Sunday, August 10, 2008

29. The Scorpio Letters by Victor Canning

The Scorpio Letters pictureI found a great used bookstore in Vancouver (ABC books on W. Broadway near Granville, right by the bus stop). Whoever is buying books for this place knows their stuff. They had such a good and organized collection that I was drawn to some of the recommended or featured books. There was a stack of paperbacks by Victor Canning, that had cool looking covers, classic '70s and 80s British crime editions from houses like Pan. I grabbed the one with the bullet-holed aviator glasses on the cover and wasn't disappointed.

The Scorpio Letters starts out with a description of a well-dressed man in a richly decorated office in a villa somewhere on the coast of Italy. He is going through a series of files and writing a letter for each one. All the letters sealed and addressed, but then put into a single, larger envelope in which they are mailed to England. There, a working class Italian immigrant posts the letters. That middleman dies by accident with the letters still in his pocket. The police deliver the letters by hand to each of the recipients to find out what they can. Everyone denies they know anything about it and take the letters.

Enter our hero, a young, adventuresome British guy. Ruggedly handsome, good with his hands and with an independent streak, George Constantine is cut right out of the Desmond Bagley mold ("He was thirty, a big man, built like a full-back, sandy-haired with a sun-burnt, square, almost pugnacious face."). He is back in England, visiting his adoptive parents. It turns out his adoptive father is one of the letter recipients. He admits that he has been expertly blackmailed for over a decade, since a brief affair as a young man. He finally reveals this info because he believes the death of the letter-posting middleman means the end of the blackmail. Our hero suspects a more sophisticated operation and decides to follow up.

Trouble, of course, ensues. He meets an attractive young woman whose mother was also being blackmailed. The two of them bicker lightly, become attracted to each other and follow the trail of the letters through France to Italy.

Canning doesn't have the subtlety and depth of character that Gilbert can command, but the story is strong and moves forward well. He builds a cool criminal network and populates it with some interesting, realistic baddies. The hero relied on luck too many times to get out of deadly situations. I would have liked to have seen a bit more application of specific skill (which you do get with Bagley), but there is enough here that I'll definitely be checking out some more Victor Canning books. An excellent discovery.


Buzby said...

Awesome cover! I also found a great used book store by a bus stop in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, although, it wasn't nearly as organized as this place.

Unknown said...

There really is a ripe mine of these 70s adventure stories. The down side is that they are often poorly written and seemingly hacked from the standard Bagley/Maclean/Innes playbook. Glad to see there is another author out there worth looking into.