming available again, thanks to print-on-demand and e-book readers, and the best of them are well worth

Canning was born in 1911, the eldest of three children of a working-class family in Plymouth. He left school at fifteen and went to work in a government office in Oxford, where it turned out that his boss’s wife was the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who nodded encouragingly when she saw him using the office typewriter after hours, writing stories for boys’ magazines and articles for a motor-cycling journal. His first book, the pastoral Mr Finchley Discovers his England came out in 1934 and was an unexpected best-seller, reprinted thirteen times in six years. He went on to produce fourteen more books, largely rustic comedies, before being called up in 1940 and training alongside his friend Eric Ambler in the Royal Artillery. Ambler may have persuaded him to concentrate on thrillers, which is what he did when he began writing again in 1947. He produced reliably one book a year which would then be serialised, adopted by a book club and go into paperback. Nine of these books were filmed. In the sixties he began a series featuring a private detective called Rex Carver, but after the fourth of these appeared in 1968 he abandoned the series at the same time as he abandoned his wife of thirty-five years, who had been a keen editor of his work, and went to live with his new lover who offered no criticism beyond “That’s wonderful, darling”.  What was bad for family values turned out to be good for literature. The next ten years saw most of his best work, including four outstanding books.

One of them, perhaps the best of all, is outside the scope of this journal. It was his 1974 children’s book, The Runaways, following the parallel stories of a boy on the run from the police and a cheetah that has escaped from the Longleat Wildlife Park. This stayed in print for over thirty years and was included in many a school reading list here and in the USA. But three crime stories also stand out: Firecrest from 1971, The Rainbird Pattern from 1972 and Birdcage published in 1978. They belong in a series, not because they share a hero but because they have a set of villains in common, a branch of the British Government with its headquarters in Birdcage Walk, so known as ‘Birdcage’. This is a ‘department of dirty tricks’, an organisation that uses blackmail, kidnapping and if necessary murder to save the taxpayer money or ministers from embarrassment. I think Canning thought such an organisation might exist and worried about the damage it could inflict on innocent, or not completely innocent, bystanders. I sometimes wonder whether it was this or his unconventional love life that led to his failure to receive any recognition, in spite of staying in Britain where he paid an awful lot of income tax. These books are darker than Canning’s earlier work, and they dispense with the happy endings of the conventional crime thriller.


Firecrest has the structure of a treasure hunt. As the story opens Henry Dilling, a scientist and owner of a recently bankrupt engineering company, has offered to sell some research papers on lasers to the government. Lasers, it is worth remembering, were a new and rather mysterious branch of science, dating back only to 1957, and most people at the time would have associated them with the scene in the film of Goldfinger (released in 1964) in which a large laser is about to be used to slice James Bond in half. Dilling’s papers, we learn, have military importance, and the value placed on them is half a million pounds, a large sum in 1971. When the papers are unearthed at the end of the book, they turn out to deal with the use of lasers in rifle sights and night vision equipment, so Canning clearly understood that lasers were not just the conventionally understood death ray. It is possible that Canning’s wartime work with radar and gunnery had given him rather more than a layman’s grasp of this technology.

As the negotiations with Birdcage are about to start, Dilling drops dead of a heart attack. The papers cannot be found, and the only person who might know where to find them is Dilling’s girlfriend Lily. When she is found and questioned she turns out to have been hypnotised by Dilling and given a false set of memories. The Department assigns an investigator, John Grimster, who must hypnotise her again to recover her true memory. Grimster also tries out his hypnotism skills on a colleague and so learns how the Department plans to eliminate both the girl and him when the papers have been found. Forewarned, he sets about protecting Lily and getting his revenge.

Firecrest may have a relatively straightforward thriller plot, but this is the base for a subtle and complicated set of personal relationships. Most important is that between Lily and Dilling. Although Dilling is dead by page 5, hischaracter and his relationship with Lily gradually come into focus throughout the book and serves to explain how and why he has hidden the papers. A second key relationship is the one between Lily and John Grimster. On his side it is almost entirely loveless. He is eaten up with his desire for revenge. He will happily sleep with Lily as part of his effort to relax her and prepare to hypnotise her, but there is no love in it. He is also keen to arrange that she receives the cash value of Dilling’s papers, but this is as much part of his revenge against the Department as from any fondness for the girl. On her side she develops the same kind of innocent trust in him that she had in Dillling; clearly she needs a dominant male figure. She has fantasies about how, when she has located the papers and been paid the money, they will live happily ever after. We know how little Grimster cares for her and canexperience the irony.

Another important and interesting relationships is that between Grimster and Harrison, a schoolfriend who has turned into the agent of a mysterious enemy power now trying to induce Grimster to defect. Grimster and
Harrison have a kind of easy intimacy. They are enemies and each might kill the other, but they understand each other from their shared boyhood. Their earlier competition has been dominated by Harrison; he was the more successful at school and in their holiday pursuits. They are still in competition, but now Grimster is ahead. At the final confrontation Grimster has enough affection left in him to warn Harrison about the danger he is in, and one can appreciate the irony that Harrison only sees the warning as a trick and so dies.

The settings are authentic and lovingly described. The bulk of the action takes place on Exmoor. Canning was living near Andover when he wrote this book, but he was probably engaged in house-hunting around Exmoor, since he moved there soon afterwards, buying a house with its own reach of fishing river at a village called Alswear near South Molton in Devon. There are also significant passages at Woburn Abbey, which would have been easier to reach from Andover. But it is fishing that is a constant background to this book, as a lovingly described hobby and perhaps as a metaphor too. The book has the dedication: “To Daniel Richmond—with apologies for poaching on his fishing rights”. It was from 1971 onwards that Canning listed “fishing” as one of his own hobbies in his Who’s Who entry. Although he says a little about fishing in his teenage diaries and in his countryside books from the 1930s, it must have been about now that he took it up seriously, and many of his subsequent books have characters who tie flies at their desks or spend time fishing.

The Rainbird Pattern

Canning’s next book was his masterpiece and drew much positive recognition at the time. It won the Silver Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1972 and was nominated for the corresponding award on the other side of the Atlantic. Hitchcock filmed it under the (rather better) title Family Plot in 1976, his last completed film. What appealed to Hitchcock was the way in which two narrative strands are developed alongside each other. The reader can see that they will collide, but cannot predict how this will come about or exactly what will happen when they do. Meanwhile the characters innocently—or guiltily—pursue their collision course, while we are made to feel like a pantomime audience vainly shouting “Behind you!” Hitchcock turned this into comedy, and even gave his film a conventional happy ending, using the same scriptwriter, Ernest Lehmann, as he had used for North by Northwest, his most successful previous comedy thriller. Canning’s book is anything but comedy, and Canning is said to have disliked the film and washed his hands of it.

The Rainbird Pattern opens with a kidnapper collecting a ransom. Calling himself ‘Trader’, he has with the aid of a woman accomplice kidnapped a member of Parliament, his second such venture, and has now come to collect a bag of industrial diamonds. Trader’s arrangements are meticulous and there are few clues to follow up. There has been publicity, but the ransom demanded is relatively small. The Department’s investigators surmise that Trader will undertake a third kidnapping, this time for a much larger sum and without publicity; the first two ventures have amounted to his advertising campaign.

Meanwhile we meet Blanche Tyler, known as ‘Madame Blanche’ when she pursues her profession of spirit medium, and her boyfriend and occasional researcher George Lumley. Blanche has been called in by an elderly lady called Grace Rainbird (renamed Julia Rainbird in the Hitchcock film) who is suffering pangs of guilt following the death of her sister. Thirty-odd years earlier her sister had given birth to an illegitimate baby, which had been hurriedly and furtively sent for adoption. Now Miss Rainbird wants to locate the child and make him her heir. The reader quickly surmises that the lost child will turn out to be Trader, but the characters have no inkling, of course. Blanche sets about earning the fee that she expects to receive when the heir is discovered by sending George to make enquiries in the village. This part of the story provides a clinical unmasking of the way the professional medium goes about her business. We are brought close to the mind of Blanche, the combination of knowing fakery and self-deception which drives her towards her ambition of founding the ‘Temple of Astrodel’. George carries out his part of the investigation reluctantly. He accepts the money that Blanche pays him for his work, but gets no pleasure from the deceptions he has to practise. In parallel to George and Blanche’s successful progress towards tracking down the missing heir, we follow the apparently vain efforts of the authorities to track down Trader,

and Trader’s preparations for his next kidnapping, which is to be of the Archbishop—presumably of Canterbury, though this is not made explicit. One of the problems that Hitchcock had in transferring the setting of the story to California for his film is that there is no figure in America who corresponds to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Kidnapping ‘Bishop Wood’ did not have the same resonance, nor would he be so instantly recognisable.

As with Firecrest, what marks this book out is the characters and their relationships. Blanche plays Miss Rainbird almost like a fisherman playing a salmon, and we follow Miss Rainbird’s resistance to belief in the occult with real tension. George is an interesting blend of honesty and laziness, and his relationship to Blanche is convincing and subtly constructed. Blanche herself is a splendidly achieved portrait. I sometimes wonder how far Blanche is based on Diana, the second Mrs Canning. The accounts of George and Blanche’s love-making are lively and, for the times, fairly graphic. This was Canning celebrating a rejuvenation.
The ending of the book is quite unexpected, almost shocking. Canning hints that the inexorable Birdcage Department might eventually meet with an avenger. In fact the subsequent books do not develop the hint.


The opening pages of this book are extraordinary and gripping. We trace the journey of Sister Luiza, otherwise Sarah Branton, an English nun in a Portuguese convent, as she catches a bus, posts a letter and goes to a lonely beach where she strips off her habit and swims out to sea to drown herself, believing herself pregnant. A long way off shore she is picked up by two people out fishing, one of whom, an Englishman called Richard Farley, takes her back to the villa he is looking after while the owners are away. Both Sarah and Richard are damaged personalities, Sarah by an unhappy childhood spent with a glamorous mother, Lady Jean Branton, and a neglectful father, Richard by nightmares arising from having discovered his parents’ mutilated bodies after their murder by the Mau Mau in Kenya.

Sarah, no longer suicidal or pregnant, is overwhelmed with gratitude for Richard and wants to give him something of value. She goes to reclaim a parcel which her late mother deposited with some family retainers. In the parcel is an elaborate piece of jewellery and a diary. It is the diary, of course, which constitutes a potential death sentence to anyone who reads it, since it exposes the crimes of a former Birdcage boss, Lord Bellmaster, Lady Jean’s lover and Sarah’s natural father.

The relationship of Richard and Sarah is developed subtly and unsentimentally, but we are always aware of the way they are being observed at a distance by Birdcage agents, now playing games of internal politics. Lord Bellmaster is no longer part of Birdcage and has ambitions to become British ambassador to the USA, but the department wants to continue to exploit him and does not want his past exposed. To prevent this a junior member of the Birdcage team, Kerslake, is briefed by the boss Quint for his first assassination. Once again we are reminded of the essential evil of the Birdcage organisation:
What kind of people could they be, Farley had asked. Well, his kind. Quint’s kind. Just people—doing a dirty job which the world as it was made necessary. Birdcage gave you a sophisticated initial lecture on the validity of its ethics when you entered … so bloody convincing too. A crusade against evil—until you took the field and found you were using the Devil’s own weapons with not a tithe of his honesty of purpose.

By the final chapter the reader will have become fond of Richard and Sarah, which makes the final chase scenes almost unbearably tense. This is one of Canning’s best books, full of good writing, interesting characters, and unpredictability. 

Two of these books, Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern, are now back in print, and I hope Birdcage will be soon. Meanwhile it can be found second-hand quite easily. Other books from Canning’s late period are worth looking out for, including his one venture towards science-fiction, The Finger of Saturn. Everything he wrote is readable and engaging. Some of his work goes further than this and is memorable and significant. I maintain a web site with a full bibliography and background at

John Higgins lived and worked in Thailand, Norway, the USA, Tanzania, Turkey, Egypt and Yugoslavia, teaching, between 1963 and 1986.  With his wife Muriel, he became involved in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) and put together a number of innovative pieces of software, including the first versions of a program later released as STORYBOARD, ECLIPSE, RHUBARB. In 1986 John left the British Council and taught in the School of Education of Bristol
University. He and his wife are now retired and live in Shaftesbury in Dorset.

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