Posts Tagged ‘Victor Canning’

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning ~ 1934. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954. Paperback. 256 pages.

Crazy busy month. I’m reading at the slowest rate ever right now, and as for posting – ha!

But this too shall pass. (As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, so I needn’t get into detail about how overwhelmed my spring is with things-needing-doing and not-enough-hours-in-the-day.)

I did escape a week or so ago for a whirlwind three-day road trip (plant related) to Salt Spring Island and then Vancouver, and on my way home stole an hour to visit one of my favourite used book stores ever, Neil Stad’s Nuggets in downtown Chilliwack.

Neil gently reminds his shoppers that “Good luck will follow those who are tidy.” And an utterly random “found item” – this bookshop’s decor fully expresses its owner’s sense of humour.

Neil doesn’t have a website, but here is a nice article from a few years ago, which gives some background info.

B.C. readers: go see Neil. 45832 Wellington Avenue, a few blocks down from the 5 Corners clock tower. And an hour is just barely enough to hit the high points, for it’s one of those book stores, a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with well-labelled shelves of books, books, books, including exploration-worthy sections of vintage literature and a vast and well-organized selection of British serial school novels for those who are into such things – Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al.

And records and cds, too, and Neil plays awesome music, heavy on the blues and vintage rock side of things. And he’s friendly and helpful but also very cool with just letting his shoppers dig and delve at will. Excellent coffee shop next door, too. The whole setup is pretty Nirvana-ish, in fact.

This visit to Nuggets (and the also-stellar The Book Man, just down the street – Chilliwack is blissfully well provided with vintage book shopping) didn’t yield any stupendously amazing “wow!” finds this time round, but I did find some goodies, among them this well-read paperback copy of thriller writer Victor Canning’s first published novel – not a thriller, by the way, but a humorous picaresque-ish journey-book – which I’d been mildly keeping an eye out for, as I have its sequel from my last visit to Nuggets (Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris) and was holding off reading it until I read the first.

Light reading for sure, a perfect sort of book for popping in one’s travelling bag, though I must confess I couldn’t wait until my next trip, but delved into it that very night, once I reached my own home in the wee hours.

Meet Mr. Finchley:

Mr. Finchley was forty-five, short, with a comfortable face such as you might see on the fringe of any crowd, and a tonsure that surprised you when he raised his hat. He was panting slightly as he came to the top of the hill. He had lived in London all his life and, since Mr. Bardwell had made him chief clerk ten years ago, he had never had a week’s holiday. Mr. Bardwell himself never took a holiday and he fostered the practice among his clerks. Mr. Finchley had succumbed meekly to the conviction that he was indispensable to the office, a conviction which Mr. Bardwell had encouraged. When Mr. Bardwell had died it was generally considered that Mr. Sprake would continue his tradition. But Sprake (he was only referred to as Mr. Sprake in the presence of clients) had developed surprising attributes. Mr. Finchley took out his yellow silk handkerchief and wiped his forehead as he mused over the astonishing change which had come over Sprake. He came to the office in tweeds. He smoked all day, scattered his ash in deed boxes, and looked more like a bookmaker than a lawyer. Mr. Finchley had witnessed in silence the desecration and waited anxiously for the practice to decline. The practice did not decline. Business increased. Sprake grew jollier and the checks on his golfing suits larger. And then – it was hot even in the shade now and Mr. Finchley decided to rest on the seat at the end of the avenue – there came the day when Sprake had called him into his room.

“Ah, Finchley, I wanted to have a chat with you,” he said.”Of course, you know that things have changed a bit since poor Bardwell packed up…”

No, it’s not the golden handshake Mr. Finchley is getting, but an official order to get the heck out of the office and take a vacation already, and our hero finds himself facing an unusual situation: three weeks with no structure, no obligation to be anywhere. What to do, what to do? Mr. Finchley plumps for the obvious thing, and books a room in the seaside resort town of Margate.

Mr. Finchley will indeed be having a vacation from his regular life, but as things turn out he never does get to Margate. The very first day of his holiday, as he’s resting on a bench in the sun, whiling away the hours until his train leaves, a stranger pulls up in a brand new Bentley. Seeing Mr. Finchley’s glance of pure admiration, and being impressed by his appearance of deep respectability, the stranger asks if Mr. Finchley could just keep an eye on his car for the next half hour or so. Mr. Finchley cheerfully agrees, but as the half hour stretches into something longer, Mr. Finchley tires of his bench, and decides to sit in the car. He stretches out on the back seat…the sun is so warm…he’s tired…

Waking up with a start, Mr. Finchley discovers himself an unwitting passenger as the Bentley races along a country road, police in hot pursuit. Yes, it’s been stolen! And we’re (quite literally) off.

Stolen cars, thieves’ dens, a mysterious woman asking for help and aiding escape from the previous, encounters with (deeply stereotyped) gypsies, and tramps, and wealthy eccentrics posing as tramps, a stint as a carnival sideshow assistant, the acquisition of a bicycle, and the almost immediate losing of it, skinny dipping whever the opportunity arises, mistaken identity, an almost-incarceration in a lunatic asylum, a romantic dalliance (of sorts), a journey in a smuggler’s yacht, and more – oh, yes, our Mr. Finchley does manage to fill his three weeks to the brim!

An enjoyable book in its way, which I found initially intriguing, but slightly less so as episode followed increasingly predictable episode – Mr. Finchley meets a (generally) roguish character, is dragged into a questionable situation, backpeddles, is accused of cowardice, and steps up to defend his manhood, while always maintaining his Respectable British Integrity – with not much in the way of carryover from adventure to adventure. Mr. Finchley remains a caricature, albeit a likeable one, and the book as a whole a bit of a curiosity piece versus a stellar piece of inter-war literature. There are sober moments here and there, but it’s mostly lighthearted romping.

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England met with significant success, selling well enough to allow Victor Canning to quit his day job clerking and go into writing full-time, which he did with great energy, producing over sixty books in a variety of genres during a career that spanned the years from the 1930s until his death in 1986, at the age of 75.

An excellent website chock full of background information on Canning’s life and many works is maintained by John Higgins and can be found here, and I highly recommend a visit by those either already Victor Canning fans, or soon to become such.

Oh, yes, the rating. What shall I give Mr. Finchley? Well, it fully met my expectations as a relaxing light read, though it wasn’t quite as complex as I could have wished. Not bad, though. Pretty good, in fact. Here’s a 7/10.

 

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Panthers’ Moon by Victor Canning ~ 1948. This edition: M.S. Mill Co. and William Morrow & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 246 pages.

Quite a decent thriller by a writer I’d first become acquainted with way back in grade school with his 1971 “juvenile delinquent meets escaped cheetah” novel, The Runaways, and much more recently his 1974 espionage novel, The Mask of Memory.

Both of these were more than readable, and left me curious about the rest of Canning’s books – he was a steady sort of writer, producing an average book-a-year from 1935 till the mid-1980s.

Travel books, action and spy novels, an Arthurian trilogy, a few books-for-younger-readers, stage plays, radio and television scripts – Canning worked hard at his writer’s job and enjoyed a steady success.

I’ve been watching out for his titles these past few years, and haven’t had a whole lot of luck until just recently, when three came into my hands in the space of a few weeks.

Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris, 1938, is apparently a picaresque sort of rambling adventure-travel novel featuring a middle-aged British clerk; I am holding off reading it until I can get my hands on its 1934 prequel, Mr. Finchley Discovers His England, which was Canning’s first published work, and such a successful one that it set in motion his long writing career.

Along with Mr. Finchley, found by its side in the vintage mystery section at the delectable Nuggets Used Books in Chilliwack, B.C., I acquired The Chasm, 1947, which is reviewed with glowing praise on the back cover of this book, Panthers’ Moon. (I wanted to read The Chasm first, but I’ve temporarily misplaced it; a maddening situation. Can’t be far away, but where? Likely hiding in plain sight, as searched-for books so often are!)

Before I go any further, warm thanks must go out to John Higgins, who has created and maintained a linked series of web pages featuring Victor Canning and his works; a treasure trove indeed and one I intend to go to for guidance in my future Victor Canning explorations, which I am looking forward to with great anticipation.

So, Panthers’ Moon.

If you think the dust jacket illustration looks like it could be something found on a Helen MacInnes book of the same era, you’d be absolutely correct, though Canning wanders into rather more fanciful territory than MacInnes ever did, what with his inclusion of two domesticated-yet-dangerous panthers – one jet black – as major characters in this slightly unlikely spy thriller.

The larger plot points are telegraphed well in advance of their coming off, but Canning achieves a few surprises, too, and his action sequences are stellar, worth the occasional slogging through clichéd scenarios, and the inclusion of what turns into an almost too cute love story, between our action hero protagonist and an emotionally damaged British spy.

Down below you can see what the fly leaves have to say, as I am in full meander mode tonight and can’t quite settle to a tidy précis of my own, other than that secret documents are given to good guy hero to transport across international borders, and he thinks he’s found the perfect hiding place, but the bad guys are on to him and a long and tricksy chase ensues. Oh, yes. The female spy (a good guy spy, even though she’s not a guy) is absolutely beautiful. Too bad about her tragically deceased lover, victim of the Nazis. Ah, well. Broken hearts are ripe for mending, at least in these sorts of spy-versus-spy inventions, which quite often contain a dash of romantic entanglement.

I will leave you here, with my nod of general approval to this likeable period piece, and with my assurance that I will be delving ever deeper into the works of Victor Canning, for John Higgins has kindly put together a list of the best, as it were, and I intend to take the bait and seek these out with more focus in the future, versus waiting on random book-finding luck.

Panthers’ Moon gets a warm 7/10 from me, mostly because of those vivid action sections, and because I’m a total sucker for a vintage novel man-of-many-manly-skills, as the extremely competent hero of Panthers’ Moon happily turned out to be.

A proper review is here, and another is here, with another good overview of Canning’s work here.

 

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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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