Victor canning's "Fall From Grace," filled in equal parts with biblical allusion and delicate suspense, is a modern allegorical tale depicting one man's attempts to recapture a paradise of sorts while wrestling with the forces of good and evil within himself.
While Canning is concerned with an ancient theme, his approach is thoroughly contemporary. In many ways, "Fall From Grace," is like an early Alfred Hitchcock thriller set in prose. The English characters are droll, urbane and finely sketched and they act out their roles in a tense and complex psychological drama.
The drama commences when John Corbin, a dissolute young author, agrees to write a family history of the Darvells of Illaton Manor. Corbin, a bit of an adventurer, has just blackmailed the wayward wife of a wealthy businessman, and he accepts the job to take himself out of circulation for a while.
Gradually, however, amid the lush gardens of the estate, he falls in love with the fair gardener, Rachel Harrison and becomes enamored of the generatins of Darvells who have worked to create the earthly paradise of the manor. Since these new loves offer him the prospect of retrieving a sense of virtue and purpose in his life, he attempts to suppress his darker inclinations.
But Corbin simply doesn't stand a chance. His innate roguishness (compounded by impending financial and paternal difficulties) lures him into a devilish scheme to blackmail his patron, Michael Boyd Darvell, bishop of Testerburgh and current resident of the manor. Hounded by a detective who seeks to avenge the earlier caper, and still hoping to conceal his past from fawning loved ones, Corbin must turn to his old ways to protect himself.
Canning is a resourceful writer, adept at illustrating man's pradoxical nature. For all of Corbin's regrettable pursuits, he is an engaging scoundrel. He has a passion for poetry and plants. He is thoughtful and charming (particularly to the demure, older women he uses to his own ends). He has a conscience, although one easily manipulated, and he is constantly contemplating the tug of war being waged for his soul between God and the devil.
There is, likewise, dualism in the other characters. The kindly, pious bishop is not above a bit of base politicking in his drive to become the archbishop of Canterbury. James Helder, the detective, is relentless in his search for Corbin, yet he questions the morality of his work and that of his client (the wealthy businessman out to settle an old score for his duplicitous wife). Even Rachel Harrison, Corbin's love, while possessing a naive purity, also functions as the tempting Eve -- the prospect of her pleasures eventually causes Corbin's expulsion from the garden of Illaton Manor.
The parallel with Hitchcock extends to the book's construction and plot. Like the filmmaker, Canning has a remarkable touch for the menacing detail and the sinister nuance. Behind the luxurious foliage of character and horticultural description (romantic verse and scientific plant names flourish in the book), Canning plants the seeds of Corbin's undoing. Minute, expertly executed foreshadowings build a harrowing depiction of Corbin's plight.
The plot itself takes several daring and unexpected turns. Secondary personalities and situations are introduced; and for each new character there is a corresponding motive or flaw with a particular bearing on Corbin's pursuit of redemption. Taken together, these competing and contrasting elements from the dense thematic undergrowth which ensnares the cleverly vacuous Corbin, "a fox without the brute virtues of the animal itself."
Yet for all the author's skill, the end is something of a letdown, not particularly worthy of the complex machinations which have been set in motion. It is as if Canning suddenly lost interest and decided to dispense with the proceedings.
The ending notwithstanding, "Fall From Grace" succeeds admirably, if modestly, as a chronicle of bright aspirations beset by the sinister demands of reality.