Victor Canning was born on 16th June 1911, in Plymouth, Devon, the eldest child of Fred Canning, and his wife Mabel, née Goold. The address of the family according to the 1911 census which took place just before Victor's birth was 6 Rowden Street, Peverell, Plymouth, and his father's profession was given as "taxi-driver", though elsewhere he described himself as "coach-builder". During WW1 his father served as an ambulance driver in France and Flanders, while Victor with his two sisters went to live in the village of Calstock ten miles north of Plymouth, where his uncle Cecil Goold worked for the railways and later became station master. After the war the family returned to Plymouth. In the mid 1920s they moved to Oxford where his father had found work, and Victor attended the Oxford Central School. Here he was encouraged to stay on at school and go to university by a classical scholar, Dr. Bernard Henderson, who promised to get Victor a place at Oxford University, but the family could not afford it and instead he went to work as a clerk in the education office at age 16, first in Oxford, later in Weston-super-Mare.
Thomas (1986) quotes the following account of how Canning started writing, but gives no source:
I was seventeen. I wanted a motor-bike ... and to drink beer with the other fellows in the rugby club. I'd no money—I was earning 17s 6d a week in an office. I picked up some kids' magazine and I read a story. I thought: My God! If I couldn't write a better story than this, I'd well ...! I sat down and wrote one ... I got four guineas for it. That was it—I'd started.
Within three years Canning had started selling short stories regularly to boys’ magazines and newspapers, and in 1934 his first novel, Mr Finchley Discovers his England, was accepted by Hodder and Stoughton and became a runaway best seller. He gave up his job and started writing full time, producing thirteen more novels in the next six years under three different names. Lord Rothermere engaged him to write for the Daily Mail, and a number of his travel articles for the Daily Mail were collected as a book with illustrations by Leslie Stead under the title Everyman's England in 1936. He also continued to write short stories. I have come across one very minor piece of publication by Canning in the form of a pair of letters to The Times in 1936 on the subject of smoking chimneys and how to cure them. He was only in his twenties, and he comes across as rather pompous, but so in those days did nearly everybody who wrote to The Times.
He married Phyllis McEwen in 1935, a girl from a theatrical family whom he met while she was working with a touring vaudeville production at Weston-super-Mare. They had three daughters, Lindel born in 1939, Hilary born in 1940, and Virginia who was born in 1942 and died in infancy.
In 1940 he enlisted in the Army, and was sent for training with the Royal Artillery in Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, where he trained alongside his friend Eric Ambler. Both were commissioned as second lieutenants in 1941. We get a glimpse of Canning in those years from Eric Ambler's autobiography, Here Lies Eric Ambler. Writing about the year 1937 when he was in the south of France researching the background for The Mask of Dimitrios, Ambler writes on page 137:
"I had other reasons for going to England then. I had new friends like Victor Canning and Charles Rodda (an Australian who wrote thrillers under the name Charles Holt) and old friends like Vere Denning, now married to John French."On page 170 Ambler writes about his military training with the Royal Artillery.
"There was a pleasant side. Victor Canning was in the same troop as I was. On Saturday nights, duty permitting, we would go to the local repertory theatre and on Sunday nights to the cinema. In both places, of course, we could sit down. I cannot recall our ever going into a pub for a drink where one had to stand at the bar. On weekday nights, if not on duty or cramming or cleaning equipment, one went to bed early."
This picture shows a newly commissioned group of RA officers outside the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells in the early 1940s. The hotel was one of several in the area which had been requisitioned for army billeting. I have no idea if Canning is present in this picture. Probably not, though he might be. (Picture courtesy the Radnorshire Museum in Llandrindod Wells)
...even in the Royal Artillery he had a stimulus to write in the promptings of a loyal batman who was in the habit of rebuking Major Canning in the morning if he felt that the boss had not been long enough at his typewriter the previous night.
At the end of the war he was assigned to an Anglo-American unit doing experimental work with radar range-finding. It was top secret work but nothing to do with espionage, though Canning never discouraged the assumption of publishers and reviewers that his espionage stories were partly based on experience. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of major.
He resumed writing with The Chasm (1947), a novel about identifying a Nazi collaborator who has hidden himself in a remote Italian village. A film of this was put into production but never finished. Canning’s next book, Panthers’ Moon, was filmed as Spy Hunt, and from now on Canning was established as someone who could write a book a year in the suspense genre, have them reliably appear in book club and paperback editions on both sides of the Atlantic, be translated into the main European languages, and in many cases get filmed. He himself spent five months in 1952 in Hollywood working on scripts for movies of his own books and on TV shows. The money earned from the film of The Golden Salamander (filmed with Trevor Howard) meant that Canning could buy a substantial country house with some land in Kent, Marle Place, where he lived for nearly twenty years and where his daughter continues to live now. From the mid 1950s onwards his books became more conventional, full of exotic settings, stirring action sequences and stock characters. During the 1950s and '60s Canning also wrote dozens of short stories for the pulp fiction magazines, Argosy, Suspense, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, John Bull, Saturday Evening Post, This Week, and probably others. I have tracked down over a hundred of these, and I suspect there are many more. There were also about two dozen television scripts for the BBC and Rediffusion. In 1963 he switched publishers from Hodder and Stoughton to Heinemann. Heinemann also bought the rights to the back list, and in the 1970s began to bring out a Uniform Edition set of reprints that included most of the early work (excluding the Alan Gould novels). It appears they did not sell very well, since very few of them turn up on the second-hand market. In 1965 he began a series of four books featuring a private detective called Rex Carver, and these were among his most successful in sales terms.
Some time at the end of the ’60s he fell in love with Diana Bird, the wife of London solicitor Fraser Bird who lived in the neighbourhood, which led to his separation from Phyllis and leaving the family home in 1968 to settle first in Andover and then in north Devon. He had to wait five years for his divorce, and finally married Diana Bird in 1974. She died of cancer in February 1976. The seven and a half years that they lived together were an extraordinarily productive period for him, containing almost all of his best work, including the first five of his ‘Birdcage’ novels, a trilogy of books for children starting with The Runaways, and the beginning of a trilogy retelling the legends of King Arthur, The Crimson Chalice.
Canning married Adria Irving-Bell in November 1976, and they moved to Gloucestershire and then Herefordshire, then back to Gloucestershire. He continued writing a book a year, and started to write radio plays, of which three were broadcast. He died of a heart attack on 21st February 1986, in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. His last book, Table Number Seven, was completed by his wife Adria and his sister Jean. Adria Canning continued to live in Cirencester, and died there in April 2005.
Canning seems to have been a generous and friendly man, an accomplished sportsman, keen on golf and latterly on fishing. His love of and knowledge of English countryside and wildlife pervades his early and late work. His middle period thrillers are mainly set overseas since “in this country you can always call a policeman”, as he is reported to have said. In contrast, the ‘Birdcage’ books, beginning with Firecrest (1971) and including his masterpiece The Rainbird Pattern (1972) which was awarded the CWA Silver Dagger and nominated for the Edgar awards, were set mostly in the south of England. They were all far darker and more realistic than any of his earlier thrillers. They do not have conventional happy endings, and the villains are often sinister government officials who crush the innocent bystanders who might accidentally expose them.
From the 1950s up to the mid 1970s his work was almost automatically adopted by at least one of the popular book clubs, but this does not seem to have happened in Britain with the books that followed Birdcage in 1978. Perhaps his traditional readership had begun to abandon him when he switched from the light thrillers that he had dashed off in the '50s and '60s to the much more serious and insightful books of the '70s. It was at about the same time that he launched into two new genres, the children's story with The Runaways and its two sequels, and the historical romance with The Crimson Chalice and its two sequels. It was also in the late '60s that he appears to have stopped writing short stories for the pulp magazines. The personal crises that affected him at that time seemed to make him into a very different writer.
The Barnes and Noble website makes these general comments on his style and influence:
As a British novelist who often combined the spy thriller and the private eye crime mystery, Victor Canning drew comparisons to predecessors such as Eric Ambler, contemporaries such as Ian Fleming, and successors such as Len Deighton and John le Carre. Canning published his first novel in 1935; over fifty more novels followed before he died in 1986. In many of these works, Canning sets a moral conflict as the central theme. His characters live in a confusion of good and evil, their "bright aspirations," as Harry Sumrall wrote in the Washington Post, "beset by the sinister demands of reality." Yet, even with the serious struggle between good and evil, Canning also managed "a generous dollop of humour, usually droll, urbane, and finely sketched, a trait not often found in spy and espionage stories," noted Frank Denton in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers.
To call Eric Ambler a "predecessor" is not quite accurate. Ambler (born in 1909) was a year or two older, but Ambler's first novel, The Dark Frontier, appeared in 1936, two years after Canning's first book. It is true, however, that Canning's early books were not thrillers. Fly Away Paul in 1936 and Fountain Inn in 1938 have thriller elements, but it was Panthers' Moon in 1948 that was the first of Canning's proper thrillers. Neither is it accurate to call Ian Fleming a contemporary since Fleming, though born in 1908, did not get anything published until 1953, some nineteen years after Canning's first book. The other immediate contemporaries and successors of Canning and Ambler as popular thriller writers were Hammond Innes (1913-1998) who began writing in 1937, Alistair MacLean (1922-1987), whose first novel was published in 1954, and Desmond Bagley (1923-1983) whose first novel was published in 1962. The next wave was the de-glamourisers of the secret services who began in the 1960s, Len Deighton and John Le Carré, both of whom probably influenced Canning's later work.
Canning was down-to-earth about his achievements, and is quoted (in Thomas and in The Times obituary) as saying: "I simply try to give the public its money's worth." As a summation of ninety percent of his output, that would be fair. As the final judgement on the creator of Firecrest, The Rainbird Pattern, Birdcage, and The Runaways, it is far too modest.
References:Ambler, Eric. Here lies Eric Ambler. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1985.
Anonymous obituary of Victor Canning. The Times, 27 February 1986, p. 14.
Thomas, David A. (1986). "Victor Canning: popular and now very collectable author of thrillers, comic novels, and mysteries." Book and Magazine Collector No. 32, November 1986. Pages 41 - 47.
Link to feature in the Plymouth Herald of 15 August 2016.John Higgins, Shaftesbury, August 2016.