I had Victor Canning's work recommended to me, and although I had some reservations about Venetian Bird, the first of his books I tried, I did enjoy it - and Firecrest is supposed to be one of his best, about the doings of the shadowy and ruthless "the Department".
Firecrest is altogether a better book than Venetian Bird. It charts a slice of life in “the Department”, anonymous, secret, unacknowledged and occasionally violent child of legitimate government. Action is fast and compelling, and the plot unfolds with great energy and relative conviction. Plot is hidden within counter-plot and yet furthers depths, but the reader is never confused or left in the dark as the main character, Grimster, tries to track down the discovery whichHarry Dilling had been trying to sell Government before his untimely (but accidental) death.
The secret seems likely to be held by the dead man’s girlfriend, the charming but not noticeably bright Lily. Unaccountably, she gives, very convincingly, a completely different account of a critical day to one of the Department’s own men. Is she a spy, too? Or ignorant or mischievous? None of the above, but the truth is hard to find (and just a little hard to believe), and it takes a while to unlock the secret. This secret, together with the information held by the firecrest, leads Grimster to success – but a success he does not use exactly as his masters wish.
Other parties make a sudden pounce on his find, but he is equal to them, and able to pursue his own agenda. A final reckoning is set up – but even the final expected run-in to denouement, justice, and even possibly a little personal happiness is dramatically disrupted again and again. This is a well crafted thriller, rather ahead of its time (1971) in point of literary sophistication and narrative skill, and I shall certainly seek out more.