Thursday, 8 October 2015

Hong Kong Kill by Bryan Peters, Alias Peter George: Signed Inscribed First Edition (T. V. Boardman, 1958)

I've been on the hunt for a copy of the 1958 T. V. Boardman edition of Bryan Peters's Hong Kong Kill – the first in the author's very short series (in fact just two books) of Cold War spy thrillers starring British secret agent Anthony Brandon and American CIA operative Jess Lundstrum – ever since I got my hands on a copy of the Boardman edition of the second one, 1961's The Big H, three years ago. It wasn't merely the desire to complete a series which drove me to seek out Hong Kong Kill, nor the fact that like The Big H – and indeed almost all the crime and spy novels published under Boardman's Bloodhound Mystery banner – it boasted a dust jacket designed by Denis McLoughlin (although that was admittedly a major factor in my desire to obtain that particular edition); it was also my abiding interest in the man behind the "Bryan Peters" alias: Peter George.

Best known as the co-writer of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), George published nine novels from 1952 to 1965 (including in 1963 a novelisation of Dr. Strangelove, which was itself based on George's 1958 novel Two Hours to Doom, alias Red Alert), both under his own name and the pen names Bryan Peters and Peter Bryant. It's a fascinating body of work, comprising on the one hand a handful of straightforward crime thrillers, largely published in the 1950s, and on the other a succession of books from 1958 onwards all preoccupied to a greater or lesser degree with nuclear annihilation – an obsession which in 1966 drove George to take his own life. Somewhere in the middle are the two Bryan Peters spy novels – both of which touch on the threat of obliteration by intercontinental nuclear weapons (The Big H more so than Hong Kong Kill); and spy fiction being a particular passion of mine, and having already acquired (and read, and liked) The Big H, I was keen to get hold of Hong Kong Kill too.

In the end I managed not only to find a fairly inexpensive, fairly decent copy of the uncommon Boardman edition – not ex-library and with a dust jacket that, while edge-worn and chipped, is still bright and presentable (now added to the Denis McLoughlin section in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s) – but one which, unusually, is inscribed by George. Signed or inscribed Peter George books really aren't too common; I own an inscribed copy (on an author bookplate) of George's final and perhaps finest novel, Commander-1 (1965), and there are two other signed George books that I can see for sale online at present – one an inscribed copy of his 1958 crime novel Cool Murder priced at £70, the other an inscribed copy of Two Hours to Doom priced at £1,250 – but that's about it.

This copy of Hong Kong Kill is inscribed on the front free endpaper. The simple inscription reads:

Johnny – with best of good wishes – and hopes for a happy new life.


"Bryan Peters"

As to the novel itself, it's a good but uneven affair – a trifle flat in places, melodramatic in others, with a very dry first third ("The Briefing"; the novel is split into three parts, the other two being "The Kill" and "The Prize") which establishes the background to British intelligence agent Brandon's mission – to travel to Hong Kong in order to thwart the nefarious activities of the Chinese "Extermination Section" Yellowknife, which is poised to foment trouble and assassinate key individuals – in a little too painstaking detail, and a colonial bias which is a little hard to take nearly sixty years hence. But there are some classic bits of Fleming/Bondesque spy business in the thing: a doomed love affair; a high stakes game of seven-card stud; coded messages conveyed via books (namely, amusingly, Conrad's The Secret Agent and Waugh's Decline and Fall). And it explodes into vivid, evocative life in the final part, as the 1956 Kowloon Riots erupt and Brandon and CIA agent Lundstrum go on the hunt for Yellowknife leader Lily Wang, with some shocking bursts of violence and corpses piling up in the streets around the two leads.

Intriguingly, there's an Author's Note at the start of the book which suggests that there's an element of truth to the novel beyond the (fictionalised) real life riots it features. The note reads:

This story is fiction. Unfortunately, most of the incidents in it are not. Brandon exists, though not under the name I have given him. Lily Wang exists too, though that was not the name under which she operated either. But Brandon still lives. While he does, and all those other nameless people who voluntarily walk in that savage other world, we can feel reasonably content that the other world will not encroach on our carefully balanced, peaceful lives. That was not the reason this story was written, but it is its justification.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The 100 Kilo Club by Simon Gandolfi: Signed Inscribed First Edition (Wildwood House, 1975)

Following on from that signed and inscribed association copy of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water I blogged about last week, I thought I'd post a bunch more inscribed books, all of them relatively recently acquired. Some are books by authors I've been well into for a while and have written about on Existential Ennui before; some are by authors I've discovered in the last year or so and who consequently will be making their Existential Ennui debuts; one or two are association copies, i.e. inscribed to notable folk associated with the author or to fellow writers; and some simply sport inscriptions which are in some way intriguing. Like this book:

The 100 Kilo Club by Simon Gandolfi, published by Wildwood House in 1975, dust jacket design by Richard Ward – said dust jacket now added to the British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, being, as it is, a classic of the form (briefcase, banknotes – rolled into spliffs in this instance – and a small stack of cannabis resin, no less). The story of an international game of cat-and-mouse between FBI agent Patrick Nolan and a dope dealer named Pleasure, it was Gandolfi's second novel, following 1965's Even with the Shutters Closed. He went on to pen five spy thrillers in collaboration with Alistair MacLean – the Trent series, published from 1992 to 2000 – and more recently a travelogue, Old Man on a Bike, detailing his own exploits as a septuagenarian motorcyclist making his way across South America. Indeed it's his peripatetic inclinations which seem to have inspired the inscription in this copy of The 100 Kilo Club.

It reads: "For Nick and Sue in loving memory of eight hundred fleas, one couch, one dog and a French au pere [sic]." As tantalising as that is, though, just as curious is what's written on the rear endpaper, possibly even in the same hand:

A telephone number for La Fonda on the Plaza hotel in Santa Fe. Make of all that what you will.

I bought this copy of The 100 Kilo Club off book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, one of a handful of inscribed books I've acquired from Jamie over the past six months (typically at the Lewes Book Fair), some of which I'll be showcasing down the line. Whether or not I'll ever get round to reading this one is a moot point, but I have read the next inscribed book I'll be blogging about: a 1958 spy thriller written under a pen name by Peter George.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water: Signed Inscribed Association Copy (Bloomsbury, 1991)

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 2/10/15.

In September 1991, Patricia Highsmith travelled from her home in Tegna, Switzerland, to London in order to publicise her latest book, Ripley Under Water – her third for Bloomsbury (following 1987's Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes and 1990's Carol) and the last to be published in her lifetime (a final novel, Small G: A Summer Idyll, was published shortly after her death in 1995). One of her publicity engagements was an interview before an audience at the ICA on 27 September, conducted by the crime writer Michael Dibdin – since made available on the British Library website (archiver, incidentally, of Existential Ennui). Later that evening Highsmith signed copies of the Bloomsbury first edition of Ripley Under Water at the late lamented Murder One on Charing Cross Road (and again the following day at Waterstones in Earls Court); but at some point on the day before, 26 September, she inscribed, signed and dated a copy of the book to her publisher, Liz Calder. This copy:

Which I acquired from Suffolk bookseller Claude Cox, and which came with an accompanying letter of provenance, signed by Liz Calder, on Full Circle Editions headed paper – Full Circle being the Suffolk publishing house Calder established in 2009 – the year after she left Bloomsbury – with her husband, Louis Baum, and Genevieve and John Christie.

I wrote about Ripley Under Water, the final novel in the Ripliad, back in 2013 as part of the Great Tom Ripley Reread, when I got my hands on a 1991 London Limited Edition of the book, flat signed by Highsmith. I mentioned then how as a Highsmith and Ripley enthusiast – okay, fanatic – "owning a signed Ripley novel is quite something"; so to have now come into possession of a signed association copy of a Ripley novel – even though it be the same Ripley novel, albeit in a (slightly) different edition – inscribed to such a key figure in Highsmith's life, is properly thrilling. (The book wasn't too expensive either, certainly in comparison to another association copy of Ripley Under Water currently listed on AbeBooks, a 1992 US Knopf edition inscribed to a literary agent and priced at around £250.)

In her accompanying letter, Liz Calder states that she "met Patricia Highsmith during the last years of her life and published several of her books", making note of the time "Highsmith came to London for publication" of Ripley Under Water and how Highsmith "was a gravel-voiced, quite shy but darkly funny woman who loved whisky and cats". Writing in The Oldie the month after Highsmith's death (March 1995 issue, as quoted in Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow), Calder recalled that publicity trip to London, when Highsmith stayed at Hazlitt's Hotel on Frith Street, Soho:

I collected her there for an evening on the town, and she had discovered that so crooked were the floors that her whisky bottle slid of its own accord down the top of her chest of drawers and she was catching it with glee as it flew off the edge. She kept repeating this trick a bit like Pooh and his balloon. She had a childlike pleasure in simple things.

Ripley Under Water is not the best Tom Ripley novel, nor my favourite (that would be 1974's Ripley's Game, in both cases), but I love the Ripliad as a body of work and Ripley Under Water is an intrinsic part of that series – a sequel of sorts to the second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground (1970), with a handful of excellent and memorable sequences which are the equal of anything else in the Ripliad (Tom luring his nemesis, David Pritchard, to a secluded seaside Tangier cafe and then losing his rag with Pritchard and beating him up; Tom and Ed Banbury's gruesome disposal of the remains of the art dealer Murchison; the final fate of David and Janice Pritchard). So I'm delighted to add to my Highsmith collection a unique signed copy of the novel, and especially one with so firm – and firmly dated, not to mention located – a provenance.

I'll be showcasing some more inscribed books over the coming weeks – not by Highsmith, although I do have a couple of other signed books by her I'll be unveiling at some point – but by other authors, some of whom have appeared on Existential Ennui before, and some who have not.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Patricia Highsmith on Writing, in Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense & Spy Fiction and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H. R. F. Keating

By far the most sustained piece of writing by Patricia Highsmith on the subject of fiction – her own and others' – can be found in her 160-page (in its 1981 revised edition) guidebook Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (orig. 1966). But Highsmith did pen the occasional piece for other publications too, both magazines (Plotting itself grew out of an article Highsmith wrote for The Writer magazine, and in 1989 she wrote an article for Granta magazine on the subject of Tom Ripley) and books (the 1990 Bloomsbury edition of Carol includes an afterword on the genesis of that novel). In the 1980s she twice contributed to books edited and written by the crime writer and critic H. R. F. KeatingWhodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense & Spy Fiction (Windward, 1982) and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books (Xanadu, 1987) – and both pieces are well worth a look.

Her piece for Whodunit, "Not-Thinking with the Dishes" in the "How I Write My Books" chapter, isn't very long – barely a page in length – but it's still revealing as regards her methods. Noting that she had "no set of rules for writing a book" and that she "never think[s] about who my readers may be", she states: "My book ideas begin with a situation of surprise or coincidence, some unusual circumstance, and around this, and forward and backward, I create a narrative with a beginning and an end." She continues:

I like to write three or four hours a day, taking a break frequently to do something such as finishing the last dishes in the sink, during which I am not-thinking about my work in progress. It is important that nobody else be in the house. Then my thoughts take a creative jump. Hard thought never did me very much good. I believe in letting one's mind alone. The only price I pay is having to rewrite, but not always a lot and mostly it is polishing, and having to cut a fair amount.

To illustrate this last point, Whodunit? reproduces a manuscript page from People Who Knock on the Door, which at that juncture hadn't been published (it was published by Heinemann the following year). Highsmith additionally reveals that she could write up to two thousand words a day, worked seven days a week ("In principle... something always happens to prevent work one or two days a week") and that she was unable to "adopt the method of a famous writer who said he writes the action parts first and fills in the gaps later" but instead had to "write all the in-between material as I go". She reasons: "Maybe this is inevitable because of the subjective attitude I generally take: I describe what is in the head of the protagonist, psychopath or not, because what is in his or her head must explain as well as advance the story."

Whodunit? itself is a thoroughly worthwhile book – there are essays by, among others, Michael Gilbert, John Gardner ("The Espionage Novel"), Gregory Mcdonald, Len Deighton and Eric Ambler, as well as writer-by-writer and character-by-character guides to crime fiction and thrillers – as is Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, in which H. R. F. Keating offers a hundred two-page essays on key crime novels and their authors (the list can be found at Classic Crime Fiction). Highsmith penned the foreword to the book, in which she appears to demonstrate more of a working knowledge of the field than she suggested she had in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (she maintained in that book that she "seldom read" other people's crime novels). She singles out, among others, Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler, P. D. James, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon and, especially gratifyingly for me, P. M. Hubbard (albeit only in passing), and picks over Keating's musings on these and other authors.

"One can open The 100 Best anywhere," Highsmith writes at the close of her foreword, "and be entertained by its contents, learn something new, or reinforce what is already in one's head." Not least in regard to Highsmith herself: Keating includes both The Tremor of Forgery (1969) – highlighting the "uneasiness" and "Fuzziness, ambiguity" of Highsmith's writing and "the to-and-fro indecisiveness of real life" she captures – and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), where he details the traits which make Tom Ripley such a compelling and, yes, charming character – "his genuine love of art and his true appreciation of the fruits of the earth... the simple affection he feels for his friends... his real interest in the earth-loving pursuit of gardening" and our "awed admiration" at "his willingness to take risks". He also recalls "a meeting of the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger award where one of our number announced that if we chose Ripley's Game for the prize she would resign".

Both Whodunit? and Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books are fairly readily – and cheaply – available (I found both for a few quid each in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton – where there is also, at time of writing, an expanded selection of secondhand crime fiction – a recently acquired collection, one which, needless to say, I've already raided). Not so the next Patricia Highsmith book I'll be blogging about: a signed association copy of the final novel in the Ripliad.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990); Orig. The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (Coward-McCann, 1952): Book Review

To flick through the 'other books by' pages of Patricia Highsmith first editions from the 1950s to the late 1980s, one would be forgiven for assuming that her second published novel was The Blunderer (1954 US/1956 UK). In fact her second novel was The Price of Salt, published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan in 1952 (by Coward-McCann in the US, after Harper & Bros, publishers of Highsmith's 1950 debut, Strangers on a Train, rejected it) so as to avoid Highsmith becoming labelled, as she later put it, "a lesbian-book writer". It took until 1990 for the novel to finally emerge from the closet and become an authorised part of her backlist when it was reissued as Carol by Diogenes in Switzerland and Bloomsbury in the UK (both editions featuring Tolouse-Lautrec's L'abandon, les deux amies on the cover), Highmith having at long last been persuaded to publish it under her own name.

Which isn't to say that the book hadn't been tremendously successful under its prior author name and title. In a new afterword to the novel printed in the Bloomsbury edition of Carol, Highsmith revealed how after gaining "some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952... the real success came a year later with the paperback edition [published by Bantam in the States], which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more". She added: "The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of ten and fifteen letters a couple of times a week for months on end."

The Price of Salt was reprinted by Bantam at least four times in the years following its initial publication, and was reissued by Macfadden-Bartell in the US in 1969 and again by Naiad Press in 1984. Each time it was published under the Claire Morgan alias (despite the best efforts of the publishers), and though word had begun to circulate as to the true identity of Claire Morgan long before Bloomsbury published Carol, the arrival of the retitled edition under Highsmith's own name was sufficient to prompt a wave of publicity, including newspaper interviews and a television appearance (on BBC 2's The Late Show, whose Sarah Dunant – according to Highsmith's biographer, Andrew Wilson – called the new edition "a literary coming out").

Doubtless there'll be another surge of interest in the novel in the run-up to the release of Todd Haynes's Rooney Mara/Cate Blanchett-starring film adaptation (which was praised by the critics at Cannes in May); already this year there have been articles on Highsmith in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. If Haynes's film brings the book and Highsmith to a new audience, so much the better, because Carol deserves to be widely read, especially by those who might otherwise dismiss Highsmith as a crime writer.

The story of a romance between Therese, a young shop assistant at a New York department store, and Carol, a well-to-do housewife whom Therese serves a few days before Christmas, the novel has its basis in a fleeting encounter Highsmith had with "a blondish woman in a fur coat" when Highsmith, like Therese, was working in the toy department of a store (Bloomingdale's, as opposed to the novel's fictional Frankenberg's) in December 1948. The woman bought a doll for her daughter, left her address for delivery and departed, but this seemingly ordinary episode left Highsmith feeling "odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision". That evening at home, Highsmith wrote out an eight-page outline for The Price of Salt. (In his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, Andrew Wilson identified the woman as Kathleen Senn, and discovered that she had committed suicide in 1951, a fact of which Highsmith was unaware.)

Informed by Highsmith's love affairs with married middle class socialites like Virginia Kent Catherwood and Kathryn Hamill Cohen (wife of Dennis Cohen, the founder of the Cresset Press, British publishers of Strangers on a Train and later The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley), the novel is a relatively straightforward account of the relationship that develops between Therese and the older, more sophisticated Carol. In that sense it's an atypical book in the Highsmith canon, but in its unflinching portrayal of romantic infatuation and with its measured yet compulsive pacing and what Anthony Price called "the unpretentious simplicity of the Highsmith prose"yet still complex in the way it communicates the inner turmoil of Therese (the novel's point-of-view character) – it's recognisably the work of the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Cry of the Owl (1962), and as good in its own way as any of those novels.

It's unlikely I'll ever be able to afford a 1952 Coward-McCann first edition of The Price of Salt, pictured above; those run into the thousands of pounds. Thankfully British first editions of the novel – i.e. the 1990 Bloomsbury edition of Carol – are rather more reasonably priced; I picked up the copy illustrating this post for £3.50 in Oxfam Books in Bloomsbury, appropriately enough, and copies can be had online for around a tenner. I've added my one to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery (where an uncorrected proof of the Bloomsbury edition can also be found) – and I'll have more on Highsmith and Bloomsbury (as in the publisher) soon.

NB: This post linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 25/9/15.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Westlake Score: Killtown (alias The Score, Parker #5) by Richard Stark (alias Donald E. Westlake) (Coronet, 1971)

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 11/9/15.

This Westlake Score may not be quite as exciting a proposition, or indeed acquisition, as the T. V. Boardman edition of Pity Him Afterwards I blogged about last week (for me anyway; who knows – perhaps it will be for you), but like that book it does complete a run of novels in my seemingly ever-expanding Donald E. Westlake collection – in this instance the British paperback first editions of the Parkers.

Published by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in 1971, Killtown is the fifth of Westlake's written-as-Richard-Stark Parker novels, retitled – presumably by Coronet, said new title also utilised by Berkley in the States for their 1973 paperback edition – from the original title of The Score, i.e. the one where Parker and crew take down an entire town. Now, I do, it almost (almost) goes without saying, already own four other editions of the novel – that aforementioned Berkley paperback, a 1984 Avon paperback, an original 1964 Pocket paperback and a 1985 Allison & Busby hardback – but when I spotted this copy of the Coronet edition on eBay I couldn't resist bidding for it (and winning it, for just over four quid). Reason being, it was the only one of the sixteen Parkers published by Coronet that I didn't own. And now I do, which means that I have a complete set of first printings of the British first editions of the initial run of Parkers.

The urge to buy a book when one already owns four other editions of that same book is the kind of madness that is probably only explicable to other book collectors (and even then...), but in my defence I should like to point out that this is quite a scarce edition, certainly in its first printing (which my copy is): I can only see one other copy listed for sale online at present, offered by an American seller at $35. Admittedly there are a half a dozen or so reprints listed on AbeBooks and Amazon and the like, but who in their right mind wants a reprint of anything? (Ahem.)

In common with the bulk of the Coronet Parkers, the cover of Killtown is a double-cover "bullet hole" affair – a design attributed to the late great Raymond Hawkey – with the shiny black paper inner cover beneath the silver card outer cover bearing the legend "Parker is in" followed by the book's title – which shows through the bullet hole – on the front, and on the back a photo of Westlake/Stark and a brief bio. (I say "the bulk of the Coronet Parkers" because some of them were initially issued by Coronet with illustrated and photographic covers.) And like a good half dozen or so of the other bullet hole cover Parkers, on its first page it sports this character sketch:

Not sure that's an entirely accurate description of Parker, but I do like the bit about how "in his mean, dark world he is almost a god". Anyway, should anyone be remotely interested – or even still reading by this point – here is Killtown nestling in amongst my complete collection of first printings (plus a few reprints) of the Coronet editions: