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.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Signed First Edition of The Satan Sampler (Birdcage #6) by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1979)

I remarked in last week's post on a signed (and inscribed) first edition of Victor Canning's The Kingsford Mark that books signed by Canning seem to be remarkably thin on the ground. For instance, if you discard the distracting chaff on AbeBooks – i.e. listings for Canning books which include the word "signed" preceded by the word "not" – there are at present just four Canning-signed books in any edition listed on the site. That's really not very many for an author who published sixty-one books in his lifetime and whose sales must have run into the millions. Furthermore, none of those signed editions on AbeBooks – or anywhere else online that I can see – are instalments in Canning's "Birdcage" series of spy novels – which is, after all, the reason I became interested in the author's work. Whereas this one is:

The Satan Sampler, published in hardback by Heinemann in 1979 (dust jacket design uncredited, but duly added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page) and bought by me on Amazon Marketplace the other week. The book is flat signed on the title page:

And unlike with The Kingsford Mark, where at first I wasn't sure if the inscription inside was by Canning or not – at that point there was nothing online I could compare it to – here there's little doubt in my mind that the signature is Canning's, not least because I have the one inside The Kingsford Mark to check against:

As, via Google Images, does anyone who might happen to search for Canning's John Hancock. No need to thank me.

The Satan Sampler is the sixth of Canning's eight Birdcage books, and as ever the best place to read about it is at John Higgins's Victor Canning pages, either the novel's dedicated entry or John's overview of the Birdcage series. John is a little cooler on the three novels which close out the Birdcage sequence – The Satan Sampler, Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982) and Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985) – than he is the earlier books – his favourites being Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971), The Rainbird Pattern (Heinemann, 1972) and Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978) – and this contemporaneous Kirkus Reviews review of The Satan Sampler supports that view, noting that there's "not nearly as much distinctive characterization or narrative invention" as in the preceding Birdcage novel, the aforementioned Birdcage. Still, The Satan Sampler may not be the very best of Birdcage, but given that my copy is the only signed Birdcage book in any edition that I'm aware of, it's one to cherish I reckon.

I've one last piece on Victor Canning planned for this particular run of posts on the author: a review of the second Birdcage novel, The Rainbird Pattern.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Victor Canning's Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971) and the Birdcage Series of Spy Novels

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books.

As I noted in my previous post, British author Victor Canning has become something of a preoccupation of mine in recent months, especially the novels he penned in the latter stages of his career. Canning aficionado John Higgins, in his wonderful and exhaustive Victor Canning pages, argues that Canning, after churning out "mechanical work with energetic but implausible plots and characters straight out of some central-casting stockbook" for two decades, underwent "an emotional crisis" in the late 1960s – Canning left his wife for another woman in 1968 – and that as a consequence "something abruptly changed" in the author's writing, resulting in "completely different novels, still staying within the suspense genre but with well-observed characters, elaborate but plausible plots, and themes which clearly mattered to the author in a way which had not been the case before". John identifies Queen's Pawn (1969) as the first post-crisis Canning; two years on from that book came the first in an extraordinary sequence of espionage thrillers:

Firecrest, issued in hardback by Heinemann in 1971, dust jacket illustration by Bob Lawrie. As John puts it, Firecrest was "quite unlike any of [Canning's] earlier work. For the first time Canning was creating credible and interesting female characters. For the first time he was using plots which were driven by character and had real uncertainty of outcome since one could not know in advance what choices the protagonists would make. His villains now were not foreign spies or criminal gangs but members of the British establishment, making for a real conflict of interest since punishing the wicked would also compromise the security of 'our' state. These villains were the staff of a secret government department with its headquarters in Birdcage Walk, initially referred to as The Department, and in later books as Birdcage."

Canning offers his own description of the Department early in Firecrest:

The Department was an offshoot of the Ministry of Defence. Its existence had never been officially acknowledged. Its functions – proliferating under the pressure of national security – were as old as organised society. Its work was discreet and indecent. Security and economy demanded that certain people and certain situations had to be handled, organised, dispatched or suppressed without the public being disturbed or distressed by any awareness of the mostly unmentionable stratagems that, in the interests of the national welfare, the Department was given an ambiguous mandate to employ. Murder, blackmail, fraud, theft and betrayal were the commonplaces of the Department. The Department existed, but its existence would have been denied. Its members and operators lived in the common society but acted outside it. Most had entered the Department aware of some of its extreme aspects and prepared to adjust themselves. None had had originally a complete understanding of it; and when this had come it was too late – for knowledge had by then brought acquiescence and even a measure of pride and self-satisfaction at being part of a body of work and action which first changed, then isolated them, and finally smoothly endowed them with an inhumanity that inwardly set them aside from all other people. The head of the Department was Sir John Maserfield.

Maserfield plays a key role in Firecrest but the novel's chief protagonist is John Grimster, one of the Department's agents of "inhumanity", whom Maserfield has tasked with finding the research papers of a Professor Harry Dilling, papers which Dilling has offered to the Department and then hidden until he receives his reward (Dilling is aware of the Department's methods and accords the Department the appropriate amount of trust, which is to say none whatsoever). Inconveniently Dilling then carks it, leaving the whereabouts of his papers a mystery – unless Grimster can dig their location out of his only lead, Dilling's girlfriend Lily Stevens, onetime shop assistant at Boots the chemist in Uckfield (nine miles up the road from Lewes, where I presently sit; the River Ouse and local beauty spot Barcombe Mills also get a mention in the novel).

Grimster sets about interviewing Lily at length at the Department's Devonshire retreat, but whilst attempting to ascertain the depth of her knowledge of Dilling's papers he is also pursuing his own agenda: to find out whether or not the Department, under Sir John's orders, murdered his wife, Valda. His suspicions about his wife's death are fed by his former schoolfriend, Harrison, now a freelance agent intent on turning Grimster for whichever power – "the Egyptians, the Russians, the Americans, the South Africans or some international industrial group" – he happens to be working; but in truth Grimster needs no encouragement: his sole purpose, he comes to understand over the course of the novel, is to learn the truth of Valda's demise and wreak his revenge – and Lily and the late Dilling's dabblings with hypnosis may provide the means to that end.

The Times Literary Supplement called Firecrest "simple and as cold as hell", which is to do a slight disservice to the plot if not the tone of the book; the structure, comprising as it does in large part Grimster's interviews with Lily, does seem quite straightforward, but the content of those interviews, the direction they take as Grimster gains Lily's trust, and the way in which Canning draws these and other strands of the novel together, are anything but. However, Firecrest is certainly a bleak read, displaying a cynicism about the machinations of government which I imagine would chime with today's NIMNies if they took the trouble to seek it out (although to be fair it is currently out of print). What drives the Department to a great degree is penny-pinching – a desire to obtain Dilling's documents on the cheap, essentially, and if that means murder, then so be it. As Sir John tells one of his men, Copplestone, "If Dilling's stuff is valid, she [Lily] goes, and the country's tax-payers will be saved a half a million, maybe. I agreed it with the Minister some time ago. He made the usual Christian noises at first."

Conscienceless, morally questionable government operatives were nothing new by the time Canning introduced his Department – Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens (and Mr. Fortescue) had been around since the early 1960s, while James Mitchell's Callan and the Section made their literary debut in 1969, to name just two examples – but Firecrest strikes an especially pessimistic tenor in this regard. That might have made for an enervating experience if it weren't for Canning's graceful prose and way with a compelling character: as calculating, conniving and occasionally savage as Sir John – who reminded me of R. in W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden – and Grimster and the rest are, they're captivating creations nevertheless, probably because of rather than in spite of their natures. Even Lily, on the surface such a guileless creature, eventually reveals herself as instinctually emotionally manipulative.

Towards the end of the book Lily's friend, Mrs. Harroway, whose late husband was in politics, muses, "...a long time ago... the world was just dirty around the edges, Mr. Grimster. Now it is grey-coloured throughout." A little later Grimster reflects: "Mrs. Harroway was right. The world was grey right through. He was grey. Cold and grey, touched only with warmth and colour once truly in his life, with Valda." Those two quotes go some way towards encapsulating the attitude of Firecrest, but it's only in the final few pages that the book stands revealed for what it really is: a Greek tragedy.

Victor Canning went on to write a further seven books featuring the Department, or Birdcage as it would come to be known, as follows:

The Rainbird Pattern (Heinmann, 1972)
The Mask of Memory (Heinemann, 1974)
The Doomsday Carrier (Heinemann, 1976)
Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978)
The Satan Sampler (Heinemann, 1979)
Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982)
Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985)

Having read both Firecrest and the second novel, The Rainbird Pattern – which I'll be turning to shortly – I can report that I have every intention of making my way through the remainder of the series, and have begun collecting Heinemann first editions accordingly – not a straightforward task, as Heinemann first editions/first impressions aren't always readily available (I managed to find a handful at a very reasonable price and in very nice condition courtesy of bookseller Mike Park; hope you're on the mend, Mike!). I've added the covers of the ones I've got my hands on thus far to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page.

One or two others of the books Canning wrote in 1970s have a link to the Birdcage series too, notably The Kingsford Mark (1975), a signed first edition of which I wrote about earlier in the week, and of which John Higgins says that "the authority figures, Wardle and Grainger, have a great deal in common with the Birdcage secret department", and this book:

The Finger of Saturn, published by Heinemann in 1973, dust jacket photograph by Robert Golden. I acquired this copy of the first edition a while back when I visited Alan White and had a rummage through his wares. According to John Higgins The Finger of Saturn "also featured malign civil servants, though not from Birdcage", adding: "As it also involved an element of science fiction, it is not really a part of the same sequence." Even still, John rates it highly – it's one of fourteen Canning books he recommends in his introduction to the author's work – as, in this Mystery*File review, does David L. Vineyard, who reckons "it is unique among Canning’s novels and he brings it off beautifully as only a true master could". It may not be a Birdcage book but I must say I'm inclined to make it my next Canning read.

But not my next Canning blog post; because that will be on another signed Victor Canning first edition...