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The Whip Hand (1965)

Novel (240 pages, 77,640 words)

First edition
Heinemann first edition
US first edition
US first edition
Book club edition
Companion Book Club 1965
First paperback edition
Pan paperback 1967
Uniform edition
Heinemann uniform
edition 1971
1971 Pan paperback
Pan paperback 1971
US paperback
US paperback
New edition 2011
New edition 2011
Danish translation
Danish translation
Italian translation
Italian translation 1968
Russian translation
Russian translation 1998
Audio book
Audio Book
A Rex Carver Companion
available from

The Book

Rex Carver is a private detective who never touches divorce, with an office in Holborn staffed by his secretary and working partner Hilda Wilkins. (Wilkins is not his sexual partner, being engaged to a Swedish Suez Canal pilot called variously Harvald and in a later book Olaf.) Carver bets on horses and drinks and smokes heavily, but keeps fit by working out at Miggs's gymnasium. Occasionally he is cajoled or blackmailed into working for the Secret Service by Manston (the hero of an earlier book, The Limbo Line in which Carver does not appear) and Manston's unpleasant boss Sutcliffe.

This book begins with a commission to find a missing girl in Brighton, continues with Carver pursuing her to Paris, Dubrovnik, Venice and Germany, where he finds out whose bride she is intended to be. There is a large cast of characters with conflicting and changing allegiances. Nobody can be taken at face value. The progress around various European tourist spots is frantic and it is unrealistically easy to make travel bookings, a feature that Canning had already satirised in his essay, "The Trouble with Heroes" in Suspense magazine (included in the Rex Carver Companion). The final scene is a magnificent set piece which would make a splendid cinema climax. This may be how Canning thought of it, and he can count himself unlucky that nobody made the film and his work in that genre was eclipsed by the success of the James Bond franchise.

One thing that has changed markedly from Canning's earlier books is the hero's attitude to women and sex. In the previous thrillers the hero has had to rescue, or sometimes be rescued by, a heroine he has just met. There is mutual attraction, but nothing more than chaste kissing can occur before the marriage that we assume follows the ending of the book. A consequence of this is that the pairing is "used up" for plot purposes. It would be too much of a coincidence if that heroine again required rescuing from evil villains. One innovation of Ian Fleming's which Canning now adopts is the re-usable hero, prepared to bed the girl and then discard her in time for the next book. The moral code that Canning wrote by did not allow such behaviour before this book, and even now there is a certain delicacy observed. Carver does not contemplate bedding a girl unless he is "falling in love with her". Lust is not enough. Often a pair are heading towards copulation when there is a handy interruption. By such means the author keeps Carver out of the wedding trap which has caught his previous heroes, although he does allow a month of out-of-wedlock passion during Carver's convalescence at the end of this story, and the girl in question does not reappear in any later Carver book. The Observer review commented that "Canning has toughened up". Carver's sexual morals become even freer in the later stories in the series, and he chalks up two or three bedroom encounters per book.

The writing is characterised by rather slick, occasionally plaintive, comments, such as:

"... Beyond the law, you could go deeper still, deep and dark, down below the anemone and coral line where the big security sharks lurked. Down there they've never heard of friendship. Some of them screened their own wives before they kissed them goodnight." (Page 9)

"It's the early worm that catches the bird." Said to a fisherman when Carver has just chatted up Katerina on Brighton Pier. (Page 17)

and the final paragraph:

"What did I learn? ... that there's an office waiting, clients being clever with you, and two roads running away north and south, and that you've got to be honest and take your own road because somewhere at the end of it—with luck—there might be the thing you really want. Or am I just kidding myself? Probably."

Publishing History

Published by Heinemann in 1965 at 18/- and almost immediately in a Companion Book Club edition at 5/9. The US edition by Morrow came out in the same year. There was a re-issue in 1971 in the Heinemann uniform edition, and several paperbacks, starting with a Pan paperback in 1967. There was an audio book version, read by Valentine Dyall, released in 1985 on six audio cassettes lasting just under nine hours. An edition by Arcturus Publishing was released in July 2011.

This was the first of the four Rex Carver books, which Canning wrote between 1965 and 1968. The others were Doubled in Diamonds, The Python Project, and The Melting Man. Len Deighton had published the first of his "cheeky rebel" intelligence thrillers, The Ipcress File, in 1962, and Canning joined the fashion. The first Bond film appeared in 1962 and that, too, may have had an influence.

All the Rex Carver novels are told in the first person (unusual for Canning) and set in locations round London, France, Switzerland and other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean area.

An interesting point to note is that there was no translation of The Whip Hand into German, although every previous Canning thriller back as far as The Hidden Face in 1956 together with several earlier ones had been translated and almost all his subsequent books would appear in German translations too. Clearly the subject of Nazi history and neo-Nazi resurgence was too tricky to include in a thriller for the German market at that time. Incidentally it was and I believe still is illegal to sell in Germany a book with a swastika on the cover, as the first British paperback edition had.

From a letter held in the Heinemann archive, an early provisional title for this book was The Cockatrice Nest. The title The Whip Hand had been used for an American espionage movie in 1951. In 1979 Dick Francis used the title Whip Hand for the second of his Sid Halley thrillers.

An excellent review of the book appears on the ClothesInBooks blog.



Royal Albion Hotel Brighton

The Albion Hotel and Brighton Pier where Carver finds Katerina Saxmann. The same hotel figures in Doubled in Diamonds.