Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014): Book Review, Signed First Edition

Following on from last week's post about a British first edition of The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith's second novel (under her own name), I thought I'd take a look at one or two other first editions of sophomore novels by female authors, starting with a book by a writer who cites Highsmith's work as an influence on her own:

Her, by Harriet Lane, published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2014, which makes it that rarest of things on Existential Ennui, a new book! (Relatively speaking; it came out in June.) The dust jacket design is uncredited, but taken in combination with the case design:

which is a reversed-out treatment of the jacket title on a bright blue printed PLC – as opposed to the more usual coloured arlin – and the bright yellow endpapers, it's a simple but very striking and effective design overall. Additionally, this particular copy is quite special:

It's signed by the author on the title page, and dated pre-publication – much like my first edition of Lane's 2012 debut, Alys, Always, a quietly brilliant novel which wound up as one of my top ten books of 2013 – hence why I decided to secure a similarly adorned first of Lane's latest. And I'm glad I did; for while Her isn't quite on a par with Alys, Always, it's still slyly engaging, the narrative alternating – and sometimes overlapping – chapter by chapter between the (first person present tense) accounts of thirtysomething London middle(ish) class types Emma and Nina, the former ground down by motherhood and a typically useless husband, the latter wafting seemingly effortlessly through life – a career as an artist, a wealthy architect husband – and yet harbouring a secret grudge against Emma. The nature of that grudge is only made explicit towards the novel's shattering climax; prior to that point it's a guessing game as to why Nina is inveigling herself into Emma's life: to what ultimate and likely nefarious purpose?

The reviews of Her – the reviews in newspapers, I mean; the reviews on the books blogs I've seen (er, like this one...) are as earnestly hamfisted as one would expect – have been largely positive, although this Telegraph one reckons the novel gets "bogged down in slow domesticity". Actually for me that "slow domesticity" is key to the book's success: I found Lane's detailing of Emma's loss of sense of self in the face of the ceaseless demands of her baby girl and toddler boy almost more absorbing than Nina's Machiavellian machinations, although that could be because I have a one-year-old daughter myself.

And something else I was struck by, as with Alys, Always, was a parallel with Patricia Highsmith's work. It's not as pronounced here as it is in Lane's debut, which was clearly influenced by The Talented Mr. Ripley, but even so, in the way in which Emma and Nina become fascinated by one another, there are similarities with how Highsmith often has two protagonists – male in her case – fixate on one another, and switches the narrative back and forth accordingly: see Walter and Kimmel in The Blunderer, Rydal and Chester in The Two Faces of January, Tom and Jonathan in Ripley's Game, and so forth.

Anyway, there are ulterior motives and Machiavellian manoeuvring at play in the next sophomore novel I'll be looking at, a book which I only became aware of in the wake of last year's Jones-Day family holiday to Suffolk.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith: British First Edition (Cresset Press, 1956)

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 19/9/14.

I am, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, a book collector of relatively modest means. I've never exactly been made of money, even before I started collecting old books around five years ago – I work in publishing for one thing – and with the arrival of Edie a year-and-a-bit ago the disposable income I have available to me for buying secondhand books has shrunk even further (not a complaint, by the way; Edie is worth every penny I, er, no longer have). Accordingly I've long resigned myself to the fact that, unexpected (and, it must be said, unanticipated) windfalls notwithstanding, there will probably always be books which I desire but which I will not be able to afford.

Foremost among those lusted-after books are the British first editions of Patricia Highsmith's first three novels (under her own name; The Price of Salt, written as Claire Morgan and published in the US in 1952, wasn't published in the UK until 1990 – under the title Carol – by Bloomsbury), all of which were issued in the UK by the Cresset Press: Strangers on a Train (1950), The Blunderer (1956; originally 1954 in US) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1957; originally 1955 in US). For me, being a Tom Ripley fanatic – my favourite novel of all time is Ripley's Game; indeed it was a first edition of that which arguably made me a book collector – the most desirable of those is The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I'm also a fan, and collector, of Highsmith's wider oeuvre, and so I would certainly not sniff at British firsts of the other two – if I could afford them: in dust jackets, all three books run into the hundreds of pounds (jacketless copies can be found cheaper).

At least, in the ordinary run of things on the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace (where in each case there are only a handful of British firsts available); because every now and then, a book collector of relatively modest means with a particular passion for Patricia Highsmith can get lucky:

That there is a 1956 Cresset Press British first edition of The Blunderer, which I nabbed on eBay over the summer. The dust jacket is a little chipped and worn, but it's not price-clipped, and the book itself is in good condition – and most importantly it wasn't anywhere near as expensive as the cheapest jacketed copy I can see online at present, which is £245 (there is a jacketed copy offered at £145, but the jacket is a facsimile). It's a serendipitous addition to my Patricia Highsmith first edition collection – where it now nestles alongside a Heinemann first of Highsmith's fourth novel (under her own name), Deep Water, which I secured last year – and to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery – not to mention the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1960s and 1960s page, although in that case I've had to file it under "Designer Unknown" down the bottom, as the wrapper is uncredited. There's not even a signature on it that I can see to identify it; anyone able to do so please leave a comment.

The Blunderer isn't among my favourite Highsmith novels, but it does have a memorably violent and gruesome ending, one which Andrew Wilson, in his 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, highlights, calling it "a masterly denouement to an utterly compelling novel" and drawing attention to the shocking moment where, as Highsmith puts it, Walter "...in his open mouth felt the sting of a knife blade through his tongue, felt the sting again in his cheek, and heard the blade's grate against his teeth". Wilson also makes note of how, as the basis for Clara, the wife of the novel's lead, Walter Stackhouse, Highsmith used facets of the character of her lover at the time, Ellen Hill, especially Hill's suicide attempts, quoting from Highsmith's diary: "The suicide & Ellen's character in the book I find very disturbing & too personal."

For me the novel is interesting for the way it develops Highsmith's theme of two men becoming weirdly and dangerously fascinated by one other, a theme which the writer established in her debut, Strangers on a Train, and which she would return to in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Those Who Walk Away, Ripley's Game and The Boy Who Followed Ripley, with elementss of it appearing in many others of her books. Highsmith herself makes note of this in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, and also how she much preferred to narrate novels from two points of view – as in The Blunderer – rather than one, although to my mind some of her best books are related from a single viewpoint (The Talented Mr. Ripley, This Sweet Sickness, The Tremor of Forgery, Ripley Under Ground).

Something else Highsmith explores in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is "the germ of an idea" for a few of her novels. In the case of The Blunderer:

The germinal idea... was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: "Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other." This idea would not interest many writers, I think. It is a "so what" idea. It needs embellishments and complications. In the book that resulted, I had the first crime done by a more or less cool killer, the second by an amateur attempting to copy the first, because he thinks the first killer has gotten away with his crime. Indeed, the first man would have, if not for the blundering effort of the second man to imitate him. And the second man did not even go through with his crime, only went to a certain point, a point at which the similarity was striking enough to attract the attention of a police detective. Thus a "so what" idea may have its variations.

Incidentally, a film adaptation of The Blunderer was announced early in 2013, directed by Andy Goddard and, it was further announced at Cannes this year, starring Patrick Wilson as Walter Stackhouse and Toby Jones as his nemesis, Melchior Kimmel; but the book almost became a film thirty years ago. According to Andrew Wilson, John Hurt was lined up to star as Walter Stackhouse in 1983, in an adaptation financed by Goldcrest and HBO, but sadly nothing ever came of the project.

The Blunderer was Highsmith's second novel under her own name... and it so happens I have some other sophomore novels by women writers lined up for the next few posts, beginning with a book by an author who cites Patricia Highsmith as a big influence.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Westlake Sleaze Score: All the Girls Were Willing by Alan Marshall (Midwood Tower #28, 1960)

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker.

I might not have written about Donald E. Westlake much of late – just one post in the last five months, an outrageous state of affairs for which I can only apologise, especially to Violent World of Parker readers (still, at least Trent's back now) – but Westlake is never too far from my thoughts. For instance, a few months back I reread the first three Parker novels – The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit – gaining a new appreciation of the stripped-back, stylized brilliance of the second book in particular (The Man with the Getaway Face was already one of my favourite Parkers but I'm now of the opinion that it's the best Parker full stop), and I've recently read a couple of later Parkers too; I may write something about some or all of that at some point. And I'm still picking up the odd Westlake Score when I come across something interesting. Like this:

All the Girls Were Willing by Alan Marshall, published in paperback by Midwood/Tower in 1960. Westlake's fifth novel under the "Alan Marshall" alias, it's also the second of three books starring ladies man/wannabe actor Phil Crawford, the other two being Backstage Love (Monarch, 1959; reissued in 1962 as Apprentice Virgin) and Sin Prowl (Corinth). I scored a copy of Backstage Love four years ago but noted at the time that I had no intention of collecting any others of the sleaze efforts Westlake wrote under a variety of pseudonyms in the late 1950s/early 1960s; while their scarcity – especially in the UK – does make them attractive to the Westlake collector (i.e., me), they're of decidedly dubious literary merit. Since then, including All the Girls Were Willing (and one other sleaze title I've yet to blog about), I've acquired another four of the buggers, which only goes to show (yet again) what a hopeless case I am.

All the Girls Were Willing was an eBay win, so in my defence I suppose I could say that I was swept up in the excitement of the auction; plus I didn't end up paying very much for it, and the cover art on this first printing – the novel was reissued in 1962 with different cover art under the title What Girls Will Do (Midwood #166) – by an uncredited Paul Rader, is rather nice. Question is, inveterate collector that I am, now that I own the first two instalments in the Phil Crawford trilogy, do I try and collect the third one, Sin Prowl, which is the scarcest one of all? The inevitable answer being, with a weary sigh of resignation: probably, if I ever come across it. Er, so to speak.

Friday, 12 September 2014

2001: A Space Odyssey, a Novel by Arthur C. Clarke (Hutchinson, 1968); Book Review

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

The final book I bought during my recent fortnight's holiday was this:

A first edition/first impression of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, published in hardback in 1968 by Hutchinson, dust jacket design by Michael Brett (who also designed the wrapper for the 1966 Hutchinson edition of Andrew York's The Eliminator). I spotted it in Brighton Books – on Kensington Gardens in Brighton's North Laines – offered at what I thought was a very reasonable price; ex-library copies aside, on AbeBooks at present prices for the Hutchinson first range from £65 to around £300 (unsigned), and my copy is in better condition than most. I'd seen one or two first editions of 2001 prior to coming across this one – a couple at book fairs, one in a secondhand bookshop in Essex – but they'd always been prohibitively expensive. Whereas, comparatively, this one wasn't. So I nabbed it.

Why? Well, if I were to pick one film out of all the thousands I've seen over the years as my favourite, it would be Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I must have been, ooh, all of seven or eight when I first saw it, on telly in the late 1970s, possibly even in black-and-white (we didn't get a colour TV in our house until late in the day), and even though I didn't understand half of it, it blew my tiny sci-fi-obsessed mind. I've seen it countless times since – mostly on television or on video, once at the cinema when a new print with digitally remastered sound was screened at the Curzon, Mayfair in, aptly enough, 2001 (there's a wonderfully breathless account of one of those Curzon screenings here) – but my passion for the film has remained undiminished. And Clarke's novel is an inextricable part of that passion.

I'm not sure when precisely I originally read the novel, but it was probably when I was in my early teens; doubtless I borrowed it from Beckenham Library, possibly even in this Hutchinson edition (or maybe the 1974 Hutchinson Educational edition, which has a different cover), which was published after the film was released rather than before it, reportedly at Stanley Kubrick's behest (as noted in John Baxter's Stanley Kubrick: A Biography [via Rob Ager's Kubrick: and Beyond the Cinema Frame]). According to Kubrick, interviewed by Joseph Gelmis in 1969, the book grew out of not only the film's screenplay, which Kubrick and Clarke worked on together, but a 130-page prose treatment for the film that the two of them wrote at the outset of the project. Kubrick told Gelmis: "...Arthur took all the existing material, plus an impression of some of the rushes, and wrote the novel. As a result, there's a difference between the novel and the film."

Actually there are quite a few differences, both small – the monolith which appears to the man-apes during "The Dawn of Man" section ("Primeval Night" in the book) is black in the film but "completely transparent" in the novel – and large: in the novel, Discovery's destination is Saturn, not Jupiter. But these discrepancies are much less important than what the book contributes to the experience of 2001, the way it expands upon notions and concepts which in the film are often oblique or downright cryptic. Clarke reveals more about the intentions and methods of the extraterrestrial intelligence which places the crystal monolith on the African veldt, making explicit that there are "replicas scattered across half the globe"; he posits that Saturn's rings are the byproduct of the creation of the massive monolith Dave Bowman encounters towards the end of the story – the "Star Gate" which Bowman travels through; and he embellishes Bowman's interstellar journey through the Star Gate, using everyday language to detail incredible sights: "a Grand Central Station of the Galaxy"; "a gigantic orbital parking lot".

None of this ruins the film's mystique; rather it enhances it, opening up a greater understanding of Kubrick's masterpiece whilst still leaving much inexplicable, unfathomable. Even with the differences between them, book and film are as one, the one feeding into the other, and vice versa. I'd go so far as to say that a full appreciation of Kubrick's film isn't really possible without Clarke's novel – a conclusion this contemporaneous New York Times review of the book also reaches – but if there were any lingering doubt as to its essential, inseparable nature, it's also the source of the frequently misattributed Dave Bowman utterance "my God – it's full of stars!", which doesn't actually appear in the film (it makes its film debut in the 1982 sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two).

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Secondhand Bookshops Wot I Visited and the Books Wot I Bought on My Summer Holidays, 2014

Not that anyone will have cared or indeed even noticed, I'm sure, but there's been a relative lack of activity on Existential Ennui for the past fortnight or so, due to my having been on holiday. Sadly – or perhaps happily, depending on one's level of enthusiasm for such things – I shan't be mustering any kind of consequent report akin to last year's post-holiday multi-post extravaganza detailing the multitude of secondhand bookshops I dragged Rachel and Edie to, for the simple reason that I didn't drag them to anywhere near as many this year. Which isn't to say that I didn't buy any books; quite the reverse, in fact. Take this little lot:

Which I procured from famed book dealer Jamie Sturgeon at the start of the holiday. Jamie kindly invited me to his house to have a dig through his boxes of books, from which I extracted first editions of novels by, among others, Manning O'Brine, Peter O'Donnell, William Haggard, Simon Harvester – a good number of Harvester's Dorian Silk "Road" novels, which Jamie had set aside for me – Duncan Kyle, William Garner, John Bingham, Margaret Millar and Donald MacKenzie – some of them even signed and inscribed, no less. And then there's these:

In the front row, US first editions/first impressions of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues (Morrow, 2002) and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool (Delacorte, 2002), both with dust jackets designed by Chip Kidd, and in the back row, a British first edition/first impression of John Updike's Rabbit omnibus Rabbit Angstrom (Everyman's Library, 1995), a 1986 Pan paperback of John Fowles's The Collector, and a British first edition of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential (Mysterious Press, 1990), with a dust jacket illustration by David Scutt.

The two Leonards came from here:

Much Ado Books in Alfriston, which after closing off its entire first floor secondhand books department for a while, has now reopened one room upstairs and has expanded the selection of secondhand books available in the courtyard, all of which is jolly good news. The Leonard firsts were only three quid a pop, plucked from the very courtyard bookcase I'm browsing in the picture above, and though I have read Be Cool, I didn't own a copy of it, nor of Tishomingo Blues, so American first editions, which you don't come across every day in British secondhand bookshops, proved irresistible.

The Rabbit Angstrom omnibus I acquired from a local Lewes charity shop for a couple of quid, while the Ellroy first I also acquired relatively locally, from Wax Factor in Brighton, for a fiver. Both are books I've long had it in mind to try at some point, as is Fowles's The Collector, although that one came from further afield:

The Friends Secondhand Bookshop, situated in the grounds of Hylands House in Essex, which I coerced Rachel and Edie (and Rachel's folks, who accompanied us) into visiting on the pretense of Hylands Park being picturesque. Which to be fair it is – and is also, I learned once we arrived, the site of the annual V Festival, which I attended in, I think, 1997, so I'd unknowingly been there before – but I'd be lying if I were to suggest its attractively manicured gardens were my main reason for visiting. The bookshop is a donations affair in the courtyard of the Stables Visitor Centre, and in truth it's not dissimilar to a charity bookshop, with little for the proper collector, but it's still worth a casual browse, and even Edie briefly entertained the notion of going inside and having a look around.


Another secondhand bookshop of note I managed to get to during the fortnight was this one:

The Petersfield Bookshop, in, astonishingly enough, Petersfield, in Hampshire. I didn't buy anything there, but there are lots of rooms to explore with books piled everywhere, so I'd recommend a detour if you're ever in that part of the world.

I did buy one other book during the fortnight, again in Brighton... but I think I'll save that for a separate post.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Rainbird Pattern (Birdcage #2) by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1972): Book Review

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books.

Of the sixty-one books that Victor Canning published in his lifetime, one is widely held to be his very best:

The Rainbird Pattern, published in hardback by Heinemann in 1972, dust jacket photography by Graham Miller (whose distinctive photos also appear on the wrappers for the British first editions of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, Elmore Leonard's Fifty-Two Pickup and The Hunted – and in the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, natch). Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger in 1973, on publication the novel was reviewed in glowing fashion in The Sunday Times ("Mr Canning has never done better"), The Sunday Telegraph ("Bang-on background and characterisation"), The Times ("The sheer imaginative weight holds you like a giant electro-magnet"), The Guardian ("Unputdownable, multi-threaded thriller"), the Oxford Mail ("There hasn't been a better thriller this year"; I suspect Anthony Price was responsible for that review) and many other papers, while more recently Victor Canning authority John Higgins has called it Canning's "masterpiece" and "one of the best thrillers ever written".

Higgins has also identified The Rainbird Pattern as the second in Canning's eight-book sequence of "Birdcage" thrillers, all of which feature to a greater or lesser degree operatives of a shadowy government dirty tricks department known simply as the Department in the first book in the series, Firecrest (1971), and as Birdcage in later books (the department is based on London's Birdcage Walk). Mind you, there's nothing in The Rainbird Pattern itself to suggest that it is part of a series; though a department along the lines of and with similar functions to the one in Firecrest does play a role in proceedings, its chief – the pirate-like Grandison – and its agents – dour, driven near-divorcee Bush and Deputy Head Sangwill – are not the same as those in the prior novel (although given how Firecrest turned out that's perhaps understandable), plus it's denied a capital "D" in its title.

Moreover, it seems somehow smaller than its forerunner, and in a more concrete sense doesn't feature as heavily in the narrative. The story is driven for the most part by Blanche Tyler, alias Madame Blanche, a buxom, cheerful thirtysomething psychic who, with the aid of her underachieveing and overweight boyfriend, George Lumley, and her spirit guide, Henry, is intent on easing the guilt of wealthy spinster Miss Rainbird, and in the process hopefully feathering her own nest (Blanche has plans to build something called the Temple of Astrodel). Meanwhile a kidnapper known only as Trader has been holding a succession of prominent Members of Parliament to ransom and is building up to one last showstopping abduction – unless Bush of the department can identify him and bring him to a very rough form of justice.

The audacious manner by which Canning brings these two strands together is, I suspect, a big part of why the novel is held in such high regard – that and the author's trick of invoking a measure of sympathy for each character, no matter how underhand their actions or methods. Whether it be Blanche wanting to build her spiritual temple or George wishing to make a few bob and set himself up as a landscape gardener; or Miss Rainbird, plagued by bad dreams and reluctantly having to make peace with the past; or Grandison and Bush, trying to catch a cunning kidnapper; or even Trader, who, though clearly unhinged, is simply attempting to secure enough funds to find a remote place unsullied by his fellow man's polluting ways – in each instance Canning presents a rounded character with aims which are explicable and in many ways simpatico with those of the novel's other protagonists. Which makes the coldly ironic denouement, and its even icier postscript, a bitterly frozen pill to swallow.

Is The Rainbird Pattern truly Victor Canning's best book? I've read so little of Canning's oeuvre I'm afraid I'm in no position to comment. I only have Firecrest to compare it to and even there I'm in two minds as to which is the better work; Canning's novel conception of the Department is stronger in the first Birdcage book, whereas its (loose) sequel boasts a more daring structure. I do wonder how much of The Rainbird Pattern's higher profile is down to it having been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – as Family Plot, the director's last film – but one thing it does have over its predecessor is it's currently in print: crime writer and critic Mike Ripley republished it under his Top Notch Thrillers imprint in 2010.