[Miss Rainbird is hesitantly deciding whether to trust a clairvoyant, Madame Blanche]
Madame Blanche arrived at 6 o’clock that same evening and was shown in by Syton to the drawing-room. The curtains were drawn for the night and on a small table were set out a sherry decanter and cocktail biscuits. Madame Blanche, Miss Rainbird noted, was less soberly dressed than on her first visit. She wore a plum-coloured dress with matching shoes and there was a long string of large artificial pearls around her neck and looping down over her ample bosom.
[Another meeting is arranged, at the clairvoyant’s house:]
Miss Rainbird sat in the front sitting-room. She had expected a room with touches of the colourful flamboyance which marked Madame Blanche’s clothes. She was wearing now, at eleven in the morning, a long purple gown, deeply V-cut at the neck. Tied around her waist was a length of red silk scarf. Her pearls today were wound in a close chain about her throat, and her red hair hung loose to her shoulders (beautiful hair, thought Miss Rainbird, well-brushed and obviously well cared for) giving her an oddly girlish look. The room itself, however, was well and quietly furnished. The two pictures were very good water colours of parts of old Salisbury.
commentary: For a time there I thought Victor Canning was going to be forever associated in my mind with bedjackets. Last week I featured his Mask of Memory: it is a truism that I can never predict what will catch readers’ attention most on the blog, but bedjackets certainly did it – there was endless and fascinating discussion here and on social media on this item of clothing (French? pointless? extinct?). Amongst the commentary, blogfriend and writer Lissa Evans nominated Rainbird as a memorable Canning book… so I had to go and order it before even answering her, and read it straightaway. And there on p15 was a woman with ‘a short-sleeved bed jacket over her handsome broad shoulders’. Ha, I thought, imagining a second teasing entry focussed on this item.
But – no. The rest of the book swept me away, bedjackets were forgotten, and I would say this was the best thriller I have read in a long time, deeply memorable and with a most remarkable ending, just as Lissa said.
The book follows two strands. There is a clever kidnapper about, capturing high-profile figures with a carefully planned and complex strategy, and claiming a huge ransom. One of those shadowy departments in a miserable London office is trying to track him down, hampered by secrecy. Men referred to by their surnames, everyone miserable, and the weather co-operating. (By being miserable too. The pathetic fallacy.)
Alternating with this story, and much more entertainingly, we look at Miss Rainbird – a wealthy spinster, last of her family, ready to consult Madame Blanche. She is very suspicious, and is forceful and clever and unwilling to be conned. But she has family business she wants to put right.
Blanche is a wonderful character, smart and warm, blowsy and cheery, sharp yet kind, but not at all as clichéd as that sounds. She and her lover George are the sweetest, most charming couple you could ever meet in a book – flawed and real and funny. She is an intriguing mixture of fraud and reality. As you go through the book you are never quite sure how much of her spiel is real and how much might be fake – Canning is deliberately vague. George is an ever-hopeful remittance man, living on an allowance from his family, always about to make his fortune. Blanche pays George to find out details about her potential clients, details that she can drop into the sessions. She also has a lot of intuition and uses that to full advantage.
Miss Rainbird is no fool – again, she is sharp and real and very funny. The three of them go back and forth, wondering where to go next, not always confiding in or trusting each other. As readers we know that the family secret they are investigating must be connected with the kidnappers: then a third strand is introduced, and we can see the kidnapper’s thoughts.
This book is a tour de force, incredibly clever and funny and tense, and very very real. The descriptions of people and places are as good as any literary novel (many of the settings are actual places, and ones near to where I live) and I think I will remember them for a long time. There is one event in the book (not the ending) which really threw me, I don’t know when I’ve felt so strongly about something that happens in a book…
And there are additional incidental pleasures.
It's always interesting to see this in a book of 1972, about what we think is a modern concern:
Everyone talks about conservation now and pollution of the environment, but he was at it when we were at school [ie 20 years earlier]Miss Rainbird is like a particularly good Daily Telegraph Social Stereotype, complaining about the
dreadful accents of the sons even of some of her well-connected, wealthy friends… all looking like gypsies even though they went to Marlborough and Wellington, and worse still when they went off to university living with equally disreputable girls, taking drugs and protesting against this and that…not a word need be changed for today.
A five-star book, highly recommended.
In my reading for an entry last year, I learned that a ‘pythoness’ is a woman thought to be able to foresee the future and commune with spirits. I think Blanche might have liked the name, and also this photo from the Library of Congress, which I have to remind myself (having used it several times) is actually meant to be Potiphar’s wife from the Biblical story of Joseph. But she makes a good pythoness.
Blanche is a great one for clutching her long string of pearls while in a trance and talking to her spirit guide Henry, which is why I chose the 1920s photo from Kristine’s photostream.
The next picture, plum-coloured dress, is by Charles W Hawthorne from the Athenaeum website.
The strangely modern-looking woman in green also looked just right - it is a portrait by Vincenzo Catena from early 16th century.
Tracy and GGary helpfully pointed me in the direction of the existential ennui review of this book, and Tracy also noted for me another useful site about Canning’s loose series of Birdcage books, covering both Mask of Memory and this one. ADDED LATER: The proprietor of the site (which I do most strongly recommend) came to make a comment, below.