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The Mask of Memory (1974)

Novel (260 pages, 88,410 words)

Heinemann First Edition 1974
First edition
First American Edition Morrow 1975
USA first edition
First UK paperback edition 1976
Pan paperback
Companion cover
Birdcage Companion

The Book

In a startling opening Canning describes Mrs Margaret Tucker shoplifting sweets from Marks and Spencer in her home town in Devon (Barnstaple, though it is never explicitly named), 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 looking for 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. Within a few weeks he has seduced her, and she has fallen in love with him.

Margaret's husband, Bernard Tucker, works for a secret department with its HQ in Birdcage Walk, where he is second-in-command under Percy Warboys and senior to Roger Quint. Years ago he had married Margaret and not reported it to his bosses, half deliberately since he had doubts about the morality of the work he was doing and would quite like to be sacked. But years later he has been promoted and they have still not found out. He has a flat in London and only occasionally visits home.

He is given an assignment to go to a weekend house party and assess some papers which the government would like to use to discredit left wing union bosses just before a general election. He takes the papers home to Devon, writes the report, puts it in a secret hiding-place. At that moment he is told by Margaret that she has fallen in love with Maxie and wants to marry him. This would normally be just what he wanted, but he is taken off guard since he 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 next morning Margaret wakes up with no memory of having left the house. The bell rings and a policeman tells her that Bernard's dead body has been found in a stream under the cliff. There is an inquest. Although she admits she wanted a divorce, the verdict is accident. She and Maxie go off for an idyllic holiday, staying at a farmhouse in Wales.

Meanwhile the Birdcage bosses are worried and Quint is assigned to investigate. He tracks down the accommodation address that Bernard was using for the reports from Billy Ankers, and the latest report supplies the Tuckers' home address. In Barnstaple they work with a local policeman called Kerslake, soon to be recruited into the Birdcage organisation, and search the house without success. It emerges that 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. If found, will it incriminate Margaret?

Publishing History

This was published by Heinemann in 1974, with the US edition from Morrow following in 1975. There was a Pan paperback in 1976 and one by Collier Books in 1990. Happily there is a new edition from Bello, the "modern classics" imprint of Pan Macmillan.

The book is full of good writing, vivid descriptions of scenery and wildlife, and ideas on the meaning of love and loyalty, so that one can accept the rather contrived plot and slightly too comfortable ending. It attracted a very positive review from The Times, along with the cursory notices that were all the recognition that Canning usually got from reviewers. Recently an interesting review has appeared in a blog called Clothes in Books.


Pictures of Barnstaple

Sweet counter at M and S Barnstaple Churchyard
Subject entered Marks and Spencers Stores, Allpart Street, 1420 hrs, spent a few minutes wandering round store and then proceded to confectionary [sic] and sweet section at back of shop. Without any attempt to conceal, subject then took four or five items of sale and pocketed same, and then walked back through store without paying ... ...Subject proceded up Allpart Street, through St Peter’s churchyard to car park and got into car. Yours truly followed and. passing subjects car noticed—without drawing attention to self—that subject seemed temporily upset. Could have been crying ...
... Subject then drove off. Subject followed to North Lobb Burrows and took her usual walk up the sands and then proceded to place of domicile. (page 11) The young detective constable was the one who had originally interviewed Margaret. His name was Kerslake and he was waiting for them when they arrived at the Empress Hotel. He sat now by the wide window that looked out to the broad, tidal reach of the river above the old stone-built town bridge. (page 179: Canning gives the hotel a fictitious name in this book, but used the correct name in Firecrest and in The Satan Sampler.)