Review by John Higgins.
Victor Canning (1911-1986) wrote at an extraordinary rate at the start of his career. Fountain Inn was his twelfth book, and it appeared only five years after his first, the hugely successful Mr. Finchley Discovers his England published in 1934. If you include the short stories he was also writing at the time, he produced nearly two million words of published prose before he was thirty. At that point he was called up for military service and stopped writing almost completely for six years. When he resumed writing after the war he was rather less prolific but still able to produce at least a hundred thousand words a year, which he did for nearly forty more years.
As remarkable as the quantity was the steadily improving quality of his work. In some of his earliest books he had been guilty of showing off the size of his vocabulary by using obscure words, and of indulging in rather exuberantly complicated syntax. By 1939 he had weaned himself of these self-indulgent habits and was highly accomplished at scene setting and straightforward story-telling.
The plot of Fountain Inn can be summarised as follows:
Staircase One of Fountain Inn, somewhere among the Inns of Chancery on High Holborn, houses six enterprises, including a finance company, a firm of architects for which George Crane works, Mr. Parcross of Eastern Imports, and General Factotums run by Ben and Helen Brown, who are asked to investigate their downstairs neighbour, Mr. Tomms of The Society for Progressive Rehabilitation. The Society has been willed a large inheritance and may have used illegal means to get it. Meanwhile the Browns’ new secretary Grace is falling for George Crane who, incidentally, is designing buildings for the same sinister Society. Grace’s mother is being wooed by the local butcher, but will not marry him until Grace is married. A Society member, Miss Victoria Logan, may have information for the investigators, but she vanishes mysteriously. And when Grace overhears a revealing conversation, she too is kidnapped, but luckily George can give chase. The Browns, investigating the corrupt lawyer who drew up the phoney will, are able to pinpoint the location of the conspirators’ hideout, and the confrontation of good and evil can take place.
Fountain Inn was Victor Canning’s first attempt to include elements of a detective story in his work. He had written a crime novel the year before, Every Creature of God is Good which examines the mind of a murderer in the manner of a Dostoyevsky, but in Fountain Inn he takes on nothing so serious. In fact it is a blend of social comedy and detective story. What Canning would have learned straight away is that writing a detective story immediately shunts your work away from the main review sections of newspapers and magazines into columns headed “Crime round-up” or “This month’s thrillers”. For the rest of his career he hardly ever enjoyed a serious review featuring just his own book. This was a pity, since he certainly deserved more attention than he got.
However, the book did receive some attention. In The Observer it was described as “a leisurely thriller with a love interest and no bloodstains.” The Manchester Guardian said the book was “extremely well written” and was “the attractive kind of detective story in which the question is not ‘Who?’ but ‘How?’.” The reviewer in The Times characterised the lack of much violence in the story as a “reluctance to cause pain”. Faint praise, perhaps, but nothing damning either. However, all these reviews undervalue the sheer variety and richness of the book, the quantity of innocent fun in it. We can enjoy the way Mr Pilchard, the butcher, woos Grace Kirkstall’s mother with sausages although she will not accept him before Grace herself is engaged. We can share Grace’s distress as her renegade drunken brother returns from a sea voyage to embarrass her, and her satisfaction when her admirer George Crane’s fists see him off the premises. We can relish the enthusiasm with which Helen Brown follows Mr Tomms to try and discover what brand of cigarette he smokes, and share her frustration as butt after butt is discarded irretrievably. We can appreciate the delicacy with which Helen and Ben remove their clothes as they prepare for the midnight swim to search the island in the lake. (Skinny-dipping was something of a recurrent theme in Canning’s early work.) We hold our breath during the road chase from London to Cardiganshire, and breathe again when George recovers after being knocked unconscious in the fall from his motor bike.
I suspect Ben and Helen Brown, the prime movers in the plot, owe something to Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, characters who first appeared in The Secret Adversary (1922). They have the same relationship, a blend of bantering and bickering. They have the same inclination to take on a challenge without thinking too much of the consequences or dangers, but in the end to take good care of each other. Unlike Tommy and Tuppence, however, they will never grow up, since this is the only book they appear in.
Violence is threatened and indeed there is one violent death by the end of the book, inflicted by gravity rather than gun or knife, a resolution that would feature in several later Canning books. The good end well and the bad end badly, deprived of the fortune they have schemed for. George gets his post at the County Architect’s Office and proposes to Grace. No doubt Mr Pilchard will now marry Mrs Kirkstall. Fiction, yes, superbly entertaining fiction.
Victor Canning’s books are now available in Lulu.com editions, including those he wrote under the pseudonyms Alan Gould and Julian Forest before 1940.