Thursday, 1 December 2016

Mike Ripley's Not Single Spies, a Readers' History of Thrillers, Published 2017

Now this is rather exciting. Crime writer and thriller aficionado Mike Ripley has announced the publication next year of "a readers' history", as Mike himself puts it, of "the boom in British thrillers" from 1953–1975. Titled Not Single Spies, the book takes as its starting point Ian Fleming's debut Bond novel Casino Royale (1953) and its end point Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed (1975), featuring along the way the likes of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth, and drawing on discussions Mike has had over the years with such luminaries as Len Deighton, Anthony Price, Alan Williams and Gavin Lyall.

Set to be published by Harper Collins on 18 May 2017, Not Single Spies also boasts a foreword by Lee Child, who, when approached to write the foreword, apparently noted that he knew: "It would be a book I would want to read – maybe even pay for!" I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 31 October 2016

London Paperback and Pulp Book Fair 2016

Absence, they say – and who am I to naysay 'they' – makes the heart grow fonder, which was why I was delighted to see the return on Sunday, after a three-year absence, of the London Paperback and Pulp Book Fair – as were a good many others judging by the crowds at the 2016 event. Now at a new venue – the Royal National Hotel in Russell Square, tacked onto the monthly Bloomsbury Ephemera Fair – this year's fair was a busy, bustling, er, affair, with the likes of Jamie Sturgeon, David Hyman and others purveying fine selections of vintage paperbacks and pulps (as one might expect, given the name of the thing). I came away with this little lot:

Top row, three Cornell Wooolrich paperbacks: The Black Curtain (Dell, 1948), The Black Path of Fear (Avon, 1946) and, ah, The Black Path of Fear again (Ace, 1968); middle row, three John D. MacDonald paperbacks: Death Trap (Dell, 1957); Deadly Welcome (Dell, 1959) and The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything (Frederick Muller/Gold Medal, 1964); bottom row: C. S. Forester's Payment Deferred (Guild Books paperback, 1950), Margaret Millar's Beast in View (Corgi paperback, 1960), Elmore Leonard's Hombre (Ballantine paperback, 1967 reprint) and John Fowles' The Collector (Pan paperback first printing, 1965) – that last one actually bought from a paperback dealer in the main Ephemera Fair. A pretty good haul, all told. Here's hoping the wait between fairs isn't quite so long next time.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Blimey I Wrote a Book

Actually I wrote two books... and co-wrote another book... and wrote a bit of another book... and wrote an essay for another book... so I guess in total that adds up to, what, two-and-a-half books or something? All in the space of less than a year. Which, when added to all the writing I've done for the Marvel Fact Files and The Walking Dead: The Official Magazine and the stack of books and graphic novels I've edited over the past however many months – more on those below – might go some way towards explaining why there's been bugger all happening on Existential Ennui of late.

But anyway: the books wot I wrote. The two books written entirely by me will be published spring next year: Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ultimate Guide to the Cosmic Outlaws, and Guardians of the Galaxy Ultimate Sticker Collection (the attentive might be able to spot a common theme there). Doubtless I'll be banging on about those nearer the time. The book I co-wrote (and did a fair amount of editing on), alongside fellow authors Billy Wrecks and Danny Graydon, is out now:

The Mysterious World of Doctor Strange, published by DK – an official guide to Marvel Comics' Sorcerer Supreme (soon to be seen, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch, in cinemas in Marvel's Doctor Strange movie). I got my copy the other day and it's a handsome thing: a hardback with gilt-edged pages, beautifully designed by Amazing15 and DK's Chris Gould, lavishly illustrated with panels and splash pages from across Doctor Strange's fifty-plus year comics career – and the writing's not bad either. It's aimed at kids, but I'll wager the more mature comics fan will find it diverting too (being one myself). Review here.

Also out now is the all-new edition of the DC Comics Encyclopaedia, which I wrote a bit of and did a fair bit of editing on. I haven't seen a finished copy of that one yet, but according to reports it's a great big beast of a book. Review here.

And out later in the year is Murder in the Closet, an anthology of essays examining queer themes in crime fiction that I contributed a piece on Patricia Highsmith to. I haven't seen a copy of that one either, but editor Curtis Evans has chosen some intriguing and sterling contributors (present company excepted, of course), so it should be a fascinating book.

Besides that little lot, I've edited a whole heap of other books and graphic novels over the past year or so:

Top to bottom in that towering pile are Pen and Ink by James Hobbs; Electri_city: The Dusseldorf School of Electronic Music by Rudi Esch; Who Are You? The Life and Death of Keith Moon by Jim McCarthy and Marc Olivent; 5-Minute Sketching: People by Pete Scully; 5-Minute Sketching: Architecture by Liz Steel; Essential Type by Tony Seddon; Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Archives Vols 1–3; Independence Day: The Original Movie Adaptation; Elric Volume 3: The Dreaming City; and Battle Classics Volume 2. There's others besides, I'm sure, plus books and graphic novels I've proofread rather than edited, but I've either filed them away and forgotten what they are or they've not been published yet.

So that's what I've been up to. And who knows? Maybe at some point I'll find time to blog about some of the books I've bought as well...

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?

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.