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Introduction: Reading Victor Canning

Victor Canning wrote 61 books and over 100 short stories in a writing career which lasted over 50 years. The best of the books are magnificent, but there are some which he must have written in a hurry and others which now seem rather dated. It would be a pity to pick one of his books at random and to judge him on the poor stuff he occasionally released.

He had a huge success with his first published book, Mr Finchley discovers his England in 1934, and perhaps found writing too easy for the next thirty-four years. Between 1935 and 1940 he wrote fourteen more books, including six light novels and a book of travel pieces under his own name, six more serious novels under the pen name Alan Gould and one autobiographical novel as Julian Forest. Among these was one charming piece of light-hearted detective fiction, Fountain Inn, which remains appealing and readable, and one thoughtful semi-historical novel about the early days of railway building, The Viaduct, which retains its grip. Some of his other work was a bit too exuberant and playfully obscure in its vocabulary and syntax, a habit that Canning cured himself of after the war. During the war years he published only one book, Green battlefield about crashed pilots surviving in occupied France, which is now very hard to find. From 1947 he published around one book a year, mostly thrillers. The first few of these included some very good books, but from about 1954 onwards he produced several books which were rather crassly commercial, though competently written.

Then, in 1968, he underwent a family crisis and something changed abruptly in his writing. Queen's Pawn was the first of a series of completely different novels, still staying within the suspense genre but with well-observed characters, elaborate but plausible plots, and themes which clearly mattered to the author in a way which had not been the case before. After Queen's Pawn came Firecrest and The Rainbird pattern, which in my reckoning is one of the best thrillers ever written. It was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger for 1972. The Gold Dagger that year went to Eric Ambler's The Levanter, but Canning's book is far better. Although out of print, it sold well in paperback and book-club editions and so is easy to find on the second hand market. It was filmed by Hitchcock under the title Family plot, but Hitchcock's screenwriter, Ernest Lehmann, completely rewrote the plot, turning it from tragedy to comedy. The film is enjoyable but it is very remote from Canning's original.

While most of the thrillers Canning wrote in the '50s and '60s treated the British Secret Services in a Flemingesque we-are-the-good-guys style, and the four light thrillers written in the late '60s around the private detective Rex Carver had the official Secret services being ruthless but ultimately on "our" side, these new books showed "the Department" as staffed by very fallible and often despicable human beings, prepared to kill in order to save money or cover up their mistakes. This theme comes over very strongly in two of his later works, Birdcage and The boy on Platform One. In both cases innocent bystanders find themselves causing embarrassment to officials who set about eliminating them.

Another recurrent theme is ecology and a love of the English landscape. There is lots about fishing and falconry. If a goose flies by, we are told its breed. All the books, even some of the weaker ones, are full of loving descriptions of countryside. The ecology theme emerges very strongly in nearly all of the pre-war novels, in one very good thriller, The doomsday carrier, and in the first (and much the best) of his three books for children, The runaways.

Of the earlier books, the four Rex Carver novels are still reasonably entertaining in an undemanding way. They belong to the post-Bond era of cheeky rebellious heroes, started by Len Deighton and continued by James Leasor and Adam Diment, who upstage the official secret service. The one I would most recommend is The python project.

Hard to find but worth reading when you do is Canning's only Cold War thriller, A forest of eyes, and another beautifully written investigative thriller of the same period, Venetian bird, with its atmospheric descriptions of Venice and North Italy, an area Canning knew well from his war service. Another book from the 1950s, The Manasco Road, contains a brilliant account of a marriage in difficulties within a David-and-Goliath story set in northern Majorca (the part that tourists rarely visit).

One book from Canning's late period which one often finds in second-hand dealers and charity shops is The finger of Saturn. It is one of his best written, but introduces an occult or science fiction theme in a way which some readers may find hard to accept. Read it, but if in the end you dislike it be aware that it is one of a kind and he never returns to that strand. You might also want to be alerted to a whimsical streak in some of his writing. In The great affair, published when he was at the height of his popular success, he recounts the adventures of a de-frocked priest travelling around Europe stealing money from a number of grotesque villains in order to give it to an orphanage. For the most part he (or his editors) suppressed this kind of nonsense but it surfaces occasionally. In his earliest work he also had a bad habit of showing off by occasionally using very abstruse words, but he gave that up after the war.

In summary, the most strongly recommended of Canning's books are:

These are not the only good books he wrote, but they are the ones which are most likely (in my judgement) to set you hunting for more.

John Higgins, Shaftesbury, October 2007.