Thursday, 30 September 2010

Two for the Money: Bait Money and Blood Money by Max (Allan) Collins

A Richard Stark/Donald Westlake obsessive's work is never done. I may be on hiatus from hunting for Stark and Westlake books (although never say never...), but there's always something Stark-related to collect. For example:

That there is a UK first edition paperback of the novel Bait Money by Max Collins, published by New English Library in October 1976. It's the first in Collins' series of books starring Nolan, an aging criminal who just wants to retire. As Trent at Violent World of Parker explains, Nolan was directly inspired by Richard Stark's character Parker – an older version of Parker, in fact, who of course has to perform one last heist before he can throw in the towel.

These days Max Collins is better known as Max Allan Collins, writer and co-creator of the Ms. Tree comics, the graphic novel Road to Perdition (the basis for the Sam Mendes film), and countless movie novelizations (Dick Tracy, Saving Private Ryan, etc.), crime series (Quarry, Mallory, Nathan Heller), comics adaptations (CSI)... the man is a veritable writing machine. I had some dealings with him when I was senior editor at Titan Books, which unfortunately didn't go anywhere, but I can report he's a thoroughly decent and witty chap.

Collins has written eight Nolan books to date, plus a number of short stories. Bait Money was the first Nolan novel, originally published by Curtis Books in the States in 1973. It was also, I believe, Collins' first published book, written in 1970 when he was twenty-two; Wikipedia suggests that the debut Quarry novel, The Broker, came first in 1976, but that's a common mistake, and one that's been repeated across the internet. That's probably due to confusion over the Pinnacle Books editions of the Nolans (as in the novels, not the 1970s singing stars): Pinnacle picked up the series with the third book, Fly Paper, in 1981, and reprinted the first two books that same year (possibly revised, although I'm not sure about that; Fly Paper and the next two books in the series, Hush Money and Hard Cash, were definitely updated by Collins, as they were originally written in the early '70s but left in limbo when Curtis was bought out by Popular Library). Thus Bait Money and Blood Money are often mistakenly listed as only dating from 1981.

This New English Library edition of Bait Money is incredibly scarce; I've only seen two other copies for sale on AbeBooks and Amazon UK. That strange, surreal cover is great: I haven't a clue who it's by, but whoever the artist is, they also painted the cover to the New English Library edition of the second Nolan novel, Blood Money (originally published in the US by Curtis Books in 1973) – and the NEL edition of Blood Money is even scarcer than the NEL Bait Money. But guess what? I found a copy of that too:

Blood Money was published by New English Library in January 1977. I noticed it on eBay, going for the outrageous price of a quid – which is pretty much what I paid for Bait Money too. Guess there aren't many Nolan fans in the UK... Collins' dedication in this one is particularly interesting in light of the fact he was so young when Bait Money and Blood Money were originally published. It runs: "This is for my parents, Mr and Mrs Max A. Collins, Sr, whose investment in me makes this the most expensive book they ever bought." (His dedication in Bait Money states simply: "To Barb for aiding and abetting".)

So there you have it. Two very rarely seen printings of Max Allan Collins' first couple of novels. And if you're intrigued by these but can't be arsed to go to the trouble of hunting down rare copies, both books are available from Hard Case Crime in the collected volume Two for the Money. Which brings us neatly back to the title of this post.

The Facts in the Case of Rosalind Wade (A Lewes Book Bargain Mystery)

As wittered about earlier this week, the charity shops of Lewes (the town where I live, if you've just joined us) often throw up some first rate bargain books bounty. But they also throw up the odd curio too. Like this:

This is a UK hardback first edition of a novel called Ladders by Rosalind Wade, published by Robert Hale in 1968. I found this in the Oxfam charity shop's 'rare books cabinet', a glass-fronted affair by the shop window which mostly contains tatty, jacketless book club editions. I liked the look of the cover – which I'll come back to – but I'd never heard of the author, and I couldn't work out whether or not I liked the sound of the book; whoever wrote the publisher's blurb on the dustjacket flap was presumably trying so hard not to reveal plot elements that they ended up drafting one of the most opaque pieces of copy I've ever come across (although that Marvel Previews blather for Brian Bendis' Scarlet #1 from a few months back runs it a close second). See if you can make head or tail of this:

Louisa Burn and her husband Richard find themselves a few miles from the scene of their first meting thirty-five years earlier. Her circumstances at the time were far from pleasant, but a growing curiosity prompts Louisa to return to Mersetown alone. Drastic changes have taken place; few of the remembered scenes can be identified, but at least she locates the Royal Playhouse on whose boards she made her first stage appearance. In the dim solitude of the theatre she relives that momentous occasion. As she does so the heterogeneous company she worked with spring to life. She sees herself moving amongst them, a pale moth, gauche and unsophisticated. Yet out of the squalor and disillusionment generosity had flourished and much good emerged.

This is a novel of dramatic situations, extremes of character and circumstance, linked in perspective to the present time.

Is it, now? Well you wouldn't have guessed that from the masterpiece of missing information that precedes that last sentence. I've read that jacket copy three or four times now and I still have no idea what the book is about. Although maybe that was the intention – to get potential readers so perplexed they felt irresistibly compelled to buy the book. That might explain the frankly unnecessary deployment of words like "heterogeneous".

But as I stood in Oxfam staring uncomprehendingly at the jacket flap, I suddenly realised that the scrawled dedication on the endpaper opposite was slightly more than simply a message from a relative or loved one:

Yep, the inscription is by Rosalind Wade herself. So who was Rosalind Wade? A Google search of her name doesn't throw up much in the way of information (my God! No Wikipedia page!), the top hit being a link to British thriller writer Gerald Seymour, author of Harry's Game and many other bestsellers. For Wade was Seymour's mother, married to his father, William Kean Seymour; she kept her maiden name for her writing career, a career that was notably prolific, as, having done a bit of research for a change, I can now reveal...

Rosalind Wade was born on 11 September 1909 and died on 25 January 1989, leaving behind a body of work comprising well over twenty novels (all out of print now, Ladders being one of the final few) and numerous short stories. She published her first work at the age of twenty-two, with many of her early novels written under her full name, Rosalind Herschel Wade. She was one of a number of writers (including Desmond Hawkins) who congregated at David Archer's bookshop on Parton Street, London, in the mid-1930s, a so-called radical bookshop devoted to poetry and left wing politics (Archer was one of Dylan Thomas' first publishers).

Indeed Wade may be better remembered these days as an editor and patron; she was editor of the Contemporary Review, chair of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists and the Alresford Historical and Literary Society, a founder member and vice-president of the West Country Writers Association, and an active encourager of young writers. Her own novels were celebrated for tackling tricky emotional issues – Come Fill the Cup (1955) is about alcoholism, for example – and for their character insight and plotting. But she was also interested in ghost stories, and contributed to a number of spooky anthologies, including After Midnight Stories (1985).

As for that jacket illustration, it's not credited, but there is a signature at the bottom right: "Biro", which means it's almost certainly by Val Biro, who created logos and endpapers for some of naval author Douglas Reeman's book.

How's that for a well-researched post? Rest assured I shan't be making a habit of it.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

New Blog Feature

Well I must say it's been a jumble of jolly exciting firsts and thrilling new developments on Existential Ennui so far this week, and I've just added another one. If you cast your eyes to the right there, you'll see this blog now has a 'Popular Posts' sidebar, which will show the most popular posts on Existential Ennui over the last seven days. Quite what purpose this serves is open to debate (hey, we could play a game whereby we all click on our favourite posts and see which wins! Or maybe not), but in the scant few minutes it's been operational I've been having fun watching the post before this one climb up the rankings as more and more people view it. So if nothing else it's keeping me entertained. Doesn't take much.

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

With the demise of my weekly Must Be Thursday posts – which, for the latecomers among us, consisted of my ill-considered and, as it turned out, increasingly boring thoughts on the American comic books I was planning on buying each week – it strikes me the comics content of this blog has declined considerably. This is probably of little concern to anyone but me, but it is a concern to me. I still like comics; I just don't read as many 'mainstream' (i.e. superhero, mostly) comics as I used to. But I do still want to have a certain amount of comics content on this blog, so as well as the occasional review or think piece, I thought I'd institute a new, probably irregular series of posts on a subject that's little-covered on the interweb: small press comics.

For the uninitiated, small press – or mini – comics are exactly what the phrase suggests they are: comics produced on a small scale, whether that be fifty copies or a couple of hundred. On top of that, many of them are also quite small. In both the US and the UK, small press comics blossomed in the 1980s, growing out of the 1960s underground comics in the States and '60s and '70s fanzines in the UK. Like the underground comics of, say, Robert Crumb, small press comics were – and still are – highly personal, for the most part eschewing genre (in particular superheroes). But unlike the undergrounds they're generally more contemplative and thoughtful than hyperbolic or frantic. More often than not they're created, written, drawn, printed (or photocopied) and even distributed by one person.

I was lucky in that I stumbled upon the UK small press scene in the mid-1980s, during its initial explosion, and I've kept up with it, on and off, ever since. And while many other aspects of comics get plenty of coverage on the internet, small press comics kind of get short shrift. There's things like Bugpowder and Smallzone, but little in the way of wider or historical analysis. So I figured I'd fill that gap. In Notes from the Small Press I'll be rummaging in the longbox of yesteryear (eyethangyew) for memorable, interesting, funny, or just plain strange comics or creators (mostly British, but some Yanks too), from the eighties to the noughties. Hopefully it'll be of interest to some of you.

And we begin with a comic that also handily acts as a primer for the UK small press scene of the '80s:

Fast Fiction Presents: The Elephant of Surprise was an A5-sized 'jam' – or more accurately 'relay' – comic published in 1986. The Fast Fiction in the title refers to the anthology comic The Elephant span out of (edited by Phil Elliott and then Ed Pinsent), but Fast Fiction was also the name of the '80s scene's mail order distributor (again with Elliott and Pinsent in command, as well as Paul Gravett, who came up with The Elephant's title), not to mention the name of the table the outfit had at the regular London Westminster Comic Marts. Essentially, Fast Fiction was the hub around which countless small press comics creators twirled, and the means by which I bought small press comics back then. The way it worked was, you either bought comics off the Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Mart, or picked up one of their four-page flyers, chose the titles you liked the look of, and sent in your order form and money.

Which must seem to some in the internet age a charmingly old-fashioned way of doing things. Ed Pinsent has loads of great cover galleries on his website, both of the Fast Fiction anthology and other small press titles from that period – many of which I own, and some of which I'll doubtless be featuring on here at some point. It's a brilliant resource, so go have a look.

Anyway, for The Elephant of Surprise, twelve cartoonists were each assigned two pages in which to advance an overall story, using a character from the segment immediately preceding theirs and a character from the first two-page segment. They also had to reference elephants somehow. What's fascinating about the exercise is the creator cast list reads like a who's who of the '80s small press: the aforementioned Phil Elliott (who provided the first two pages) and Ed Pinsent, Rian Hughes, John Bagnall, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Dakin and more besides. These were the main movers and shakers in the scene, many of whom have gone on to enjoy much wider acclaim.

In the post-game analysis at the back of the comic, Ed Pinsent is amusingly frank about the setbacks encountered during the making of The Elephant and the relative shortcomings of the finished article, calling it "only slightly disappointing" and reasoning the best bits are those where logic breaks down entirely, particularly towards the end. In fact it's a gloriously barking enterprise from start to finish. As is his wont, Phil Elliott decides to kick off the story with a pub garden discussion about worms and the sanctity of nature set in an idyllic postwar England. To readers familiar at the time with Elliott's Tales from Gimbley this wouldn't have seemed out of the ordinary, but at a twenty-five year remove it's a choice that's as striking as it is oddball.

From there the story develops around an elephant statue and a religious sect with an anthropomorphic figurehead, adding in a killer robot for good measure. There are some sublime moments of slapstick, particularly around Phil Laskey and Eddie Campbell's segments (see below), but the real joy of the thing is in witnessing a group of artists and friends simultaneously reaching an early peak in their creative lives as they attempt to make some kind of sense out of whatever daft scribblings the cartoonist in front of them has committed to paper.

As Pinsent's outro notes, the final four pages from Steve Way and Glenn Dakin completely debunk everything that's gone before, with Dakin in particular doing his level best to rationalise the preceding madness. It's an entertaining end to a comic that's not only an intriguing and historically important snapshot of a particular time and place, but a fun read to boot, even today.

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Girst

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch   

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex by Martin Eden

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Lewes Book Bargain: Archangel by Robert Harris

Presenting the second in a short and no doubt intensely fascinating series of posts about the books wot I done bought recently in the many and varied charity shops of Lewes. And next up we have this:

A 1998 UK Hutchinson first edition hardback of Robert Harris' Archangel, his third novel, following Fatherland (1992) and Enigma (1995). I have to admit I'm rather partial to a bit of 'arris. I've read Fatherland and The Ghost, and both were entirely solid thrillers – eminently readable in that pacy, unfussy contemporary thriller manner. A former journalist, his books always offer some neat twist on politics or history; Archangel is his take on the notorious Hitler diaries scam, with secret papers by Stalin standing in for the forged reminiscences of Der Fuhrer.

Even though copies of the first edition of Archangel are in plentiful supply it's still a good bargain, and when I opened it up, I realised it was it was even more of a bargain:

It's a signed edition. And again, if you look on Amazon you'll find plenty of signed editions for not very much money, but even so, it's not a bad one to stumble across in a charity shop. Mind you, having said that, it's not perfect: about a third of the way into the book a tipped-in page has come loose. You have to wonder there, how did the printer/publisher manage to miss a page out? Slight oversight.

Lewes Book Bargains: Two by Amis M.

So then. Excitingly, from this point on I've decided to give a series title to any posts about books bought in Lewes, the picturesque () East Sussex town in which I live. I've settled on the highly unimaginative 'Lewes Book Bargains', chiefly because I struggled to come up with anything else; the closest contender was 'Landed in Lewes', but that was a bit confusing and had weird fishing connotations. So, 'Lewes Book Bargains' it is. And as I've mentioned before, Lewes is particularly blessed books-wise. I've blogged about the various bookshops here, and I've written about the Lewes Book Fair a few times, which takes place four or five times a year in the town hall. But there are other outlets besides those where bargain books can be bagged, and the various charity shops that pepper the town are prime examples.

Charity shops, for any baffled American or overseas readers, are a uniquely British institution. They're like regular shops (or 'stores', if you will), except everything for sale in them has been donated: members of the public bring in unwanted items – clothes, toys, books, CDs, DVDs, whatever – to the charity shop and the charity shop then sells them to other members of the public, with a large percentage of the money going to whichever good cause that particular charity supports.

Charity shops are a common sight on British high streets, and have become increasingly common, up from about 5,000 UK-wide ten years ago to around 7,500 today. They're run by individual charities, so you get Oxfam shops, Save the Children shops, British Heart Foundation shops, the Nick Jones Benevolence Fund shops... you name it. A more recent development are charity shops devoted solely to books – Oxfam have opened loads of these in recent years, much to the chagrin of regular second hand bookshops, who can't compete with Oxfam's prices – because of course Oxfam's stock is all donated for free, while traditional second hand booksellers have to buy their books.

There isn't an Oxfam bookshop in Lewes yet, but there are eight or nine regular charity shops, all of whom sell books to a greater or lesser degree. Lewes is an affluent town, which means the charity shops here are well supplied with decent cast-offs (posher places in the UK always have the best charity shops). I often pop in Cancer Research on the corner of School Hill and Eastgate Street as it's just down the road from my office and they have probably the largest selection of hardbacks; at the moment they have a first edition of George Pelecanos' The Way Home in there, which funnily enough I bought earlier this year in Oxfam (always worth a look in too as they have a fairly fast turnover of stock) down on Cliffe High Street: presumably there are at least two disenchanted Pelecanos readers in Lewes.

Basically, if you keep your eyes open, Lewes' various charity shops can often turn up trumps. Which is exactly what they have done for me over the past few weeks, as I'll be demonstrating over a number of posts, you lucky, lucky people, you. And judging by two of the bargains I bagged, the denizens of Lewes have a particular penchant (or more accurately, as with Mr. Pelecanos, a disinclination) for a certain Amis Jr. First up, in Oxfam, I scored this:

A UK hardback first edition/first impression of Martin Amis' novella Night Train, published by Jonathan Cape in 1997. In the past I've slightly ragged on Amis Jr. in favour of his father, Kingsley, but really that was just to make a point. In fact I've read and enjoyed three or four of Amis Jr.s books, and this one, which seems to be Martin's take on crime fiction, could be right up my alley. At any rate, in common with many charity shop hardbacks it was only £2.75, which, even though true firsts of Night Train aren't exactly scarce, is still a bargain. But even more of a bargain was this:

A 2008 UK hardback first edition/impression of Amis' The Second Plane, again published by Cape. This one I snagged in the British Red Cross charity shop on Station Street, and was quite pleased as a result. It's a collection of essays and short stories inspired by 9/11 and its aftermath (some of which I've read before in magazines, but many which were expanded for this book), and I was considering buying it when it came out. For one reason or another I didn't, and by the time I decided I did want to buy it after all, it was already into a second or third printing. First printings have since become rather scarce, going for around £30 online, so to nab one for, again, £2.75, is a real find. And yes, you could argue that by purchasing the book at a knock-down price I'm depriving British Red Cross of extra money... to which I reply: sod off. They acquired the book for free in the first place, and anyway I spend enough in charity shops as it is. Stop trying to make me feel guilty, you swine.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Westlake Score: A Jade in Aries by Tucker Coe

I've got a few interesting (to me, anyway; I can't even begin to guess about you, whoever you may be) things to blog about this week, including a brand new (highly) irregular comics feature, some recent scores from Lewes' charity shops, some rather rare Max Collins paperbacks (which have a Richard Stark connection), and perhaps more besides, time permitting. But let's kick off the working week with a Westlake Score:

That's a UK paperback of Tucker Coe's A Jade in Aries, published by Sphere in 1975 (originally published in hardback in the UK by Gollancz in 1973; originally published in the US in 1970). It's the fourth of the five books Donald E. Westlake wrote under the pseudonym Tucker Coe, all of which star disgraced ex-cop Mitch Tobin – I blogged about the first one, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, here. In A Jade in Aries Tobin has to work out who's murdering a group of gay friends; there's also an astrology aspect to the story, a belief system Westlake/Coe states in a short note at the start of the book he neither believes nor disbelieves – it's just an aspect of the plot.

Sphere only published two of the Coe novels, the other one being the third one, Wax Apple, which they also published in 1975 and which sports a very similar green hued cover (no idea who the artist for them both was/is). One thing that's remarkable is that, even today, there are still lots of people who haven't realised Coe was Westlake: I picked up this paperback of A Jade in Aries for a quid from a dealer who'd simply listed it on eBay as being by Coe, with no mention of Westlake, and if you search for Coe on AbeBooks you'll find that at least as many sellers don't mention Westlake in their listings as do. Seems Tucker Coe is still a fairly well kept secret.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Review: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press Comic Book Miniseries)

It's a much-remarked upon peculiarity of the American comic book market that genres which enjoy massive popularity in the wider world – crime fiction, fantasy, etc. – are consigned to the margins of the form in favour of superhero comics. Now, you could make an argument that superhero comics actually embrace genres like crime, including them in their genetic make-up... except I'm pretty positive that if you removed any hint of crime fiction from superhero comics, comics fans would still continue to buy them. What I'm getting at is, sure, superhero comics incorporate elements of crime fiction, suspense, science fiction, fantasy... but hardcore fans continue to buy them in spite of those elements, not because of them. It's really very simple: they just like superheroes.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that interesting attempts at genres other than superhero comics (and superhero comics are a genre, whatever some apologists claim) are sidelined. They're reviewed online, for sure, but that coverage is blotted out by the overwhelming noise generated by superhero fandom. This is understandable when what that fandom mostly wants is more superhero comics (although these days in noticeably smaller quantities), but the knock-on effect is that comics that dabble in other genres sell in pathetic numbers, which in turn discourages publishers and even creators from attempting them in the first place.

It's also why reviews or critiques (like this one) feel compelled to bang on about superhero comics before even getting to address a work which has nothing to do with them. Take writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth's Stumptown, which finished its initial four-issue run the other week. Now, admittedly Stumptown is published by an indie publisher, Oni Press, who can't really compete with the market-dominating Marvel and DC. Even so, it's the kind of thing you'd think would interest fans of, say, Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos – a crime/suspense story with wide appeal, in other words. Set in and around Portland, Oregon, it follows the travails of P.I. Dex (short for Dexedrine, natch) Parios, who's hired to find the granddaughter of a casino owner and finds herself mixed up with MS-13, the real-life US gang composed of Central Americans.

Dex is probably the best thing about the series, a gambling addict and fuck-up who balances a crumbling private investigation business with being a carer for her disabled brother. And Rucka has form with strong female characters: witness damaged but brilliant spy Tara Chace in Queen & Country; devoted but strong-willed aide to Batman Sasha Bordeux in Detective Comics, the conflicted Detective Montoya in Gotham Central; and Rucka's take on the ultimate strong female during his first rate run on Wonder Woman. The story is straightforward and decidedly low key – perhaps too low key for an opening effort. But Southworth's evocative efforts at depicting a realistic Northwestern setting (there are text pieces at the end of each comic revealing his research) help lend the tale weight, and the characterization throughout is deft and sure, right down to nice moments with minor characters like the thugs Dex keeps getting creamed by.

Stumptown's very existence in a field dominated by superheros makes it feel more extraordinary than it probably is, but to be frank, even a solid effort like this deserves to be actively encouraged. There are so few crime comics around – Criminal, Scalped... er, that's kind of it – that any addition to the ranks should be celebrated (see also SF... mysteries... you name it...). Which brings me back to my original point: the first issue of Stumptown apparently went into a second printing, but even in a fairly major and broadly stocked comic shop like the one in Brighton I frequent, the series vanished from the shelves after that first issue. I had to get my copies of the subsequent issues off eBay. Basically, in the UK, once you get outside the London comic shops, Stumptown ceased to exist. I imagine it's a similar story in the States.

And that, if you'll pardon the pun, is a crime, particularly seeing as Stumptown is a better-looking comic book than almost anything else on the shelves. Generally speaking, comic book covers are a cavalcade of ugly, but take a look at the four Stumptown covers, drawn by Southworth and I think designed by Keith Wood:

That's a nice, contemporary piece of design; the only other recent comic book covers that compare are, oddly enough, those adorning Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal. Funny that. Rucka and Southworth have stated they'll be continuing Stumptown, so I urge you to pick up the graphic novel of volume one whenever it appears. And hey, if enough people do, you never know – maybe I won't have to head to eBay to get hold of volume two. Here's hoping anyway.

Friday, 24 September 2010

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition? 2: The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

NB: This post was written before I became aware of "export editions", which the copy of The Honourable Schoolboy discussed below may well be.

Yesterday, in my doubtless doomed quest to make errant booksellers see the error of their ways, I showed you two seemingly identical editions of Gavin Lyall's 1982 thriller The Conduct of Major Maxim. One of those was a genuine first edition; the other was a book club edition. The only indication of that was the absence of a price on the front dustjacket flap of the book club edition (i.e., no price was printed there, as opposed to it being price-clipped, with is a whole 'nother – if related – issue). As I stated yesterday (at length, tediously), book clubs (at least UK book clubs) don't print prices on their books because they sell books to their members at a reduced rate. It's that simple.

Sometimes – and hardbacks published by Hodder and Stoughton and Hutchinson in the 1970s and '80s seem to be the biggest offenders here – that's the only difference between a genuine first edition and a book club edition. And if the only books mistakenly listed as first editions on the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon were those where the sole variation from the genuine first edition was a missing price, I might (might) be inclined to feel more charitable towards the relevant booksellers. Unfortunately, that's emphatically not the case.

I've bought books online where if the dealer had bothered to check – looking under the jacket at the case spine, for example – it would've been apparent they were book club editions, with the letters "BCA" clearly readable. But of course said sellers either didn't check, or did check and didn't understand what they were looking at, or did check and knew the books were book club editions and decided to stiff some poor unsuspecting sod – i.e. me – anyway. So it's not as if merely a minor difference is being confused or overlooked; in a lot of cases – as we'll see shortly – there are blindingly obvious indicators.

Something I didn't address in yesterday's post, but which Book Glutton raised in the comments, was the question of what to do with the book club editions I end up with. Do I request a refund? Go to the hassle of sending them back? Or just dump them on a charity shop, buy a replacement copy and write a series of irritable blog posts on the subject instead? I find myself in something of a moral quandary here. Anyone who collects books knows that second hand bookshops have been experiencing tough times for a while, and when I paid so little for these books in the first place, it strikes me as a bit mean to be asking for my money back. There's also the fact that, appearances on this blog to the contrary, I'm not really by nature a vindictive or argumentative person. The idea of phoning or emailing someone and being irate with them is completely anathema to me. On the other hand, as I wrote yesterday, these imbeciles (what was that about not being irate?) evidently have no business selling books in the first place, and the world would perhaps be better off if they didn't.

Basically, I still haven't worked out what to do for the best, and the offending books are currently sitting in a plastic bag waiting to be dealt with in some fashion. (One could reasonably make an analogy here with my life in general.) But in the meantime, I can at least continue my crusade to head recidivistic dealers off at the pass, so to speak. Which brings me to the second of my show-and-tells:

Here we have two copies of John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy, published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977. This is the second in le Carré's 'Karla trilogy', following 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and preceding 1979's Smiley's People. As with yesterday's Lyalls, at this stage you wouldn't be able to tell them apart. And if we turn them over and look at the backs:

Again, no difference. If we open them up and take a look inside at the indicia:

Once again, as with the two copies of The Conduct of Major Maxim, the copyright info in the two books is exactly the same. Now, I'm being slightly disingenuous here, because unlike those two Lyall books, with these two copies of The Honourable Schoolboy the alarm bells would be ringing before ever getting to the indicia (that's assuming you had to copies to compare, which, to be briefly fair once again to our wayward bookselling chums, a lot of them probably haven't – hence, of course, this and the previous post). Because as soon as you open the two books up, you notice a glaring difference:

One of the books – the true first edition – has attractive, relevant-to-the-story printed endpapers, and the other book – the book club edition – doesn't. Now, it's worth mentioning here that when I received that blank endpaper copy in the post, I didn't at that point have the other copy to compare it to (I bought the true first later as a replacement... and in truth also, saddo that I am, so I could write these posts). Therefore I had no idea that a true first edition should have those map endpapers. But as with the Lyall book, there was another indicator. Look at the bottom corner of each dustjacket flap and you'll see that once again, the book club edition has no price printed. Even without another copy with which to compare it to, that lack of price is always – always – rock solid proof that a book is a book club edition, not a first edition*.

It really is as straightforward as that. Perhaps, if there are any second hand booksellers reading this, we can all rehearse it together, junior school fashion: no flap price? No first edition. No flap price? No first edition. There we go. That's not so hard to understand, is it? And at risk of repeating myself more than I usually do, once more, with feeling: when is a first edition not a first edition? When it's a bleedin', bloody book club edition, OK?

So there we have it. I'm absolutely positive that as a direct result of this and the previous post all those mis-listed and mis-priced books online and in bookshops will be immediately corrected, and that henceforth no bookseller shall ever again pass off a book club edition as a first edition. Lo, it is written.

Now then. Who wants to buy book club editions of The Conduct of Major Maxim and The Honourable Schoolboy?

*Or possibly an export edition. Ahem.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition? 1: The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall

For a collector, buying books online can be a frustrating experience. AbeBooks, Amazon and eBay have vastly increased the readily available number of books, but concurrently and consequently have vastly increased the number of hopeless, amateur booksellers. These days, any idiot with an internet connection and half a dozen tatty tomes on their shelf can turn themselves into a bookseller, and indeed judging by what sometimes seems like the overwhelming majority of dealers on Amazon etc., any and every idiot has done just that. Compounding this situation is the fact that most of the books listed on Amazon and AbeBooks don't have accompanying pictures, so all you have to go on is the seller's often incomplete description.

It's all too easy to come a cropper, particularly with twentieth century modern firsts, and more particularly with book club editions of modern firsts. I had a bit of a rant about these last month, but they say it's always better to show than tell, and I'm now in a position to do just that. My vain hope here is that any offending second hand booksellers might stumble across this post and promptly mend their ways. After all, as Captain Sensible once crooned, you've got to have a dream...

I'm planning two posts on this subject, although both highlight essentially the same problem: how some dealers seem to be completely incapable of telling a first edition of a book from book club edition. To be fleetingly fair to these individuals, as we'll see in this first example, at first glance it's perhaps not as straightforward as one might think... the key words there being 'at first glance'. So, here are two books:

These are both hardback-with-jacket editions of The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall, published by Hodder and Stoughton. Now, aside from the fact that the book on the left is in a protective sleeve, they look identical. And if we have a look at the back covers:

they still look the same. I can also tell you that they feel the same when you hold them – they have the same weight. Open the books up and take a gander at the back flap of the dustjacket:

and again, they're identical. And if we take a look at the indicia at the front of the books:

Once again, there is no difference. Now, at this point, you might reasonably conclude that they are both first editions. They both state "First printed 1982", with nothing to indicate either book is a reprint, or indeed a book club edition. But take a look at the front flaps of the books, and you'll soon see there is one indisputable difference:

If you look at the bottom corner of each jacket flap, you'll see the book in the mylar jacket has a price printed, and the other book doesn't. What does this mean? It means the book without a price on the flap is a book club edition. It's that straightforward. Book clubs editions of books don't have prices on them because of course book clubs sell books at a discount. Therefore a book without a price on the jacket flap isn't a first edition.

Is that really so hard to understand? Apparently it is. I've ended up with book club editions so many times when buying books online that I'd begun to question whether this price/no price rule was really so cut and dried; whether publishers like Hodder did indeed occasionally issue books without prices on the flap. (Answers: it is; and they didn't.) Even second hand bookshops aren't immune from mixing book club editions up with first editions: just the other day I noticed the Lewes Book Centre down the road had done precisely that with a Len Deighton hardback. Now, it strikes me there are two ways of looking at this, one slightly more charitable than the other:

a) The offending second hand booksellers simply don't understand the difference between first editions and book club editions, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place, or

b) The offending second hand booksellers do understand the difference and are selling these books under false pretences, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place.

I'm not sure which of these conclusions is the worse. Either way, I still end up with the wrong sodding book. And you may very well be sitting there smugly thinking to yourself, 'Oh for Christ's sake, what's the big problem? Those two copies of that Lyall book are almost exactly the same anyway. What does it matter one has a price and one doesn't?' To which I would reply, it matters to me, chum. I collect first editions. I don't (as a rule) collect book club editions. If I purchase a first edition of a book online, what I expect to receive in the post is a first edition of a book – not a reprint or a book club edition. It's the principle of the thing as much as anything. I mean, are honesty or a certain level of competence really too much to ask for? (Mmyeahhh: don't answer that one.)

(Of course, when the difference between a first edition and a book club edition can come down to the existence or otherwise of a price on the front flap, what does that mean for second hand books that have been price-clipped...?)

So, as posed in the title to this post, when is a first edition not a first edition? When it's a bloody book club edition, that's when. Dumbass dealers take note. And that concludes the first of my two show-and-tells. The second one will be along soon. You have been warned.

From the Mid-Sussex Book Fair: The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

The other weekend we made a return trip to the Mid-Sussex Book Fair, which takes place once in a blue moon in the little town of Hassocks, just over the border into West Sussex. Unfortunately this time out the Scientologists weren't in attendance, but there was still a good selection of dealers, and both Rachel and I came away with a book. I was slightly kicking myself afterwards as I saw another book there that was on sale for a lot less than it was worth, but on reflection I don't think it was in quite as good condition as I thought it was, and anyway it was thirty quid. Unlike the book I did buy, which was less than a tenner:

A UK hardback first edition of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, published by the Bodley Head in 1973. Copies of this aren't exactly thin on the ground, but this was a nice example, and I've been wanting to try Greene for a while (I'm ashamed to admit I've never read any of his novels). I was either going to try this or The Quiet American (the 2002 film of which I love); apparently The Honorary Consul was one of Greene's own favourite books. Good a place as any to dip in, then.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Review: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

A twelve-year-old boy embarks on a correspondence with an imprisoned paedophile/serial killer. Doesn't sound like the most appealing premise for a novel, does it? Or at least it didn't to me when I first chanced across a short review of Blacklands, Belinda Bauer's debut novel, early this year. But there was more to the premise, and those further details did intrigue me, to the extent that I mentally filed away the review and then finally bought a copy of the novel and read it. And once I got stuck into it, it was very hard to put down.

The twelve-year-old boy is Steven Lamb; the serial killer is Arnold Avery. Nineteen years ago Avery abducted and murdered Steven's uncle Billy (who was eleven at the time) and buried his body somewhere on Exmoor, along with those of the other children Avery killed. But unlike many of those other bodies Billy has never been found, and as a consequence Steven lives in a home shattered by grief. His nan – Billy's mum – keeps a silent vigil at the window and hasn't a good word to say to or about anyone, including Steven; his single mum lets her anger and frustration sour her relationship with her son, instead favouring Steven's younger brother.

But Steven has a plan that he thinks will mend his fractured family: if he can just find uncle Billy's body, he reasons, then there can be a sense of closure. So he spends most of his spare time – when he isn't being ignored at school or chased by the fictional village of Shipcott's resident hoodies – digging on Exmoor, sometimes with his best friend Lewis, sometimes alone. Of course, having no idea where Billy is buried, he finds little other than the odd sheep skeleton. Which leaves Steven with one option: to ask Avery.

The correspondence between Steven and Avery provides the impetus for the book, as Steven tries to extract information from Avery and Avery in turn revels in the power he holds over his new penpal. Bauer never overstates Steven's capabilities: he's not a particularly extraordinary boy, and it takes him an age to draft each missive, as he negotiates the tricky path between providing Avery with information and not revealing too much about himself. What Steven actually is is that kid you knew at school who always smelt a bit mildewy and never had many friends: in other words not the ideal person to go up against a cunning and manipulative child-killer. Both Steven and Avery are well drawn by Bauer, and if some of the other characters suffer by comparison – notably Steven's mum and nan – that's entirely forgivable when the two leads are so distinctive.

There is, however, a third presence in the novel, one that's as well realised as Steven and Avery: Exmoor itself. Since the notorious 1960s moors murders, Britain's various moorlands have had a unmistakable connection with death, even though Brady and Hindley's activities were confined to Saddleworth Moor. As anyone who's been on Exmoor or Dartmoor can attest they're spooky places at the best of times: beautiful but barren, and prone to instantly changeable and dangerous weather. Bauer taps into this morbid mystique, artfully describing in her uncluttered but vivid prose the way disorienting fog can fall on the unsuspecting visitor, and ascribing to Exmoor a disturbing erotic fascination for the unrepentant Avery.

As the novel sprints towards its conclusion Bauer ups the ante with a thrilling prison break and a final, nerve-wracking confrontation on the moor. But it's the two main characters – three if you count Exmoor – that stay with you: the awful, monstrous but perversely compelling serial killer and the damaged, determined but ultimately very average boy who dares to tangle with him.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Bought at Brighton Marina: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

The afternoon that I was discharged from hospital the second time – I'd returned to the Royal Sussex for a day of tests to check on my wellbeing, following the events of That Night and its consequent, longer hospital stay – we stopped at Brighton Marina on the way home to grab something to eat (I'd been on 'nil by mouth' since the preceding evening). We were walking past the RNLI hut when I noticed a box of books for sale – or rather for the price of a donation – outside it. Of course I had to have a quick rummage, and I came up with this:

A 1986 UK Hutchinson first edition hardback of Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils. This is one of those books you tend to see everywhere, although almost invariably what you'll see are book club editions or reprints of the hardback. Which is what I figured this copy was, until I check the front flap – price present and correct – and examined the indicia, where there was no trace of the dreaded words "reprinted twice". So it's a true first edition/impression, and therefore a small result. A glance on AbeBooks confirms there are a fair few firsts available online, but you'd have to negotiate the inexpert knowledge of many so-called booksellers in order to get hold of a true first – i.e. not a reprint – and who can be fagged with that? Well, I can sometimes – and I'll be blogging about a couple of cases soon – but not in this instance. There are just too many copies out there, and evidently it's just too much to ask of some booksellers to, y'know, check if there's a price on the front flap or if it says "reprinted" in the indicia.

As for the reason there are so many reprints of the hardback of The Old Devils, famously it won the 1986 Booker Prize for Amis. At the time it was kind of assumed he was awarded the prize not so much because The Old Devils was particularly great but because it was widely accepted Amis was well past his best and if he didn't win the Booker soon he'd be dead anyway. But as this Guardian Book Blog post reasons, it's more likely The Old Devils won that year because it was a better book than any other on the shortlist – a list which included Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

In fact, as anyone who's read further into Amis's body of work than Lucky Jim can attest, contemporaneously Amis was a better writer than almost anyone you care to name, his mid- to later novels included, so it's nice that opinion is finally catching up with fact. I for one am certainly looking forward to reading this one. The illustration on the front cover, by the way, is by Alastair Taylor, who I think is this Alastair Taylor.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Westlake Score: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Tucker Coe

What's this? Blogging on a Saturday? This is unheard of! Whatever is the world coming to?

Well, I figured I'd round off Westlake Week Mark II with one last Donald E. Westlake Score, in the shape of this:

It's a UK hardback first edition of the first of Westlake's series of five novels written under the pseudonym Tucker Coe, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, published by Souvenir Press in 1967 (originally published in the States by Random House in 1966). All five of the Coe novels star disgraced ex-cop Mitchell Tobin, and are more serious in tone than many of the books Westlake wrote under his own name. The dustjacket on this one is by S. R. Boldero, who illustrated a number of dustjackets for Souvenir Press, including a Modesty Blaise novel, as well as loads of paperback cover for Pan, Arrow, and more besides. As ever, the redoubtable Steve Holland has the most comprehensive guide to Boldero's work at his Bear Alley blog.

I had to go all the way to Australia for this one. Not literally, obviously: I mean I bought it off a dealer in Australia; the only copy listed for sale in the UK should have been de-listed, as it sold a while ago. No matter though; even with the postage it was still pretty inexpensive, and it's a nice addition to the collection.

NB: Go here for my review of the novel.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Dortmunder Daze: Donald E. Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Shelf Porn

Well, I pondered, and so instead of adding to and expanding my first edition cover gallery of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels, I came up with this:

As you can see, I gave the problem a lot of thought. Ahem. Anyway, it's not often one sees images of the spines of books online, as opposed to the front (or, less frequently, back) covers, so it's a little different at least. All of these books are hardback with dustjacket; from the left, we have:

Watch Your Back!, Mysterious Press, US, 2005
The Road to Ruin, Robert Hale, UK, 2005
Bad News, Robert Hale, UK, 2002
What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Mysterious Press, US, 1996
Don't Ask, Mysterious Press, US, 1993
Drowned Hopes, Mysterious Press, US, 1990
Good Behaviour, Allison & Busby/W.H. Allen & Co., UK, 1987
Why Me, Viking Press, US, 1983
Nobody's Perfect, Michael Evans & Co. US, 1977
Jimmy the Kid, Michael Evans & Co. US, 1974
Jimmy the Kid, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1975
Bank Shot, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1972
The Hot Rock, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1971

And look of that. I've linked each of those to the original post on the book. How's that for service? Existential Ennui: going above and beyond the call of duty.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Westlake Score: Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

Even I'm getting slightly bored of these Dortmunder new arrivals now, so you'll be glad to know this is the last one I have to show (for a while anyway). And we're back to the US first editions with this one, after our brief sojourn with the UK Robert Hale editions of Bad News and The Road to Ruin:

It's a US hardback first edition/printing of Westlake's Watch Your Back!, published by Mysterious Press in 2005, with a rather bold dustjacket designed by Bradford Foltz. This is the twelfth novel to feature John Dortmunder and crew, and its arrival means I now have numbers one to twelve of the series, with only the final two, What's So Funny? (2007) and Get Real (2009), still to get. No rush for those though; I have, after all, ten Dortmunder books to read before I get to those.

Traditionally, at this point I'd post a first edition cover gallery of Dortmunder novels, to follow on from this one last month. But to be honest, you've already seen most of the covers that would be in said gallery earlier this week (Good Behaviour and US editions of Bad News and The Road to Ruin excepted), so it'd be a bit of a waste of everyone's time. Maybe I can do something else instead though. I'll have a ponder.