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Venetian Bird (1951)

Novel (254 pages, 81,375 words)

First edition 1951
First edition
US first edition
US first edition
1957 film tie-in paperback
Pan paperback
film tie-in
US paperback
US paperback
Uniform edition
Uniform edition
1968 NEL paperback
1968 NEL paperback

 

The Book

The novel has no formal dedication.

Edward Mercer, a private investigator, is in Venice to trace Gian Uccello who is in line for a reward given by a wealthy American industrialist for help given to his pilot son in the war. Mercer places an advertisement, gets an answer from a Carlo Boldesca, and makes an appointment to meet him. On his way to the meeting Boldesca is beaten up. Mercer rescues him, but Boldesca now refuses to say anything. The next day Boldesca is killed.

Mercer finds out that Boldesca worked at a gallery run by Count Boria. He goes there, meets the administrator Adriana Medova and falls for her. She tells him that Uccello died at the end of the war and is buried in a small town called Mirave. In Mirave Mercer sees a memorial which includes Uccello's name on a wonderful piece of modern sculpture, and when he asks about the sculptor is shown a design made by the same person, which he sees is exactly like one of the tapestries in the Boria gallery. From this he works out who Uccello really is, and endures the emotional and practical conflict arising.

Canning had served in the army in Italy from 1944 to 1946, and learned Italian. His letters home showed that he had become very fond of the country, and he set several novellas and short stories in Italy as well as this book.

Publishing history

This was Canning's fifth post-war book for Hodder and Stoughton, published in 1951 at 10/6 with a print run of 14,000 copies. There was a later cheap edition at 6/- and several paperback editions including a film tie-in Pan edition in 1957 and a New English Library paperback in 1968. An American edition under the title Bird of Prey was published by W.S.Mill and William Morrow in 1952, though it had a copyright date on the imprint page of 1950, reflecting the fact that the book's very first appearance was in a supplement to the Toronto Star Weekly in December 1950.

There was a Hodder reprint of the book in 1968 in a series Classics of Detection and Adventure edited by Michael Gilbert (see below). In his introduction Gilbert says he is "puzzled to know why it has never been filmed", which must say something about the impact of the 1952 film.

The book was included in the Heinemann Uniform Edition of the 1970s.

A new edition has just appeared from Bello, the "modern classics" imprint of Pan Macmillan, as p-o-d or e-book.

One of the "hundred best"

In a Sunday Times feature "The Hundred Best Crime Stories" selected by Julian Symons, reprinted as a pamphlet in about 1960, Symons comments: "Just occasionally an author writes a book that stands out from the main body of his work. Venetian Bird is structurally similar to Mr Canning's other very competent thrillers, but it is a long way from them in style and feeling. The shabby private inquiry agent, Mercer, who broods on the fact that 'something has happened to money since the war' so that he is down to third-class hotels and second-class travel, is an admirable central figure to set the tone of this story of love and treachery played out against a Venetian background that is handled with uncommon grace."

Introduction to the 1968 reprint
in the Classicsof Detection and Adventure series
edited by Michael Gilbert

The Times Literary Supplement, which should have known better, described the first of Victor Canning's thrillers, as "pure Buchan". If there is one thing which is quite certain about Victor Canning it is that he neither is, nor attempts to be, John Buchan. Consider only whether Buchan could have had a hero describing himself as habitually spending his days "in shabby hotel rooms, dealing with lies and suspicions ..." or being able to say: "There was this room and a hundred others like it; this hour and the shadow of a thousand past hours and the whole memory framed in a shabby haze of of moments he could never forget, with himself caught in the centre of the picture ... growing older, but never less uneasy, the constant distaste of his experience like bile at the back of his tongue." Shades of Sir Richard Hannay and Sir Edward Leithen! A touch of bile at the back of the tongue, and they'd have been out for a twenty-mile walk.

Here we have a heroine called Adriana ("Her face had a pale ivory warmth, a delicacy of feature without weakness"), who is, it transpires, the wife of an Italian criminal; and an agreeable second female lead, of whom one would like to know more, called Rosa Melitus, who has had a murky past and is now mistress of a "house of accommodation" in Venice. Neither of them, are very Buchanesque characters. There is also a credible policeman and a set of unusually unpleasant villains.

But the character by whom the book stands or falls, through whose eyes we see most of the action, in whose fate we are most intimately involved, is the ageing, self-questioning, unsuccesful English enquiry agent, Edward Mercer. I have only one reservation about Mercer. I cannot help feeling that a man of such industry, such talents (five European languages) and, above all, of such integrity, would have made a greater success of his life by then. Perhaps there was some inherited weakness. With his father a North Country corn-chandler and his mother a French actress, it is feasible. But I think we should have been told about it.

Apart from this, I find it as difficult to fault him, as I find it difficult to fault the book. It is a classic example of the thriller, properly brought off. It has a meticulously constructed, logical, and credible plot. There are books which can dispense with properly constructed plots, but a thriller is emphatically not one of them. It has a sense of rhythm, and a speed which mounts with every chapter; leisurely at first, fast in the middle, breath-taking at the end. Above and beyond all these things it has a sense of place. The author is in love with Venice; with its sights and its sounds—even with its smells. "The aged smell of the black mud, oil and vinegar, and the sandal-:wood sappiness of cabinet-makers' dens ... the sudden assault of frying pimento, the sweet child's breath of bread, the vulgar veils of cheap scent, the clean aseptic statements of eau-de-Cologne."

A thriller which moves against such a lovingly woven backcloth acquires an extra dimension. I am puzzled to know why it has never been filmed. Were the moguls of the cinema afraid of the theme of political assassination? Or did they require something in plainer shades of black and white for hero, heroine and villains; or a more neatly docketed ending? Whatever the reason, I think they missed a wonderful chance.

Michael Gilbert

Films

A film was made in 1952, scripted by Canning himself, starring Richard Todd, Eva Bartok and John Gregson, directed by Ralph Thomas, released in Britain as Venetian Bird and in the USA as The Assassin. The review in The British Film Institute Newsletter was mixed: "... the plot and the handling of it is mostly confused and heavy-going. The photography of the piazze and streets of Venice is quite striking and alternates effectively with indoor scenes ... Richard Todd only partly succeeds in combining his role of self-effacing private detective with that of a spectacular hero."

Two episodes of the TV series Mannix in 1975 were based on this book, with the action moved to Latin America.