Tuesday, 30 November 2010

File Under Reference: Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick

Here's a book that – as I mentioned in the previous post – I was partly inspired to buy by (buy by? Bye bye! Ahem. Sorry) my friend Roly, who noticed it in one of the second hand bookshops in Cecil Court when we were up in London for the day. I think I'd flicked through it myself when I'd been in that shop before, but if Roly hadn't picked it up and pored over it, I doubt I'd have got round to buying a copy (a cheaper copy, bought online; the one in the shop was overpriced). Therefore, I think I can safely blame this one on him. So what is it? This:


The UK hardback first edition of Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick, published by Elm Tree Books in 1977, with a dustjacket designed by Lawrence Edwards. And it is essentially what the title suggests it is: potted biographies on the then-leading lights in espionage fiction, although as ever with these things it's far from comprehensive: there's no sign of, for instance, Ross Thomas, who by this point had written a number of spy novels. That said, McCormick does admit in his introduction that there are omissions, some due to particular authors not wishing to be identified merely as spy novelists. And even with that proviso, there are still enough intriguing authors included to keep you reading. Speaking of which, can you name all eight writers featured on the cover? (You might need to click on it to see properly; answers at the end of the post.*)

Who's Who in Spy Fiction was part of a series of books published by Elm Tree, each one focusing on a different genre. Brian Ash's Who's Who in Science Fiction preceded Spy Fiction by a year, while Mike Ashley's Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction also appeared in 1977. Sadly I haven't been able to find a trace of perhaps the most interesting of the companion titles listed on the Spy Fiction jacket back flap, Nigel Morland's Who's Who in Crime Fiction, so presumably it never materialised.

Donald McCormick wrote a variety of non fiction books, among them works on the British Secret Service, the Israeli Secret Service, and Ian Fleming, alongside whom he worked at The Sunday Times in the late '50s/early '60s, where McCormick was Assistant Foreign Manager. His relationship with Fleming stretched further back than that though, to the Second World War, during which McCormick served in the British navy and undertook field work for Fleming, who was Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. So McCormick certainly knew his stuff vis a vis espionage, and was better placed than most to pen potted appreciations of the authors toiling in the at-the-time massive spy fiction market. (Tellingly, his piece on Fleming closes with the prediction that "It is as an extraordinarily good Assistant to the DNI that he will ultimately be remembered". Er, or not.)

Anyhoo, Who's Who in Spy Fiction should come in handy for a number of forthcoming espionage-related posts on Existential Ennui...

* Those cover stars are, top row: Somerset Maugham, John Buchan and John le Carre; middle row: Ian Fleming, Helen MacInnes and Eric Ambler; bottom row: Len Deighton and John D. MacDonald. Collect 'em all!

A Present from a Pal: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Here's a book given to me by my good friend and colleague Roly that, as Roly himself noted when he gave it to me, is neither scarce, nor valuable, nor indeed any edition or printing of note:


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, published in paperback by Penguin in the UK in 1981, although this is the reprint from the same year. The story behind it is, Roly and I were up in London following a meeting, and I was dragging him round the second hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road. In one of those, Roly spied this book, and mentioned it was brilliant and that I should read it. I, however, had the scent of first editions in my nostrils, so I pretty much ignored him and headed down to the basement to browse the shelves down there instead (I know, I'm a charmer aren't I?). When I came back up again, he was at the till, buying the book. He then turned around and handed it to me. Which was really rather sweet of him, and for which I've wanted to thank him properly ever since. So Roly, consider this post your (slightly public, possibly permanent) thank you.

True to form I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning on doing so very soon. I was actually vaguely aware of it before Roly gave it to me, as it cropped up in a book I worked on recently in my Ilex Press managing editor capacity – 500 Essential Cult Books. Turns out it was down to Roly that A Confederacy of Dunces made it into 500 Essential Cult Books in the first place – and that the entry on it was written by him. Cheeky blighter. Anyway, famously Toole committed suicide in 1969, despairing that he couldn't find a publisher for his only novel. A carbon copy of the manuscript was later discovered by his mother, who harangued author Walker Percy into reading it. Percy eventually did, and realised that it was a work of comic genius. He managed to get it published, and it subsequently won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and went on to sell in the millions.

The front cover illustration on this paperback is by Ed Lindlof, an art alumnus of the University of Texas who provided illustrations for a 1994 edition of Thomas Wolfe's The Lost Boy and a 2004 edition of Horacio Quiroga's The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. As for Roly, well he was also partly responsible for my buying the next book I'll be blogging about (probably later today), a book which should prove useful for a number of forthcoming posts...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Donald E. Westlake T.V. Boardman First Edition Book Cover Gallery (Featuring Denis McLoughlin)

Here in Britain, the initial eight novels Donald E. Westlake wrote under his own name, from 1960's The Mercenaries to 1966's The Spy in the Ointment, were all first published, in hardback, by T.V. Boardman, largely as part of that publisher's American Bloodhound Mystery series. All but one of those were graced by dustjackets designed by prolific comics artist and illustrator Denis McLoughlin, at the time effectively Boardman's art director (he produced something like 600 crime novel covers alone for them).

With the arrival of the Westlake Score I blogged about in the previous post, I now have half of those Boardman editions of Westlake's novels (UPDATE: make that seven eighths – follow The Mercenaries and 361 links), and I've managed to purloin pictures of the ones I'm missing. I'll update this post as and when (or even if) I track down the books I'm missing, but for now, here's an essentially complete gallery of the Donald E. Westlake T.V. Boardman first editions.


The Mercenaries, 1961 (1960 in the US), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughin. Note the use of a photograph of a hand; McLoughlin would deploy this photo-collage technique again on a later Westlake novel, The Busy Body.


Killing Time, 1962 (1961), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. This is the most traditionally illustrative of McLoughlin's Westlake jackets, but even here, the unusual placement of the title, with its bright red 'Killing' contrasting against the black and white illustration, and the resultant energy created across the cover, marks the design out.


361, 1962 (ditto), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. Again, the treatment of the title – that huge blue '361' – transforms what might have otherwise been a pedestrian design. In fact, the cover owes more to advertising of the period than it does to contemporaneous covers.


Killy, 1964 (1963), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. Here we can see McLoughlin's signature chiaroscuro/negative space/spot colour style in full effect, with Killy defined purely by his head, glimpses of his shirt, his hand, and that scarlet, stylized heart.


Pity Him Afterwards, 1965 (1964), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. A bold, bloody book cover, particularly for its time.


The Fugitive Pigeon, 1966 (1965), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin.


The Busy Body, 1966 (ditto), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin, here mixing up photography with illustration and typography, as on The Mercenaries. Neither this book nor the next (and final) Westlake novel Boardman published were assigned an American Bloodhound Mystery number, so presumably they're not a part of that series. Perhaps the comic turn Westlake's novels had taken didn't quite fit with the imprint's modus operandi.


The Spy in the Ointment, 1967 (1966). This was the last Westlake novel published by Boardman, and for once the dustjacket wasn't designed by Denis McLoughlin, most likely because by this point Boardman had been taken over and McLoughlin had begun drawing stories for IPC's boys' comics Lion, Thunder and Tiger. Instead, Boardman took the same jacket as was used for Random House's 1966 edition, which was designed by Martin Pickwick, about whom I've been able to discover precisely nothing; searching for his work online mostly turns up references to Charles Dickens, who wrote two novels that together successfully frustrate all Googling efforts: Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers. Damn you, Dickens!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Westlake Score: The Busy Body by Donald E. Westlake (Boardman First Edition)

When I don't have an overarching theme planned for Existential Ennui – which, for the next fortnight, I don't – I can think of no better way to begin the blogging week (Sunday is the start of the week, right?) than with a Westlake Score:


And it's another of the Donald E. Westlake novels published by British publisher T.V. Boardman, in this case the 1966 first edition hardback of The Busy Body. I blogged about the Westlake novel Boardman published before this one, 1965/'66's The Fugitive Pigeon, two weeks ago; unlike that book, however, The Busy Body wasn't published as part of Boardman's American Bloodhound Mystery series, so it's not numbered (although it does have the same drawing of a bloodhound smoking a pipe on the dustjacket spine; had Boardman simply given up on the numbering by this point?). But the ingenious jacket was once again designed by Boardman's art director, Denis McLoughlin, here mixing a cartoony style with photomontage. I wonder who the gentleman in the doorway holding the gun is...?

The Busy Body is the second of Westlake's crime caper novels, following The Fugitive Pigeon. This time, though, Westlake adopted the third person rather than the first, for a tale of murder, mystery and graverobbing – or rather, suit robbing. Because it's the task of middle-ranking mobster Aloysius Eugene Engel to dig up recently departed big shot mobster Charlie Brody and retrieve the suit he was buried in, which has heroin sewn into its lining.

And with the arrival of this copy of The Busy Body I reckon I've now got enough of the Westlake novels Boardman published to put together a Donald E. Westlake T.V. Boardman cover gallery (with the help of one or two 'borrowed' images), featuring some delightful Denis McLoughlin dustjackets. Coming right up in the next post...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Out on the Rim by Ross Thomas, and the Artie Wu / Quincy Durant Collection

I've got one more recently acquired book to show in this final Ross Thomas Week post, although I will be returning to Thomas; I'm reading his 1967 book Cast a Yellow Shadow at the moment, so I'll have a review of that before long, and there are still a fair few books in his back catalogue I've yet to track down. For now, though, there's this:


The 1987 UK hardback first edition of Out on the Rim, published by Century Hutchinson / Mysterious Press – two imprints that are no longer with us, both having been swallowed up by other publishers, although Mysterious Press will be getting a relaunch next year. Out on the Rim is the second of Thomas's trilogy of novels starring Artie Wu and Quincy Durant; I blogged about the first one, Chinaman's Chance, a couple of days ago, and I picked up a copy of the third, Voodoo, Ltd., at the last Lewes Book Fair. So now I have all three:


On the strength of the completely brilliant Chinaman's Chance, I'm really looking forward to reading Out on the Rim, which is about an attempt to misappropriate $5 million from a Philippines rebel group. I can't tell you who designed the dustjacket this time out as there's no credit, but I do sort of prefer it to the American first edition:


And that is about that for Ross Thomas Week. Next week, and probably the week after too, it's back to mixed bag blogging. There'll be a bit of Donald E. Westlake business, including a Parker Progress Report, this time reviewing Slayground, plus a Westlake Score or two, one of them featuring a never-before-seen-on-the-'net (at least, as far as I'm aware) Richard Stark cover. There'll be at least one Notes from the Small Press. I'll be returning to Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro novels, with a look at the latest one, Moonlight Mile, and how Lehane's new UK publisher is handling the publicity for the book. There'll be that Beverley le Barrow James Bond cover gallery I promised, and some Lewes Book Bargains, and stuff from John le Carre, and Lee Child, and Kingsley Amis, and Francis Clifford, and who knows what else.

That's all in the future though. For right now, I'm off to hospital to have a camera shoved down my throat. Brilliant. Wish me luck. And see you on the other side...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Two More by Ross Thomas: Missionary Stew and Briarpatch (Hamish Hamilton First Editions)

And so as we cling for dear life to the literary sled hurtling down the snowbound slope (what the...?) that is Ross Thomas Week, we holler a cheery "Happy Thanksgiving!" to our American friends as we whistle past them, picking up speed as we careen ever closer to the end. And with the finish line so firmly in our sights (oh for Christ's sake, get on with it...), today we have two books in a single post instead of the traditional one. Both are among Ross Thomas's better known novels, and the first of them is this:


A 1984 UK hardback first edition of Missionary Stew, published by Hamish Hamilton (originally published in the US in 1983 by Simon & Schuster). Notoriously, the opening chapter of this one sees a character becoming an unwitting cannibal; for more on the story go read Ed Gorman's review right here, and also perhaps have a look at this short piece on Thomas, which I've probably linked to before, but which has lots of testimonials in the comments section singing the praises of both Missionary Stew and other Thomas tomes.

I got this copy of Missionary Stew for the ridiculous price of 95p, taking a punt on a copy from an Amazon dealer that turned out to be in near fine condition. Result. Sadly, by this juncture in Ross Thomas's UK publishing history, the days of Beverley le Barrow cover photos were long gone. Instead, Hamilton turned to Pat Doyle for the design of Missionary Stew's dustjacket. I haven't been able to find out anything about Pat, besides chancing upon a couple of other random covers he designed, including one for the UK Gollancz first edition of John Crowley's fantasy novel Little, Big, but by the looks of that decidedly barren Missionary Stew back cover he was either an advocate of the minimalist school of design or Hamish Hamilton only paid him half his fee. However, I do have to hand one other example of his work, which, funnily enough, is this:


The UK hardback first edition of Briarpatch, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1985 (originally Simon & Schuster in the States in 1984). Yep, that's a Pat Doyle cover too, and a much more successful effort I'd say than his Missionary Stew jacket. I like the treatment of the title, set into the barbed wire fence like that. Nicely done. The story centres on Benjamin Dill's efforts to investigate the brutal murder of his sister, a complex and thorny quest featuring a thoroughly Thomassian cast of greedy politicians, corrupt cops, petty criminals and scheming friends and family members. 

Briarpatch won the 1985 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and in 2002 Orion in the UK picked it up for inclusion in their Crime Masterworks line, alongside Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Jim Thompson's The Getaway and, latterly, Gavin Lyall's Midnight Plus One. So it's in exceedingly good company. This Hamilton edition is pretty scarce; there are only four copies listed on AbeBooks – only one of those from a UK seller, and that's an ex-library copy – and another three on on Amazon UK Marketplace, again mostly ex-library.

Just one more book to go now in Ross Thomas Week...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Mordida Man by Ross Thomas: From Simon & Schuster First Edition Hardcover to Penguin Paperback

Something slightly unusual for this latest post in Ross Thomas Week. It's unusual in that it's an American first edition of one of Thomas's novels, and ordinarily on Existential Ennui I tend to witter on about British first editions; and it's unusual in that it's a one-of-a-kind copy of that American edition, offering a unique insight into a bygone era of publishing. The novel in question is this:


The Mordida Man, published in hardback by Simon & Schuster in 1981. It's a political caper revolving around the kidnapping of the American President's brother and the efforts of the eponymous Mordida Man, a.k.a. ex-congressman, ex-UN representative, expatriate and expert in the art of bribery – hence the "Mordida", which is Spanish for "bribe" – Chubb Dunjee, to recover him; there's a short overview of the novel here. The dustjacket of this US edition was designed by Janet Halverson, and for once someone else has done my work for me: there's a rather excellent visual guide to her covers right here. Which is all to the good, because it leaves me free to explore this particular copy's other, more peculiar aspects...

I came across this copy of The Mordida Man during the epic internet big game – or rather big book – hunt that resulted in most of the Ross Thomas books I'm showing this week. As with those other books, I was initially searching for a reasonably priced UK first edition. But I saw this US copy listed online, and an element of the listing caught my eye (well, that and the fact it was only three quid). The seller mentioned that a few of the early pages in the book had pencil notes on them. Nothing out of the ordinary there: students, scholars and other assorted loonies often scrawl notes in books, and at least in this case the notes were in pencil, not pen. But the seller went on to state that the notes were made by an editor at the book publisher Penguin.

That got me intrigued. Naturally I bought the book, and once I had it in my hands, I realised what it was: it's the copy of the 1981 US first edition that an editor at Penguin UK used to mark up the changes to be made for the 1983 UK paperback edition. Evidently a file copy of the book was sent by Simon & Schuster US to Penguin UK once Penguin picked up the UK paperback rights, so that Penguin could see what alterations they'd need to make for their edition; an editor at Penguin then physically wrote on the book, and that would have been sent to the typesetter/printer as a guide. Nowadays, of course, digital files would simply have been sent from S&S to Penguin and then to the printer, but this was the early '80s, before email and the internet, and before computers were even in wide use in offices.

So in the first instance, Penguin would obviously need to get rid of any Simon & Schuster logos in the prelims (i.e. preliminary matter – the stuff at the front of every book):


The line through the logo basically means "delete", and the "Take Penguin prelims" is an instruction to drop in the standard Penguin preliminary matter. Penguin also might only wish to list the Ross Thomas books previously published by them, rather than all of Thomas's books, so his complete backlist up to this point would need to be excised:


The title page – or rather title spread in this case – which again has Simon & Schuster's logo and also their name on it, would have to go:


On the next spread, the Simon & Schuster copyright info would be deleted, and then we're into the changes that need to be made to the meat of the book:


On that right hand page, in the top right corner, you can see the instruction for how much space there should be at the top of every page. In publishing, the height of type and vertical spaces is measured in points; a "pica" is the standard unit of typographic measurement, and is equivalent to twelve points. So "33/4 pica head margin to normal text start thr'out" tells the printer/typesetter how much space to leave at the top of each page throughout the book. Next to that is an instruction for "Chapter numbers to be in different typeface thr'out", which is fairly self-explanatory, and then circled is "layout & repro supplied", which means the printer already has the files for the book.

"23/4 pica back margin thr'out" is a similar instruction to the one at the top of the page, except here it tells how much space to leave so that text doesn't disappear into the gutter, i.e. where the pages are glued to the inner spine; in paperbacks in particular you really don't want text running too close to the gutter, otherwise you won't be able to read it without folding the pages back too far and cracking the spine.

At the bottom of the page we have an instruction on how much space to leave between the bottom of the text and the page number, or folio: "8pt" is eight points; the hash sign means insert a space; and "thr'out" means... yeah, you're way ahead of me there. And "refolio" simply means renumber the pages, so that instead of this being page 9, as it is in the Simon & Schuster edition, it will become page 5 instead.

Most of the major changes have been accounted for by this point, but there are still one or two things to fix. On the next spread:


There's another instruction on how much space to leave between the text block and the folio, and there's a curious note on the facing page, which might be somewhat baffling, but is straightforward once you understand publishing lingo. It says, "[squiggle] all r/heads", and points to the "THE MORDIDA MAN" and "ROSS THOMAS" text at the bottom of the pages. What that means is to get rid of that text. The squiggle is the proofing shorthand for "delete", while "r/heads" denotes "running heads" – i.e. the title and author name at the bottom of each page. So it simply means, "delete all running heads".

Finally, later in the book there are a few more notes concerning the chapter numbers:


Clearly Penguin weren't keen on the way the in the Simon & Schuster edition the chapter numbers stacked on top of each other once they reached double figures. And that's pretty much it, apart from noting one thing that hasn't been marked up for changing: the American spelling. Seems that even back in the 1980s, UK publishers had largely given up changing American spelling to English spelling.

So there you have it. Hopefully that wasn't too tedious. I don't know how this copy of The Mordida Man ended up in the hands of a second hand bookseller – presumably Penguin and/or the printer had no more need of it once the Penguin paperback edition had been produced – but it's a little piece of publishing history, so I'm glad it did... even if I have thoroughly bored any hardy readers who've made it this far as a result. Never mind. Next up in Ross Thomas Week it's a double-header of a post, so maybe that'll liven things up a bit.

Then again...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Book Review: Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas, and a Bit More on Beverley le Barrow

So then, before we get to Chinaman's Chance's story, let's have a look at that dustjacket I promised for this 1978 Hamish Hamilton hardback first British edition:


Give that cover a click so you can see it larger. There we go. Isn't it a thing of wonder?

As with the 1979 Hamilton edition of The Eighth Dwarf – and indeed the Hamilton editions of The Money Harvest and Yellow-Dog Contract – it's credited to Beverly Lebarrow – or rather Beverley le Barrow, as seems to be the correct spelling of her name... which begs the question, why did Hamilton persist in misspelling it? But anyway...

In fact, as with most of the Hamilton Ross Thomas editions, Beverley is only credited with the photography on this cover (the exception is Hamilton's 1977 edition of Yellow-Dog Contract, where she's credited with the full dustjacket design – presumably because of the text placement on that particular cover). That choice of a red bar under the title and author name presumably wasn't hers, then, but it only further serves to beautifully anchor the book in a very particular time. And if Beverley's cover for The Eighth Dwarf was a belligerently literal interpretation of that novel's title, then her photograph for Chinaman's Chance is even more brilliantly bald. It's also a fine addition to what's fast becoming a spectacular gallery of Beverley le Barrow barnstormers:


And the first person to put names to the two actors adorning the covers of Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf – at least I think they're actors; I recognise them both from somewhere – wins a prize.

So, to the novel itself, which is quite simply one of the best books I've read this year. As with The Porkchoppers and The Cold War Swap, it's the characters that are the thing here. The plot is certainly engagingly convoluted, involving mob action in an American west coast town, the death of a congressman, the disappearance of a folk singer, two million dollars, and all manner of other gubbins besides. But the main attractions are friends and partners Artie Wu – the titular cover star – and Quincy Durant and their accompanying cast of grifters, politicos, CIA agents, mobsters, and assorted music biz types.

Wu and Durant are brilliant creations, the former an ebullient, overweight, cigar-smoking schemer with a Scottish wife, four kids and a firm belief that he's destined to be Emperor of China; the latter a reserved loner with mysterious scars on his back, a burden that's in danger of bringing him down and a way with making first rate coffee. They're on the make, but also out to make up for past mistakes, and as they go about their business in the corrupt town of Pelican City – ostensibly attempting to find missing folk singer Silk Armitage, although there's a lot more going on than that – they reel in a succession of shady types, both friend and foe.

On the friend side there's hardluck gambler Eddie McBride and mover and shaker Otherguy Overby, who got his name from never being left holding the bag (it was always "some other guy"). On the foe side there's low rent mobster Solly Gesini and shady tycoon-with-a-past Reginald Simms. And in-between are an assortment of cops, barflies, hookers and hangers-on, all equally well-drawn and well-rounded, no matter how small a part they play. It's evident from the off that not everyone will make it out the other side of the novel in one piece, but it's to Thomas's enormous credit that you really feel the loss of those that don't escape unscathed, no matter which side they're fighting for.

Chinaman's Chance is one of those novels you just don't want to end, such splendid company are the characters, in particular Artie and, in a quieter but perhaps more affecting way, Quincy. Because while Wu is the more obviously entertaining creation, the damaged Durant ultimately gets further under your skin. Luckily, Thomas wrote a further two books starring the two friends, 1987's Out on the Rim and 1992's Voodoo, Ltd., so I've still got those to look forward to.

In the meantime, next in Ross Thomas Week I'll be taking a peek behind the scenes at how the editorial staff at Penguin went about creating their paperback edition of Thomas's 1981 novel, The Mordida Man. Exciting stuff and no mistake.

The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas (Hamish Hamilton First Edition) and a Bit on Beverley le Barrow

An admission: at the beginning of Ross Thomas Week, I stated that I'd be blogging about the Ross Thomas books I have to show you in the order they were originally published. And when I wrote that first post, I had every intention of doing just that. Unfortunately it seems I'm not as fast a reader as I thought I was, because I haven't quite finished reading the Ross Thomas book I should really – chronologically speaking, that is – be blogging about right now – i.e. 1978's Chinaman's Chance – and I'd like to be able to discuss that particular book in reasonable depth as well as bang on about its cover design etc. So instead I'm skipping ahead to the next book in Thomas' oeuvre – again, chronologically speaking – which is this:


A UK hardback first edition of The Eighth Dwarf, published under that utterly glorious dustjacket by Hamish Hamilton in the UK in 1979 (published the same year by Simon & Schuster in the US). Now, I should point out before you get the wrong idea that I haven't read this post-World War II-set espionage thriller yet. But that magnificent cover promises such sublime delights. I mean, just look at that dustjacket photograph. Truly, there's some kind of blunt, twisted cover design genius at work here. On the one hand, when it comes to cover design, there is a good and valid argument for a literal approach, for a straightforward interpretation of a book's title or subject matter on a cover. And on the other hand... there's taking a photo of a dwarf and sticking that on the front.

The lunatic intellect behind the dustjacket design of The Eighth Dwarf is, of course, '70s glam photographer Beverley le Barrow, whose work I spotlighted in this post last week and this post last month, and who I've become slightly obsessed with. And not even in an ironic way, either (well, not entirely). Usually I much prefer illustrated or painted covers on the old books I buy, but I genuinely admire the brazen obviousness of Beverley's photos. I applaud her chutzpah. I like the cut of her jib.

In the '70s Hamish Hamilton editions of Ross Thomas' books, Beverley le Barrow is always credited as Beverly (no era 'e') Lebarrow (one word), but in pretty much every other book I've seen her work on, not to mention online, she's credited as Beverley le Barrow, so I think that one's correct. I'll have a post on the James Bond covers she created for Panther in the late 1970s soon, but for now, take a moment to click on that Eighth Dwarf cover and admire it a while, and then join me again later today. Because if you like this one, just wait till you get a load of what's coming next.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas (Hamish Hamilton First Edition), Bernard Higton, the First Things First Manifesto, an Unlikely Lewes Connection, and a Review

For this second post in Ross Thomas Week – which is, you'll be amazed to hear, a week of posts about the American crime/espionage/you-name-it-he-wrote-it author Ross Thomas – we have the UK hardback first edition of his 1972 novel, The Porkchoppers:


The Porkchoppers wasn't published until 1974 in the UK, by Hamish Hamilton, who took over the UK rights from Hodder & Stoughton following 1971's The Backup Men. So in the UK, for whatever reason – possibly contractual negotiations – there was an unintentional three year gap between Ross Thomas books. Unlike Hodder, whose dustjacket designs for Thomas' books were all over the place, Hamilton brought more of a standardized look to the author's jackets, opting for photographic covers with an unfussy font treatment. Most of the Thomas novels Hamilton published in the '70s had jackets by Beverley le Barrow, who I'll be returning to in the next couple of posts, but The Porkchoppers jacket was designed by one Bernard Higton... and it turns out there's an unexpected connection between he and me.

Y'see, during the course of my exhaustive research for this post (ahem) I discovered that there's a firm called Bernard Higton Design based here in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live and work. Of course, that didn't mean it was the same Bernard Higton... but I figured, how many designers called Bernard Higton could there be? So I did some more digging, and found that Higton was part of a loose collective of designers in Britain in the 1960s who came up with a manifesto for what they thought design should be doing. The document they drew up was called First Things First 1964, and it caused quite a stir. It was a reaction against consumerism and what the group believed was an overwhelming onslaught of advertising; they advocated instead that design should be used for less avaricious ends, such as signs, books, periodicals and education. In 1999 a new group of designers took up the cause and published an updated First Things First 2000 manifesto in anti-commercial magazine AdBusters.

All of which was quite interesting, but didn't answer my question about whether the Bernard Higton in Lewes was the same one who designed the Porkchoppers jacket. So I carried on digging, and started turning up books that Higton had designed and indeed edited – some fine '60s and '70s dustjackets for Hamilton and Pelican and Joseph; some children's books; and some illustrated books too. And then I discovered a listing for a book designed by Higton and published by The Ivy Press... which is one of the imprints of the Lewes-based publisher I work for (the bit I work for is called The Ilex Press). That seemed to confirm it. I had a look on the shelves for the book in question, and then I thought, maybe it'll be quicker if I ask an Ivy colleague about Higton, see if they can recall the book in question.

So I did. And it turns out Bernard worked on loads of Ivy books. In fact, he's an old friend of the creative director of the Ivy Group... and he used to have his studio in the very building I now work in.

So there you have it: my very own Ross Thomas Six Degrees of Separation story. Publishing can be a small world sometimes...

Anyway, I do like that Hamilton Porkchoppers jacket, and it's an apt cover for the book. My learned friend Olman Feelyus has a review of the novel here; prior to my reading The Porkchoppers Olman and I had been having a little back-and-forth in the comments on each of our blogs over the similarity or otherwise of Ross Thomas to Raymond Chandler. At that point, the only Thomas book I'd read was his debut, The Cold War Swap, which is a world-weary first-person espionage tale which owes a definite debt to Chandler; meanwhile the only Thomas book Olman had read was The Porkchoppers, which is a lively third-person examination of a labour union election and which, er, doesn't. The two novels couldn't be more different. Consequently, while the Chandler comparison made sense to me, to Olman it just seemed utterly wrongheaded.

And having now read The Porkchoppers, I can see where he was coming from. In The Cold War Swap, Thomas inhabits the cynical persona of saloon owner Mac McCorkle so completely that it came as quite a surprise to read the breezy third-person prose of The Porkchoppers. There's something breathless and pacey about The Porkchoppers, with a succession of outlandish characters – union boss and frustrated actor Donald Cubbin; pretender to the throne and epic crybaby Sammy Hanks; supermarket shelf-stacker and part-time assassin Truman Goff – wheeled out and paraded around like they're carnival freaks. But each of them is so well drawn that you end up rooting for them all, despite their foibles and failings and the horrible things they do to each other.

Thomas clearly took a dim view of politics and unionism, and in lesser hands this tale of an attempt to steal an election might have come off as unbearably misanthropic. But the characters and their interactions save it from itself, injecting humour and warmth into the proceedings. For although the devious machinations of the players and the denouement are as pessimistic as you'd expect, it's all leavened by the evident joy Thomas took in crafting bizarre yet believable people and turning them loose on each other. They may be mostly out to do each other in, but they're never less than brilliant company, and in the end you genuinely feel for them as they each meet their fate.

The Porkchoppers really is a terrific novel. But the next book I'll be reviewing in Ross Thomas Week is even better...