Sunday, 31 October 2010

Lewes Book Bargain: The World is Full of Married Men by Jackie Collins (First Edition)

For our next Lewes Book Bargain, we wander off the beaten track somewhat:

That, my friends, is a UK hardback first edition of Jackie Collins' The World is Full of Married Men, published by W.H. Allen in 1968. Y'see, this is the beauty of British charity shops, particularly those in relatively well-to-do towns like Lewes: you never quite know what they're going to turn up. I found this in the Lewes branch of Oxfam, along with the next Lewes Book Bargain I'll be blogging about this weekend (unless I run out of time, in which case it'll be Monday). And though Jackie Collins isn't really a writer I'd ordinarily be terribly interested in, a first edition of her debut novel – which is what this is – for £2.99 was, frankly, irresistible, not least because of that brilliant photo of Jackie on the back cover (by the showbiz photographer Ben Jones) looking all '60s glam.

Jackie Collins did, of course, go on to write a string of massive-selling books (over 400 million copies sold according to some sources), with novels like The World is Full of Married Men, The Stud (1969) and The Bitch (1979) laying the groundwork for what would become the 1980s bonkbuster genre. The sexual content of Married Men was considered pretty shocking at the time; Barbara Cartland called it "a nasty book, filthy and disgusting," adding, "I hardly slept after reading it." (I just bet you didn't, you saucy mare.) My own encounters with Collins' work have been through the late '70s movie adaptations of The Bitch and The Stud, both starring her sister, Joan, and both of which held an illicit allure whenever they were shown on telly in the early '80s, a period that, oddly enough, coincided with my coming of age... so to speak.

The overall dustjacket design on The World is Full of Married Men is credited to Tony and Jenny Williams; I think Jenny was responsible for the illustration on the front – I believe she's better known for her illos for children's books like A Lion in the Meadow and The Silver Wood, which would fit with that naive style. As for the value of the book, I've got no idea how bouyant the market is for Jackie Collins firsts. There are copies of this first edition on AbeBooks ranging from £12 up to £50. This copy does have a curious inscription in it, however:

I don't think that's Jackie Collins' signature... and I also can't quite work out what the message is. "To John, for the..." something... "your..." "of a", is that? Then "friend", I reckon, and possibly signed Gerald. Intriguing...

UPDATE, 18/2/11: After a rather impressive – not to mention unhealthily obsessive – extended period of deliberation, mycharityshop has determined that the inscription reads as follows: "To John, With greetings, your 'old' friend Wilf/Wolf". I'm plumping for "Wolf" myself, but dissenters should feel free to comment.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Lewes Book Bargain: The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean

Right then. Time to try and clear the decks a bit, because next week Existential Ennui will be dedicated to two authors; one of them because his new novel is published next week, and the other because... well, he's got links to the first one and I've got a couple of recently bought books of his to blog about, and that's reason enough round these here parts. Yes, looming large in your future it's Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos Week, as Tuesday sees the arrival of Lehane's latest book, Moonlight Mile – at least, in the States, anyway; here in the UK it's not published till bloody February – and also I've got a stack of rather special recent Lehane acquisitions burning a hole in, er, the shelf, or whatever the literary equivalent of burning a hole in one's pocket is, and they're directly related to Moonlight Mile; plus I've got those Pelecanos ones I mentioned. So next week it's ahoy Lehane! And, er, put 'er there, Pelecanos! And beyond that, there's more to come on Donald Westlake (as ever), Ross Thomas (some crackers there), and some more small press comics stuff too.

But first, I've got a clutch of recent Lewes Book Bargains to catch up on, all bagged in various Lewes charity shops, mostly dating from the 1970s (the books, not the shops, although the interiors of the shops might suggest otherwise...), and including a couple of real doozies. Not sure this one qualifies as one of those, however:

A UK hardback first edition of The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean, published by Collins in 1973. Now, I'm not necessarily saying it's rubbish – I haven't, after all, even read it yet – but I was thoroughly amused by this string of posts on a motoring message board, which I stumbled across when researching the book. It's always fascinating to read the thoughts of specialist nerds when a writer or filmmaker or whoever dares to venture into their particular area of expertise; I've been guilty of this kind of picky response myself, I'm sure, but hopefully I've never got quite so irate as some of these silly sods. Opinions on MacLean's novel from message board regulars range from exasperation that the author made the apparently fundamental error of believing that "GP cars were fitted both with speedometers and headlights" (er...) to an artistic appraisal of the book as being "TOTAL KRAPPP!!!!" A nice, balanced assessment there.

And actually that's fairly representative of message boards in general. Almost invariably they're forums for backbiting and bitching and nastiness, and when they're not they're either so over-moderated that any potentially constructive criticism is effectively neutered, or so bland and nice it's like wandering into a Hare Krishna AGM. But anyway, The Way to Dusty Death may not be one of MacLean's better-liked books – even one of the main fan sites only scores it six out of ten – but I think we can hazard it's a bit better than the exhaust fume-addled folk on that message board maintain. It's about skullduggery in the world of Grand Prix motor racing, which, being a sometime fan of Formula One, doesn't sound too bad to me.

There's no credit on the dustjacket for the design or image, but there is a signature on the back flap: John Constable. Which, I'm sure you can imagine, makes researching it pretty much impossible. But no matter; with my ongoing interest in British thriller writers, Alistair MacLean is an author I've been wanting to check out for a while (I have an abiding love of Where Eagles Dare, the film he wrote the screenplay for and the novel of simultaneously), and a Formula One-focused thriller seems as good a place as any to do just that.

Friday, 29 October 2010

My Friend Tim... New York Comic Con... Darwyn Cooke... The Outfit... Blah Blah (Slight Return)

Quick addendum to this post about Tim giving me the limited-to-500 New York Comic Con edition of Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Outfit: not only do I now have in my possession the exclusive dustjacket to go with it – which wasn't ready in time for the show, but which IDW subsequently shipped to Tim, lovely folk that they are – but I also have provenance for the book itself. As captured by an ace photographer (er, Tim again), here's Darwyn Cooke himself, colouring and signing my very copy of The Outfit:

Splendid. Excuse me while I have a small nerdgasm.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

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

For this fourth instalment of Notes from the Small Press – which I think we're all on the same page now as to what these posts are all about; first instalment here, second here, and third here – we come right up to date with a brand new mini comic, one which has a particular link to the previous Notes:

Anais in Paris is a 51/2" x 8" 24-page comic by British expat (she now lives in the US) cartoonist Mardou, who was the editorial force behind the 2005 Small Pets anthology featured in the last Notes. It's a biography of, as the comic itself titles her, "muse, groupie, literary legend – Anais Nin". And let's just let that one sink in a while: a biography of Anais Nin, in comics form, that's just 21 pages long (not including covers etc.). By anyone's reckoning, that would be something of a challenge. You might be able to compress, say, my life thus far into 21 pages (probably less, actually, but anyway), but to do justice to the life of an important literary figure like Nin in so few pages would be next to impossible.

Luckily, Mardou clearly felt so too, which is why she largely concentrates here on Nin's time in Paris, from 1924 to 1939, the years covered in Volume 1 of Nin's diaries. Even so, as Mardou herself admits in her introduction (which also details the complicated origins of the comic, almost worth the price of admission alone), Anais in Paris was "a lot of work and [I] don't expect to attempt anything similar for a long time". What's surprising, then, is that the end result feels so effortlessly breezy. After a few pages of background and scene-setting, we follow Nin and her new husband, banker Hugh Guiler, as they move to Paris in 1924. At this point Nin is actually quite prim and reserved, but once she's had her first book published and met Henry Miller, the floodgates open. Or, as Mardou puts it, "A comet was let loose!"

It's exuberant asides like that which lend Anais in Paris its freshness. In one brilliant sequence Mardou presents a series of snapshots of events across three panels, summing up a period of years in Nin's life in a flurry of images, captions, exclamations, speech balloons and thought bubbles.

It's the kind of confident abridgement that only a talented, experienced cartoonist could attempt, and Mardou is both those things. The first time I came across her work was, I think, back in 2003 or 2004, in the pages of the first issue of her own comic, Manhole. She was also collaborating with writers Fortenski and John Dunning in A4-sized comics Stiro and Lolajean Riddle, but, good though some of that material was, it was evident even then that the comics she was writing herself as well as drawing were more promising. Though the artwork was a little rough round the edges, the writing was sharp, mixing autobiographical elements with fiction and examining the stuff that makes up most of our lives: relationships, rubbish jobs, and going out and getting pissed.

The comics that Mardou published in the all-girl anthology Whores of Mensa (alongside Jeremy Dennis, Lucy Sweet and Ellen Linder) demonstrated a definite leap forward in her artistic abilities, and by the time the second issue of Manhole rolled round in 2006 (by which point she'd upped sticks and moved to Missouri), comprising mostly of one long story, the splendid "The King of It", both drawing and writing were working in unison. In Manhole #2 – and everything since – much of the awkwardness in her drawing disappeared, and that which remains goes hand in hand with the social situations she depicts, where being at right angles with life is just an everyday thing.

Anais in Paris represents another string to her bow, a delightful experiment and, despite the effort that went into it, probably a welcome diversion from her main creative focus of the last few years: an extended, autobiographical graphic novel dealing with drugs and clubs and friends and a particular place and time (one I'm pretty familiar with) that promises to be something special. While we wait for that, however, we have Anais in Paris (which can be purchased from the USS Catastrophe shop, along with Manholes #2 and #3), not to mention the sketchbook drawings and comics Mardou posts on her blog. All of which, as ever, I urge you to check out.

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

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 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  

The Mac's Place Quartet: Twilight at Mac's Place by Ross Thomas

Rounding off a run of posts on undervalued crime/espionage author Ross Thomas and his short series of books centring on fictional bar Mac's Place – although there is, I should point out, more to come on some of Thomas' other novels – we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of Twilight at Mac's Place, published by Scribners in 1991 (originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1990). This is the fourth and final book to focus on Mac McCorkle and Mike Padillo, following 1966's The Cold War Swap (published, as we've established, as Spy in the Vodka in the UK in 1967), 1967's Cast a Yellow Shadow (published in the UK in '68), and 1971's The Backup Men. This one's a little different, however: while McCorkle and Padillo do feature, to a greater extent the spotlight follows a new character, a homicide detective turned actor called Granville Haynes, who's offered $100,000, sight unseen, for the memoirs of his recently deceased father, veteran CIA man Steadfast Haynes. As you'd expect from a Ross Thomas novel, intrigue, treachery and murder follow.

And there's another change from the previous three books in the series: Twilight at Mac's Place is written in the third person instead of the first person. I think Thomas wrote in both manners throughout his career (correct me if I'm wrong, Book Glutton), but it is common for authors to write their early books in the first person and then switch to third person for later books. Some of the authors I'm interested in spring instantly to mind: George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Gavin Lyall (although not Kingsley Amis, who switched back and forth)... And having done a fair bit of writing myself – not novels, but countless magazine articles and reviews – and edited both non-fiction and fiction, I have to say I do find it a lot easier to witter on in the first person on this blog than I have writing from a more elevated, removed perspective in the past. Bit of a stretch, I know – Christ knows I'm no Lyall or Lehane – but there might be a vague comparison there. Maybe. In any case, for fiction writers it's probably something to do with finding their early voice through a version of their own voice – the first person – before gaining the confidence to adopt a more omniscient approach.

The front cover illustration on the dustjacket of this UK edition of Twilight at Mac's Place is by Stan Watts, whose photorealistic paintings have adorned, among other things, albums by Jeff Beck and Suicidal Tendencies and Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series of books. The back cover textures are credited to Elaine Cox... which, if regular readers cast their minds back, was how I knew the identical uncredited textures on the back of Voodoo Ltd. were also by Elaine Cox. Y'see? It all connects up eventually. I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but I believe Elaine is a painter and jeweller whose work is inspired by landscape; there are lots of examples of her mysterious, evocative multimedia paintings and stylish jewellery at her website. Assuming I've got the right Elaine Cox, that is. If not, what the hell: consider it a free plug.

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...

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Mac's Place Quartet: The Backup Men by Ross Thomas (Lawrence Ratzkin Cover Design)

Next up in Existential Ennui's ongoing tribute to critically acclaimed but increasingly overlooked espionage/crime writer Ross Thomas, we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of The Backup Men, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971 (published in the States in the same year by William Morrow). This is Thomas' sixth book, but the third in his series featuring saloon owner Mac McCorkle and his business partner and part time spy Mike Padillo, following 1966's The Cold War Swap (published as Spy in the Vodka in the UK in 1967) and 1967's Cast a Yellow Shadow (published in the UK in '68). This time out the pair have to protect the future king of an oil-rich country from assassination, with all the murky big American oil business that scenario entails.

For this one I took a punt on a sight-unseen copy from one of those big bargain books retailers that litter eBay. You know the ones: they never have an image of the book in question accompanying their listings, and the info in said listings can be scant and inaccurate (not stating a book is ex-library is a popular omission). In this instance, however, I asked a further question about the book and actually got a helpful response, so I snapped it up for a tenner. And it's in pretty good condition: the jacket's price-clipped, with a bit of edge wear at the spine, but the book itself is virtually pristine.

And that, in fact, sets it apart from most of the other seven or eight copies listed online by booksellers around the world. Because there's a curious defect associated with this Hodder edition of the book, to do with the copyright info: in most copies, that info is inked out with a black pen. Apparently this was done by Hodder themselves, although I have no idea why; I can't see anything egregious about the copyright info in my copy... and yes, that does mean what that implies – the copyright info is entirely unblemished in my copy:

Which, judging by the only other un-inked-out copy on AbeBooks, which is on sale for £130, makes my one rather valuable. Of course, the market for Ross Thomas first editions seems to be virtually non-existent at the moment – basically, I'm it – so there isn't exactly a queue of people wanting to get their hands on this hardback. But even so. Always nice to have something rare.

The dustjacket on this edition – and indeed on the Morrow edition; both UK and US versions have the same jacket, I believe – was designed by Lawrence Ratzkin, whose playful, distinctive designs graced American editions of J. G. Ballard's Crash, Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses and Black Angels, a plethora of SF novels and anthologies, including Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Robert Silverberg's The Calibrated Alligator, and more besides. He was also responsible for many a cover for Harper's Magazine from the late '60s, which boasted some striking examples of ingenious text/image juxtaposition.

I think Ratzkin was (I'll stick with past tense, as I suspect he may be dead now) also a photographer: I'm not sure if this website was his, but Ratzkin, if indeed it is the same man, definitely took photos in and around New York; a selection of his black and white shots accompanied Eve Merriam's poems in the 1969 edition of The Inner City Mother Goose. One thing is for certain: he was exasperated by the way book publishing developed (if that's the right word) towards the end of the 20th century, as it shifted from editorial-led decision-making to being in thrall to the nebulous methods of the sales and marketing departments. As Ratzkin wrote in this 1997 letter to The New York Times, "Publishers and editors have relinquished literary taste and publishing judgment to the yahoos." Couldn't have put it better myself.

The Hodder Coronet Parker Editions: The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark

Here's a recent Donald E. Westlake Score that takes me one step closer to completing a run of particular editions of Richard Stark's Parker novels:

The first UK edition of the eleventh Parker novel, The Black Ice Score, published in paperback by Coronet in 1969 (originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1968). This particular edition of The Black Ice Score is so scarce I've never seen another copy of it anywhere online; I've only ever seen the occasional copy of the second and third printings (1972 and 1974), the ones with the Raymond Hawkey 'bullet hole' covers. Currently there are a couple of copies of that edition for sale on AbeBooks for around £25. But of this earlier edition I'd caught nary a glimpse. In fact, I wasn't even sure it existed: I have copies of two of the other Coronet paperbacks with this style of cover design, The Rare Coin Score (Coronet, 1968, Parker #9) and The Green Eagle Score (Coronet, 1968, Parker #10), and Trent at Violent World of Parker has a cover for the similarly styled 1969 Coronet edition of Parker #12, The Sour Lemon Score. But I hadn't seen a cover for this edition of The Black Ice Score anywhere.

I still don't know who the cover artist was on these early Coronet editions – John M. Burns, perhaps? – but the indicia of The Black Ice Score does clear up a lingering question of chronology. Under "Other Coronet Books by Richard Stark", the following books are listed: Point Blank! (Coronet, 1967), The Rare Coin Score (see above), The Green Eagle Score (see above)... and The Split (Parker #7). Now, in this post, I'd reasoned that Coronet hadn't published The Split – the first 1969 Coronet edition of which has a movie tie-in cover – until after The Sour Lemon Score. But it turns out the movie tie-in of The Split was published in the UK right in the middle of the run of four Parker novels with The Black Ice Score-syle illustrated covers. Which will be of no interest to anyone other than me, but what the hell: at least I know now.

I still, however, don't know which of the Parker books was the first to sport the Hawkey bullet hole cover design. I think the next Parker book Coronet published after The Sour Lemon Score was the 1970 reprint of The Rare Coin Score with the photographic movie-style cover, and I have a feeling the 1971 edition of The Steel Hit (Parker #2) was the the first to sport the bullet hole look... but I couldn't say for sure. That's a (tedious) question for another day, though. For now, let's just gaze awhile upon my slightly more complete run (just The Sour Lemon Score to find now) of Coronet illo cover Parkers:

Sunday, 24 October 2010

New Arrival: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre (Signed First Edition)

OK, I crumbled. For a month now, since its publication in the middle of September, I've been seeing hardback first editions of Le Carre's latest, Our Kind of Traitor, in the local bookshops. Except none of those first editions, not even on the day of publication, were first impressions: by the time the book arrived down here in Lewes it was already on its third printing. So for weeks, the new Le Carre has sat on the shelves of WHSmith's and British Bookshops, calling to me with its buffed copper dustjacket, taunting me with its tarty half-price offers, but always ultimately disappointing me whenever I picked up a copy and discovered the dreaded numeral '3' on the copyright page.

Finally, I could take no more. I caved, and bought this online:

A first edition, first impression, with the magic number '1' in the indicia. But not only that. There's also this:

Yes, it's a signed edition. I didn't realise Le Carre signed books as Le Carre, which is of course a pen name (his real name is David Cornwell). But apparently he does. Anyway, luckily I managed to find a copy from an Amazon Marketplace dealer – the same fellow behind the Firsts in Print website, I think – that only set me back the full price of the book, which, considering signed true firsts are going for all sorts of daft prices on eBay, could've been a lot worse. And even though Our Kind of Traitor falls firmly under Roly's broad brush assessment of later Le Carre, it's still a new Le Carre, and when I've been on such a Le Carre kick of late, it seems to churlish not to get his new one. So I have.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Mac's Place Quartet: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas / Steve McQueen and The Cold War Swap

And so Existential Ennui's rolling tribute to underappreciated author Ross Thomas – previous posts can be found here, here, and here – continues with this:

A 1968 UK first edition hardback of Cast a Yellow Shadow, published by Hodder & Stoughton, with a dustjacket design by Baker/Broom/Edwards. This is Thomas' second novel, published in the States by Morrow in 1967, a year after his debut, The Cold War Swap (a.k.a. Spy in the Vodka). It's also the second book to feature bar owner Mac McCorkle and his business partner – and occasional secret agent for the US government – Mike Padillo. This time out, the action relocates from Bonn, West Germany, to Washington, DC, where Mac has opened up a new establishment – still called Mac's Place – and where Padillo makes a reappearance following his disappearance at the end of The Cold War Swap. However, he's been stabbed, and Mac soon finds his own wife has been kidnapped and is being held by officials of an African nation who want Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister.

There aren't too many copies of this UK edition for sale online, just two or three from the UK, a couple from the States, and then a bunch from South Africa and Australia, which is common with otherwise scarce British hardback first editions from the '60s and '70s: there are large numbers of expats in both those countries, many of whom would have taken their books with them when they emigrated, books that have since ended up in second hand bookshops. Y'know, I've always wanted to go to Australia. I've got relations out there. Perhaps some kind of combined familial visit/bookshop tour might be in order...

There's an interesting bit of blurb on the back cover of this Hodder edition of Cast a Yellow Shadow, in between the stuff about awards and press quotes for Thomas' previous book, which states, "now being filmed as The Cold War Swap starring Steve McQueen". That got me intrigued: obviously that movie never saw light of day, but the fact that the blurb states it was actually being filmed at the time suggests it might have got some way along the production process. So I did some digging, and while I couldn't find out how far along it got, I did find an interview with Ross Thomas where he said that Steve McQueen was indeed interested in starring in a movie of The Cold War Swap, but he couldn't decide whether to play McCorkle or Padillo. In the end he decided to play both characters in one, which is possibly where the project faltered. If anybody has any more info on this abortive adaptation, the comments section below awaits your input...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets, Starring Mardou, Ted May, Phil Barrett, and More

For this third instalment of Notes from the Small Press – which, for latecomers, is a series of posts on small press comics I have known – we head to 2005, and an anthology that, much like the Fast Fiction Presents: The Elephant of Surprise comic featured in the first Notes, acts as a useful snapshot of a particular moment in British mini comix.

Small Pets was an anthology put together by UK cartoonist Mardou for the 2005 Web and Mini Comix Thing, a once-a-year, one-day, London-based small press event run by Patrick Findlay (which, I think, he's now knocked on the head). I have to declare an interest here: I wrote the foreword to the comic, in my then-capacity as senior editor for Titan Books, although I didn't agree to write it (or indeed this here blog post) out of any sense of egotism (well, no more than usual) or nepotism (Mardou was, and still is, a pal). Rather, it was plain to see at the time that Small Pets was stuffed full of brilliant comics and creators, and I was chuffed to be associated – if only in a tiny way – with such a talented bunch of writers and artists. The table of contents will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches on offer:

As with The Elephant of Surprise, Small Pets featured contributions from most, if not all, of the leading lights on the UK small press scene at the time, plus a couple of guest Americans and an Irishman. And as with The Elephant, it just so happened that all of those cartoonists were simultaneously hitting their creative stride. Irish comics creator Phil Barrett contributed two stories of everyday surrealism, with both"Wee Creatures" and "Small Changes" dropping whimsical elements – mysterious teddy/snake hybrids in a kid's bedroom; an outlandishly oversized man making his way in the world – into ordinary situations. As a gloriously base counterpoint to Barrett's more grounded work, Jon Chandler's flatulent "Two Fables" gets two pages out of passing wind.

Ellen Lindner's elegant line and exuberant scripting are on full display in her rumination on wage slavery, "Coming Out of a Coma", while Jeremy Dennis' two stories are fine examples of her affecting autobiographical comics.

Both Lindner and Dennis are also co-conspirators with Mardou in the occasional Whores of Mensa anthology, another splendid example of small press togetherness. And speaking of Mardou, her contribution to Small Pets (aside from editing the whole shebang, of course), "A John So Small", is a brilliantly wonky take on the Oldest Profession, featuring a crossed-wires sex pest who gets off on literary little people. Mardou's story is followed, oddly enough, by one from her future husband, Ted May, whose "Longbox" is a prime example of his off-kilter Kirby-meets-underground-comix stylings.

And those are only a few examples from a cast list that also includes Richard Cowdry, John Allison, Sean Azzopardi, and loads more besides. Looking back on Small Pets from a few years' remove, it really is remarkable how many great cartoonists Mardou managed to gather together, and the resulting comic has lost none of its energy. There's a palpable excitement rippling through the pages, as if all concerned knew this would turn out to be something special. Perhaps they all thought nothing of the sort, but in any case I stand by my slightly hyperbolic introduction: I think Small Pets really did represent a new Fast Fiction-style golden age of UK small press comics, one of those all too infrequent nexus points where a disparate group of artists simultaneously reach a creative peak and everything seems possible.

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

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

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  

Spoke too soon:

She's just finished:

A day off work well spent there, I feel.

My Friend Tim Went to New York Comic Con and All He Got Me Was This Lousy Signed Limited Edition of Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Outfit

Actually that's not all he got me; he also gave me a thousand-piece Elephantmen/Hipflask jigsaw puzzle, which I then gave to Rachel, who has been happily doing it ever since:

Did I say "happily"? I meant "obsessively, thinking about it constantly, devoting every waking hour to it to the exclusion of pretty much anything else". Bless. The puzzle's a lot further along than that picture now; I reckon she'll be done by the weekend. But anyway, the main thing Tim got me from New York Comic Con – which took place a couple of weeks back in (and the clue's in the title here) New York – was a copy of the limited edition of Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Parker: The Outfit, featuring a signed tipped-in drawing:

Tim offered to swap this copy of The Outfit, which he got from Mr. Cooke himself, for the regular copy I'd already bought (and reviewed). Which is a thoroughly lovely thing for him to do, and for which I'm incredibly grateful. So now I have a signed limited edition of Parker: The Outfit from NYCC to go along with the signed limited edition of Parker: The Hunter I got from the ace London comic shop Gosh:

Who's a lucky boy, then?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A Meandering Review of the Novel Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Well I fair plowed through this one. Considering Case Histories clocks in at around 300 pages and I only started reading it Wednesday last week, polishing it off by Monday isn't bad at all. It's understandable though: on this evidence, Kate Atkinson is a really good, compelling writer. I'm not going to post a proper summary/analysis here – I'm sure there's plenty of that online already – but for posterity, and for my own reference, some stray thoughts:

I loved all of the characters in Case Histories. Character is what Atkinson is all about. The various strands of the story proceed in fits and starts, rubbing up against each other and interweaving, but they're always related from the perspective of a particular character. Not in the first person, mind: Atkinson writes here in the omniscient third person. But she does get inside the heads of her characters brilliantly, so that a lot of the events in the book are related by people looking back on those events and attempting to interpret them, or experiencing them now and trying to interpret them as they go along, with all the intellectual and emotional muddle that entails.

Atkinson's secret is, she writes how people think. So, say, Theo, whose daughter was killed ten years ago (one of the case histories of the title), might be doing one thing but thinking another, or rather doing one thing that sets him thinking about another. Atkinson follows that thought process, sometimes revealing clues along the way, or at least hinting at them, sometimes just filling in background. At one point, private investigator Jackson Brodie – our ostensible hero, although the likes of bereaved sisters Amelia and Julia get just as much page time – visits Amelia and Julia's other surviving sister, Sylvia, in a convent. Sylvia has taken the name Sister Michael, which sets Jackson off ruminating on why high street store Marks & Spencer use St Michael as the name for their own-brand goods. It's the kind of inconsequential connection one's mind makes all the time, the sort of mental sidestep that can lead to inspiration or, just as likely, an interesting but ultimately useless cul-de-sac. Both eventualities are in abundance in Case Histories.

Towards the end of the novel, unexpectedly it becomes really funny, so much so that I laughed out loud a couple of times. Jackson in particular comes into his own in the second half of the book: he's increasingly put-upon and disaster-prone, lurching from humiliation at the hands of his ex-wife and her new partner, to being mugged (or not, as the case may be), to having his house blown up – a turn of events that stopped me in my tracks it was so unexpected – much of which results in repeated trips to the hospital.

The final revelations of the three main case histories don't come as much of a shock; I'd guessed most of them by that point anyway. But that doesn't matter: as ever, it's the journey that's important, and Case Histories is a winding, complicated excursion in the company of a disparate bunch of messed-up people who you nevertheless really wouldn't mind hanging out with again.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Westlake Score: Backstage Love by Alan Marshall (Midwood/Tower Sleaze Paperback, 1959)

Like a lot of writers toiling in the unforgiving fields of pulpy postwar paperbacks, Donald E. Westlake wrote under an array of pseudonyms. The most famous of those is, of course, Richard Stark, under which moniker Westlake created the Parker series of crime novels in the early '60s. But as well known as that particular pen name is today, it's easy to forget that, back then, it was just one of many used by Westlake to churn out umpteen books every year. Richard Stark may have proved to be rather special, but from Westlake's perspective there weren't nothing special 'bout Stark at the time.

Aside from Stark, Westlake wrote books under the names Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Curt Clark. But all of those pseudonyms debuted after Stark's debut, 1962's The Hunter; there are a whole boatload more alter egos who preceded the birth of Richard Stark. I blogged about one of those, John B. Allan, back at the start of June, but Allan's single contribution to the Westlake canon, a 1961 biography of Elizabeth Taylor, is somewhat mild in comparison to the material published under some of his other nom de plumes in the late '50s and early '60s. For, like many of his contemporaries, including Lawrence Block, Westlake bashed out (so to speak) dozens of pseudonymous soft porn paperbacks.

Now, I hadn't intended to start collecting any of the soft porn books Westlake wrote under names like Edwin West or Andrew Shaw. But as luck would have it, a chance trip to a bookshop over in Essex the other week turned up a novel written under the disguise that Westlake used the most for his more titillating titles:

A US paperback of Backstage Love by Alan Marshall, published by the amusingly named Midwood/Tower Publications in 1959. This was lurking in a pile of similarly smutty paperbacks in an alcove under some stairs to the side of the rather ramshackle shop. It took me a few moments before I realised what it was; I would've recognised one of the better-known Westlake alter egos right away, but I'm less familiar with the filthier end of his oeuvre. And not carrying the complete annotated list of Westlake wank-fodder round in my head, I wasn't completely sure Backstage Love was the genuine article: quite apart from the immediate poser of whether Alan Marshall was indeed Westlake, there's also the thorny problem that, as with many of these soft porn author identities, other writers also used the Alan Marshall moniker, so not all the Marshall-written books were by Donald E. Westlake.

I'd like to say I leafed through the book and immediately recognised Westlake's style, but while these opening lines:

He had to change buses in New York, with a two hour wait. He had never been in New York City before, so he left the Port Authority Terminal and walked up a block to 42nd Street. It was early June and the late-morning sun made the sidewalks look bright and the buildings look clean.

could conceivably have been penned by him, coming across as proto-Stark, they could also have been penned by countless other writers. No, what I think really tipped me off was the setting for the novel: a summer stock theatre. That's a theme that Westlake has returned to more than once, with the events of Pity Him Afterwards (1964) being set in a similar location, and Alan Grofield from the Parker novels spending his summers acting in stock theatre. And anyway, at £1.50 it was worth the gamble.

There's a few copies of Backstage Love on AbeBooks for up to £25, but those are all in the States; it's unusual to chance across a copy in a UK bookshop. I rhapsodised briefly on Sunday about the pre-internet 1970s and 1980s (and even '90s) when books like this were tantalisingly out of reach for us Brits; finding this book was almost like stepping back in time to those years, when a junk shop in Penge Market might, if you're lucky, turn up a dreamed-of comic or paperback. I figured that sort of thing just didn't happen anymore, with collectors being so virulent. Turns out, it does.

The cover artist on Backstage Love is the appropriately named Rudy Nappi, who, rather ironically given the book's naughty nature, is best known for his covers for that squeakiest of squeaky clean characters, Nancy Drew. Which just goes to show, everyone has a dark side...

The Mac's Place Quartet: Spy in the Vodka (The Cold War Swap) by Ross Thomas

As promised at the end of last week, over the coming week (and indeed probably into next week, and perhaps even beyond) Existential Ennui will largely be focusing on two writers who between them have monopolised much of my book-collecting time this year. On Sunday – slightly earlier than planned, but the muse overtook me – I posted the first of a number of forthcoming missives on Donald E. Westlake, who, regular readers will know, has been a firm friend for most of the year. And today sees the first in a series of posts on a writer who, thanks to Book Glutton, has recently become something of a pal too: Ross Thomas. Doubtless there'll be posts on other matters mixed in here and there, but Westlake and Thomas will loom large for the foreseeable future.

And let's open the Thomas account with something a little special:

That there's the UK hardback first edition of Spy in the Vodka by Ross Thomas, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1967, with a dustjacket designed by Peter Calcott. This is Thomas' debut novel... a statement which may have anyone who's au fait with Thomas' oeuvre, particularly anyone American, scratching their head. After all, as any Ross Thomas enthusiast will tell you, his debut novel – perhaps even his best-known novel – was 1966's The Cold War Swap. And that statement is also true.

So how can Spy in the Vodka and The Cold War Swap both be Ross Thomas' debut novel? You guessed it: they're the same book. As often happens with UK editions of American books (and vice versa, of course), The Cold War Swap gained a new title for its UK debut. But only for this first hardback printing, it seems; as early as 1968, Hodder had reverted to the original title for their paperback edition. Which begs the question, why change the title at all? Especially when the title you changed it to bears a remarkable resemblance to another espionage thriller by another American author published in the UK in the same year – 1967 – this time by T.V. Boardman. Namely, Spy in the Ointment by our aforementioned friend Donald E. Westlake. Perhaps Hodder realised the close resemblance of the titles after the fact, which was why they reverted the US title. Pure speculation on my part, mind.

Copies of Spy in the Vodka aren't exactly abundant; there's a few on AbeBooks, mostly going for rather a lot of money, and mostly with dustjackets that are in various states of disrepair – as is the one adorning my copy. Seems this particular jacket is rather delicate (see also those two Le Carre books I picked up). I mentioned in this really annoying post that I'd be returning to one of the two series that Thomas wrote during his career, and as well as being his first book, Spy in the Vodka/The Cold War Swap is also the first book in that series. Much more importantly, however (ahem), it's also the first book by Thomas that I've read – and I like what I see.

It's narrated by Mac McCorkle, an American who owns a bar, Mac's Place, in Bonn, West Germany (this is during the Cold War, remember, when Germany was two nations). His business partner is one Mike Padillo, who is also an occasional and increasingly reluctant secret agent – and perhaps even an assassin – for the US government. McCorkle drinks too much, carouses too much, but he isn't a young man anymore, while Padillo, for his part, has had enough of the double life he leads. For his latest mission Padillo is tasked with carrying out an exchange of spies in Berlin, but there's a twist, and inevitably things go somewhat sour.

It's very much a book of two halves: in the first half we follow Mac as he tries to find out what's happened to the vanished Padillo, and while there is violence, there's an easygoing lilt to the story that lulls you into a false sense of security. Once Padillo reappears halfway through, however, events take a sinister turn, and there are double-crosses and sleeper agents and killings aplenty, culminating in nightmarish attempt to escape from East Berlin. The tone throughout is resigned and world-weary, although leavened by (still cynical) humour and dry wit; as with Le Carre there are no real winners or losers here, just men (and women) trying to get out from under and ending up having to save their own skin into the bargain. It's Cold War realpolitik but on a human scale, which is, I think, the best thing about the book. I'm certainly inclined to read more Ross Thomas... which is just as well as I have more Ross Thomas to read. About which, more soon...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Richard Stark, Harry Bennett, Parker Book Covers, and The Seventh (a Westlake Score)

A couple of months back I wrote a post on artist Robert McGinnis and his portrayals of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's character Parker on the covers of the Parker novels published by Fawcett/Gold Medal (the four books from 1967's The Rare Coin Score to 1969's The Sour Lemon Score, plus a few reprints too). That's still one of the most popular posts on Existential Ennui, but in my rush to identify the perfect Parker I kind of skirted around the artist responsible for the lion's share of the covers for the original run of paperback Parkers, i.e. the eight books published by Pocket Books from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966). And that's an injustice that needs addressing, because the man in question, Harry Bennett, was, and continues to be, a brilliant artist in his own right.

Bennett's been on my mind because I recently nabbed a US paperback first printing of the 1966 seventh Parker novel – which, cunningly, Westlake named The Seventh, and not just because of its chronological significance – on eBay. Here in the UK, American printings of the Parker novels don't turn up on eBay that often, so when they do, I'll sometimes bid for them, even though I have at least one edition  – mostly Allison & Busby editions – of every Parker novel anyway. (I could, of course, simply buy copies from booksellers in the States via AbeBooks, but where's the fun in that?) To a Brit living thousands of miles away from America, who for the longest time dreamed of getting his hands on the exotic-seeming books and comic books and records that originated in that distant, unreachable country in those pre-internet years (even when, in my teens, UK bookshops, comic shops and record shops started importing US wares, there were still items that were legendarily elusive), there's a tangible thrill in holding a copy of an original printing of a Richard Stark book. And owning a copy of The Seventh is a particular joy, because of the Parker novels I've read thus far (I'm on the fourteenth, 1971's Slayground at the moment), The Seventh may well be my favourite.

So, to kick off a week – or even a fortnight; we'll see how things pan out – in which I'll have a number of posts on various Donald E. Westlake paperbacks, let's have a look at that copy of The Seventh, and the artist responsible for its cover. And the first thing to note is that, unlike most (all?) of the covers Harry Bennett drew and painted for those first eight Parker novels, on The Seventh we get two illustrations for the price of one. Because as well as that colour piece on the front cover – which I guess must be Bennett's interpretation of the nameless thorn in Parker's side, accompanied by the unfortunate Ellie – we also get an expressive line drawing on the back cover, depicting Parker and his six doomed cohorts from the football stadium score (plus Ellie again, presumably). I actually prefer this back cover drawing to the one on the front; there's an almost  European sensibility to the linework, as if the drawing could be a panel lifted from a bande dessinee. That casual distortion is a hallmark of a lot of Bennett's work, although he did draw and paint book covers in a number of styles.

One thing I mentioned in that McGinnis post was that Bennett's depiction of Parker on his eight covers varies wildly. It's hard to get a sense of how Bennett sees Parker; for example, on the back of The Seventh, presumably that's Parker in the foreground, but it's also the least characterful guy of the bunch. If we go right back to Bennett's first Parker cover, for The Hunter, the only really distinctive thing about Parker there is the size of his hands (which Bennett surely got from Stark/Westlake's memorable description of them near the start of the novel). And if we compare the Parker on The Hunter to the one on the back of The Seventh, well, those are two completely different people. I guess you could make a case for the Parker on the covers of The Outfit (1963) and The Mourner (1964) being the same as the one on The Hunter, but I've got no idea which, if any, of the people sitting in the cab of the truck on the cover of The Score (1964) is Parker, and the incidental Parkers on The Jugger (1965) and The Handle are different guys again.

In fact I think of all Bennett's Parker covers, the one that best captures Parker is the cover to The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), where all we can see of him are his huge hands – almost the same ones as on The Hunter – and dark, steady, piercing eyes. What that cover also does, though, is neatly illustrate the point that, at root, it doesn't really matter how Bennett depicts Parker; these are still extraordinary book covers. Just look at that bird's nest mess of ink and daubs of colour, at the thick black lines that call to mind Max Beckmann more than they do Bennett's book cover contemporaries. Evidently, this is an artist who knows his art history.

Born in South Salem in 1919, Bennett served as a major in the Pacific during World War II, painting the scenes he saw whilst fighting (he also suffered a broken back). He studied fine art at the Institute of Chicago and graphics at the American Academy of Art, and did advertising work for Pepsi and Buick before switching to book covers. But beyond his commercial career, Bennett was becoming an accomplished and respected painter. In 2008 the RiverSea Gallery in Astoria, Oregon held a restrospective exhibition of Bennett's paintings, to act as a farewell to the local artist, who was moving to the east coast. Follow that link and you'll find a few fine examples of his work, along with a profile which reveals that when Bennett arrived in Oregon in 1986 he experienced something of an artistic epiphany, over the next two decades painting hundreds of pictures of the people and places from the local area.

Even before that, however, when Bennett was cranking out covers for gothic romances by Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney – probably the work he's best known for – it was abundantly clear this was no run-of-the-mill cover hack. One need only regard the way the ghostly statuette figures on the cover of The Mourner grasp that bold blue background like fingers scrabbling for purchase, or how Bennett uses abstract blocks of primary colour as a shorthand for street signs on the cover of The Jugger. Clearly, this is a confident, clever artist.

Fine art purists might dismiss Bennett's covers as being merely illustrative, but that's to ignore their formal qualities as pictures. The covers of The Man with the Getaway Face, The Jugger and The Handle stand as works of art, ones which could happily adorn any wall. And even if one were to take them simply as illustrations, they still show a keen mind at work in the choices Bennett makes; that Jugger cover neatly summarises the small town setting of the novel, the urban paraphernalia offset by the good-ol'-boy sheriff. Where many covers, particularly in the crime fiction field, opt for quite literal interpretations of the particular material – a gumshoe, a moll – Bennett, though still figurative in approach, is quite happy to mix near-abstract elements with scenes lifted from the page.

And Bennett is as good now as he ever was. His son, Tom, is also an accomplished artist, and often posts updates about Harry on his shared blog. And as these wonderful drawings show, Bennett's art is still sharp and expressive. It's nice to know that the man who lent his extraordinary talents to those early Parkers and helped define the look and feel of Parker's world in many fans' minds is still out there, doing his thing. Long may he continue.