Victor Canning (1911-86) was a British thriller writer who enjoyed considerable success during the period from the 1940s to the 1960s only to be largely forgotten since. Panther’s Moon was published in 1948.
Panther’s Moon begins in Milan. Roger Quain is an English engineer who has accepted a slightly unusual task from his French father-in-law - to transport two black leopards from Rome to Paris. In Milan he meets a young Englishwoman who spins him a strange and rather unlikely tale, about being a British spy and about a murdered man and some secret and terribly important micro-film. He doesn’t believe a word of it, at first, but she’s able to produce both the corpse and the micro-film so then he starts to believe her.
This woman, Catherine, wants him to help her smuggle the micro-film out of Italy. Surely any patriotic Englishman would be willing to help a British spy?
As it happens she has a plan for smuggling the micro-film out. It’s a very good plan. Nothing could possibly go wrong. No-one is likely to try to search a not-very-friendly panther (especially one who has already killed one man).
Of course something does go wrong. Roger finds himself having to hunt panthers in the Swiss Alps but somebody else has found out about the micro-film and Roger could find himself the hunted rather than the hunter.
This novel is a far cry from the popular British thrillers of the 20s and 30s featuring rambunctious heroes like Bulldog Drummond and it’s also very different in tone from the action-packed British thrillers of the 50s and 60s. Canning has rather more serious intentions. He’s trying to write a serious thriller with an emphasis on psychology and with perhaps even a few things to say about the human condition. In this objective he succeeds at least moderately well.
Panther’s Moon is an avowedly literary thriller. It’s also not quite a classic suspense novel - the reader knows no more about what’s going on than the hero. The identity of the enemy agent remains hidden until the end, although we know it has to be one of a limited number of people staying at a hotel in a Swiss valley. So in structure this book has some similarities to the detective fiction of the golden age.
Roger Quain is at least a reasonably interesting character. He’s one of the many men who found it difficult to settle down after the war. He doesn’t like to think himself as being adventurous or a romantic but he is in fact both of these things. This adventure fulfills a need in him.
Catherine had spent the war on top-secret assignments behind enemy lines, had fallen in love and had then lost her lover. Now she can never love again (or so she imagines) and she perhaps welcomes the prospect of danger - death would reunite her with her lost love.
Several of Canning’s thrillers were filmed in Britain, including The Golden Salamander and Venetian Bird. Panther’s Moon was made into a US film, Spy Hunt, unfortunately a film that is almost impossible to get hold of.
Panther’s Moon is a decent spy thriller with very little action but some nice attention to setting and some effective tension towards the end. If your tastes run to the more literary type of thriller it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.