Two con men dissolve their partnership and prepare to retire. However, they are called back to carry out one last crime aboard the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 by a mysterious blackmailer who has recognised them.
Purely as a tense and carefully researched thriller the book works well, but it is more than that. As in the pre-war Canning novel Every Creature of God is Good (1939), the reader is drawn to understand and even like a man who commits murder. The central figure, Andrew Raikes, is the first of a series of Canning heroes who have powerful emotional drivers, in his case the urge to gain enough money to re-establish his squirearchical family and buy back the family home that his father has lost through mismanagement. His character emerges far more strongly that the conventional heroes of Canning's earlier books, and foreshadows John Grimster in Firecrest, driven by revenge, Blanche Tyler in The Rainbird Pattern, driven by her ambition to establish the temple of Asphodel, and Robert Rolt in The Finger of Saturn and Richard Seyton in The Satan Sampler, both driven by dynastic ambition.
This is also the first Canning thriller to feature a credible and interesting female figure. Belle Vickers, the secretary who is forced to become Raikes's partner in crime, is the first of a line of rather submissive heroines whose relationships with the stronger male figures are convincingly described and justified. She is the forerunner of Lily Stevens in Firecrest, Margaret Tucker in The Mask of Memory, and Sarah Branton in Birdcage.
This was the first of Canning's books to follow the Rex Carver series. It was published by Heinemann in 1969, and in the USA by Morrow in 1970. It was a Book Society choice, and there was also a Companion Book Club edition in 1970, a Pan paperback in 1971, and a hardback reprint in the Uniform series in 1974. An abridged version appeared in two parts as a supplement to the Toronto Star Weekly, 24 and 31 January 1970. Happily there is a new edition both as p-o-d and e-book from Bello, the "modern classics" imprint of Pan Macmillan.
Carl Foreman, of High Noon fame, was comissioned to write a filmscript, but the film was never made.