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John Buchan and Victor Canning

by John Higgins

(from The John Buchan Journal, Issue 43, Spring 2011.)

What qualities in a writer justify the adjective Buchanesque? This is an interesting question to raise in connection with the work of Victor Canning (1911-1986), the English thriller writer.

Any successful thriller writer launching his career in the middle of the twentieth century might expect to draw comparison with John Buchan from the critics. This was certainly the case with Canning. No doubt the comparisons would have pleased him. In answering a request from his sister in 1936 for a list of recommended reading he includes “Buchan, John: Midwinter, Greenmantle, and any others of his.” In an interview he gave to the Western Morning News, 30 August 1974 he is quoted as saying: “I don’t really think there is any writer working now whose next book I await eagerly. Novelists like there used to be, the great storytellers, John Buchan, Hugh Walpole, Priestley, James Hilton, or that Cornish chap, what was his name, Howard Spring.”

Canning has now fallen out of fashion and largely out of print, but was in his heyday very successful and popular. He enjoyed three distinct writing careers. From 1934 to 1940 he published fifteen books, mainly rustic comedies and including the hugely successful Mr Finchley discovers his England. (Incidentally he gives the name of Arthur Buchan to the narrator of one of these books, Atlantic Company, published in 1940.) Another minor connection between the two is that Canning, who had a bad habit of occasionally dropping very obscure words into his novels, used the word sciolistic (having just a smattering of knowledge) in his 1935 book Polycarp’s Progress. The same word crops up in John Buchan’s Island of Sheep, published in 1936 (page 132). Does this mean that Buchan was reading Victor Canning? I hope so.

In 1940 Canning joined the army and published almost nothing for seven years. After war service he resumed his career in 1947 with a novel, The Chasm, and then a string of thrillers, possibly inspired by the example of his friend Eric Ambler. For the most part these were energetic but predictable, well written and exciting but with contrived plots and cardboard characters. They usually went straight into popular book club editions and after a year into paperback. Nine of them were filmed.

It was this middle period work which drew the label “Buchanesque” from many critics. The Golden Salamander (1949) was described as “pure Buchan and very exciting” by the Times Literary Supplement. A Forest of Eyes (1950) was “an unusually well-written adventure story … Iron Curtain Buchan” according to the Sunday Chronicle. About The Hidden Face (1956) the Coventry Evening Telegraph said: “Comparisons will be made with Buchan. Mr. Canning possesses the same mastery of the hunt-the-man-down technique, something of the same firm, straightforward style that looks easy and isn’t, and the same spanking pace. He really is first-rate at his job … An adventurous story full of menace, action, and most disquieting characters.” In Popular Post, September 1959, we read: “Today, twenty-five years later, with many best-selling novels and popular short stories to his credit, he is still writing crisply and excitingly in a way that is often compared to John Buchan.”

But was he really Buchanesque? In practice the description Buchanesque should demand more than just good writing and pace. There needs to be a certain kind of hero, established, decent, patriotic, and well educated without being too intellectual. Very few of Canning’s middle period heroes match up. From Panthers’ Moon (1948) onwards many of them are ne’er-do-well ex-servicemen, unwilling to cause real harm but motivated by the prospect of a fast buck or two. In the end they choose good over evil or are persuaded by the girl they have fallen in love with to return the stolen property. Several of them are like Eric Ambler’s heroes, innocent bystanders caught up accidentally in espionage or crime. Very few of them would be comfortable in high society.

There also needs to be a certain kind of villain, one who threatens the nation. In Panthers’ Moon there is microfilm to be recovered, so national security is involved though in a rather unspecific way, and his next three books all involve anti-government plots, though the government concerned is not the British one. Generally, however, the main sin is greed rather than treachery.

In the early sixties Canning seems to have decided to live up to his reputation, and he produced two books which are much closer to Buchan models. The first was Black Flamingo, with a plot derived in part from Prester John. The book opens on the border between Kenya and the Congo. A pilot who has just lost his licence stumbles across the wreck of a light aircraft whose pilot has been fatally injured. Our hero swaps identities with the dead man, not knowing of course that the plane had been carrying diamonds intended to fund a rebellion which will sweep an African chieftain to power in the Congo. This is rather a poor book and it is obvious that Canning, despite his research, does not know Africa as Buchan had known it.

In his next book, The Limbo Line, Canning returns to a world he knows rather better, London, Kent and France. The plot concerns a scheme to kidnap émigrés and Soviet defectors in order to return them to the USSR. It has come to light that the next victim is to be a ballet dancer, and the hero is engaged to shadow her and track down the headquarters of the organisation. This hero is a former British government agent who has resigned from the service out of distaste for clandestine work but is persuaded back for this one assignment. He certainly has been to a good school, is comfortable with government ministers and ambassadors, speaks several languages well, enjoys fishing and plays good golf. Even his name, Richard Manston, has echoes of Richard Hannay. And the final touch is that the house that the conspiracy uses when they transfer their victims from land to a passing freighter is eventually identified by having forty-eight or forty-nine steps from the clifftop to the shore. I think we have to regard this as homage, not plagiarism.

After this book Canning wrote nothing else in a Buchanesque mode. He first wrote a set of light thrillers with a rebellious irreverent private eye hero called Rex Carver, following the trend set by Len Deighton. Then, after a family break-up in 1968, he began a quite different series of books with realistic and convincing plots, well observed and interesting characters, and a background in which most of the villainy is due to British government agencies and the interest is focussed on the harmless people who find themselves tragically entangled with them. His popular success diminished. It seemed that the readership he had built up for the escapist books of his middle period did not care for the darker and more engaging books he was writing now, while readers who should have enjoyed the new books had been put off by the shallower work that had preceded them. Whatever the reason, his reputation faded rapidly after his death in 1986 and very little of his output is now in print. I hope that as his centenary approaches his reputation can be restored to some extent. Although the most Buchanesque of his work is not his best, his overall achievement as a novelist and thriller writer is worthy of the Buchan tradition.