Thursday, 17 June 1999

Victor Canning: Birdcage (1978)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 275

With the name of the main villain in this novel, Lord Bellmaster, irresistibly making me feel that he must have escaped from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, is was difficult for me to take Birdcage seriously. A pity, for it is rather good as minor seventies thrillers go.

Birdcage is about the activities of a shadowy British intelligence agency, nicknamed "Birdcage" because its offices are in Birdcage Walk in London. Lord Bellmaster was at one time the head of Birdcage, and engaged in many morally dubious practices to increase the profile of the agency in Whitehall and increase his personal power within the government at the time. These included using his mistress Lady Jean Branton as an agent to seduce those in whom he was interested, as well as murder and general corruption.

The novel itself concentrates on Jean's daughter Sarah, who believes her father to be the complaisant Colonel Branton when in fact it is Lord Bellmaster himself. She has taken vows to become a nun, but her psychological inability to cope with this way of life leads her to experience a phantom pregnancy, then to run away and attempt to drown herself. Falling in love with the man who rescues her, she follows the instructions given her by her now dead mother in case she should ever wish to return to the world. She seeks out her mother's beloved maid, who has a parcel for her. This contains some precious jewellery and a book, apparently the devotional Dialogues of the Soul and Body by St Catherine of Genoa, but actually a diary recording with embarrassing honesty Lady Jean's activities on behalf of Lord Bellmaster.

Clearly, such a diary is of immense importance to Lord Bellmaster, and he devotes his own time, and calls in favours to be able to use Birdcage's resources, to discovering whether it exists and neutralising it if it does. "Neutralising" may mean, and Bellmaster is prepared for it to mean, the murder of all those who know of the diary.

The best thing about this novel is that a happy ending is not guaranteed; Canning really loads the dice against the "good guys". Another virtue is that the characters are not all black and white; some are rather stuck in between, victims mainly by their association with Bellmaster.

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