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The Limbo Line

Novel (254 pages, 81,810 words)

This was Canning's first book for Heinemann, published in 1963 at 15/-. There was a US edition in 1964 published by W.Sloane Associates. There was a Companion Book Club edition and several paperback versions.

It introduces the secret service agents Manston and Sutcliffe who will later play a part in the Rex Carver series of books. In this book they behave with conventional boy scout morals. It is only later that they develop the callousness that characterises the service in the Rex Carver books and which presages the ugliness of officialdom in the Birdcage series. This is also one of very few of Canning's books to contain any Cold War subject matter, the others being A Forest of Eyes (set in Yugoslavia), The Python Project, and Birds of a Feather.

The plot concerns an organisation that kidnaps Russian emigrés and defectors to return them to the Soviet Union. A ballet dancer is known to be their next target, so the secret service attempts to trace her route across the English Channel to south west France. According to David Thomas (1986), Canning related how in the past few years a spate of spy trials had gone beyond the dreams of fiction writers: “Glamour and cloak-and-dagger are far from the truth”, he insisted. "It is ordinary, sometimes pathetic people who get caught up in a system which is cold and ruthless," Canning declared. “I decided”, he went on, “I would like to write a novel about a small unimportant figure who gets caught up and is used as a small expendable pawn.” Hence the heroine, Irina Tovskaya, is a chorus dancer, not a principal.

See below for some photographs of the area of the novel's dénouement.

The book seems to pay homage to John Buchan in a rather deliberate way. The hero's name is Richard Manston, an echo of Richard Hannay, while the property used by the evil conspiracy to take the kidnap victims to their rendezvous with the Rumanian boat is identified by having "forty-eight or forty-nine steps" leading from the cliff top to the shore.

A film was made in 1968. It was directed by Samuel Gallu and starred the American Craig Stevens as Richard Manston with an otherwise mainly British cast. The location of the climax was changed from South-west France to the Baltic coast of Germany around Lübeck. The ending of the film is quite unlike that of the book, though the earlier parts had stayed fairly close. Reviews of the film at the time were generally negative. Kate O'Mara, who played the dancer, had this to say in her memoirs, Vamp Until Ready (Robson Books, 2003):

"On completion of Great Catherine I was put forward for another film, an adaptation of a novel by Victor Canning, The Limbo Line. It was the story of a Russian ballerina who defects to the West, falls in love with the American hero and is hotly pursued across England and Europe by KGB agents. ... I read for [the producers] in my newly acquired Russian accent—I had already secured the services of a Russian student to ensured that my accent was authentic—and was passed as competent by the choreographer who was in charge of the dance sequences. I secretly blessed the tortuous hours I had spent in ballet class. I was to perform the 'Dance of the Little Swans' from Swan Lake with members of the Royal Festival Ballet and had to be seen in the final moments of Stravinsky's Firebird. ... My leading man in the movie, Craig Stevens, was an American who had been very popular on American television in a series called Peter Gunn. He was married to the actress Alexis Smith, for whom Cole Porter had written Night and Day. Filming was to take place at Pinewood Studios with locations at Littlehampton, Marlow and Burnham Beeches, the last named being a favourite location spot for countless films. Craig Stevens turned out to be the most charming and urbane of men. I couldn't have wished for better. Also in the film was Robert Urquhart, Vladek Sheybal and Moira Redmond. Moira and I immediately chummed up and had great fun. ... I enjoyed making the film, but the producers made the mistake of giving it an unhappy ending, contrary to the author's intentions. So, instead of wandering off into the sunset with the hero, the last shots of me were of being bundled into the hold of a Russian boat and taken back to the Soviet Union. The audience didn't like the unconventional ending one bit and it was booed wherever it was shown. I have to say I agreed with them. I love happy endings. I think it gives one hope for the future and it's partly why people go to the cinema, most particularly if it is a romantic adventure story. I suppose the audience felt cheated and I don't blame them." (p. 47-49)

A lengthy and positive review by David Vineyard of The Limbo Line has been posted on the Mystery File blog site.

 

First edition
First edition
1963
Pan paperback
Pan paperback
1965
Film tie-in paperback
Film tie-in paperback
1968
Book club
Companion Book Club
edition, 1963
US paperback
US paperback
German translation
German translation
Danish translation
Danish translation
Film poster
Film poster

A Rex Carver Companion available from Lulu.com
Price £7.96.

Pictures from a visit to St. Jean de Luz and Sare

Spanish border from La Rhune Bay at St. Jean de Luz
Fifteen kilometres south of St Jean-de-Luz a man on a motor-scooter, not his own, was making his way up a small D-class road towards the Franco-Spanish border. The road, narrow and twisting as it first followed the course of a small river, rose through oak and chestnut forests towards the frontier post at the Col de Marieta, five hundred and seven metres high and cradled between the north tip of the Pic d’Ormantelli and the south crest of the Pic Dassoa. (Page 165) Some time later they went down the hill into St Jean, over the bridge at the top end of the harbour ... The road rose and curled and suddenly the whole spread of the bay was before them, breakwatered at its mouth. To their left the ground rose steeply, studded with villas and their gardens. (Page 175)
Sare main square fronton at Sare
At half-past twelve, working their way back to St Jean-de-Luz, they drove into a small hill town called Sare ... Lower down the street they found a café-restaurant and took a seat at a table outside. (Page 190) They then saw the reason for the crowd. Facing the café, with a narrow road running up its right-hand side, was the open square. This road and the square immediately in front of the café were packed with people playing a pelota game ... The far wall, Guyon explained, was called a fronton and the ball was served by one side against this and returned by the defending team. (Page 192)
Sare crockery incorporating the Basque Cross design Chantaco golf course
... they did what they had done that morning in all the other places they had visited; they kept their eyes open for crockery stalls and shops that sold wine and cheese. ... She looked down at the plate and then her eyes came up to Manston. He gave her a look and then said to the girl:
‘This is interesting crockery. I like the design. Is it local?’
‘Yes, monsieur. It’s very nice, isn’t it?’ said the girl. ‘It’s made locally. Tourists buy a lot of it.’
‘And I suppose the people here use it?’
‘Yes, monsieur’—the girl smiled—‘but they don’t pay the same price as the tourists.’ (Page 191)
He began to clamber up the slope to the green. This, he thought, was a hole he was going to lose. Amadeo was too damned good. Amadeo, on the edge of the green, watched him climb up. Then, when he was only a few feet from Amadeo, Manston saw the man’s eyes suddenly looking past him. In that moment Amadeo leapt for him, driving his shoulder against him and both of them went to the ground. (Page 228)