Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Westlake Score: Under an English Heaven by Donald E. Westlake

Here's a curiosity from Westlake's canon, one of the few non-fiction books he wrote during the course of his prodigious career (the only other one I know of is the biography of Elizabeth Taylor he penned under the nom de plume John B. Allan):


This is the UK paperback edition of Under an English Heaven, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1993. And it's curious for a couple of reasons, quite apart from it simply being non-fiction. Firstly, there's the subject matter, which isn't exactly something you'd expect a crime/caper author like Westlake to pick: it's about the 1969 invasion of the Caribbean island of Anguilla by over 300 British paratroopers and marines, and the reasons for and events leading up to it. It's an obscure period of colonial history that I doubt many Brits would even be aware of (I certainly wasn't) let alone anyone else, but evidently it chimed enough with Westlake – who presumably would've known about it at the time – for him to explore the invasion and try and find some comic potential in it.

Secondly, there's the matter of this particular edition of the book. Under an English Heaven was first published in 1972 in hardback by Simon & Schuster in the US. Hodder picked up the rights for a UK hardback edition in 1973... and that was that. There were no other editions for twenty years, until this UK paperback was published. Except, it doesn't seem to have been properly published. My copy has no barcode or ISBN number on the back, and no price either. The interiors, meanwhile, are a straight rerun of the '73 interiors, with no post-'73 books listed under "Also by Donald E. Westlake", and only an extra line added to the indicia stating "This edition 1993". On top of that, the paperback is incredibly scarce: there are a couple of dozen or so of the S&S and H&S hardbacks listed online, but only a handful of these Hodder paperbacks.

There are a few possible explanations. One is that the paperback was only printed as a proof or review copy ahead of a new edition, perhaps a new UK hardback – there is a 1993 hardback listed (but unavailable) on Amazon US, although not on Amazon UK – that never materialised. Another is that it was produced for an event of some kind; some of the few paperbacks floating around the web have been signed by Anguillan politician Jeremiah Gumbs. Or it could've been printed for contractual reasons: publishers have been known to produce copies of books just to keep them officially 'in print', thereby keeping hold of the rights. I have no idea what kind of contract Westlake signed with Hodder, but the fact that this paperback appeared exactly twenty years after the UK hardback might be significant.

It's an intriguing little mystery. Perhaps one day I'll get to the bottom of it...

8 comments:

matthewasprey said...

Did you notice that some of the photo credits cite the 'Stark-Coe Company' (I think, from memory)?

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) said...

Really? That's very intriguing, not to mention very odd. I'll have to check my copy when I get home. Is that under the photos themselves?

matthewasprey said...

Yep - in the middle photo section.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) said...

Yeah, I had a look last night. You're quite correct, two or three of the photos do have that credit. A couple are also credited to Westlake under his own name, which is more understandable if they were pictures he took whilst doing research. But I think the Stark-Coe ones, or at least some of them, were from the period he covers in the book, not taken after the fact.

matthewasprey said...

Hey, Nick - I have sitting before me Timothy J. Culver's 'Ex Officio'. Library copy. M. Evans & Co., 1970 - the year he also published 'The Hot Rock', 'Adios', 'Comfort Station', and two Tucker Coes. Very, very little info about this book on the net. It was republished in paperback as 'Power Play'.

The surprising thing is the heft - 500 solid pages. It's as long as 'Kahawa'. Hard to imagine DW dashing it off over a weekend. Was it pure hackwork? So far I've only read the opening page. Nothing grabbed me yet as distinctively Westlake.

Do you have it? Know anything about it? Copies aren't so expense to buy online.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) said...

I know of it, and as far as I know Westlake did regard it as hackwork, but even so, I'd be interested to know what it's like. Let me know if you post a review of it, or even if you wanna stick one on here.

matthewasprey said...

I have some photos of the book you can use. I'll email. I don't know if I'll get through the book - it's long and I've got a stack of other, shorter Westlakes. The first couple of chapters read pretty well. There is a fictitious town northeast of LA called 'George Washington' built in an ersatz-colonial fashion. An ex-president, Bradford Lockridge, flies in to open a new shopping centre. I figure something bad is going to happen and the ex-prez needs to take charge.

Lockridge is a one-termer in this alternate universe, seems to have served circa 1956-1960.

It's kind of interesting, although not distinctively Westlake. I wouldn't pick it in a lineup. Keen to know the story behind it. I wish somebody would do that Westlake bio.

matthewasprey said...

See
http://matthewasprey.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/ex-officio-by-timothy-j-culver-donald-westlake/