Victor Canning - Rex Carver & Richard Manston


#1

Following my much appreciated series of reviews about oft-forgotten literary and cinematic spies of the sixties and seventies - all available on the archived site - here are my thoughts on another of those once popular but now barely remembered authors Victor Canning, a prolific writer who sold millions of books in the fifties and sixties.

These novels are nominally about the private investigator Rex Carver, but are linked by a shadowy unnamed department of the British Security Service led by the unscrupulous Sutcliffe.

THE LIMBO LINE
(1963)

Reader’s Digest is quoted thus on the front cover of my 1966 printing of Victor Canning’s The Limbo Line: “One of the six finest thriller writers in the world.” I’d be interested to know why ‘six’ were chosen and not five or ten. I’d also like to know who to compare the author with as my introduction to Mr Canning was somewhat underwhelming.

This is a stand-alone thriller which introduces the reader to the murky world of espionage through the eyes of the semi-retired secret operative Richard Manston. He’s persuaded back into the fold by Sutcliffe, his challenging ex-superior. Sutcliffe is described as a “humpty dumpty figure… more muscle than fat… you could never pick the right moment to be wary.” A canny operator, Sutcliffe tempts Manston with the offer of a free evening’s theatre, wining and dining in return for his assessment of a Russian ballerina; Manston needs to decide if she is a candidate ripe for counter-defection. Her name is Irina Tovskaya and it turns out she is indeed under Soviet surveillance, although she is not a foreign agent. Manston’s personal and professional curiosity, as well as his chivalric instinct, is aroused. He takes the case more in a vain hope of keeping her safe – both from the Russians and from Sutcliffe. The ensuing chase across France sees the pair mixed with a host of nasties from the secret Communist communication and kidnap divisions AGRIP and LIMBO.

There is a tremendous level of detail in this story and I found it, for the most part, heavy going. As a writer Canning seems very concerned about character and place and a lot less interested in action. Now I’m all for strong personalities and great locations, but not if it’s going to slow the pace of life to a crawl. There is some excitement: a gun fight in a hotel room instigated by the telecoms transcribe Ludmilla, who shoots from the hip in the nude; there’s a fairly satisfying climatic few pages as the Countess Estelle Longeau-du-Quercy is exposed by the false cleric Father Dorat; Manston and Irinia’s imprisonment in a cold, barred and seemingly impregnable cave has the spark of authentic danger.

Yet, as befits a novel so concerned with people, it is the characters which most intrigue. The wily Sutcliffe, the white knight Manston, the chillingly considered Oleg, his hot-blooded lover Ludmilla, the nervous and tragic romantic Alexandre, murdered for being a double agent. These are all fine portraits, believable and likeable / dislikeable. Canning has a gift for turning his villains into sympathetic anti-heroes and his good guys into hard-as-stone horrids. I particularly enjoyed the unsteady relationship between Oleg and Ludmilla, tinged with a desperate need for personal satisfaction among the grime of the everyday, the necessity to fulfil the Soviet stereotype. Eventually everyone’s hands are sullied in this “dirty business.” All, that is, except the heroine Irina. Oddly she hardly registered with me, being merely the McGuffin of the exercise. Like the author, Sutcliffe isn’t remotely interested in her plight. His sole aim, transposed devilishly onto Manston, is the destruction of the Limbo Line, a covert Soviet operation committed to the kidnap and rebranding of defectors, who on their manufactured returns to the USSR are set up as true enemies of capitalism who despised their time in the west.

The details of the overarching plot really didn’t interest me at all and it’s disappointing Canning chooses to concentrate on the machinations of the espionage game for long stretches of his narrative instead of the drive and purpose of Manston, a steely and resourceful figure who escapes, survives and triumphs despite numerous setbacks caused by his ineffectual colleagues. Sutcliffe remains aloof from it all. It is no surprise the two men, master and servant, share several barbed conversations: “I’m here, but don’t think I approve,” says Manston; “As long as you are here,” comes the unsympathetic reply. When Irina is snatched from her London flat the two men observe proceedings form a neighbouring building. Manston’s bouquet of flowers becomes his own spoilt soul, “bruised petals scattered on bare boards.”

I enjoy this turn of oblique writing, but there’s too much of it in The Limbo Line and the repetitiveness drags. The novel couldn’t retain my interest for very long and I found I was reading it in shorter and shorter sections. The precise, intimate descriptions seem to lose meaning in the telling. I was missing any joy for everything in Canning’s world, certainly that represented by Richard Manston and The Limbo Line, seems terribly heartless.

A disappointment.


#2

THE WHIP HAND
(1965)

Victor Canning’s Rex Carver isn’t a secret agent. He’s a private investigator who occasionally outsources his service to Sutcliffe’s unnamed branch of the British Secret Service. He doesn’t like doing it, but Sutcliffe is very persuasive: “You serve two masters… two lots of fees and two lots of expenses… but at the ultimate moment you obey our orders.” That Rex Carver chooses not to do the latter comes as no surprise.

Carver is your stereotypical loquacious know all private dick, handy with a gun or his fists, equally adept at seducing the ladies – often the wrong ones – and pretty good at being beaten up occasionally too. He is always short of cash, lives a high life he cannot afford, has a down beat office manned by a charming and able spinster secretary. He isn’t however a particularly likeable person. Initially I couldn’t gather why I took against him, but I think it’s the author’s insistence on using a first person narrative which deprives the reader of other people’s instincts, emotions and reactions. So while I know how Carver feels about everything and everyone, I have little idea about how they consider. Subsequently I had a feeling of detachment.

Early on when Carver is in Brighton observing the beautiful Katerina Saxxman, this is less of a problem as Canning [Carver] is scene setting, introducing the hero and heroine and the initial mystery. Later on, when he comes under Sutcliffe’s charge and pursues Katerina across Europe, encountering assassins and spies at every turn, the single person narration starts to lag. Several times, so as to not spoil a later moment of excitement or intrigue, Canning skips explanation. Rather than discreetly covering up evidence, he simply omits details completely, only to relate them back to us when Carver deems it necessary. It’s a convenient conceit and it happens so often it becomes irritating, after all Carver is meant to be an investigator, he’s meant to be noticing clues and drawing conclusions.

Most concerning though was that having digested the 200+ pages I couldn’t remember what actually happened or who was responsible. There were few memorable characters (Carver aside and he’s the storyteller) and there are too many support roles and subplots. I do recall that towards the end of the piece Hitler’s corpse makes and unlikely appearance, propped up in a handsome tomb in a Munich crypt, and that Carver gets a beastly thrashing with a bull whip, delivered by the kinky and rather eye-catching Katerina. Here is a girl less of a femme fatale than a Delilah-like temptress, so desired is she by a shadowy group of ex-Nazis for her Arian heritage, strength and beauty. There is another woman in Carver’s life, Verité, one who more resembles his stay-at-home secretary in her practical attitude and winsome looks. Verité is damaged and she seems to suit Carver’s cut up world far better.

As Sutcliffe’s forces hover, Richard Manston – who appears not to have retired – makes several appearances, usually in disguise. He’s tracking Carver as Carver tracks Katerina; Katerina is escorting the sinister dowager duchess Lady Vadarci on a European tour of dubious merit; Lady Vadarci is being followed by a nest of spies from across the continent. Everyone seems to know each other. I had no idea who anyone was. People get killed. It’s very confusing.

Canning’s still pretty hot on detail. Yugoslavia and Venice seem particularly alive, Munich less so. There’s a lot of talking and this burdens the reading to the point of boredom. When something snappy does occur it is treated with scant regard, so trivial I hardly registered the tensions. Carver is dealt a tough lick by everybody and is lucky to come out of the adventure with only a broken arm. His ego is bruised, but he’s learnt not to settle for perfection, bedding down with Verité rather than the tantalisingly elusive Katerina.

I’m a little desperate to find something to commend in Canning’s work. I’ve read a fair bit about him, and one of his novels (Castle Minerva) was made into the rather decent sixties spy yarn Masquerade, but sadly The Whip Hand is not the novel to recommend. The book simply isn’t intense enough. If you can’t make a scene where the hero is beaten with a barbed lash gripping, you’ve really got a problem. Like its narrator, The Whip Hand is too long winded and really needs sharp editing to inject a little punch into proceedings.


#3

DOUBLED IN DIAMONDS
(1966)

Victor Canning’s second Rex Carver adventure sets a far more rewarding pace. His piqued private detective takes a job seeking Arnold Finch, inheritor of six thousand pounds who has mysteriously vanished. It doesn’t take Carver long to discover that Finch has disappeared for a reason and foul play appears to be at hand.

Into the mix Canning throws the proceeds of a Hatton Garden diamond heist - £1.8 million in cut stones – the equivalent value in pure-cut heroin, a gorgeous femme fatale, female twins – Chinese, sultry and deadly – and the gangland boss Ryder Billings. Arnold Finch hardly matters, although he is caught up in the narrative as Billings’ less than reliable partner in drug distribution. There was much to enjoy in this unseemly mix. Canning hits the rails running and the mystery and intrigue continues at a good tilt; towards the back quarter the pace peters a little, but that’s probably to be expected when the action is located on a narrow boat traversing the French canal network.

Carver is a much more accessible character this time out. His banter has a mocking tone to it which sits evenly with his pessimistic, tardy attitude. His interest is sparked by money and beauty – usually beautiful women – but we learn he has scruples: drugs revolt him; he despises officialdom – Sutcliffe is his prime enemy, also Chief Inspector Barnes of the Met Police; as in all good noir-ish thrillers moral justice must prevail. Hence Carver sticks his wily neck into the noose to ensure the lovely Bertina Brown escapes internment. We know there’s going to be something tangible between them from their initial classic encounter at her swish apartment. He asks the questions, she does exercises and gives evasive answers: “The interrogation [was] over. She could show her face now… The only definite thing about her was that she made the back of my ears burn.”

Later, following a lead to Ireland, Carver becomes entwined in the arms of Suma, one half of a twin pair of Chinese operatives. Suma is the boss of the twosome, but it is her sister Lian who poses the threat to Carver’s existence. Again Canning sets up his characters and situations brilliantly. There is a playful straight forwardness to Suma’s seduction technique. She is a sophisticated villainess, drinking vodka laced champagne, dressing immaculately and displaying the skills of a talented chanteuse in her curious cabaret double act with Lian. Carver, despite reservations is instantly smitten: “She could be hard and ruthless… It was hard watching her, to keep that in mind… Somewhere under the layers of sleep the ghost of a smile moved the corners of her mouth.”

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between locations, a lot of telephone calls and messages. For all that it read very swiftly. Eventually Carver is re-employed by Sutcliffe, who wants the Chinese operation put out of action. Several characters from Canning’s previous two novels crop up, usually to offer the hero unexpected and grudging assistance. There’s a delightful cameo from a gemstone expert, Horace Goodenough, who happily escapes to Rome with his share of riches. The valuation scene at which he individually assesses the million-pound haul of diamonds has a methodical tension all of its own. A sympathetic character, we later learn he settled in Italy and got married. So at least someone made a good life out of the rotten spoils. The climax finds Carver in less precious circumstances: trapped with Bertina, tied up in the hold of a sinking barge. Their escape is a grisly suspense filled few pages.

While Doubled in Diamonds could have done with a little more of the latter kind of incident, it does have pace and interest. It’s a lot shorter than Canning’s other two novels and as such feels more dramatic. The tedious exacting descriptions are missing; we are told only what we need to know, only what Carver must tell us, and this time the ploy succeeds exceptionally well. The novel isn’t an action-fest like a Bond or a Charles Hood, but it leaves a satisfying taste in the mouth, the concoction of character, detail and intrigue works here, neither one overpowering the other. So far, definitely, Canning’s best.


#4

One of Canning’s novels was adapted as a two-part episode of Mannix in 1975 (last season of the show).


#5

Thanks for that. I had a quick look on Wiki and sure enough Canning’s Venetian Bird crops up as Bird of Prey. It was also made into a noir-ish thriller directed by that British stalwart Ralph Thomas in 1952. The movie starred Richard Todd (a big star then) and was scripted by Canning himself.

I have also seen a few extracts of the 1968 thriller The Limbo Line. It looks dreadful, but the clips I viewed were very shoddy and I might just be prejudiced by the You Tube transfer.


#6

THE PYTHON PROJECT
(1967)

Rex Carver’s third adventure sees him hired by a rich widow to recover a stolen antique armlet. From little acorns do oak trees grow. Carver is never so lucky. He does find the armlet and return it to its owner, but the jewellery is an arch-MacGuffin designed purely as a frame to pin a plot about kidnap and betrayal set in London, Rome, Paris, Tunisia and Ibiza. Carver has the best clients: they pay for an extravagant work-life. Pity the money rarely lasts to patch up his home-life.

Carver is still bunking a top floor flat off Mrs Meld and practicing unarmed combat with Miggs. He’s still drinking too hard and mixing with all the wrong sort. His secretary, Wilkins, is far smarter than he and, we discover, has a first name, Hilda, and a fiancé, Olaf. She also gets wrapped up tight in Carver’s ball of confusion as the narrative rolls from one location, one lie, one clue, to another. Dead men turn up in deserted cottages; feuding brothers and sisters turn out to be a criminal duo of unique ineptness; maudlin French detectives are Red-Land sleeper agents; a spiteful pet python turns out to be a saviour; a stuttering Spanish student becomes an aide-de-camp; a Prime Minister’s son gets kidnapped.

Yes; you read that right. It’s a neat twist I didn’t see coming, because it’s so buried inside the conundrum, and one which, ultimately doesn’t serve any purpose to the storyline, which meanders all over the place and just about retains a reader’s interest. I’ll recap: Carver thinks he’s searching for Gloriana Saxman’s armlet, but he ends up hunting for her brother Martin Freeman, who is part of a loose knit crime syndicate along with the hapless Italian, Pelegrina, whose daughter, Therese, bought the armlet, unwittingly funding the lackaday kidnap of Bill Dawson, the UK PM’s son. Unbeknownst to them a Commie outfit called Saraband Two has been trailing them and intends to steal both proceeds. Unbeknownst to them, Sutcliffe’s Secret-Secret-Service is following them all, just about, and intends to use dear, doleful Rex as its wing-man – except Saraband Two have kidnapped his secretary and threaten to kill her if he interferes. Got it?

Me neither.

The story has some slick charm. Carver’s monologues are satisfyingly disparaging of everyone and everything, including himself; there are two femme fatales, both used to great effect; two top-notch action scenes in the last two chapters, one of which genuinely surprised me; a host of globetrotting venues and locations a 1960s reader would be hopelessly jealous of. Today they’re rather run-of-the-mill, if somewhat prescient. I partied in San Antonio in the late eighties, early nineties, and Carver’s description from twenty years previous virtually mirrors my reminiscence:

“Buildings were going up everywhere and every other shop was a tourist trap – postcards, beach hats, sandals, sunglasses, pottery and trashy jewellery. It was a miniature Brighton under a hot sun. Every holiday resort in Europe was getting to look more and more alike, a babel with a twenty-four-hour developing service, fish and chips and beefsteak and middle-aged mums wearing shorts or holiday outfits they wouldn’t have dared to sport at home.”

The novel is packed full with this sort of observation. They fit the laidback character of Carver to a tee. They also give us a sense of place and time, something many modern novels forget to do, so wrapped up are they in character and action. Canning hasn’t forgotten those either, but his locale descriptions really hold the piece together. In the final quarter Carver is roughed up by Sutcliffe and his pit bull allies Manston and Perkins. While Sutcliffe retains aloof condescension, Richard Manston seems to have morphed into nothing but a sadistic bully. He and his punching addicted cohort Perkins can’t see the forest for the trees, so heavy is the ball of thread surrounding their objectives. Manston used to be smarter than this. As always Carver has the last laugh.

Towards the end, the suspense is racked up a notch or two, waking the novel from the almost horizontal slumber it was sliding too. These last few chapters hold plenty of aces and do not disappoint. It’s a pity the previous two-hundred pages couldn’t have had something equally astonishing and rapid. The pace almost kills the first two thirds as Carver takes plane after plane, drink after drink, lunch after lunch (until he forgets) and shares head-to-head after head-to-head in an effort to unfurl his python project, which is more of a Gordian knot.

I rather enjoyed this one, despite its heavily convoluted plot. Maybe Rex Carver’s growing on me. He’s certainly got a neat turn of philosophical phrase: “I’d decided what I wanted. I didn’t want money, I didn’t want women, I didn’t even particularly want excitement… I thought it might be fun to have some kudos.” The blurb on my paperback describes it as ‘the best cunning Canning thriller for many years.’ They might be right.