Monday, 31 January 2011

Rabe in Hardback: My Lovely Executioner by Peter Rabe (Herbert Jenkins)

Right, this really is the final entry in what has become, thanks to the arrival of a couple of books I'd written off as lost forever, a slightly extended series of posts on cult American crime writer Peter Rabe. And today I've got a scarce copy of one of the very few of Rabe's novels – just two in his lifetime – that made it into hardback:

This is the UK hardback edition of My Lovely Executioner, published by Herbert Jenkins in 1967. As I detailed in this post, the only other Rabe novel to be published in hardback during his lifetime was Anatomy of a Killer, which was published straight to hardback in 1960. My Lovely Executioner is a little different, however. It was initially published by Gold Medal in the US in 1960, in their usual paperback format; I wrote about that edition here. So it wasn't until seven years later that Jenkins picked it up for US publication. I don't know why they chose that particular Rabe story, but it might be because it's one of the few – possibly the only – he wrote in the first person.

It certainly wasn't unusual for Jenkins to publish American crime novels well after their US debut. The publisher made something of a habit of it in the 1960s, although out of all the authors they picked – Day Keene, Bruce Sanders, etc. – the only one I recognised was Rabe. They also had an... interesting approach to cover design. The dustjacket illustration on My Lovely Executioner is signed 'Phillips', and while I haven't been able to find out anything about the artist, the fact that I also own the earlier Gold Medal paperback means I have been able to do a little comparison:

Yep, the mysterious Mr. Phillips has essentially sketched a pen and ink version of the original seemingly photographic cover (turning the thick, forbidding drapes into lovely soft bath towelling in the process – mmm, snuggly...). I'll have another Herbert Jenkins hardback edition of an American crime novel fairly soon, so we'll see how Mr. Phillips handled that one.

The jacket flap blurb differs from the copy on the back of the Gold Medal edition too, although in both cases the copywriter has adopted the first person narrative of the novel to draft their own words. Here's the Gold Medal back cover:

And here's what the Herbert Jenkins edition has to say:

Three weeks . . . That was all. Just three more weeks and I'd have walked through the prison gates the legitimate way, with my seven-year sentence completed and the chance for some sort of life ahead of me. But Rand had planned a jail break, and when the time came he took me with him—by force.


That's what I couldn't understand. What was it he thought I knew? And where was it supposed to lead? Whatever it was, it had to be something really big because there was highly efficient organisation behind the getaway.

It was the perfect escape—from one prison to another. Only this time my cell was a luxury apartment and my warders were hardened killers who would dispose of me just as soon as I'd served their purpose. Whichever way the ball bounced I could only be the loser, and all I could do was play desperately for time.

Not the least of my problems was the beautiful girl called Jessie. Was she my fellow-prisoner, my jailer . . . or my executioner?

Nice play on the title of the novel at the end there. Except of course, famously almost all of Peter Rabe's novels were either clumsily retitled by Gold Medal or Rabe didn't even bother titling them in the first place. So our copywriter is playing on a title that probably wasn't assigned by the author of the book. Never mind, eh?

Saturday, 29 January 2011

A Peter Rabe Postscript: Time Enough to Die and My Lovely Executioner Finally Arrive

Would you Adam and Eve it. No sooner had I dotted the 'i's, crossed the 't's and drawn a line under my week of posts dedicated to Peter Rabe, but the two Rabe books which I had a moan about going missing in the post finally turned up, three months after I ordered them. And here they are:

On the left is the UK 1961 printing of the 1959 US Gold Medal paperback of Time Enough to Die, the final Daniel Port novel, and on the right is the 1967 UK Herbert Jenkins hardback edition of My Lovely Executioner. I'll be posting something about that second one – which is one of only two Rabe novels to be published in hardback in his lifetime – soon enough, but in the meantime, I've now updated this Daniel Port cover gallery with the back cover for Time Enough to Die. Thrilling stuff, eh? As to why I ordered these books from New Zealand of all places, well, it was the only seller who had copies of both. There are no copies of Time Enough to Die available from UK sellers online, and as for the hardback of My Lovely Executioner, there are only three other copies for sale anywhere on the web. One of those I know has a soiled, rather poor dustjacket, and the other two are forty and fifty quid. So that's why.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Last of the Lewes British Bookshops? Plus Nigel Williams, Cecil Court Bookseller RIP

Couple of sad stories to end the working week. I blogged last week about the book and stationery chain British Bookshops and how it went into administration a couple of weeks back. Well I've just popped up the road to the Lewes branch and there are posters in the windows advertising a closing down sale, with a fair old scrum at the tills of queues of people grabbing discounted cards and books. Now, this may not be the end of the story – the Worthing branch has identical posters in its windows, and yet the administrator is still insisting the chain will continue to trade, and that they're only "using existing signage to ensure there is greater footfall". So it could simply be a case of misleading advertising. But you have to admit, having "closing down" signs in yer windows doesn't exactly engender faith in the future of a company – and it can't be pleasant for the poor buggers who work in the shops, either. I'll keep an eye on how this one develops.

UPDATE 1: Just got a report from a friend that the Burgess Hill branch of British Bookshops is practically stripping the walls bare as the stock goes. Not a promising sign...

UPDATE 2, 8/2/11: Well, it looks as if the Lewes branch of British Bookshops – and a further twenty-one stores – are safe: WH Smith have acquired a big chunk of the chain. The Bookseller story I linked to there has a list of all the other shops that WH Smith have bought, most of which will continue to trade under the British Bookshops name, and it reports that 200 jobs will be saved. So some good news at last, although it's tempered by the fact that there are still twenty-nine British Bookshops branches whose fate is undecided.

On an unrelated note, earlier this week I learned about the death of second hand bookseller Nigel Williams, who passed away on Christmas Eve at the terribly young age of forty-eight. I didn't know Nigel at all, but his shop in London's Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road, is one of my favourite places to go and browse and occasionally buy first editions (I wrote about it here). I was up there just the other weekend and was surprised to find it closed. Now I know why. I've spent many a happy half hour in the basement of Nigel Williams Rare Books, gazing at the impressive collection of modern firsts – among them a splendid selection of crime and genre titles – so it was sad to hear of his passing. Hopefully his shop will live on, because it really is a wonderful place to visit. In any case, and for what it's worth, my condolences to his family and friends.

UPDATE 3, 1/4/11: Sadly, I believe Nigel Williams Rare Books did, in the end, close for good; the link above no longer works, and the shop is no longer listed either on the The Book Guide or on Cecil Court's website. A shame, but understandable. I'll miss the place.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Rabe in Hardback: Anatomy of a Killer by Peter Rabe (Abelard-Schuman, John Sewell Cover), and its Influence on Richard Stark / Parker

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker.

Back at the start of this series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, I mentioned that Rabe is the uncrowned king of the pulpy paperback novel. Like John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson, the paperback was both Rabe's natural home and a format that sidelined him unfairly. Because, also like MacDonald and Thompson and a select few others, while the paperback format seemed to suit his stories of gangsters and bad men and lowlifes, Rabe's writing was a cut above that of his fellow softback hacks.

MacDonald and Thompson both had novels published in hardback in their lifetimes, however. Only a handful in Thompson's case, mostly at the beginning of his career, but that's still more than Rabe. Peter Rabe only made it into hardback three times in his lifetime (and, I think, only once after he died, thus far anyway). The first time was in 1955, when Vanguard in the US and Frederick Muller in the UK published his little-remarked-upon non-fiction title From Here to Maternity, a humorous look at the birth of his first son, complete with line drawings by the author. The last time was in 1967, when Herbert Jenkins in the UK issued a hardback of his earlier Gold Medal paperback My Lovely Executioner; I was hoping to be able to show the Herbert Jenkins edition, but like the paperback of Time Enough to Die I mentioned yesterday, the copy I ordered has vanished in the post.

I can, however, show you the book published in-between those two, the only novel of Rabe's to be issued straight to hardback in his lifetime:

Anatomy of a Killer was published by Abelard-Schuman simultaneously in the US, the UK and Canada in 1960. According to George Tuttle's interview with Peter Rabe, the story was, like The Cut of the Whip, rejected by Gold Medal, Rabe's usual publisher, so Abelard-Schuman, who were a British publisher, picked it up instead. The plot concerns Sam Jordan, a professional killer who, as the dustjacket flap blurb has it...

...[had] honed his nerves down to a fine, taut edge and turned himself into a ruthless precision machine for killing—a cold-blooded automaton who dealt out controlled violence. He had this trick on a job of splitting himself in two—head over here, guts over there in a box—and that way everything went off smoothly and efficiently. That way there were no feelings, because Jordan couldn't afford them.

Hmm... "A ruthless precision machine... a cold-blooded automaton... no feelings..." Now who does that remind you of? Could it be Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's character Parker? I've written about the similarities between Rabe's work and Westlake's before, and how Rabe's writing – and in particular his Daniel Port novels – influenced Westlake enormously. But it's possible that Anatomy of a Killer exerted the biggest influence of all. It was published just a couple of years before Parker debuted in The Hunter, and Westlake himself said of the novel, "Anatomy of a Killer is as cold and clean as a knife... a terrific book." But I think the strongest evidence comes from the opening scene in the book, which begins exactly like a Parker novel, even down to starting with a "when":

When he was done in the room he stepped away quickly because the other man was falling his way. He moved fast and well and when he was out in the corridor he pulled the door shut behind him. Sam Jordan's speed had nothing to do with haste but came from perfection.

The door went so far and then held back with a slight give. It did not close. On the floor, between the door and the frame, was the arm.

He relaxed immediately but his motion was interrupted because he had to turn towards the end of the hall. The old woman had not stepped all the way out of her room. She was stretching her neck past the door jamb and looking at him. "Did you hear a noise just now?"

"Yes." He walked toward her, which was natural, because the stair well was that way. "on the street," he said. "One of those hotrods."

"Did you just come from Mister Vendo's room?"


"Was he in? I mean, I wonder if he heard it."

"Yes. He's in, and he heard it."

Jordan walked by the old woman and started down the stairs. She shook her head and said, "That racket. They're just like wild animals, the way they're driving," and went back into her room.

He turned when her door shut and walked back down the hallway. This was necessary and therefore automatic. He did not feel like a wild animal. He did his job with all the job habits smooth. When he was back at the door he looked down at the arm, but then did nothing else. He stood there with his hand on the door knob and did nothing.

The terse dialogue, the short, plain, sentences: that's a Parker in all but name. Stark House Press brought Anatomy of a Killer back into print in 2008 as a double-novel with A Shroud for Jesso, so should you wish to make your own Parker comparisons, you don't have to go to the trouble of getting an expensive (anything from thirty to a hundred quid for a nice copy) first edition to do so.

The dustjacket on the Abelard-Schuman edition was designed by the late John Sewell, who was rather an interesting man in his own right. He created quite a lot of covers for Penguin, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon. He also made short films. In 1954 he became the first graphic designer to be recruited by the BBC, and headed up a whole department creating screen graphics in the 1950s, although little of his work survives. There's an appreciation of his book cover work on this blog. His jacket for Anatomy of a Killer is typical of his scratchy illustration and cut-up design style; it certainly makes a change from the more lurid efforts on the Gold Medal paperbacks of Rabe's novels.

And that's about it for this series of posts on Peter Rabe – at least until the two books I ordered that have gone AWOL turn up, anyway.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Peter Rabe Daniel Port Gold Medal / Ace Paperback Cover Gallery

Following on from yesterday's post on cult crime author Peter Rabe's novel The Out is Death, which, as we all know (if we've been paying attention, that is), stars Rabe's occasional antihero Daniel Port, today I'm posting a Daniel Port cover gallery, featuring the original American covers (or in some cases the British printings) for all six books in the loose series. But as is often the way with best laid plans – and I have been planning this gallery for quite a while – there's a slight drawback: I don't have all six books. I figured I would by now, but unfortunately the final book in the series, Time Enough to Die, is either lost somewhere in the various postal systems between New Zealand – from where it was ordered – and Lewes – where it was supposed to arrive well over a month ago – or in the hands of an evil wayward postal worker, who has purloined it for their own reading pleasure, the git. So basically, I'm a Port short.

UPDATE: At least, I was a Port short when I originally posted this. But as trumpeted here, that missing book arrived a couple of days later. So now we really can sally forth and get this show on the road, beginning with:

Dig My Grave Deep, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1956, although seen here is the UK printing from 1957, published by Frederick Muller. Muller picked up countless Gold Medal titles for publication in Britain from the mid-'50s through to the mid-'60s, usually issuing them a year or two after their US debut with only minor changes to the covers – a British price instead of an American one – and the copyright page. Essentially, though, they're the same as the US editions. The cover artist is Lu Kimmell, whose painterly, naturalistic work graced many a Gold Medal, not to mention a good number of Signet editions of Mickey Spillane novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, etc.). I've got a wee bit more about Dig My Grave Deep here, and there's a 1001 Midnights/Mystery File review here. Next:

The Out is Death, as featured yesterday, although I've just noticed that the estimable Wallace Stroby has a few words on it too. This second Port story was published in the US by Gold Medal in 1957, but again, the edition seen above is the Muller one from 1959. Mitchell Hooks is the cover artist here, and there's an excellent appreciation of his work on the Today's Inspiration blog. And also published in the US in '57 and the UK in '59 was this:

It's My Funeral, the third Port novel. This one's a fairly recent acquisition, so plot-wise all I've got to go on is the back cover copy and a page one excerpt which details Port's efforts to unhook a bra. You can see the audience the publisher was aiming at... The cover also sets its sights firmly on the sleazier end of the paperback market, but it's a striking piece, the naked blonde almost forming a cut-out negative shape on the abstract red and black floor. It's by Jack Floherty, Jr. sometimes credited as John Floherty, Jr., and bizarrely – and presumably mistakenly – credited as Jack Floberty, Jr. inside the book itself. There's a short bio for him here. I think this is my favourite of the Port covers. It's certainly snazzier than this next one:

The Cut of the Whip was published in the States not by Gold Medal but by Ace in 1958. As you can see it was published as one of Ace's Double Novels, with Robert H. Kelston's Kill One, Kill Two on the flipside – I wrote a bit about Ace doubles, and about The Cut of the Whip, here. The cover art on the Rabe side is by Bernard Barton, who's a bugger to Google as there's a well known poet with the same name. But even given that, there doesn't seem to be much online about him, although he did do a number of other covers for Ace, including this Sam Dakkers tale. He may also have had a thing for really massive women. The Cut of the Whip was published by Ace because Gold Medal rejected it, but Daniel Port returned to Gold Medal for his next outing:

Bring Me Another Corpse, the fifth Port novel, published in the US in 1959 (1960 UK Muller printing seen above). The plot places Port front and centre as the target of a killer, but I can't tell you who the cover art is by, possibly because it's a photo, not an illustration. It does look kind of photographic, but not as photographic as the cover for Port's final appearance:

Time Enough to Die was once again published by Gold Medal in 1959 (1961 in the UK by Muller), with a cover that reminds me of a Soho peep show (not that I've ever frequented such a place). It's set in Mexico, and Peter Rabe intended it as a new beginning for Port. As it turned out, it was quite the opposite, and the series ended here, leaving Port south of the border, perhaps living out the rest of his life drinking cold coffee and whistling Mexican ditties to himself.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Book Review: The Out is Death by Peter Rabe (A Daniel Port Novel)

Continuing this week-long series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, I thought I'd cast a reasonably critical eye over the second in Rabe's loose series of novels starring one-time hood Daniel Port, partly because reviews of Rabe's books seem to be few and far between online, and partly because, well, I read it quite recently. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason as any.

Daniel Port debuted in 1956's Dig My Grave Deep, which detailed his efforts to extricate himself from the clutches of a New York district racket, and ended with him heading off to start a new mob-free life. The Out is Death – published in the US in 1957 by Gold Medal, although the edition seen here is the 1959 UK Frederick Muller printing – doesn't so much pick up Port's story as drop him into someone else's, that of ailing heister Abe Dalton. Fresh out of jail, Dalton is being squeezed by gangster Dicky Corday into undertaking one more job. But Dalton is ill, and doesn't want to die in jail. Enter Dalton's old friend Port, who takes on the task of getting Dalton out from under Corday's boot heel.

Whereas Dig My Grave Deep was all about Port's efforts to leave the criminal life behind, here he's trying to do the same for a friend, a quest that involves intermittent negotiation, bursts of brutality and eventually blackmail. Port is a pragmatist, reluctant to resort to violence but willing to do so to further his aims. He's also an operator who can still call on contacts and favours in his efforts to aid Dalton. But how much more there is to Port beyond that is open to debate. Even after two books I'm still not sure I've got a handle on him. Rabe gives him a couple of quirks – a penchant for cold coffee; a tendency to whistle when nervous – both of which are holdovers from Dig My Grave Deep. But other than those and an abiding competence and confidence, he's an enigma. Mind you, that's no bad thing: Richard Stark managed to sustain an entire series despite revealing even less about his character, Parker.

Another similarity with Stark, who clearly learned a trick or two from Rabe, is the way Port's co-stars are much more colourful than he: the doomed, weary Dalton; the leering, infantile Dicky; Dicky's unfortunate girlfriend, Letty, who has a fairly awful time of it in this book; and in particular one minor yet crucial character, a woman who could provide the alibi for Dalton that would negate Dicky's hold over him – if only it wouldn't destroy her marriage in the process. Her name is Eve Simmon, and her story, recounted to Port after he attempts to get her to help Dalton, is heartbreaking and very real. The four pages where she details her poverty-stricken, increasingly nightmarish upbringing and the brief role Dalton played in lifting her out of a horrendous situation are the emotional core of the novel.

This is where Rabe excels: in his depiction of desperate people faced either with dreadful choices or no choice at all. And that, on reflection, offers a further clue as to Port's make-up: his appearance in the lives of these characters does not, for the most part, improve them in any way. He's no hero: he's just a fallible man who thinks he can do some good, but only ends up making things worse. In other words, and if you'll pardon the terrible pun, he's one Port you wouldn't turn to in a storm.

Monday, 24 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: Benny Muscles In by Peter Rabe (Five Star Paperback)

For the third in this Run of Rabes – basically three Peter Rabe books I bought on eBay, which I'm posting as part of a week's worth of Peter Rabe blogging – we have this:

Benny Muscles In was Peter Rabe's second novel, originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1955. It's the story of Benny Tapkow, a hoodlum running rackets in a New York territory, and how he claws his way to the top of the pile before being brought low by a woman and her habit. This edition, however, isn't the Gold Medal one; it's a later UK Five Star edition from 1973, with a different (uncredited) cover.

Five Star published a handful of Rabe novels around 1972/'73, including The Out is Death and Agreement to Kill. They also published gothic romances, thrillers and science fiction, most of them picked up from other publishers, with few notable names among their authors – there's a work-in-progress list here. It was a short-lived enterprise – possibly just those two years stated above – run by PBS Ltd. of Manchester, who in turn were a subsidiary of World Distributors. World Distributors was owned by three brothers, Sidney, John and Alfred Pemberton, and started life after World War II as a market stall selling second hand books. The brothers then moved into publishing, and became well known for the hardback TV tie-in annuals they produced, including twenty years'-worth of Doctor Who Annuals, not to mention such lesser delights as CHiPs and Black Beauty. In 1981 the company was renamed World International Publishing, pumping out further annuals for Dempsey and Makepeace, The A-Team and others before disappearing at the end of the decade.

Anyway, next up in this week of Rabes, a review of the second Daniel Port novel, The Out is Death.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: The Box by Peter Rabe (Fawcett/Gold Medal), Barye Phillips Cover Art

For the second in this series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, we have another of the three Rabe books I bagged on eBay before Christmas, this one published ten years prior to the novel featured yesterday (which, for those who've either just joined us or have really rubbish memories, was 1972's War of the Dons):

A US paperback first edition/printing of The Box, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in December 1962. The premise of this one is a cracker: a cargo ship docked at the (fictional) North African coastal town of Okar disgorges a crate the size of two telephone booths. There's an awful smell emanating from it, so the captain of the ship and the port clerk open it up... and find inside a filthy and deranged man. His name is Quinn, a mob lawyer who was nailed up in the box as punishment and sent on a round-the-world trip with enough provisions and water to keep him barely alive. What happens to him in Okar forms the basis of the rest of the story...

There's an instructive review of The Box on Amazon – instructive in that in demonstrates how baffling Rabe's work can appear on first inspection. Our perplexed critic notes that "The narrative contains a great deal of detailed description yet at the same time much is left to the reader's imagination", before declaring that "the overall narrative flow is neither smooth nor logic driven. One gets the impression that this story is an allegorical one... I'm sorry to say that any such deeper meaning was woefully lost on me."

I can see how The Box – indeed how many of Rabe's novels – might bemuse. The Box is littered with examples of Rabe's elliptical, allusive prose style (which I outlined yesterday). Here's a passage from early on in the book, a flashback to the aftermath of a confrontation between Quinn and an overweight mob boss:

After that, on the street, Quinn just walked. But it wasn't enough moving for all the holding still he had done. He concentrated on a dream that came out ugly and strong, red, with blue edges—and then I go over, cool as cool, I don't listen any more, I am cool as cool, fire inside though, fire in fist now, and suddenly ram that into the executive pouch—poof! plate jumps out, face collapses, fat lips hanging down, and I step on the plate, a crunch of pure pleasure—

Rabe is showing us those familiar thought processes we all run through in the aftermath of an argument or stand-off, fantasizing scenarios of how we should have handled it or how we might handle it in a similar situation (but probably never will). He uses plain language, but in unexpected ways, deploying colours for feelings, switching the narration to first person, finishing with that image of the false teeth popping out of the mob boss's mouth and then being crunched by Quinn. It's certainly not the kind of writing you expect to find in a pulpy paperback.

The cover painting for The Box is by Barye Phillips – or possibly Philips, with one 'l'; I've seen it spelled both ways online. Barye was a Gold Medal stalwart who began painting paperback covers around 1943, prior to which he worked for Columbia Pictures' advertising department; later in his life he was President of the Society of Illustrators from 1965-67 (the Society's website has the single 'l' spelling of his surname). There's a great cover gallery of his work on this blog, including a 1958 Signet paperback of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He was possessed of a loose, sometimes expressive, painterly style, one that reminds me a little of Harry Bennett in the way it occasionally mixes line art with splashes of colour.

I like the logo for The Box too, which, appropriately, has been boxed. And it's interesting that, even back in 1962, it was recognised that Rabe was something special – witness that tagline about him being "one of the great stylists in suspense". Indeed he was.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: War of the Dons by Peter Rabe (Fawcett/Gold Medal)

As trailed on Friday, over the course of the coming week Existential Ennui will be featuring a Run of Rabes: a series of posts on various books by cult American crime author Peter Rabe, to mark the publication this month of two previously unseen novels by him.

For many, Rabe is the ultimate pulp paperback scribe. From the mid-1950s until the early '70s he wrote a string of novels, the vast majority of them for Gold Medal, almost all of them published straight to paperback. Much like Donald Westlake, upon whom Rabe was a major influence, Rabe's stories deal with the dark underbelly of America and yet are surprisingly lithe and loose, nimble even. These aren't plodding detective novels or methodical whodunnits: his antiheroes are usually criminals, up against fellow criminals.

Rabe's prose style is slippery and agile, his intent sometimes opaque; the direction of his stories is rarely obvious. What motivates his characters isn't always readily apparent either, and that makes them unpredictable and therefore compelling. Horrible things are done to them and by them, but these events are often alluded to rather than described in detail: violent moments sketched out in a single line; assaults or rapes skirted round or left dangling, and all the more effective and shocking for it, with not a hint of titillation.

Until quite recently there wasn't an awful lot online about Rabe; he didn't even have much of a Wikipedia entry, although that's since been rectified, and now contains a good biography of him and a full bibliography. There's also a useful interview with Rabe here, conducted shortly before he died in 1990. I've written about Rabe before too, beginning with the first book of his I bagged, Blood on the Desert, back in May of last year, and then continuing with subsequent scores Journey into Terror, Dig My Grave Deep (the first in Rabe's loose series starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port), The Out is Death and Bring Me Another Corpse, The Cut of the Whip, and My Lovely Executioner. I also wrote a bit on how Daniel Port stacks up against Donald Westlake's character Parker (and I'll be returning to Port throughout the week). But we'll begin this latest Run of Rabes with one of his final novels:

This is the US paperback first edition of War of the Dons, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in August 1972. It's Rabe's penultimate novel under his own name; he only had one further book published as Peter Rabe after this, 1974's Black Mafia, although he did have a couple of tie-in novels to the TV show Mannix published in 1975. Clearly intended to capitalize on the success of Puzo's The Godfather (at least by Gold Medal), War of the Dons is a mafia tale which arose out of Rabe's interest in a particular New York gangland family, and features a trio of ruthless brothers. I got this from the same eBay seller as the next couple of books I'll be showing, all snapped up because here in the UK first editions of Rabes don't turn up too often on eBay. And if you're wondering who was responsible for the cover illustration, I'm afraid you'll have to carry on wondering: there's no credit, and no clue online. Darn. Hopefully I'll do better with the next book...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Lewes Bookshop Bargain: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate First Edition)

(UPDATE, 22/11/11: Welcome, perplexed Salon readers. Click on the Existential Ennui logo at the top of the blog or the Blog Archive down the right-hand side for more recent books blogging...)

It's been a bit of a varied week this week on Existential Ennui, with posts on a diverse (to say the least) selection of authors including Richard Stark, Dennis Wheatley and Hugh Trevor-Roper. But over the next few weeks there'll be more of a theme to my blogging (with, no doubt, some random stuff mixed in). I'll be previewing some of that at the end of this post, but first, here's a recent Lewes Bookshop Bargain:

Which is a UK hardback first edition/first printing of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, published by Fourth Estate in 2002 (originally published in the US in 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The illustration on the front of the jacket is by Sarah White, while the dustjacket design is by Julian Humphries, who, at the time, was Fourth Estate's art director. He's since gone on to a wider role at HarperCollins, Fourth Estate's parent publisher, although this 2010 Guardian article about cover design, in which Humphries is quoted, has him down as Fourth Estate's head cover designer. But I guess the two things aren't mutually exclusive.

Franzen hit the headlines in the UK last year when the first edition of his follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, was recalled after it was discovered the version of the novel that had made it into print was an earlier draft, containing hundreds of errors. Most of those would only have been identifiable by Franzen himself, but even so: oops. Weird collector that I am, I toyed with getting hold of a copy of the 'wrong' edition, but then I came across this copy of The Corrections instead, and actually I'd rather read the novel that made Franzen's name first anyway, so I bought it, for, I think, a fiver or so, which, considering first editions/first printings go for anything from twenty quid to well over a hundred, was indeed something of a bargain – even with a slightly grubby jacket.

As to where I bought it, it was in the Secret Bookshop, a.k.a. the Bookshop with No Name, otherwise known as the bit downstairs from where local listings and features magazine (and damn fine read) Viva Lewes is based, in Pipe Passage. It's easy to forget about the Secret Bookshop – it is, after all, secret – but it's always worth popping in there if you're passing, as this book demonstrates.

And that's about yer lot for this week. Next week – indeed possibly even starting this weekend – I'll be devoting Existential Ennui to cult crime writer and major Donald Westlake influence Peter Rabe. I've covered Rabe before, but I nabbed a bunch of paperbacks by him towards the end of 2010, so I'll have those to show, plus a review of one of his Daniel Port novels, and more besides. I've been holding off on posting it all as I was waiting for a couple of other books by him to turn up, but I fear they may be lost forever. However Stark House Press are due to issue two of his unpublished manuscripts any day, so now's as good a time as any to do some serious Rabe blogging.

And looking slightly further ahead, I'll have a run of posts on an author who's become a firm favourite round these parts, Ross Thomas, and a series of posts on Elmore Leonard and his Raylan Givens stories and how they relate to the Givens-starring Justified, one of the best TV shows of the past few years. So lots to look forward to.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lewes Book Bargain (Hunt): The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Macmillan, 1947)

Generally speaking the self-imposed remit of this blog is to cover obscure genre fiction and comics, but I do – always have – read quite a bit of non-fiction too. It's not unheard of (as if anyone other than me is paying any attention to my habits and urges) for me to pick up a non-fiction title if it takes my fancy, so when I spied this cut-price volume in one of Lewes's multitudinous antique shops on Cliffe High Street (whilst becoming periodically trapped in various nooks and crannies by two teams of ferreting competitors plus attendant camera crews from the BBC show Bargain Hunt), I thought, well, why not:

It's a 1947 hardback first edition of H. R. Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler, published by Macmillan in the UK. H. R. Trevor-Roper is of course better known as Hugh Trevor-Roper; to most people he'll be familiar – notorious, even – as the man who authenticated the faked Hitler diaries bought and trumpeted by the Sunday Times in 1983, although as last year's biography of Trevor-Roper by Adam Sisman relates, the truth is less straightforward: Trevor-Roper always had doubts about the veracity of the diaries, but the Sunday Times splashed them anyway.

Trevor-Roper's reputation never really recovered, but Sisman's biography was a timely reminder of the historian's brilliance. Trevor-Roper worked in intelligence during the war, and at the end of the conflict was appointed to determine the fate of Hitler, scotching rumours of his survival. During the course of his investigation he uncovered a wealth of evidence about the dictator's final days, and the result was The Last Days of Hitler, the book that made Trevor-Roper's name. It's still widely regarded as one of the best accounts of the Third Reich, and includes a plan of Hitler's bunker, a reproduction of the last page of Hitler's will, bearing the signatures of four witnesses – among them Dr. Joesph Goebbels and Martin Boorman – and a fold-out map of escape routes out of Berlin.

There's something about the fact that it was published so soon after the end of the war – and therefore so near to the events it details – that, for me – and particularly in this first edition – makes it both an interesting artefact (holding an old book to my mind sometimes feels like holding a piece of history) and potentially a more interesting read than later accounts like Joachim Fest's 2002 book Inside Hitler's Bunker (the basis for the film Downfall). We shall see.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Guest Post: Dennis Wheatley – Devils, Dossiers, Deception, by Michael Barber

As a follow-up to this Lewes Book Fair post on Dennis Wheatley's The Prisoner in the Mask, I'm once again turning Existential Ennui over to critic Michael Barber. Michael, you'll recall, left a long comment on this post about Alan Williams last year, adding all manner of fascinating titbits, and then, having noted my interest in Kingsley Amis, kindly suggested I might like to post a review he'd written for The Hudson Review of Zachary Leader's Life of Amis. So when Michael, having read my missive on the author of The Devil Rides Out, offered to write something on Wheatley, with whom he'd conducted an interview shortly before Wheatley died, I readily agreed. The results, I think you'll find, are engrossing. The terrible title of this post, I should point out, is mine, not Michael's, so blame me for that. Anyway, over to Michael.

. . . . . . . . . .

Dennis Wheatley, by Michael Barber

In his pithy Journals Anthony Powell described Dennis Wheatley as ‘a relatively intelligent man who wrote more or less conscious drivel’. But like George VI and Goering he regarded himself as a ‘fan’, enlisting Wheatley’s help in the plotting of his Music of Time sequence and admitting that he’d ‘trespassed on your own territory’ in the final volume, which described orgiastic rites like those performed by Wheatley’s Satanists. Powell also revealed that Wheatley was to some extent the inspiration for Valentine Beals, a writer of steamy historical sagas, in his last novel, The Fisher King. 

Wheatley was safely dead by the time Powell’s Journals were published, but I doubt he’d have taken much offense. ‘Cliches are there to be used’, he would say. ‘For me, the story is the thing.’ In fact he was a born storyteller who but for the Slump might never have profited by his gift. After serving as a Gunner Officer in the Great War he joined his father in the family drinks business and in a few years transformed it from a nondescript Mayfair off-licence into a pukka wine-merchants patronised by the gratin. But although a superb salesman Wheatley was an improvident businessman who took no thought for the morrow. So when the years of plenty ended he had no fat to live off and by 1932 had lost the business and was heavily in debt.

It was now that he began to write. In the space of a few months he dashed off several short stories and two novels. The second of these, an adventure story set in Soviet Russia called The Forbidden Territory, put Wheatley firmly and for ever on the map. As he told me when I interviewed him a few months before his death, ‘Luckily for me its publication coincided with the arrest on a spying charge of several British engineers working in Russia. I couldn’t have had a better launch. The book was reprinted seven times in as many weeks.’ More important, it convinced Walter Hutchinson, the most enterprising publisher of his day, that in Dennis Wheatley he had a winner.

Although not given to false modesty Wheatley did acknowledge a heavy debt to Alexandre Dumas the elder. ‘Four of my most famous characters[1], whom I introduced in The Forbidden Territory, are closely based on Dumas’ Musketeers. In fact all my characters owe something to Dumas. They’re none of them goody-goodies. They have their faults, but they’re also very loyal, courageous and patriotic in an old-fashioned, romantic sort of way.’

A short, dapper figure, clad in a silk dressing gown and with the sort of complexion that advertised a lifelong devotion to fine wines, particularly hock, Wheatley was unashamedly nostalgic for Europe before the Fall. By chance, he was present at the last night of the Covent Garden Opera season in July 1914. ‘The cream of Society was there. Wherever you looked there were diamonds and pearls and ribbons and crosses. When the curtain came down it was not just the end of the performance but the end of an era as well.’

But in one respect at least Wheatley was ahead of his time. Not only did he write bestsellers, he devoted enormous energy to promoting them, throwing lavish lunches for gossip columnists and cultivating key members of the bookselling trade like the buyers for circulating libraries and the managers of large station bookstalls. One of the gossip-columnists he schmoozed was Tom Driberg, alias William Hickey, who proved invaluable when Wheatley hit on a new topic. ‘It suddenly struck me that nobody was writing ghost stories or anything like that any more. They seemed to have died out with the Victorians. So I thought, “Well, here’s a new pitch.” And Tom, who’d dabbled in black magic while at Oxford, was able to put me in touch with occultists like Aleister Crowley and Montague Summers, who advised me which books to read and so on.’ Wheatley’s research paid off in spades because with The Devil Rides Out (1935) he established a hold on his readers’ throats that would last for years to come.

Even more original in conception were the four Crime Dossiers that Wheatley concocted with his pal Joe Links[2], elaborate solve-it-yourself mysteries that were hailed fifty years later in the TLS as ‘one of the peaks of intellectual, imaginative and typographical achievement by which …. our civilisation may be judged.’ At the time Walter Hutchinson was distinctly unimpressed, but Wheatley told him that unless he published Murder off Miami, the first dossier[3], he would publish no more Wheatleys. In the event it sold 250,000 copies, was translated into eight languages, and inspired a Fourth leader in the Times. Not only was Wheatley vindicated, but thanks to all the publicity he had become a household name.

Wheatley always said that there were two people who had shaped his life. One was Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe, the model for his character Gregory Sallust, a raffish, cultivated and amoral crook who came to a bad end – but not before he had tutored callow young Dennis in the way of the world. The other was Wheatley’s second wife, Joan, a well-connected widow who married him when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb and remained his prop and stay till the end. It was she who forged the first link in the chain of events that led to Wheatley’s joining the Joint Planning Staff, the only civilian to be so honoured.

Thanks to her connections Joan got a job in 1940 driving for MI5. Just prior to Dunkirk one of her passengers complained that he had been ordered to think up measures that would galvanise the country against invasion, which wasn’t his thing at all. Joan ‘volunteered’ Dennis for the job, and that very evening he produced a 7000-word paper called Resistance to Invasion. So impressed were the brass-hats by Wheatley’s stimulating and unorthodox suggestions that a few weeks later he was invited to put himself in the German High Command’s shoes and draw up plans for an invasion. Sustained by 200 cigarettes and three magnums of champagne he produced, in 48 hours, a 15,000-word paper that was later found to be uncannily similar to Operation Sea-Lion, the actual German plan.

Wheatley now had the bit between his teeth and in little more than a year wrote half a million words on aspects of the war for a very select audience that included Winston Churchill and the King. In December 1941 he was invited to join a small team responsible for Deception Planning and was attached to the Joint Planning Staff. He was commissioned into the RAFVR and rapidly promoted to Wing Commander. In the next three years he was involved in such well-known deceptions as ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and the ‘Bodyguard of Lies’ fabricated to conceal the time and place of D-Day.

Wheatley left Whitehall in 1944. Because he was ‘stuffed full of secrets’ he had to be very careful what he wrote next. Contemporary spy stories were off-limits lest he unwittingly infringe the Official Secrets Act. He solved the problem by going back 150 years to the Napoleonic Wars, the backdrop for his immensely successful Roger Brook series, which ran to twelve volumes.

Wheatley worked hard and played hard. He sometimes wrote for thirteen hours a day, yet away from his desk he was the most convivial of men who made free of his ample table and cellar. Largely self-educated – his library was as refined as his cellar – he thought that the reason he was so popular was that people got two books for the price of one. ‘A damn good plot, plus plenty of information. So as well as being entertained, they learn something too.’ All this and more is revealed in Phil Baker’s affectionate and encyclopaedic biography, The Devil is a Gentleman. But one mystery remains. Why, despite his meritorious war service, was Wheatley neither honoured nor decorated – except, bizarrely, by the Americans, who gave him their Bronze Star? True, he was an admirer of Mussolini and Franco; but so too were many members of the pre-war Establishment, including Churchill. Perhaps somewhere in the Public Record Office is a minute that reveals why ‘the Prince of Storytellers’ missed out.

[1] The Duke de Richleau, Richard Eaton, Simon Aron and Rex Van Ryn
[2] A furrier who was also an expert on Canaletto.
[3] Wheatley advised buyers of the First Edition to cherish it because it would eventually be worth a lot of money – a somewhat optimistic prediction.

Lewes (British) Bookshops Bargains: Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles by Michael Moorcock, Darkside by Belinda Bauer, Worth Dying For by Lee Child

As I believe I've mentioned before (ahem), Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live, is blessed with bookshops. An unhealthily obsessed book collector would be hard pressed to find a more suitable town in which to live, the major metropolitan areas and Hay-on-Wye aside. But most of the bookshops in Lewes, excellent though they are in their own ways, are of the second hand variety. When it comes to new books, we're slightly less spoilt for choice. There's Skylark in the Needlemakers, which offers quite a good selection of books but a very limited range – leaning towards the literary end of the scale – of new fiction; there's WHSmiths, which is fine for celebrity memoirs but not much else; and there's British Bookshops/Sussex Stationers.

British Bookshops/Sussex Stationers, for those who don't know, are a chain of bookshops/stationers based in South East England, selling, as the name suggests, new books, greetings cards, pens, paper, and so forth. As bookshops go, they don't have the depth of stock of, say, Waterstones, but they are quite good on new fiction, both hardback and paperback. And not only that, but their prices compare very favourably with Amazon. If you know when a novel's being published – which, dullard that I am, I usually don't – you can nip in and pick it up pretty cheaply. The one in Lewes is good for new hardback fiction, but being out in the sticks, it doesn't always get first printings of hardbacks. Or rather, if it does, I'm too slow to bag the buggers. But even so, when there's a new book I want to get my filthy mitts on, I head for the Lewes British Bookshops first.

Sadly, I may not be able to for much longer, because at the end of last week it was reported that the chain has gone into administration. A buyer is being sought apparently, but if one can't be found, it'll be game over, with the loss of up to 300 jobs across the region. That's bad enough, but it'll also mean that the best place to buy new books in Lewes will be gone. And by way of example, here are three books I bought there recently:

This is the UK first edition hardback of Michael Moorcock's Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, published at the tail end of 2010 by BBC Books. I bought this in the Lewes British Bookshops just before Christmas for £8.99, which is about what you'd pay on Amazon. Moorcock is of course a huge name in fantasy and SF circles, a major influence on Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and many more besides; it was big news when it was announced he'd be writing a Who novel. Coincidentally I'll have some news on Mr. Moorcock – in a tangential way – very soon, but in the meantime, if you're after a review of Terraphiles, there's a good one over at SFX. As for the dustjacket, that was designed by Lee Binding at teaLady.


A UK hardback first edition/printing of Darkside by Belinda Bauer, published just this month by Bantam and bought just this month by me in British Bookshops, Lewes. Again, I paid round about what Amazon are charging online. I read Bauer's debut, Blacklands, last year, and really liked it, as did many others: it ended up winning the CWA Gold Dagger. This follow-up is set in the same fictional Exmoor village; Keith at Books and Writers has a review up here, and WriterMel at High Heels and Book Deals has a review here and an interview with Bauer here (and you can read my review of Blacklands here). The dustjacket was designed by Claire Ward, creative director at Transworld (Bantam's parent publisher), who also designed the jacket for Blacklands and the rather lovely cover for Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, while the front cover photo is by Mark Owen (no, not that one) of Arcangel.

Lastly, we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of Worth Dying For by Lee Child, with a dustjacket designed by Transworld's assistant art director Stephen Mulcahey – who, oddly enough, was also responsible for the back cover photo of Darkside (I think). Child's most recent Jack Reacher novel (I'm currently reading the first one, Killing Floor), it was published by Bantam in September 2010, but I only bought this copy the other day in British Bookshops. Reason being, the hardback's already been through multiple printings, and I'd missed out on a first printing – if British Bookshops even had any in the first place. But I was in there last week and happened to find this copy, which is a first printing (i.e. it has the full strike-off line on the copyright page). And not only that, but it was even cheaper than the Amazon edition.

So there you go. Those are some books I bought recently in the Lewes branch of British Bookshops. To any Lewesians reading this, should British Bookshops make it out of administration, next time you need to buy a new book, spare a thought for a local book-obsessed nutter and perhaps buy it in the Lewes outlet. Because I'll be most upset if it closes for good.

UPDATE 1: I got terribly excited just now because I thought British Bookshops had been sold today. Sadly, it hasn't – the news piece I found was from 2009. But I can report that the shops will carry on trading for a few weeks while a buyer is sought. Fingers crossed...

UPDATE 2: Forty people have been laid off at British Bookshops' head office and in their warehouse. Obviously that isn't great for those who've lost their jobs, but there are no redundancies at the shop level yet, and there's a possibility of a management buyout, so the Lewes British Bookshops may yet survive.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: The Allison & Busby Paperbacks of Deadly Edge, The Sour Lemon Score and Slayground, and the Hunt for Cover Artist Stephen Hall

My friends, let us begin the week with a tale of abject failure.

A couple of weeks ago I demonstrated how UK publisher Allison & Busby's editions of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels developed over twenty-five-plus years, using Point Blank as a guide. In that post I mentioned that in the early 1990s Allison & Busby introduced one other short-lived style of cover design – or rather, illustration – one that was never deployed for Point Blank, and that I'd be returning to that design in a separate post. This is that post.

So far as I've been able to establish, only three of the Allison & Busby Parkers ever had this type of cover (four if you count the 1997 Omnibus volume 1, but that just reuses one of the three other covers, so we won't), which took the Mick Keates 'torn logo' design of the second wave of A&B editions and incorporated new paintings/illustrations. And it's those illustrations that I want to concentrate on here.

The three novels in question are the A&B paperback editions of Deadly Edge (1990):

The Sour Lemon Score (1991):

and Slayground (also 1991):

Those last two are recent-ish Westlake Scores, which I nabbed on eBay pretty much so I could write this post. Again I say to you, dear reader: the sacrifices I make... Anyway, all three covers sport illustrations by Stephen Hall, and while I wasn't terribly keen on them when I first saw them online many moons ago, I've since grown to appreciate them – or two of them anyway. The one for The Sour Lemon Score I'm still not sold on – it looks dashed-off compared to the others – but the ones for Deadly Edge and Slayground are intriguing mixed media efforts. Slayground in particular seems to incorporate elements of collage, lending the picture a nice clashing energy.

So I thought I'd do some digging, see what I could find out about the artist. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that identifying the correct Stephen Hall wouldn't be as straightforward as I'd hoped. There were lots of links for artists named Stephen – and Steve – Hall, but none seemed quite right, and certainly none of them made any mention of creating covers for either Allison & Busby or Richard Stark novels.

Eventually, after a hell of a lot of googling, I narrowed the field down to two possibilities – both rather remote, but worth exploring. One – Stephen Hall – was a New York-based painter who'd moved to the US from Scotland in 1978, and whose work had featured on a number of books, including many crime novels. The other – Stephen Hall, or Randall Stephen Hall – was a children's book illustrator and storyteller from Northern Ireland. Neither quite fit the bill, but artists' styles do change, so either one could conceivably be the right man.

There was, however, no way of finding out without contacting them directly. So that's what I did. I emailed the NY-based Stephen Hall first, explaining the nature of my quest, and not really expecting to hear back. But I did get a reply, that same day. Stephen confirmed that he had illustrated many book covers during that period of the early 1990s, among them crime and mystery works. He didn't think that he'd worked on these particular Stark novels, but he said to send along cover scans and he'd be able to say definitively yes or no. Which I duly did... and received a definitive 'no'.


Disappointed but undeterred, I moved on to the Northern Ireland-based Stephen Hall, and emailed him. Once again I received a swift reply... and once again it was in the negative. Drat. Stephen did, however, note that it was an interesting quest I was on, and suggested I try another Stephen Hall, an artist with an illustration background, originally from Scotland, now living and working in New York... Yeah, you know where this is going. I replied that unfortunately I'd already tried that Stephen Hall... and that's where my quest ended. None of the other Stephen Halls I turned up in my search looked to be likely candidates. The only other hint I have to go on is a distant notion that a very similar illustrator worked for music weekly NME in the early 1990s, but there I might just be projecting (there's an NME press blurb on the cover of Deadly Edge).

My only recourse now is to post this tale of woe and hope that somehow the correct Stephen Hall stumbles across it. So if you're out there, Stephen, make yourself known. Be great to get some background on both you and the creation of these covers...