Thursday, 22 July 1999

Victor Canning: The Melting Man (1968)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 295

In this early novel, Victor Canning presents a narrator who at the outset seems intended to be Len Deighton's Harry Palmer. He is not such a master of the sort of truculent attitude embodied in Palmer as Deighton is, and the characterisation soon slips. With flashes of Chandler's Marlowe on the way, we end up with a narrator similar to those of Eric Ambler, if rather nastier than any of them and without the ineffective air Ambler usually gives his central characters. That Canning is not of the same rank as any of these other authors is undeniable (and the slippage of Rex Carver's characterisation demonstrates this), but you can certainly see what would have influenced a publisher to accept this novel.

The narrator runs a fairly shady business in London, which basically bears the same sort of relationship to a normal private detective agency as Special Branch does to the CID. The rich businessman Cavan O'Dowda commissions him to recover a Mercedes, lost somewhere in the south of France by his stepdaughter, who claims to have amnesia about what happened when she disappeared for some days. Carver soon realises that it isn't the car itself that O'Dowda wants back; he was using his stepdaughter to unknowingly courier some sensitive documents to France. Other groups are soon chasing the documents, including representatives of an African dictator and Interpol.

We are soon in standard thriller territory, with the nasty touches that tend to mark out Canning's novels, even among other early seventies' writers. The title of the novel is derived from one of these. O'Dowda is on the edge of insanity, and keeps a room in a chateau filled with waxworks of those who attempted to prevent his success in some way. There, he likes to gloat about his eventual victories; the fire that destroys him along with the dummies is one of the more unpleasant passages in this book.

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