Dress Down: The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning


published 1974

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Mask of Memory


Propped against her pillows, wearing a silk quilted bed-jacket, Margaret was writing in her diary. It was something she did two or three times a week. Generally the entries were brief, little more than an aide memoire to the even flow of weeks and months. Nothing much happened in her life of note or of such personal intimacy that she could confide only in the diary. Nevertheless she kept it locked away in one of the side drawers of the bedroom bureau – to which she alone had a key.

Innocuous though the entries were, she would not have liked Bernard to read them … could not imagine even that he would be remotely interested in them. A long time ago Bernard had withdrawn into his own world.

 
commentary: Victor Canning wrote thrillers, and they were the kind of paperback that, in my young years, people’s Dads had on their bookshelves – along with books by Gavin Lyall, Alastair MacLean, Wilbur Smith and Hammond Innnes. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read one before, but I was tipped into trying this one by a review (ages ago) over at Leaves and Pages – ‘much better than I’d hoped for’ was Barb’s summing up.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting: yes, there was the middle class setting, the urgent matters of state, and the lost papers. But I wasn’t expecting the very very unusual and unlikely love affair, and the low-level hints of a different kind of relationship elsewhere.

The book begins with Margaret Tucker doing some shoplifting – she takes sweets (apparently in a fugue state) and then gives them to orphan children. She is unhappy: she knows her marriage is dead.

Her husband Bernard is a man with secrets, employed by an intelligence department. The couple don’t talk: and she sits in her lonely cottage while he has a flat and a mistress in London.

Two parallel plots are set in motion: Margaret meets someone else (whose thoughts we are privy to, and who does not seem like a good thing) and Bernard is involved in a plan to blow the trade union movement sky-high by revealing betrayal and corruption.

Whenever I thought I knew what kind of a book it was, the plotline would confound me. Bernard sets off for a country house weekend with a press baron, a Duke, the Duke’s daughter, and a leading trade unionist. So I know where I am with that (from reading, not from personal experience of course) – but then the visit is cut short, and almost nothing is made of the event. There is really more in the book about the painting skills of Margaret’s lover than about the country house visit. (And, again unexpectedly, he is a really terrible painter.)

Someone dies. A wristwatch goes missing, along with some papers. Two hard-faced operatives come down from London to try to make sense of the events.

At one point there is a legal enquiry which involves Margaret admitting her marriage is over:
When [she was] asked if there was some other man specifically concerned with her decision [to ask for a divorce] she had said there was, and had been allowed to write down his name and pass it across.
This is because she is posh and rich – there’s the old days of 1974 for you, no wonder the trade unions are plotting revolution.

There were surprises right up to the end: this really is a most peculiar book. The pages describing Margaret’s affair are very odd, and feel as though they belong in another kind of novel altogether, where I think they would be dismissed as rather trashy. But, like Barb at Leaves and Pages, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and unexpected the book was.

I have no idea why it is called The Mask of Memory.

Bedjackets were such a feature of a past life, and of course Margaret would have a silk quilted one. The only surprised is that there isn’t an old dear from the village bringing her a tray in bed. Above is a pattern for bedjackets.













Comments

  1. Been decades since I read anything of his - right, consider me inspired! Thanks Moira (as ever)

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    1. Me too - and I've already ordered another one, after Twitter reco of Rainbird Pattern. Will be interested on your take on him.

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  2. What an unusual-sounding story, Moira! It sounds as though it's not clear whether it's a thriller, domestic story, psychological novel, or something else entirely. Fascinating! The writing style seems to flow, though, and that's always helpful. Hmm....Even from your review, I'm not quite sure what to think of this. Still, sometimes the unexpected can be quite good.

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    1. I enjoyed being confounded by this one Margot, and quite liked never knowing what kind of a story it was. He certainly knew how to put together a page-turner.

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  3. Bed-jackets! I suppose they went out when central heating came in. Definitely the kind of thing Miss Marple would have worn. And maybe some of the characters in the Cazelet Chronicles, Moira, which I have just been reading. There are lots of lovely clothes and I kept thinking of you.

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    1. Miss Marple probably knitted her own. Oh and Miss Silver surely wore/knitted them too...
      I think you mentioned Cazalet before - I must look them out...

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  4. So you got up, went to the bathroom, put on your bedjacket, and then /went back to bed/ to have your breakfast and deal with your post (and write your diary). Seems an odd proceeding. Why not just get up? If you want breakfast in your room, have a table and chair? And wouldn't you get marmalade on the sheets? (For similar scenes, see Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie and False Scent, also the film Dead of Night - Googie Withers!)

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    1. In my younger day I think they were on their way out BUT were considered very useful if you had a hospital stay and/or were having a baby - primping up in a pretty bedjacket to receive your visitors. I think people used to have them tucked away in a drawer, with a good nightie, in case of illness.

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    2. The French word for bedjacket is 'liseuse' which is a nice way to refer to something to keep off the chill when reading in bed, warm but not so long that you get tangled up in it under the bedclothes.

      That being a bit of a problem with bathrobes.

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    3. Yes, Shay, I'm with you there as someone with a cold bedroom. And the French are such intellectuals - reading jacket!

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    4. I actually have a quilted silk bedjacket. It belonged to my grandmother. When I was young and wild I used to wear it out to parties but now that I am older and find staying in bed for as long as possible the greatest of luxuries I may have to revive it.

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    5. Since writing about this and reading all the comments I've got a longing for one - ideal for reading in bed. I am jealous of yours...

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  5. Canning is a most unusual writer, in that for the first twenty years or so of his career he wrote fairly ordinary, straightforward thrillers. In the late '60s he left his wife, and this seemed to trigger a seismic shift in his writing. His books are still thrillers, but the characters and their relationships are really more important. This is really the case with THE MASK OF MEMORY, where the stuff about Trade Unions almost feels like a sub-plot. He wrote an awful lot of TV thrillers, and if I remember correctly the episode of the '60s ITC adventure series MAN IN A SUITCASE is more concerned with the titular hero falling for the woman he is supposed to be protecting. Canning does seem to have fallen into eclipse, although I suspect that at some point he will be rediscovered.

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    1. Oh that's fascinating thanks Gary, I had no idea, what an interesting arc of writing... He was very popular then wasn't he? - it will be interesting to see if he is revived. I have already ordered another of his books.

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    2. I loved Man in a Suitcase!

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    3. Lucy: Richard Bradford as McGill was the only TV hero who could get into a fight, fall down a set of stairs, fall into a lake, climb out, and still have the same (lit) cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Cigarettes aren't cool anymore, but that speaks of a certain amount of cool!

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    4. Yes that is cool. Cigarettes are, of course, so wrong, but you cannot deny their glamour.

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    5. Did Man in a Suitcase have very good credits?

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    6. Ordering the DVD - have also bought Mask of Memory.

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    7. Moira: The show comes from the same stable as shows like THE SAINT and THE CHAMPIONS and so on, but it is a slightly grittier show. Good actors like Colin Blakely turn up a lot, the directors and writers are all old hands, and it looks very lavish. There is a site called DOUBLE O SECTION which has a very good, two-part review of the DVD box set which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the show.

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    8. Colin Blakely! Indeed. Lucy is in for a visual AND reading treat...

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  6. I think I would like this (and I think it was already in my plans to read anyway). Keeping in mind that I am no expert on Canning's books, I had read that this was part of a series starting with Firecrest, the only one I have read. I don't know that the books have the same character or characters but they are about "The Department" (also called Birdcage?) and people who work for that group. Here is a link:

    http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/canning/Birdcage%20article.html

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    1. That's so interesting thanks Tracy, I had no idea it was part of a series, but obviously was from your link. I will definitely be reading more, so a useful site to know about...

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    2. Very loosely a series but still related in some way I suppose. And yes, the web site is very useful. I found it via the Existential Ennui blog, which was where I first read about this author.

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    3. Both ones to bookmark I think...

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  7. I double the recommendation for EXISTENTIAL ENNUI. Very good blog.

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    1. Thanks - will definitely check it out.

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