Friday, 29 July 2011

A Very Special Announcement Regarding Spy Novelist Anthony Price, and a Review of October Men (Gollancz, 1973/1992)

Following on from Wednesday's post on forgotten espionage author Thomas Cauldron, let's stay with the spy fiction for the moment and return to Anthony Price's splendid series of novels featuring the operatives of the Ministry of Defence's Research and Development Section, with another book review and a very special announcement about Mr. Price. I'll unveil that announcement in a short while, but first, let's take a look at this:


October Men is the fourth book in Price's series, and was first published in the UK by Gollancz in 1973, although the edition you can see above is a later Gollancz printing, from 1992; of all of Price's novels, this one has proved the hardest to track down in first (which isn't to say I won't keep trying). The novel follows in the footsteps of The Labyrinth Makers (1970), The Alamut Ambush (1971) and Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972) – all three of which I reviewed last month – in that, although written in the third person, once again the tale is told from the perspective of a different protagonist – or rather, in this instance, from that of two protagonists. As with the previous novels, Price's lynchpin, the clever, iconoclastic Middle East expert Dr. David Audley, does feature – indeed is central to the plot – but by and large events are related from the viewpoints of two other men, one of whom has appeared before in the series, the other of whom has not.

On the Research and Development Section side of the ledger, we have Captain Peter Richardson, last seen assisting Butler with his spot of student bother in Colonel Butler's Wolf. Recalled from Northern Ireland by Brigadier Stocker – now given a military title having previously been identified only as the man from the Joint Intelligence Committee – Richardson finds himself at David Audley's house in the South Downs, where the husband of Audley's housekeeper, Mrs Clark, has shot and killed an armed intruder. Displaying his now-expected ruthlessness, Stocker presses Richardson, who's on friendly terms with Audley and Mrs Clark, to find out what happened, but more importantly, to try to determine where exactly Audley, Audley's wife, and their new baby are: it seems all three have absconded without notifying anyone where to, and the suspicion is that Audley might have been a double agent all this time, and defected.

On the other side of the ledger is Pietro Boselli, personal assistant to head of Italian security General Montouri in Rome. A confirmed desk man, Boselli is thrust to the front lines when, quite by chance, the General spots an old adversary at the airport – a wartime Italian Communist known as the Bastard. For reasons which are unclear, the Bastard was following Audley and his family, who had just arrived from the UK. And further muddying the waters, somewhere in the middle of all this is Eugenio Narva, an Italian oil man who apparently invested in North Sea oil exploration before it had even been established there were significant deposits off the coast of Britain – which begs the questions, who tipped him off, and how?

As ever with Price's novels, a tangled web of partial information, misinformation and hidden agendas serves to obfuscate the truth of the matter, which ultimately proves somewhat simpler than the various interweaving strands suggest. But it's the piecing together of the mystery that keeps one engrossed, and, each in their own ways, Richardson and Boselli are the perfect viewpoint characters for Price's purposes, in that they're both pretty much out of the loop – although as eventually becomes clear, so is almost everyone else, Audley included.

They're also both agreeable company. Boselli in particular makes for an unusual central character. He could uncharitably be described as something of a coward – he's forever fearful of sticking his neck above the parapet or in any way endangering his position – although Price is actually more sympathetic towards him than that would suggest. In the way in which Boselli is buffeted by events, frequently finding himself in situations over which he has no control and in which he has little to no experience, he's probably closer to how you or I might react in a similar position (as opposed to the clever-clogs Audley or the more militarily-inclined Butler). At one point he's accidentally credited with shooting an assailant during a firefight, and his panic at being found out is palpable. Although destined never to appear again in the series, in his fumbling, terrified, very real manner, Boselli offers further evidence of Price's deft, varied and increasingly confident characterization – all of which bodes well for subsequent books.
 
I hadn't planned on reading another Anthony Price novel so soon after the initial three – I do, after all, have a stack of books by other authors demanding my attention – but there was a particular reason I decided to re-immerse myself in Price's espionage universe – and that brings me to the announcement I mentioned. Because, in an exciting first for Existential Ennui – which prior to this point has consisted largely of book reviews and matters to do with book collecting – next week I'll be posting an exclusive interview with Mr. Price, conducted by yours truly, in person, just last month. I got to spend a good few hours in Price's company, and the results were both highly enlightening and highly entertaining. As far as I'm aware, this will be the first time an interview with Price has been available online, so fans of his work should find it fascinating reading.

The interview is fairly long, so I'm going to split it into two posts over the course of the week. So do, please, if you can, join me next week for an interview with Anthony Price. It'll surely be worth your while.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Thrilling Life and Mysterious Death of Spy Fiction Author Thomas Cauldron

As regular readers might have gathered, over the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in twentieth century spy fiction. I was reading spy novels before that, of course, notably those written by Ian Fleming and Gavin Lyall, but my consumption of espionage fiction has markedly increased in the last twelve months to encompass Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ross Thomas, Anthony Price, Adam Hall and Francis Clifford, with the likes of Joseph Hone, Sarah Gainham, Donald Hamilton and William Haggard waiting patiently in the wings. (Many of those names were brought to my attention by the ever-helpful commenters on Existential Ennui – you know who you are – to whom I can only express both my gratitude and my escalating alarm at the impact on my wallet their recommendations are having.)

Doubtless there are still further names from the last century I've yet to discover – writers so obscure or overlooked that they've almost been written out of history. Like, for example, this British author:


Thomas Cauldron wrote literally countless espionage and crime thrillers over an indeterminate period from, I believe, the late 1920s to the early 1980s. Most were published straight to paperback, and few are remembered today, but spy-fic fans of a certain age and disposition might recall such pithy, punchy works as Dolls of Duplicity and Don't Lick Now. Cauldron was known for his over-the-top plots and the ingenious-bordering-on-insane methods by which characters in his stories were dispatched. Perhaps the most notorious example is Mulliver's death at the hands of a radicalised kindergarten class in The Potato Print Protocol, but special mention must also go to The Kitchen Sink for the way in which its assassin protagonist employs numerous murderous techniques all at the same time.


All of Cauldron's novels have slipped quietly out of print, perhaps a consequence of the manner in which he himself died. For, as detailed in journalist Christopher Notchman's recently-published biography of Cauldron, A Shot Rang Out, although the coroner's verdict on Cauldron's 1997 demise was "death by misadventure" – coincidentally also the title of three of Cauldron's novels, and the name of one of his cats – the truth was somewhat murkier. Cauldron actually met his end in Notchman's suburban home, having crashed through the conservatory roof, "destroyed my coffee table, bled on the carpet and died, clutching a book in which the big twist is that the double agent is a foetus." Suitably intrigued, and being a devotee of Cauldron's work, Notchman decided to investigate the writer's colourful life, in the process leaning that not only was Cauldron a prolific novelist and a pioneering wildlife broadcaster, but that he was also a double agent...

Notchman's biography – and indeed Cauldron – were brought to my attention by one of the authors of this website dedicated to Cauldron, which includes an excellent blog featuring some of the lurid covers to Cauldron's novels. A Shot Rang Out is available to buy from the website, and you can download an excerpt from the book as well. I for one will certainly be investigating Cauldron further.

And from a hyperbolic spy novelist to a rather more sophisticated one, as next I'll be returning to Anthony Price's David Audley espionage novels, with a review of the fourth book in the series (following 1972's Colonel Butler's Wolf), 1973's October Men... and I'll also have news of something rather special concerning Mr. Price...

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton: A Review of the British First Edition (Jonathan Cape, 1972)

Before we get into this post, a word about the previous one on Norwegian cartoonist Jason's latest graphic novel Isle of 100,000 Graves. The timing of that post was unfortunate given events in Norway over the weekend, and I did consider amending it in response. But on reflection, I felt that no one in their right mind would seriously draw any parallels between a graphic novel published a month or so ago – or indeed a blog post largely written before the weekend's shocking events – and the atrocities committed by a right wing nutter in and around Oslo, and that therefore adding a note to it would be superfluous. Hopefully you'll understand my reasoning. (NB: Searchlight have opened a book of condolences to the Norwegian people, should you wish to share your thoughts on the tragedy.)

Anyway: onwards. And here's a book wot I bought during my recent – and yet feeling increasingly like it was bloody ages ago – week's sojourn to Devon:


This is the UK hardback first edition of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man, published by Jonathan Cape in 1972, with a dustjacket photo by David Davis. I saw this copy sitting outside a funny little secondhand bookshop – actually more of a house converted into a bookshop, really – called Book Relief, situated in the back streets of the coastal Devonshire village of Appledore:


I think I paid a quid for the book, which was a minor bargain, as UK first editions usually go for anything from £15–£80. The Terminal Man was Crichton's second novel under his own name, following 1969's The Andromeda Strain (Crichton had a number of other novels published from 1966–1972, mostly under the alias John Lange), and it originally appeared – in a truncated form – in Playboy magazine. I've seen umpteen movie adaptations of Crichton's work – the aforementioned The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park, etc. – but this was my first exposure to his prose, and it was an enjoyable but mixed experience.

Certainly The Terminal Man is eminently readable – I tore through it in a couple of days during my holiday – but it's also curiously colourless. The central idea is compelling: Harold Benson, a computer engineer suffering from blackouts and concurrent violent episodes following an accident, elects to undergo experimental surgery to have an electronic mood stabilizer hooked up to his brain – a kind of pacemaker for the mind. When the computer the device is linked to senses the onset of an episode, electrodes implanted in his brain transmit small abortive shocks, thus stopping the seizures before they can begin. But as soon becomes clear, Benson suffers from more than mere blackouts: he's also delusional, with an irrational fear of – and bizarre philosophy about – machines. And once the procedure is complete, Benson begins to crave the electric shocks, and engineer the onset of seizures in order to receive them...


It's a fascinating notion, and evidently based in fact: there's a four-page bibliography at the back of the book, and mocked-up – but seemingly authentic – illustrations, photos and graphs on the endpapers and scattered throughout the pages. But although Crichton makes the technical jargon surprisingly gripping, and although his plotting is propulsive, the novel also feels rather shallow. I think the problem is the depth of the characterization – or rather, the lack thereof. Crichton doesn't seem terribly interested in his characters. Surgeons Morris and Ellis and psychiatrist Janet Ross are granted a few perfunctory background details and character ticks – an unsuccessful date, a bit of angry swearing –  but they never really come alive. Even Benson is largely defined by his machine psychosis and his seizures.


The Terminal Man isn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It's stuffed with ideas, and those ideas are wrapped up in a compelling narrative. For me, though, a little more insight into the characters wouldn't have gone amiss, and although I enjoyed the book, I wasn't particularly moved to go and seek out further Crichton novels.

Right then. Next up: a spy thriller author who I suspect most readers of Existential Ennui will never even have heard of...

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Deadpan Comics of Norwegian Cartoonist Jason, Featuring a Review of Isle of 100,000 Graves (Fantagraphics, 2011)

Following on from Tuesday's post on Alan Moore: Storyteller – which was, in truth, little more than a link to Monday's post on the Ilex blog on Alan Moore: Storyteller – let's stay with the comics for the moment for a look at the work of deadpan funny animal cartoonist Jason.


I've been reading the graphic novels written and drawn by Jason – alias John Arne Sæterøy – since American independent comics publisher Fantagraphics issued the first English-language edition of his work, Hey, Wait..., in 2001. By that point Jason had been publishing comics in his home country of Norway for twenty years, but for most of us in the US and the UK, Hey, Wait... was our first exposure to his unique talents. On initial inspection he seemed like one more "funny aminal" (sic), or anthropomorphic, cartoonist, in the tradition of Carl Barks or, from the 1980s black-and-white comics glut, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But one read-through of Hey, Wait... was all it took to reveal that Jason was closer in tone to Art Spiegelman's deconstruction of the subgenre in Maus.


Divided into two parts, the first half of Hey, Wait... follows the adventures of two boys, Jon and Bjorn – drawn, in Jason's soon-to-become-trademark manner, as a humanized dog and rabbit – as they pal around their local neighbourhood, making mischief and generally just hanging out. But then an unexpected and shocking accident signals a marked shift in tone, and the narrative jumps forward some years to detail the humdrum existence of Jon, now grown-up and stuck in a mundane manufacturing job, and haunted by the tragedy at the heart of the tale. It's an achingly sad, deeply affecting piece of comics storytelling, and acted as a signal flare for the arrival of a major new (to English-language readers, anyway) talent in the comics field.

Since then, Fantagraphics have issued more than a dozen further graphic novels by Jason at the rate of over one a year, ranging from slapstick knockabout farces to an adaptation of an obscure Nordic mystery novel to a riff on Frankenstein's Monster. Especially good have been some of the full-colour novellas – coloured by Hubert – beginning with 2005's Why Are You Doing This?, a madcap mystery which wrings a not inconsiderable amount of pathos out of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" scenario. Also worth a look are 2006's The Left Bank Gang, a thriller depicting the travails of struggling cartoonists (!) Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce in 1920s Paris, and 2007's I Killed Adolf Hitler, a tragicomic time-travelling domestic saga.


His latest graphic novel, Isle of 100,000 Graves, published again by Fantagraphics just last month, is co-written with French comics creator Fabien Vehlmann, who brings a sardonic sense of humour to Jason's deadpan stylings. Set in an unspecified period (but probably either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries), the story follows Gwenny, a young girl waiting in vain for news of her father, who five years ago vanished in search of a treasure island drawn on a map in a bottle he'd found on the beach. When Gwenny too finds a similar treasure map, again in a bottle, she escapes the clutches of her embittered mother and sets about recruiting the assistance of some local pirates in order to find her missing father.


The map is of the famed Isle of 100,000 Graves, which, it turns out, is the base for a bizarre academy for trainee executioners – a leap of logic worthy of Pirates of the Caribbean. The scenes of the young apprentices learning the ways of torture, hanging, beheading and strangulation – latterly practicing on the hapless pirates – are just some of the highlights in a story that throws curveball after curveball at the unsuspecting reader.


Particularly enjoyable is the eyepatch-wearing pirate who Gwenny cons into helping her out by claiming "I know your secret", and who thereafter proves utterly ineffectual – especially when compared to the resourceful and cunning Gwenny – at one point wasting three whole days when he becomes completely incapable of action due to fretting about her fate. The story's denouement neatly punctures the whole enterprise, making a mockery of all that's gone before – which, considering all that's gone before has been gently mocking anyway, is no mean feat. Isle of 100,000 Graves ranks as one of the lightest of Jason's works, but although it lacks the gravitas of Hey, Wait..., it makes up for it with its sure comedic touch. I'll certainly be adding to my Jason collection when his next effort, Athos in America, arrives at the end of the year.

Next up: a review of a first edition of an early Michael Crichton novel...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Alan Moore: Storyteller by Gary Spencer Millidge (Ilex Press, 2011)

It's not often that I devote a blog post to one of the books I've worked on in my day job as managing editor of illustrated books publisher Ilex Press, but when a book turns out as splendidly as this one has, and when I know that book might be of interest to my small and doubtless ever-dwindling readership, well... I think a post is justified:


This is the UK hardback first edition of Alan Moore: Storyteller, published this very week by The Ilex Press (published simultaneously in the US by Rizzoli), with a cover design concept by the incomparable Chip Kidd, and beautifully designed overall by the supremely talented Simon Goggin, overseen by Ilex Press' doyenne of art direction, Julie Weir. Written by comics aficionado, cartoonist (he created the comic book/graphic novel series Strangehaven), designer (he also penned Ilex's essential Comic Book Design) and friend of Alan Moore, Gary Spencer Millidge, it's an authorized, highly illustrated, 300-plus page biography of Moore's life and work.


It is, if I do say so myself – I edited the thing, with the able assistance of Ilex Press' unflappable senior editor, Ellie Wilson (and with the gently guiding voices of Ilex's Tim Pilcher, Roly Allen and Ilex publisher Alastair Campbell – no, not that Alastair Campbell – in the background) – a bloody amazing book. Not only are Gary's words revealing and insightful; not only does it boast copious quotes from Mr. Moore; not only does it feature such little-seen rarities as an unpublished V for Vendetta script, the legendary Big Numbers chart detailing all twelve issues of that never-completed series, a cornucopia of family snaps, notebook pages and sketches kindly provided by Mr. Moore himself, and lots more besides; but it also comes accompanied by a splendid CD, whereupon you'll find a selection of incredibly scarce songs and performances by Alan Moore and friends, all lovingly mastered by longtime Moore collaborator Gary Lloyd.


I'm not going to bang on at length about the book here on Existential Ennui; I posted a prolix, meandering, self-serving missive about it on the Ilex Press blog yesterday, in which I largely, as is my wont, talked about myself, so go read that if you have a day to spare. Instead I'll restrict myself here to noting that, like another Ilex volume I blogged about last year, The Art of Osamu Tezuka, God of Manga, I'm really rather proud of Alan Moore: Storyteller. Having been a huge fan of Alan Moore's work for getting on for three-quarters of my life, I can happily report this the hefty volume is everything I, and therefore by extension any self-respecting Moore fan, could possibly want in a book about Alan Moore.

Anyway. Do please go read my Ilex Press post on the book; despite my disparaging remarks above, I'm actually quite pleased with that essay (I may even steal it back and post it on here). And should you feel so inclined, you could, if you haven't already, glance at my other Ilex blog posts, such as this one on Richard Stark's The Hunter as featured in 500 Essential Cult Books; or this one on Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History; or even this one on 500 Essential Cult Movies, featuring The Night of the Hunter. And then I'll meet you back here for the next post, for which I'll be staying on a comics tip in order to discuss deadpan Norwegian cartoonist Jason...

Monday, 18 July 2011

On Collecting Quiller, Featuring an Adam Hall Bibliography, and a First Edition of Quiller's Run (Quiller #12, W H Allen, 1988)

For this final post on Elleston Trevor/Adam Hall's series of espionage novels starring secret agent Quiller, I thought I'd share what I've thus far gleaned – in the admittedly brief period of time since I became interested in these books – about collecting Quiller, using this fine tome as an example:


This is the UK hardback first edition of Quiller's Run, the twelfth Quiller thriller, published by W H Allen in 1988. The dustjacket illustration is uncredited, but I believe it's by Tony Masero, an artist who's well-known for his Doctor Who novelisation covers – certainly the jacket of the preceding book in the series, 1985's Northlight, is by him, and Quiller's Run seems to be of a piece with that style. I found this copy in the Oxfam Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells during my recent fortnight's holiday, for three quid – which, it turns out, was a bit of a bargain, because first editions of this one aren't in plentiful supply; at time of writing AbeBooks only has two Allen hardbacks listed, both ex-library. And in researching the book for this post, I discovered that it's not the only first edition from the back half of Hall's career that's hard to come by.


Commonly when you collect first editions you find that an author's earliest novels command the highest prices. This is usually the case even when those early works are in plentiful supply – early novels will always be of greater interest to completist collectors. But occasionally the reverse is true. There can be any number of reasons for this – an author might wane in popularity towards the end of his or her career, thus causing fewer first editions to be printed, or print runs of the hardbacks of their later novels may have been reduced anyway due to publishing conditions prevalent at the time – but the net result is the same whatever the explanation: first editions of their later books become really scarce, and bloody expensive. Such is the case with Quiller.

Probably the easiest way to explain the current Adam Hall collecting state of play is for me to first provide a complete Quiller British first edition bibliography, including, in each case, the publisher – the first time this has been done on the internet, I believe – so you can see who published what when. So here we go:

1. The Berlin Memorandum (a.k.a. The Quiller Memorandum), Collins, 1965
2. The 9th Directive, Heinemann, 1966
3. The Striker Portfolio, Heinemann, 1969 (preceded by 1968 US Simon & Schuster edn.)
4. The Warsaw Document, Heinemann, 1971
5. The Tango Briefing, Collins, 1973
6. The Mandarin Cypher, Collins, 1975
7. The Kobra Manifesto, Collins, 1976
8. The Sinkiang Executive, Collins, 1978
9. The Scorpion Signal, Collins, 1979
10. The Pekin Target (a.k.a. The Peking Target), Collins, 1981
11. Northlight (a.k.a. Quiller), W H Allen, 1985
12. Quiller's Run, W H Allen, 1988
13. Quiller KGB, W H Allen, 1989
14. Quiller Barracuda, W H Allen, 1991 (preceded by 1990 US William Morrow edn.)
15. Quiller Bamboo, Headline, 1992 (preceded by 1991 US William Morrow edn.)
16. Quiller Solitaire, Headline, 1992
17. Quiller Meridian, Headline, 1993
18. Quiller Salamander, Headline, 1994
19. Quiller Balalaika, Headline, 1996

Firsts of the Collins and Heinemann editions of the novels – from The Berlin Memorandum to The Pekin Target – aren't difficult to get hold of; generally speaking a decent copy of all of those can be had for around a tenner each. Where things really start to become tricky is with the W H Allen and then Headline first editions of the books. Northlight, the first Allen hardback, is relatively easy to come by in first – AbeBooks currently has around twenty copies listed, a good number of those for less than a tenner – but thereafter matters become rather more murky. Quiller's Run I've already discussed, but the next book after that, Quiller KGB, is in rather short supply in first; at time of writing AbeBooks only has two copies of the Allen first edition for sale, one in the UK, the other, an ex-library copy, in Australia, both for about thirty quid. There was a third copy for less than that... but I bought it. Sorry.


The next book in the series, 1991's Quiller Barracuda, is almost as scarce – AbeBooks currently has only four copies of the Allen first edition listed, although those are more agreeably priced at around the £15 mark – but is complicated by the fact that the book was first published a year before its UK debut in the States by William Morrow, and that in the UK, it was reissued in hardback the following year, 1992, by Headline, the publisher who would thereafter publish the Quiller novels in Britain. The subsequent Quiller novel, Quiller Bamboo, which Headline again issued in 1992 in hardback, was also preceded by a Morrow edition, although that doesn't seem to have impacted its scarcity: AbeBooks has only three UK first editions listed right now, one of those for more than fifty quid. 

Quiller Solitaire, the sixteenth novel, is more readily available, with a good seven or eight copies of the first edition on AbeBooks and more available on Amazon Marketplace (you'll often find additional copies of particular editions for sale over there, too, although listings can be duplicated from AbeBooks), though in both cases some of those are ex-library. And ex-library copies seem to be what's mostly available of the Headline first of the next book, Quiller Meridian; currently I can only see a couple of copies that aren't ex-library online, and one of those is going for £45.


And then we get into the real rarities. Unless you're prepared to accept an ex-library copy, the 1994 Headline first edition – and first printing; I think it went into a second impression – of Quiller Salamander is very hard to come by – so hard, in fact, that I can't see any non-ex-library copies for sale online right now. On the other hand, a few non-ex-library copies of the Headline first/first of the final book in the series, 1996's Quiller Balalaika, are available, but you're looking at anything from £150–£350 for those. Of course, whether or not anyone would actually pay that amount for a copy is open to debate. It's a curiosity of online secondhand bookselling that books often aren't priced so much to sell as to seemingly sit on AbeBooks indefinitely. If certain book dealers halved their prices, they might actually shift some of their overpriced stock – I for one would be more inclined to purchase those later Quillers if they were more attractively priced.

Anyway, for me, in some respects, Quiller looks to be a tough nut to crack collecting-wise. But as previous collecting sprees have perhaps proved, I'm nothing if not determined in these matters.

And that's it for Quiller for a while, although I will obviously be returning to him at some point. Next, though, it's back to the random books blogging. I've got a few reviews to get through, including a graphic novel, and I'll be spotlighting a recently rediscovered thriller writer who I reckon will be unfamiliar to most folk. And looking further ahead, I'll soon be unveiling that exclusive interview with an author I teased... But first, in the next post, I'll be showcasing a book that goes on sale this very week; an illustrated biography of a towering name in the comics field; indeed a book that I actually edited, in my role as managing editor at The Ilex Press, and which I'll also be writing about over on the Ilex blog...

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Striker Portfolio (Quiller #3) by Adam Hall; Book Club Edition, 1970 (Originally Heinemann, 1969)

Next up in this series on Elleston "Adam Hall" Trevor's novels starring secret agent Quiller, another book I bought on my birthday day out way back in the mists of time (er, March):


This is the 1970 hardback edition of the third Quiller mission, The Striker Portfolio, published by The Book Club, Charing Cross Road – originally published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1969. I picked this up in one of my favourite bookshops, Much Ado Books in Alfriston, East Sussex, on the same day on which I also bought the 1965 first edition of the debut Quiller, The Berlin Memorandum. I'd actually seen this copy of The Striker Portfolio sitting on Much Ado's crime fiction shelves on previous visits to the shop, and even handled it a couple of times, not really knowing what it was. However, on this visit, having been made aware of Adam Hall by Jeremy Duns, I snapped it up for a few quid.


Regular readers of Existential Ennui will know that ordinarily I steer well clear of book club editions, but I rather like the dustjacket on this one, the colourful – but unfortunately uncredited – line-and-watercolour illustration on the front of which is different to the 1969 Heinemann first, which you can see on the right. On top of that, prices on the Heinemann and Book Club editions on AbeBooks are pretty similar – in the five-to-ten-pounds range – so it's not as if the first edition is noticeably more valuable or anything – and indeed the American Simon & Schuster edition preceded the Heinemann one by a year anyway. I haven't read the novel yet, so if you want to know what it's about, click on the jacket flap blurb above, or head over to the indispensable unofficial Quiller website, which has a pithy summary of the novel and a cover gallery.

That leaves just one more post to come in this run of Quillers. And for that finale, we turn to a novel from much later in Trevor/Hall's career, which I picked up during my recent fortnight's holiday, and which I'll be using to illustrate what a tricky proposition Adam Hall is for book collectors...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Lewes Bookshop Bargain: The Quiller Memorandum (Quiller #1) by Adam Hall; Movie Tie-in Edition (Fontana, 1967)

So, from one edition of Elleston Trevor/Adam Hall's debut Quiller mission... to another:


This is the 1967 UK paperback of The Quiller Memorandum, as published by Fontana. I spotted this copy lurking on the bookshelves outside – yes, outside – Lewes' famed 15th Century Bookshop. It has, as you can see, been battered by the elements – said shelves are shuttered when the shop is closed, but when they're open there's little protection from rain and so forth – but as I was in the midst of a Quiller collecting spree, I couldn't resist picking this paperback up – even though it's almost exactly the same as the book I blogged about in the first post in this series.

See, as outlined in that previous post, Hall's debut Quiller outing was originally titled The Berlin Memorandum when Collins issued it in hardback in the UK in 1965. But that, as it turned out, was the only instance the novel was destined to appear under that title (at least in English; there have been a few foreign language editions over the years bearing the same title). By the time the book was published in the States, by Simon & Schuster that same year, it had acquired a new title: The Quiller Memorandum (dustjacket front cover on the right there). And from that point on, in both the US and the UK, that was the title the book was published under.

I'm not sure why the title changed for that American edition. Possibly it was because the 1966 Michael Anderson-directed movie adaptation – for which the Fontana paperback is the tie-in edition; that's George Segal as Quiller on the front – was in the works by then, but not having a copy of the Simon & Schuster edition to hand (the cover above right was "borrowed" off the internet), I can't verify whether the then-forthcoming film is mentioned at all on the jacket. Certainly once the movie was out, I can see why that title stuck; but was the movie the reason for the title change in the first place? If any Quiller aficionados are reading – I know a few of you found your way to the previous post from the Quiller Yahoo Group – and know the truth of the matter, feel free to set me straight in the comments.


I haven't seen the 1966 movie (very remiss of me, I know – it's rare for me not to have seen a flick like this; must get meself a copy), but the excellent unofficial Quiller website has a page dedicated to it, which boasts links to various reviews, as well as to screenwriter Harold Pinter's own page on the film. Next in my Quiller-centric series of posts, however, I'll have a colourful British edition of Quiller's third literary mission...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Berlin Memorandum (Quiller #1) by Adam Hall: a Review of the First Edition (Collins, 1965)

Time, I think, for another series of author-centric posts, in the grand tradition of such former, lauded (er, by somebody, somewhere... probably) series of author-centric posts as this one on Patricia Highsmith and this one on Anthony Price. And this time it's the turn of a spy fiction author who excites great interest and fervent devotion in certain sections of the espionage-fic fratenity; a man who wrote well over a hundred novels in his lifetime, under a variety of pen names – one of which would eventually become his legal name – and in a variety of genres: Elleston Trevor.

The Trevor nom de plume I'm concerned with is Adam Hall, under which moniker Trevor wrote nineteen first-person novels starring British secret agent Quiller, published from 1965 to 1996. I've only read the first one thus far, but it was so strange and fascinating and gripping that I'm planning on making my way through the entire series. There's plenty of info and commentary on Trevor/Hall's oeuvre online, so rather than proffer my ill-informed thoughts on his life and career, I'll instead direct you to this comprehensive website, which contains everything from articles on and interviews with Trevor to details about each of the books; this interview with Trevor's son, JP, by friend of Existential Ennui and author of the Paul Dark spy novels Jeremy Duns (Hall is Jeremy's favourite author; it was Jeremy that turned me on to him); and this dedicated page and this series of posts on Matthew Bradley's website.

Quiller's first appearance came in this novel:


The Berlin Memorandum, published in hardback in the UK by Collins in 1965 (prices – with dustjacket – on this first edition range from six or seven quid to over £50, depending on condition; I bought this one from secondhand bookshop Camilla's in Eastbourne on my birthday day out all the way back in March) – although it was actually the second novel Trevor wrote under the Hall alias, following 1963's non-Quiller debut The Volcanoes of San Domingo. Operating in Cold War Berlin on the orders of shadowy British outfit the Bureau, in turn liaising with the Z Commission, Quiller's ongoing mission is to bring to justice those Nazi war criminals who have thus far escaped prosecution, and who continue to operate at all levels in German society. But when a fellow agent is killed, Quiller is tasked by the Bureau to hunt down former SS Obergruppenführer Heinrich Zossen, a man who Quiller saw at his ruthless worst during the war. Before long Quiller finds himself up against underground Nazi organisation Phönix, in the process uncovering a plan that could have devastating consequences for Europe and the wider world.


In his own way, Quiller is as weird a creation as another of my abiding preoccupations-cum-obsessions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark's Parker. Obviously there are major differences between the two – Parker is a career criminal; Quiller is a secret agent – but there are also parallels: the single name (we never learn in either case whether "Parker" or "Quiller" is a surname or a pseudonym); the single-minded dedication to a cause to the exclusion of pretty much everything else (romance, home comforts... er, hobbies...); the machine-like nature of each protagonist. Indeed, based on the evidence of The Berlin Memorandum, Quiller is as much an espionage automaton as Parker is a heisting one.

Quiller's narrative style – and therefore Hall's prose – is curiously elliptical and staccato in nature. Quiller frequently deploys shorthand phrases – trademarks, really – for a number of situations: for danger ("red sector"); for an intractable problem or blocked avenue ("no go"). Often he'll close out a statement abruptly with a curt "So forth". His narration is thick with espionage nomenclature and terminology: "flushing tags" (getting rid of a tail); "cover" (agents deployed to watch one's back). He also has a tendency to lapse into bizarre almost bullet-point summaries of his position as he reasons out situations and explores options.

This being an espionage thriller, there are the expected double- and triple-crosses, and there's also a memorable interrogation sequence, with Quiller battling the effects of a truth serum, hallucinating badly but desperately trying to hold on to reality. Interestingly, Quiller doesn't carry a pistol, believing guns to be more of a hindrance than a help; he even informs us that a gun is merely "a penis-substitute and a symbol of power". Take that, 007, licensed to kill. He continues:

The age range of toy-shop clientele begins at about six or seven, rises sharply just before puberty and declines soon after the discovery of the phallus and its promise of power. From then on, guns are for kids and for the effete freaks and misfits who must seek psycho-orgasmic relief by shooting pheasants.

And take that, the landed gentry. Consequently, Quiller often has to think his way out of a jam rather than fight his way out. Perhaps the most ingenious example of this comes when, having failed to extract the information he needs from Quiller, Nazi interrogator Oktober turns instead to Inga, the damaged young woman with whom Quiller has become involved. With Inga being tortured and raped in the next room in order to force Quiller to talk, Quiller comes up with quite a creative solution: he faints, thus making the torture redundant.

That's just one remarkable passage from a novel that's stuffed with similarly noteworthy scenes and events. It's an impressive first outing for Quiller, although if the opinions of Messrs Duns, Bradley et al are anything to go by, there's even better to come. But in the next post in this series, instead of looking at a subsequent Quiller adventure, I'll once again be examining The Berlin Memorandum – except under a different title. Because as it turned out, the 1965 Collins edition was the only time the novel was destined to appear under the title of The Berlin Memorandum – at least in English (there have been a handful of foreign language editions, one of which – a 1967 Spanish paperback – you can see above on the left). Thereafter, it would assume a perhaps more familiar moniker...

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Shot in the Dark: Short Stories by Saki (Hesperus Press, 2006)

Well, after that short, intermittent run of posts on my holiday adventures – which, you'll recall, largely consisted of me dragging Rachel into secondhand bookshops all over the south of England – it's back to the books. I've got a clutch of reviews I'm intending to write over the next few weeks of novels I read whilst I was away, including one I bought during the vacation, as well as at least one (related) series of posts planned, on a newly-discovered (from my perspective) espionage novelist. But first I thought we could take a look at a book that I also acquired during my fortnight's holiday – except, rather than purchasing it, it was given to me:


A Shot in the Dark was published in paperback by Hesperus Press in 2006, with a cover designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio, featuring an image by Lee Saper. A collection of short stories by Hector Hugh Munro – alias Saki – it was compiled by one Adam Newell, a longtime editor at pop culture publisher Titan Books. Now, those of you who've been paying attention at the back might dimly recall that I too once worked at Titan, so it shouldn't be a huge leap to make the connection between Adam and myself. Indeed, it was in large part for Adam's wedding – to the lovely Sharon Gosling, herself a talented editor-cum-writer – that Rachel and I travelled to Devon for our holiday the other week, and it was the day after that wedding that Adam gave me a copy of A Shot in the Dark.

I must confess to a certain level of ignorance about Saki; what little I do know about him comes from Adam, who's something of an expert. But the Cliff's Notes gen on him is he's widely regarded as a master of the short story form. In an all-too-brief career – he was born in 1870 and killed in 1916 during World War I – he produced around 150 or so pithy, mischievous, sly short stories (as well as two novels and three plays) which elegantly skewer the staid, stultifying Edwardian society of which he was a part. Some of the tales boast supernatural, eerie or unnervingly otherworldly – yet strangely commonplace in the way they're portrayed – elements, alongside, as Adam puts it in his introduction to A Shot in the Dark, "the ever-present threat of an unfettered, pagan wider world in which terrible things can, and usually do, happen".

I've yet to read all the stories in this collection; of the ones I have read, "Tobermory" stands out for me – a typically barbed tale of a talking cat whose cutting opinions of the guests at a house party introduce an amusing disquiet into proceedings (it's also one of Saki's best-loved tales). But the story behind the anthology is as fascinating as the thing itself. As Adam notes in his intro, the 140-odd Saki shorts that had been published prior to A Shot in the Dark were, for Saki fans, "all too soon devoured". Desperate for more Munro, Adam embarked on a hunt for uncollected stories, finding them in Munro's sister, Ethel's, long-out-of-print biography of her brother and enlisting the aid of Saki aficionado A. J. Langguth, who had combed through countless newspapers and magazines researching his biography of the writer, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, in the process turning up a further six uncollected tales.

Armed with his bounty, Adam contacted Hesperus Press, whose modus operandi is bringing back into print little-seen public domain works by literary authors. Unsurprisingly they leapt at the chance to publish the scarcely-seen material Adam had ferreted out, the end result being A Shot in the Dark. And Adam even wound up on telly for his troubles, proving instrumental in the production of a 2007 BBC Four docu-drama, The Double Life of Saki, and appearing onscreen as an interviewee. All of which goes to show what a little dedication and persistence can achieve.

A heart-warming tale of fannish enthusiasm there (something I can certainly relate to). Next: Quiller.