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The Scorpio Letters (1964)

Novel (256 pages, 78,925 words)

First edition 1964
First edition
1964
Foyles Book Club edition
Foyles Book
Club 1964
Pan paperback
Pan paperback
1966
Pan film tie-in paperback
Film tie-in 1967
Simplied edition 1974
Simplified edition
German
German translation

The Book

The book starts with the villain, Antonio Bardi, writing four blackmail letters to his British victims: Professor Ronald Dean, Sir Alexander Synat (businessman), John Hope Berney (politician), and Nadia Temple (actress).They are sent to a courier in London, Luigi Fettoni, but the courier is killed in a traffic accident on the way to the post box, and the letters are delivered by the police. None of the recipients shows them to the policeman who comes to the door (a bit unlikely that this would be allowed, surely), since they all assume the dead man was the blackmailer and they are now safe.

However, a young friend of the professor, George Constantine, visits the Fettoni house, realises Fettoni was just a courier, and starts investigating. He also picks up what looks like a membership card of something called the Bianeri. He contacts the other three victims, finding their names by asking a friend at the hospital.He teams up with the actress's daughter, Nicola Meade. They work out that the common link to the scandalous secrets that the blackmailer found out is a restaurant owner called Vinescu, his partner then called Longo, the partner's wife, Elsie, and a stage magician called Ricardo Cadim. The two young heroes set off to Paris searching for Cadim who has performed there recently.

There now follows a rapid tour of France and Switzerland, taking in Paris, St Tropez, Annecy and Meiringen, in which our heroes rescue each other from deadly assaults, find out who the Bianeri are, and reach the inevitable happy ending.

There is an implausible franticness to the action and very thin characterisation. The motivations of the villains is poorly worked out. As in all Canning's works of the period, the young lovers would not dream of having sex before the wedding. Not one of Canning's better books, though one can share Canning's enjoyment of French culture and scenery.

Publishing History

This book first apeared as a serialisation in Today magazine (the successor of John Bull) in seven weekly parts from 21 September 1963. It was Canning's second book for Heinemann, published in 1964 at 18/-. The US edition by W. Sloane Associates and a Foyles Book Club edition appeared in the same year. There was a Pan paperback in 1966 and a film tie-in paperback in 1967. There was also a simplified edition for EFL learners published by Hutchinson in 1974.

The Film

The 1966 film starred Alex Cord and Shirley Eaton and was directed by Richard Thorpe. Alex Cord was an American action hero who mainly did TV work. The film was more a vehicle for Shirley Eaton, already a successful singer/actor when she gained huge fame in 1964 as Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, the girl “murdered” by being covered in gold paint.

Many of Victor Canning’s names, characters and plot lines seem to have vanished in this adaptation. George Constantine and Nicola Meade have turned into the American Joe Christopher and the British Phoebe Stewart, working for rival departments of the British Intelligence Services. The film begins with the suicide of another agent who has been compromised and blackmailed and who has no counterpart in the book. The first half of the film has Joe Christopher taken on as a room-service waiter in a smart hotel, where he has the chance to throw a bowl of soup at the overbearing chef, giving rise to a slapstick chase routine. The first link with the book’s plot comes when he goes to Paris to be plied with brandy by the villainous Bianeri and pushed down a chute into the waters of the Seine, from where he is rescued by the heroine who miraculously knows where to find him. We move to the climax in Haute Savoie with a shoot-out on a ski-lift. These set pieces of action are taken from the book, but they are hard to justify when we know so little about the characters involved.

The film attracted a scathing review from the British Film Institute Newsletter: "This latest imitation Bond is a dud from start to finish ... Here the criminal organisation to be destroyed is about as threatening as a set of toy poodles and Alex Cord as the agent looks more like an irate scoutmaster than an iron man of action. Some awkward plot continuity might have been broken up by fast cutting, but instead the script pauses at regular intervals to explain what it is all about. The result is a plodding piece of hokum without a whit of originality."

 

Views of Annecy

The next day—Friday, the day before Ricardo Cadim was due to open at the Hotel de l’Empire—they went on to Annecy. Remembering Aristide’s warning about staying in hotels in the large towns, George sent Nicola to an estate agent, and fed the swans at the lakeside for an hour while she made a quick tour of chalets and bungalows for rent around the lake. The Hotel de 1’Empire was just outside the town on the east shore of the lake. It was a long, low Colonial-looking building with a large garden that ran down to the hotel’s private beach. In the grounds of the garden were half a dozen chalets that supplemented the hotel accommodation. It was a quiet, well-groomed, expensive-looking place. George ran his boat ashore and went up to the main building for a drink at the bar. He was not very happy about going into hotels now, but the risk had to be taken. ... The bar, crescent-shaped, was walled with black nylon fur, had red furniture and silver fittings, and the price of a gin and tonic made him blink. He was served by a tall young man, wearing a tight-fitting red coat with silver buttons, who gave one look at the panama as he took it off and clearly disapproved.