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The Satan Sampler (1979)

Novel (236 pages, 82,600 words)

First edition
First edition
US first edition
US first edition
US pbk
US paperback
Companion cover
Birdcage Companion

The Book

Richard Seyton, 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. This he sets about doing, but thereby awakens the remorseless Birdcage machine (the British government's 'Department of Dirty Tricks'), which has no compunction about burying awkward truths and truth tellers.

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 the junior operative Kerslake. Some readers will find this exasperating. Canning obviously had a lot of fun with it. The authors cited include Matthew Arnold, Max Beerbohm, Robert Browning, Chesterton, Donne, Fletcher, Herrick, Homer, Juvenal, Masefield, Ovid, Pope, Shakespeare, Spenser, Tennyson and Wordsworth, but not all of them are identified in the text. In a neat plot twist, it is the belated recognition of the source one of the quotations that finally alerts Warboys to Grandison's malevolent intentions. Remembering what is "sweeter far than flowing honey" suddenly turns a frivolous game into a crisis.

Publishing History

Published by Heinemann in 1979 at £5.95. The US edition by Morrow was published in 1980 at $9.95. There was an American paperback by Ace publications in 1981. There has not been a British paperback.

It was also issued in a combined volume with Johnston, A presence in an Empty Room and Gatenby, The Third Identity by Detective Book Club, Walter J Black, New York, 1979.