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The Birdcage books of Victor Canning

from Crime and Detective Stories, No. 50, October 2006.

One problem with Victor Canning (1911-1986) is that his output was prolific and the quality rather uneven. Before the war, when he was in his twenties, he wrote rustic comedies, the best known being his three very successful Mr Finchley novels. After the war he began writing thrillers, probably inspired by his friendship with Eric Ambler, and produced several works of real quality, in particular A Forest of Eyes (1950) and Venetian Bird (1951). But success perhaps came too easily, and for the next twenty years or so he churned out one book-length thriller plus half a dozen short stories or several TV scripts each year, most of it mechanical work with energetic but implausible plots and characters straight out of some central-casting stockbook. The written style remained reliably good, and many of the weaker books are redeemed by set pieces of lively action. Good or bad, the books sold by the quarter million or more, and eight of them were filmed, so it took something special to jerk him out of his routine and into worthwhile achievement.

That something was an emotional crisis. In 1968 Canning left his wife, his daughters and his family home in Kent to set up house with another woman. The first Mrs Canning made him wait the full five years for his divorce, and when he eventually re-married in November 1974 his new wife, Diana, died of cancer within eighteen months. But in those six and a half years Canning wrote nearly all his best work, including his charming children’s story The Runaways, the first part of his re-telling of Arthurian legends in The Crimson Chalice, and the first four of his Birdcage novels.

He began the series in 1971 with Firecrest, followed in 1972 by The Rainbird Pattern. These magnificent books, although superficially thrillers, were quite unlike any of his earlier work. For the first time Canning was creating credible and interesting female characters. For the first time he was using plots which were driven by character and had real uncertainty of outcome since one could not know in advance what choices the protagonists would make. His villains now were not foreign spies or criminal gangs but members of the British establishment, making for a real conflict of interest since punishing the wicked would also compromise the security of ‘our’ state. These villains were the staff of a secret government department with its headquarters in Birdcage Walk, initially referred to as The Department, and in later books as Birdcage. It was

… an offshoot of the Ministry of Defence. Its existence had never been officially acknowledged. Its functions—proliferating under the pressure of national security—were as old as organised society. Its work was discreet and indecent. … Murder, blackmail, fraud, theft and betrayal were the commonplaces of the Department. … Its members and operators lived in the common society but acted outside it. Most had entered the Department aware of some of its extreme aspects and prepared to adjust themselves. None had originally a complete understanding of it; and when this had come it was too late—for knowledge had by then brought acquiescence and even a measure of pride …

There had been something a little like Birdcage in one or two of Canning’s earlier books, notably The Limbo Line and the Rex Carver series in the mid-Sixties, but in those works it had been on the side of the angels. It was not, as it is here, an organisation which uses murder, blackmail and theft in order to save the taxpayer money and government ministers embarrassment. Birdcage crushes bystanders, innocent or not, and it is these bystanders that now become central in Canning’s concern.

Firecrest (1971)

Put at its simplest, Firecrest has the structure of a treasure hunt. As the story opens Henry Dilling, a scientist and owner of a recently bankrupt engineering company, has offered to sell some research papers on lasers to the government. Lasers, it is worth remembering, were a new and rather mysterious branch of science, dating back only to 1957, and most people at the time would have associated them with the scene in the film of Goldfinger (released in 1964) in which a large laser is about to be used to slice James Bond in half. Dilling’s papers, we learn, have military importance, and the value placed on them is half a million pounds, a large sum in 1971. When the papers are unearthed at the end of the book, they turn out to deal with the use of lasers in rifle sights and night vision equipment, so Canning clearly understood that lasers were not just the conventionally understood death ray. It is possible that Canning’s wartime work with radar and gunnery had given him rather more than a layman’s grasp of this technology.

As the negotiations with the Department are about to start, Dilling drops dead of a heart attack. The papers cannot be found, and the only person who might know where to find them is Dilling’s girlfriend Lily. It takes several months to track her down, but when she is found and questioned she turns out to have been hypnotised and given a false set of memories. The Department assigns an investigator, John Grimster, who must hypnotise her again to recover her memory. Grimster also tries out his hypnotism skills on a colleague and so learns how the Department plans to eliminate both the girl and him when the papers have been found.

Firecrest may have a relatively straightforward thriller plot, but this is the base for a subtle and complicated set of personal relationships. Most important is that between Lily and Dilling. Although Dilling is dead by page 5, his character and his relationship with Lily gradually come into focus throughout the book and serves to explain how and why he has hidden the papers. A second key relationship is the one between Lily and John Grimster. On his side it is almost entirely loveless. He is eaten up with his desire for revenge. He will happily sleep with Lily as part of his effort to relax her and prepare to hypnotise her, but there is no love in it. He is also keen to arrange that she receives the cash value of Dilling’s papers, but this is as much part of his revenge against the Department as from any fondness for the girl. On her side she develops the same kind of innocent trust in him that she had in Dillling; clearly she needs a dominant male figure. She has fantasies about how, when she has located the papers and been paid the money, they will live happily ever after. We know how little Grimster cares for her and can experience the irony.

The Rainbird Pattern (1972)

Canning’s next book was his masterpiece and drew much positive recognition at the time. It won the Silver Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1972 and was nominated for the corresponding award on the other side of the Atlantic. Hitchcock filmed it under the (rather better) title Family Plot in 1976, his last completed film. What appealed to Hitchcock was the way in which two narrative strands are developed alongside each other. The reader can see that they will collide, but cannot predict how this will come about or exactly what will happen when they do. Meanwhile the characters innocently—or guiltily—pursue their collision course, while we are made to feel like a pantomime audience vainly shouting “Behind you!” Hitchcock turned this into comedy, and even gave his film a conventional happy ending, using the same scriptwriter, Ernest Lehmann, as he had used for North by Northwest, his most successful previous comedy thriller. Canning’s book is anything but comedy, and Canning is said to have disliked the film and washed his hands of it.

The Rainbird Pattern opens with a kidnapper collecting a ransom. Calling himself ‘Trader’, he has with the aid of a woman accomplice kidnapped a member of Parliament, his second such venture, and has now come to collect a bag of industrial diamonds from a government department (which we can assume to be the same as the Department in Firecrest though with largely different personnel since most of the previous staff have been wiped out by John Grimster). The arrangements are meticulous and there are few clues to follow up. There has been publicity, but the ransom demanded is relatively small. The Department’s investigators surmise that Trader will undertake a third kidnapping, this time for a much larger sum and without publicity; the first two ventures have amounted to his advertising campaign.

Meanwhile we meet Blanche Tyler, known as ‘Madame Blanche’ when she pursues her profession of spirit medium, and her boyfriend and occasional researcher George Lumley. Blanche has been called in by an elderly lady called Grace Rainbird (renamed Julia Rainbird in the Hitchcock film version) who is suffering pangs of guilt over the death of her sister. Thirty-odd years earlier her sister had given birth to an illegitimate baby, which had been hurriedly and furtively sent for adoption. Now Miss Rainbird wants to locate the child and make him her heir. The reader quickly surmises that the lost child will turn out to be Trader, but the characters have no inkling, of course.

Blanche sets about earning the fee that she expects to receive when the heir is discovered by sending George to make enquiries in the village. This part of the story provides a clinical unmasking of the way the professional medium goes about her business. We are brought close to the mind of Blanche, the combination of knowing fakery and self-deception which drives her towards her ambition of founding the ‘Temple of Astrodel’. George carries out his part of the investigation reluctantly. He accepts the money that Blanche pays him for his work, but gets no pleasure from the deceptions he has to practise. In parallel to George and Blanche’s successful progress towards tracking down the missing heir, we follow the apparently vain efforts of the authorities to track down Trader, and Trader’s preparations for his next kidnapping, which is to be of the Archbishop—presumably of Canterbury, though this is not made explicit. One of the problems that Hitchcock had in transferring the setting of the story to California for his film is that there is no figure in America who corresponds to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Kidnapping ‘Bishop Wood’ did not have the same resonance, nor would he be so instantly recognisable.

As with Firecrest, what marks this book stand out is the characters and their relationships. Blanche plays Miss Rainbird almost like a fisherman playing a salmon, and we follow Miss Rainbird’s resistance to belief in the occult with real tension. George is an interesting blend of honesty and laziness, and his relationship to Blanche is convincing and subtly constructed. Blanche herself is a splendidly achieved portrait. I sometimes wonder how far Blanche is based on Diana, the second Mrs Canning. The accounts of George and Blanche’s love-making are lively and, for the times, fairly graphic. This was Canning celebrating a rejuvenation.

The Mask of Memory (1974)

Canning’s next novel was The Finger of Saturn, which also featured malign civil servants, though not from Birdcage. As it also involved an element of science fiction, it is not really a part of the same sequence. Canning returns to and develops Birdcage in his 1974 book, The Mask of Memory.

In a vivid opening Canning describes Mrs Margaret Tucker shoplifting sweets from Marks and Spencer in her home town in Devon, finding the sweets in her pocket with no recollection of how they got there, and handing them over to a nun with a crocodile of children. She is being watched by two people, a seedy private detective called Billy Ankers who is writing a report on her behaviour for her husband in search of divorce evidence, and Maxie Dougall, an artist who lives a hand-to-mouth existence from a shack on the shore and regards himself, with some justice, as irresistible to women.

Margaret’s husband, Bernard Tucker, works for Birdcage, where he is second-in-command under Percy Warboys and senior to Roger Quint, both of whom will become recurrent characters in the series. Bernard is given an assignment to assess some papers which the government would like to use to discredit left-wing trade union bosses just before a general election. He takes the papers home to Devon, writes the report, hides it in a secret place, and then is told by Margaret that she has fallen in love with the beach-bum Maxie and wants a divorce in order to marry him. Bernard is taken off guard since he has missed picking up the detective’s report that would have given him warning. In confusion and anger he walks out of the house. A little later she goes out too, they meet on a cliff path, she rushes past him, and he slips and falls. Or was he pushed?

The Birdcage bosses are worried about the missing report and Quint is assigned to investigate. In Barnstaple they work with a local policeman called Kerslake, soon to be recruited into Birdcage and to return in future books. They search the house without success. It emerges that Bernard Tucker had been wearing a wristwatch incorporating a recording device and may have recorded a last message after he fell, but the watch is missing. The message may identify the location of the papers. Will it also accuse his wife? This question is kept at the back of the reader’s mind as we read of the development of her love affair with Maxie and the parallel progress of the search. The book is full of good writing and ideas on the meaning of love and loyalty, which well justify the contrivances of the plot and the rather weak ending.

The Doomsday Carrier (1976)

We would nowadays classify The Doomsday Carrier as an ecological thriller, but I don’t know whether the term had been coined when it was written. It starts with Jean Blackwell dropping into her fiancé’s flat and seeing him in flagrante with another woman. Deeply upset, she returns to her work at Fadledean, a biological warfare research station. She takes over supervision of Charlie, a chimpanzee, but falls down in a faint, so letting Charlie escape. Unfortunately Charlie has just been inoculated with a plague bacillus and, unless recaptured, will become highly infectious in about 21 days.

We follow the hunt for Charlie from three points of view: Firstly Charlie himself, and various people he comes across on his journey: a boy fishing, an old man swimming, a commercial traveller, a gamekeeper, railway gangers. Secondly from the view of Captain Stevens, the helicopter pilot who has drawn Day Fourteen in the mess sweepstake and is therefore in no hurry to recapture the chimp. Thirdly from the view of Jean Blackwell and John Rimster, an official sent down from London to take charge of the hunt. Rimster actually works for Birdcage, but is about to be fired because of an alcohol problem. (His name is a curious echo of John Grimster, the Department’s nemesis in the earlier book, Firecrest. Canning may be suggesting that this is how Grimster might have turned out if he had survived.)

The plot reaches its climax when Charlie wanders into a walled garden belonging to a titled lady who campaigns against using animals in research. Her plans to use Charlie to gain publicity for the cause will put the public in great danger. The tension of the countdown is expertly controlled, and Canning’s descriptions of the chimpanzee’s behaviour are detailed and authentic, recalling the expertise he displayed in his children’s story of the escaped cheetah, The Runaways. Although this book involves some of the Birdcage characters, it is different in tone from the other Birdcage books. Fadledean, the research station, rather than Birdcage is the source of the real villainy. There are echoes of Canning's pre-war pastoral comedies in Charlie's travels and encounters, especially of Mr Finchley Discovers his England, published in 1934. There is also an indignant political message in the final paragraph:

But since one swallow does not make a summer, the successful plague-carrying test on Charlie had to be confirmed and reconfirmed to make it safe for men and women to be used as carriers, so another chimpanzee took his place. Everyone was happy, particularly the apes in dark suits who might one day for political or military reasons decide to use the silent weapon of plague to avoid the open and honest brutality of the sword.

Birdcage (1978)

For two years Canning concentrated on his Arthurian trilogy, but he returned to the Birdcage series splendidly with this book in 1978. Its main character is Sister Luiza, otherwise Sarah Branton, an English nun in a Portuguese convent, who goes to a lonely beach and swims out to sea to drown herself, believing herself pregnant. She is rescued by an Englishman, Richard Farley, who takes her back to the villa he is looking after while the owners are away. Both of them are damaged personalities, Sarah by an unhappy childhood spent with a glamorous mother, Lady Jean Branton, and a neglectful father, Richard by nightmares arising from having discovered his parents’ mutilated bodies after their murder by the Mau-Mau in Kenya.

Sarah is overwhelmed with gratitude for Richard and wants to give him something of value. She goes to reclaim a parcel which her late mother deposited with some family retainers. In the parcel is an elaborate piece of jewellery and a diary. It is the diary, of course, which constitutes a potential death sentence to anyone who reads it, since it exposes the crimes of a former Birdcage boss, Lord Bellmaster, Lady Jean’s lover and Sarah’s natural father.

The relationship of Richard and Sarah is developed subtly and unsentimentally, but we are always aware of the way they are being observed at a distance by Birdcage agents, now playing games of internal politics. Lord Bellmaster is no longer part of Birdcage and has ambitions to become British ambassador to the USA, but Birdcage wants to continue to manipulate him and does not want his past exposed. To prevent this, Kerslake is briefed for his first assassination.

As in several of his immediately previous novels, Canning finds no contradiction between writing a novel of suspense and giving it a tragic ending. This is one of his best books, full of good writing, interesting characters, and unpredictability.

The Satan Sampler (1979), Vanishing Point (1982), and Birds of a Feather (1985)

Canning was to write seven more books, of which three involve the Birdcage department and its murderous staff. Two others, Fall from Grace and The Boy on Platform One, are similar in subject matter but do not make explicit reference to Birdcage. Canning also wrote another historical romance, Raven’s Wind, and an unfinished fantasy, Table Number Seven, which was completed by his wife and sister and published posthumously.

The three remaining Birdcage books are less successful than the first five. Canning recycles themes and situations from earlier books, and stretches out some rather thin plots. It is noticeable how many of Canning’s flawed characters in this phase of his work, the ones who have done wrong from mixed motives, conveniently fall to their deaths from cliff edges and high windows just when we were wondering how the author could deal with them appropriately. Nevertheless, Canning continues to devise intriguing situations, to create and develop interesting characters and to write vividly and without clichés.

In The Satan Sampler Richard Seyton, a millionaire diamond dealer, has returned to Britain on the death of his elder brother. Seyton now inherits their ancestral home, Seyton Hall, but finds it has been let on a twenty-year lease to a charitable foundation. He tries to persuade them to sell the lease back to him, but is voted down by the board. The only way to break the lease is to discover some scandal about the charity. He finds it, of course, but this merely engages Birdcage whose answer to all problems is to eliminate the problem setter. A feature of the book is the quotation-swapping game that pervades all the conversations of the Birdcage senior staff, namely Grandison, Warboys and Quint, going over the head of Kerslake. Some readers will find this exasperating. Canning obviously had a lot of fun with it. The authors cited include Matthew Arnold, Max Beerbohm, Chesterton, Herrick, Homer, Juvenal, Masefield, Shakespeare, Spenser and Wordsworth, but Canning does not bother to identify many of the sources. In a neat but rather academic plot twist, it is the belated recognition of the source of one of the last quotations that alerts Warboys to Grandison's murderous intentions, turning a frivolous game into a crisis. The book is set in the Shropshire countryside associated with Francis Kilvert’s Diary of a Country Parson, claimed as a connection of the Seyton family, and the descriptions of wildlife and scenery are the strongest element.

The hero of Vanishing Point is Maurice Crillon, French artist and forger, who learns when his ‘mother’ dies that he is actually the child of an English baronet, having been snatched from a burning house in France after a bombing raid in 1940 by the nursemaid who, having just lost her own child, decided to keep him. He goes to visit his real parents, and takes from them a picture as a souvenir, not realising that it has secret papers hidden in the lining behind the canvas. Naturally, Birdcage is alerted and Crillon is hunted across Europe. Allowing for the Mills and Boon skeleton of the story, the book is good entertainment, though the villains are not villainous or real enough to create any worry about the outcome.

Birds of a Feather was Canning's last completed book. The wildlife lore is plentiful, but the human characters are rather implausible. The central figure is Sir Richard Swale, a landowner, a former MP, and a traitor, having sold secrets to the Russians. Curiously, this is almost the only time that Canning introduced any Cold War themes to his work, and the Russian assassins who compete with and get in the way of the Birdcage executioner are not very convincing.

Perhaps the problem of these last three books was that Canning, having set out to create monsters in Birdcage, became too fond of them. The implacable engine of cruelty that destroys John Grimster, that almost destroys Margaret and Maxie in The Mask of Memory, and that casually crushes Richard and Sarah in Birdcage, has by the last books turned into something like an Oxbridge senior common room, intellectual, bitchy, but no longer particularly threatening. In the end the Birdcage books do not make a homogeneous group, but the three best, Firecrest, The Rainbird Pattern and Birdcage, constitute some of the best storytelling of the century.

John Higgins, Shaftesbury, May 2006