This book was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1939, the fourth that Canning wrote using the pen-name Alan Gould. It explores Dostoyevskian territory. It is a study of a murderer, not asking us to like him but at least to understand him. It starts slowly; we reach page 168, over half way, before the main action begins. However, in the end the long build-up is justified and the story is tense and the characters memorable.
Andrew Godwin, in his late twenties, is a clerk in a government office in the west country town of Sandover. He dreams of having enough money to buy luxuries and write full time. He notes that Albert Vines, a junior clerk that he despises, is regularly sent to cash the office's pay cheques and, on those days, is carrying £300 in cash, enough to live on for a year. Godwin speculates about murdering Vines and stealing the money, first working it out as a story and then deciding to carry out the plot.
We follow the deed itself, the investigation, the chance exposure of Godwin's crime and his desperate attempts to escape, culminating in a vivid climax as he is hunted on Exmoor. Afterwards everyone is puzzled how someone so likeable could have done such a wicked deed, and somebody pays anonymously for an In Memoriam notice in the paper every year, ending with the line "Every Creature of God is Good" (which comes from I Timothy, 4, 4, where in its original context it is taken as justifying Christians in eating pork rather than a general encouragement to forgive).
Andrew Godwin, the central figure, embodies much of Canning’s own experience and background. He works as a clerk. He has ambitions to write and contributes to a local newspaper. He is lonely living away from home. He is perpetually short of money. All of these things were true of Canning five years earlier before his breakthrough success with Mr. Finchley Discovers his England. We can be sure that Canning did not commit murder in order to change his circumstances, but he may well have worked out how to as a story plot, which is how Godwin begins. We also see Godwin justifying the crime by pointing to his talents, contrasting this with the apparent worthlessness of the humble Albert Vines. For Vines to die in order that Godwin can create great literature is a bargain that society should be pleased with. Canning probably never seriously thought of himself in these arrogant terms, but he was ready to imagine somebody who might.
Canning sets the story in "Brentshire", an imaginary county he has constructed between Gloucestershire and Somerset on the Bristol Channel. This would place the town of Sandover roughly where Clevedon is, but the town he describes with a flourishing port on a muddy estuary resembles more Burnham-on-Sea, close to Weston-super-Mare where Canning had lived and worked from 1930 to 1934.
First edition 1939
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