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Birds of a feather

Novel (163 pages, 60,275 words)

Published by Heinemann in 1985 at 8.50 and in the USA by Morrow at $13.95, this was Canning's last completed book, and the first one since The Python Project in 1967 which had any Cold War subject matter. The human characters are not always convincing, but the wildlife lore is powerful. Falcons nesting on Exmoor had featured previously in several of Canning's books, notably in The Painted Tent.

Most of the action takes place at and around Hurlstone Point on the Somerset coast between Porlock and Minehead. Sir Richard Swale is a landowner, a member of the establishment (a former MP) and a traitor. He has been seduced by the Russians with blondes and with antiques, which he collects passionately. He has no children, so plans to leave his collection to the nation. He has engaged an expert to catalogue it. The expert has fallen in love with his wife who, however, will not leave her husband.

Sir Richard's treachery has been discovered, and Warboys and Quint, now retired from Birdcage but called in for the sake of their contacts, decide he must be discreetly killed. They send in a marksman who will wait for a suitable moment and then shoot him at his country home on Exmoor. Meanwhile the Russians have also decided to eliminate him. They engage a mechanic to wire up his Rolls Royce with a bomb which will explode whenever he uses the car cigarette lighter. They do not realise that Sir Richard is trying hard to give up smoking. (Canning himself was a heavy smoker all his life, and had probably also been given strong warnings by his doctor at the time of writing.)

A pair of falcons is nesting on Hurlstone Point close to Sir Richard's property, and he is waiting for the young birds to begin to fly so that he can catch and train them to give to an Arab friend.

The climax comes when the Russians send in another mechanic to dismantle the bomb in the car, having decided against the assassination, and there is a convergence of the British assassin, the Russian-recruited mechanic, and the victim on the cliff where the falcons have built their nest.

 

First edition 1985
First edition
US edition 1985
US first
Companion cover The background to all the 'Birdcage' series of books, including a comprehensive index of characters, locations and themes is now available as a download (2.00) or in book form (5.00) from Lulu.com.


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Pictures of Hurlstone Point

NT collecting box Fence at cliff top nesting cliff
Reaching the place where the cliff path broadened out into a wide bracken-free spread of close-cropped turf, Ruth Winslade sat down thankfully on the long seat which stood close to the National Trust collecting box set up to receive the offerings of tourists and walkers on their way up to and down from nearby Hurlstone Point. (p. 1) From where she sat now she could see the spot. It was a little way below the coastguard lookout building, hugging the cliff slope on the right, falling almost sheer, first through gorse, bramble and bracken and then steep rock face. A small fence guarded the steep fall side now, but on that far-off morning [when her husband had died] there had been no fence. (p. 5) That night [the falcons] roosted on a rock ledge, thirty feet above high-water mark at the foot of Hurlstone Point. (p. 26)
vapour trail Alster bridge beach
Colour and movement, laughter, children shouting and running, and an airliner from Heathrow marking a great white chalk score across the blue, ... (p. 52)
(Picture taken at Dunster Castle)
They left the car and crossed the little wooden bridge over the Aller and followed the river until they parted company, they to climb, ... ... and the river to find its way to the beach’s great pebble ridge and beyond it the sea. (p. 3)