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
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.