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.