Archive for the ‘Victor Canning’ Category

the mask of memory victor canning 1974

My 1976 Pan edition sports this gruesome cover illustration, chock full of spoilerish clues.

The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning ~ 1974. This edition: Pan, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-246941. 237 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, this was a welcome surprise. A random find among the tumble of abused books at the Williams Lake Share Shed – located just before the community refuse dump, where one may drop off unwanted items with some life left in them. It’s seldom on my book search route as it’s a bit out of the way for me, but I certainly scored this time round.

Besides the Canning book, I snagged a hardcover copy of Agnes Newton Keith’s Land Below the Wind, five immaculate hardcover copies of Richmal Compton’s William books, a Laurie Colwin, an Ernest K. Gann, Terry Fallis’ latest comic effort, and, most unexpected, an intriguing, chatty, and (at cursory browse-through) chockfull of good-sounding recipes, 1966 cookbook called Cooking with Love and Paprika, ostensibly by notable Hollywood director-producer Joseph Pasternak. Yum! – to all of these.

But back to the Victor Canning.

I already hold this writer’s most famous juvenile – The Runaways, 1971 – in nostalgically good regard, and I did know that he was also the author of a substantial number of detective/spy thrillers, but until now I had not actually read one of these. If The Mask of Memory is anything to go by, a promising shelf’s worth of future light reading has just materialized.

In a small seaside town in Devon, middle-aged Mrs Margaret Tucker wanders through the local department store, filling her pockets with packets of shoplifted sweets. She walks serenely out the door, her petty larceny unnoticed by the store clerks, and gets into her car, where she finds herself inexplicably crying. Pulling herself together, she drives through the town and out to the dune-edged estuary, where she walks across the sand to meet a group of children from the local orphanage, in charge of a nun. Giving the sweets to the Sister with a murmured “For the children”, Margaret then steps back and watches the straggling group proceed down the beach, and her tears return.

So, what’s this all about, then? Margaret’s two secret watchers would really like to know…

For Margaret is being shadowed, and not as one would expect by the department store’s detective – if they indeed have such a person on staff, which seems doubtful, for Margaret has been carrying on with her petty pilfering undetected for months now. No, she is being followed by a private inquiry agent employed by her mostly-absentee husband to record her movements, and, as well, Margaret’s sand dune walks are under close scrutiny by an oddly reclusive birdwatcher/amateur artist/casual laborer who lives in a secluded cottage nearby.

Both secret watchers are out for what they can get, and in well-bred, desperately lonely, until-now-faithful, conveniently-independently-wealthy Margaret Tucker they have found something of a golden jackpot. For her husband Bernard seems content to keep paying the private detective for his weekly reports – a nice little income stream, not likely to diminish anytime soon – while the dune watcher is after something a little more intimate, and ultimately more financially rewarding.

Margaret’s husband leads a dually secret life as a senior member of an unnamed British government internal espionage department. His wife of many years thinks he is involved in industrial chemical sales; his superiors and co-workers have no idea he is even married. But his two secret lives are about to be exposed, in a building cloud of tense drama.

Two plot lines drive the story. Margaret’s emotional and mental trauma lead to her first ever extra-marital love affair, and her seeking of a divorce from the all-unaware Bernard, who himself has been secretly yearning to be freed from a marriage gone still and cold. Meanwhile, back at the office as it were (or The Department as it is referred to throughout), Bernard is deeply involved in the upcoming revelation of a critical political exposé, and has just come home with a folder of highly sensitive documents as well as a secret recording device potentially throbbing with delicate secrets.

The suspense builds, partial revelations are made on all sides, someone dies, and the politically toxic papers and James Bond-worthy recording-device-wristwatch turn up missing.

Is the death an accident, or murder? What does the private detective really know? Is Margaret’s lover deep down true? Is Bernard a traitor to his nation? A snarl of lies, deception, ethical qualms, love and lust (of every type) must be sorted through before the surprisingly hopeful ending.

While this is not a top rank sort of thriller – just a few too many over-simplifications, logic gaps and blurred-over bits for absolute suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader – it’s a very easy read. Victor Canning spins a nicely complex web, and the strengths of his writing style outweigh the logic deficits of the plot.

A very decent example of 1970s-era espionage/thriller fiction, with a well done domestic drama going on concurrently with the spy stuff. I will be shelving this one between Mary Stewart and Helen MacInnes, one shelf down from John le Carré and Eric Ambler.

Victor Canning. Making note of that name and adding to the look-for list for my next foray into the big city used book stores on upcoming fall road trips.

Another The Mask of Memory review here, from Nick Jones at Existential Ennui.

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the runaways victor canningThe Runaways by Victor Canning ~ 1971. This edition: Scholastic, circa 1975. Paperback. 300 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This was something of a nostalgia trip, being a book I remember reading and re-reading in my late grade school years. Though it has lost some of its original magic on this four-decades-later adult re-read, there still exists a certain appeal, though the set-piece situation (misunderstood teenager with a working class background wrongly accused of a crime and on the run from the authorities) is very much of a muchness with so many other books in the youth market genre of the 1960s and 70s.

Victor Canning’s twist is that his protagonist’s adventures are twinned with those of an escaped cheetah, and though the improbability of the whole scenario is exceedingly glaring to me as a cynical grown-up who notices the many logistical gaps in the story, the tale works very well for its intended readership.

From The Runaways page on John Higgins’ extensive Victor Canning website:

Samuel Miles, known as “Smiler”, aged 15, has been falsely convicted of stealing an old lady’s handbag. He runs away from an approved school (young offenders’ prison), is recaptured and escapes from the police car during a thunderstorm. He is determined to stay free until his father, a ship’s cook, returns from his current voyage in nine months time and can help to clear him of the theft charge. The same thunderstorm brings down a tree in the wildlife enclosure at Longleat, allowing a cheetah called Yarra to escape.

On their first night of freedom, Smiler sleeps in the loft of a barn in which Yarra also takes shelter. We then follow their parallel stories, Smiler using a cottage in the village of Crockerton which belongs to the absent Major Collingwood, and Yarra learning to hunt again and finding a den in the Army firing range at Imber on Salisbury Plain. Smiler gets a job at a kennel. Yarra gives birth to cubs. Major Collingwood returns and Smiler goes to stay with the dog’s meat man, Joe Ringer, who teaches him a lot of country lore including poaching skills. Meanwhile Major Collingwood is intrigued with the signs of occupation at his cottage and starts a quiet investigation…

Vignettes from the story have stayed with me in crystal clarity from my youthful reading days: the escape from the police car in the thunderstorm; the cheetah’s escape at the same time only a few miles away; Smiler’s roaming through an empty cottage and his happy discovery of a jar of coins in the study and his use of those for “running money” and the subsequent replacement; the cheetah learning to craftily live with army maneuvers on Salisbury Plain.

Smiler outsmarts the well-meaning authorities, and fades away at the end of the tale, leaving things open for possible sequels, of which Canning did write two: Flight of the Grey Goose, 1973 and The Painted Tent, 1974, respectively concerning Smiler’s further adventures on the run and in temporary sanctuary in an animal sanctuary/castle in Scotland (with wild geese for the animal interest), and then with a Romany fortune-teller and an injured peregrine falcon.

I found The Runaways a rather simplistic read for an adult, though this is doubtless the reason it has retained its popularity as a recommended school novel for “reluctant readers”. I haven’t read the two other books in the trilogy, nor do I feel particularly compelled to seek them out, though I would be pleased enough to read them if the opportunity arose.

What I am really interested in, however, is the rest of Victor Canning’s body of work. The Smiler trilogy is something of a later-career departure for this writer, for his main claim to fame was as a prolific producer of adult fiction, from his comedic, best-selling, 1934 pseudo-travelogue, Mr Finchley Discovers His England, and a few similar books, to a large number – something like fifty – of thrillers and short story collections of varying degrees of darkness, a great number of which were successfully made into movies and television productions. He also penned a well-reviewed Arthurian trilogy.

Victor Canning kept himself busy writing up until the end of his life  – he died in 1986, at the age of seventy-five – with his last novel, Table Number Seven, being finished by his wife and sister, and published posthumously in 1987.

Looking over the list of Victor Canning’s titles on the excellent website already referred to, some titles sound more than a little familiar. I may perhaps already have a few of these tucked away amongst the boxes of yet-to-be-shelved books from my parents’ attic. I look forward to investigating this writer in a mild way in future, though I will need to make note of his several pseudonyms – Alan Gould and Julian Forest – to enable me to identify his books for further examination.

A promising writer to add to the vintage-books look-for list.

Is anyone already a fan?

 

 

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