Friday, 12 August 2016

Manning O'Brine: Mills, Crambo, and No Earth for Foxes (1969–1974)


To read the author bios on the covers of the trilogy of spy novels Manning O'Brine (1919–1974) published from 1969–1974 is to get a glimpse of a quite remarkable life. The dust jacket flap of the first edition of Mills (Herbert Jenkins, 1969) states: "During the War he served in France with the Resistance, then in North Africa as a secret agent. In 1943 he was parachuted into Montenegro to join the partisans and finished the War with the Garibaldi partisans in Italy. After the War he fought for Israel in the Arab Wars, managed an opera company, and wrote several thrillers. Still a believer in authentic background, he recently smuggled himself in and out of Albania to get material for Crambo."

The author bio on the first edition of Crambo (Michael Joseph, 1970) notes that O'Brine was an opera director, a film producer and a writer for film and television "with more than a hundred scripts to his credit". The third book, No Earth for Foxes (Barrie & Jenkins, 1974), adds to his CV a stint as a scenic designer and reveals that he "turned to writing when he decided he could write better than the 'bloody scripts that appeared on his drawing board'". It also gives additional details of his wartime exploits – that "he was with Special Services and parachuted into France on a number of occasions", was "Caught and tortured by the Gestapo... escaped on the way to Belsen", and finally reached Gibraltar.

His was, by any measure – and if those jacket flap bios are to be believed – an extraordinary life, aspects of which he channelled into Mills, Crambo and No Earth for Foxes. O'Brine had published novels before these three – he wrote a string of spy thrillers in the 1950s starring ex-Secret Service agent Mike O'Kelly – but his later espionage novels were clearly closer to his heart. (In the bio on the jacket flap of Crambo he describes his earlier novels as "desperately bad".)

Mills is the best of the three, a cat-and-mouse thriller in which the eponymous British agent decides to retire but then becomes quarry for agents from the Russian and America secret services – as well as his own – all of whom believe he is carrying the formula for a new form of LSD. But Crambo and No Earth for Foxes are almost as good, the former an account of the titular agent's extraction of a Soviet State Security man and his family (although there's more to it than that), the latter a tale of a faked defection (although again...). Characters cross over from one novel to another – Mills and his fellow agents Crambo and Pavane appear to greater or lesser degrees in each story – and there are manhunts (the one in Crambo through the coastal swamps of Albania is particularly good; O'Brine's research paid off there) and double-crosses aplenty.

What's really extraordinary about the books, though – especially Mills and No Earth for Foxes – are the frequent flashbacks to World War II, and how those shape the narrative. These brief interludes sketch in the wartime backgrounds of some of the protagonists – Mills', but also the Nazis he fought in the war and hunted down and killed afterwards for their war crimes. There are gut-wrenching glimpses of the atrocities carried out by German SS troops. Clearly informed by O'Brine's own wartime experiences, these passage burn with a righteous fury and give the novels their character of unfinished business being dealt with. Take this passage from Mills:

The old and infirm had been locked indoors and flamethrowers put to their houses. Babies had been tossed, screaming, into cement-mixers. Women had been cut down by machine-guns as they fled to the chestnut groves.

Or this one from No Earth for Foxes:

He smashed her teeth with the barrel of the machine-pistol and thrust it into her mouth. He fired a burst of 9m bullets that exploded her skull. As she fell backwards, he blew down the barrel of the pistol, lay the weapon on the wall.

And those aren't even the worst of it. O'Brine's hatred of Nazis and, yes, Germans, is channelled through Mills, who in No Earth for Foxes refers to Germans "as dog-turds, fouling the footpath of mankind, filth to be swept away every so often". But it's also made explicit in the Author's Foreword at the start of that book. Noting that the wartime horrors he details in the novel – the horrendous SS 'rastrellamento' (which O'Brine translates as "a scoring, a raking over, a cleansing") in Italy in 1944 – are based in fact, he writes:

Today, all too few really care, one way or the other. It is so much blood under the bridge, forgive and forget, Germans and Austrians are a new generation now. Indeed they are, fathered and mothered by the Hitler Jugend and Bund-Deutsche-Madel of 1945, men and women whose memories are of defeat, of being uprooted from a domain they cherished, and still cherish, as a divine right... a viscid bile that seeks by way of reunification to rise again.

Fools and politicians (all too often one and the same) can believe that the seed of such malignancy withered and died in the flames of a Berlin bunker. Facts, alas, prove otherwise.

A bleak summation of the German character, for sure. But then, given that in an afterword to the novel, O'Brine writes of having seen in Italy in 1944 "a well choked with the bodies of babies and tiny children, most of them drowned or suffocated under the weight of those above", perhaps understandable.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Sarah Gainham, Time Right Deadly (Arthur Barker, 1956 / 1957)

No. 10 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do. NB: linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 6/6/16.


What is it?
The 1957 Arthur Barker Dragon paperback edition of Sarah Gainham's debut novel, Time Right Deadly, originally published in hardback by Barker in 1956.

Who illustrated the cover?
Haven't the foggiest.

Where and when did I buy it?
Online, four years ago.

Why did I buy it?
As I mentioned in this 'books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly' post, I'm interested in Sarah Gainham's early spy novels – not least because she herself was a spy – and Time Right Deadly is the earliest of those early spy novels, being, as it is, her debut. It's also extremely uncommon in British first, hence why I bought this paperback rather than a first edition... although during the course of drafting this post I noticed, whilst double-checking online that it is still uncommon in first, a first edition for sale, modestly priced, and best of all still in its splendid John Dugan-designed dust jacket. (The scant few other British firsts I've seen for sale online have been sans jackets.) Naturally I snapped it up.


Have I read it yet?
No.

Will I be updating this post as soon as I have that aforementioned first edition in my clammy hands?
You bet I will.

Et voila:


The 1956 Arthur Barker first edition of Time Right Deadly, dust jacket design by John Dugan (said dust jacket now added to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s). Best of all, the back of the wrapper boasts a photograph of Gainham – only the second one I've ever come across.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (Pan, 1968)

No. 9 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do. NB: linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.


What is it?
The 1968 first Pan paperback printing of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 debut, Strangers on a Train.

Who designed the cover?
I'm not sure, but from the mid- to late-1960s (and onwards) Pan's covers changed from being largely illustrative in nature to largely photographic, at the behest, according to the Pan Paperback Collectors site, of editor David Larkin, so it's likely Larkin had something to do with it. The same styling, incidentally – a photo of a collection of objects to do with the novel's plot – can be seen on the 1967 Pan printings of Highsmith's The Glass Cell and A Suspension of Mercy.

Where and when did I buy it?
I didn't. My mum bought it in, I believe, a charity shop, and gave it to me when she last visited a couple of weeks ago.

Why did my mum buy it?
To read it; like me she's a Highsmith admirer, although she didn't get on with this one. Mind you, it's by no means my favourite Highsmith either, even among the non-Ripley books. Still, as Highsmith's debut, and arguably the template for much of her work, Strangers on a Train is an important novel in the writer's oeuvre, and certainly deserves its own dedicated post on Existential Ennui, something that, remarkably given my Highsmith obsession, it hasn't had heretofore.

Have I read it yet?
I have, a few years back, in its 1952 Corgi first British paperback edition.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Donald Hamilton, Death of a Citizen (Gold Medal/Frederick Muller, 1960)

No. 8 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do.


What is it?
The first British edition of Donald Hamilton's debut Matt Helm spy novel Death of a Citizen, published in paperback by Frederick Muller – using plates supplied by Fawcett/Gold Medal – in 1960.

Who illustrated the cover?
There's no cover credit in the book, and the artwork is unsigned, but I would guess that it's by Bill Johnson, who also illustrated the cover of the fourth Matt Helm novel, The Silencers (1962), among many other Gold Medal titles.

Where and when did I buy it?
Leigh Gallery Books in Leigh-on-Sea, either last year or the year before.

Why did I buy it?
Well. I already had in my possession first and second printings of the 1966 Coronet paperback edition of the novel when I bought this copy, so there's no excuse really. But this edition is the true British first – and almost identical to the true American first – and it was only three quid, so... No, it's inexcusable, isn't it?

Have I read it yet?
Yep.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (Signet, 1960)

No. 7 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do.


What is it?
The first American paperback edition – at least under its original title – of Ian Fleming's debut James Bond novel, Casino Royale, published by Signet/New American Library in 1960.

Who illustrated the cover?
Barye Phillips, whose extensive cover credits include novels by Peter Rabe, Edward S. Aarons and Donald Hamilton.

Where and when did I buy it?
At the Lewes Book Fair, last year.

Why did I buy it?
I spotted it on the table of a dealer who was new to the Lewes Book Fair and couldn't resist it, despite already owning British Pan and Panther paperbacks of the novel. In my experience it's unusual to come across vintage US paperbacks at British book fairs, so that was one reason for picking it up; plus there's that great Barye Phillips cover. Furthermore, this 1960 Signet printing represents the first time Casino Royale appeared in paperback in the US under that title; previously it had been published in paperback under the title You Asked for It by Popular Library in 1955.

Have I read it yet?
Of course.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (Panther, 1958)

No. 6 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do. NB: linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 8/4/16.


What is it?
The first British paperback edition of Dashiell Hammett's classic 1929 noir novel Red Harvest, published by Panther in 1958.

Who illustrated the cover?
John Vernon, who also illustrated the 1957 Panther edition of The Maltese Falcon; perhaps that's why the Continental Op on his Red Harvest cover bears a passing resemblance to Humphrey Bogart (who played Sam Spade in the 1941 John Huston film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon).

Where and when did I buy it?
On eBay, last year.

Why did I buy it?
It was a bit of an impulse purchase. I'd been on the hunt for an affordable first edition/first impression of the The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus (Cassell, 1950), and managed to find one, in its dust jacket, on Amazon Marketplace for under twenty quid (see previous post). At the same time I spotted this paperback of Red Harvest on eBay, and even though Red Harvest is one of the novels in The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus, I couldn't resist snapping up this rare first British paperback edition of Red Harvest too. In my defence, at least it means John Vernon's cover is now freely available to view online – possibly the first time that's been the case.

Have I read it yet?
I have.