Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "They Also Serve", Analog, Vol. 68, No. 1, September 1961/January 1962

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

As promised, both on here and on The Violent World of Parker (and while I'm linking to that TVWoP post, let me just point out that Lawrence Block – yes, Lawrence Block – took the time to leave a comment on it, a turn of events as pleasantly surprising as it is humbling), this week I'm returning to the short stories Donald E. Westlake wrote for science fiction magazines in the 1950s and 1960s – which I first blogged about back in May of this year on Existential Ennui – with another series of reviews, this time of a clutch of tales from the early '60s. And it's a mixed bag indeed, with the stories ranging in length from four pages to well over thirty, and the subjects encompassing everything from bizarre military experiments, to philosophical musings on the nature of reality, to – as is the case with this first tale – a commentary on the then-prevalent Cold War paranoia.


"They Also Serve" appeared in the Volume 68, #1 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction (cover art by H. R. Van Dongen), published in the States by Street & Smith in September 1961 – although the edition you can see here is the British one, published by Morrison & Gibb in January 1962 (UK editions of US science fiction magazines tended to lag behind the American ones by three or four months). The story centres on Ebor, the alien captain of a launch bringing mail and supplies to a remote colony on a small, rocky, airless moon – a moon orbiting a blue and green planet colloquially known as Earth. Ebor is met by his friend and colleague, Commander Darquelnoy, who fills Ebor in as to what the inhabitants of Earth have been up to – namely building an unmanned spaceship which has circled the Moon and taken pictures. This is the source of much consternation for the xenomorphic Moon colonists, who, it transpires, are waiting for humanity to destroy itself so that they can add Earth to their galactic empire.


Needless to say, the anticipated method of mankind's demise provides the twist in this short tale, and considering Ebor and Darquelnoy spend the majority of "They Also Serve" discussing humanity's secretive, argumentative, warlike nature, you can probably work out what that twist is for yourself. (I guessed it fairly early on, and I'm no rocket scientist – hey!) It's a nice idea, but as is often the case with his brief SF stories, Westlake doesn't really develop it beyond a punchline. There's some noticeable papering-over of plot cracks, such as when Ebor and Darquelnoy debate why their alien society doesn't simply wipe humanity off the face of the planet rather than waiting for us to do it ourselves – their answer being, rather than fighting himself, man would instead turn his firepower on the aliens. Which sort of begs the question, if the aliens are powerful enough to travel across vast expanses of space, surely humanity's ire wouldn't trouble them unduly. (And destroying mankind themselves would, in any case, provide the end result the aliens are hoping for.)

But perhaps I'm overthinking things. (Now there's a surprise...) That "They Also Serve" doesn't stand up to close scrutiny is perfectly understandable in the context of it being a short story from early in Westlake's career – a time when he was writing whatever he could for whoever would buy – based on what was probably a passing notion. If you don't examine it in too much detail, it's an agreeable enough piece of whimsy. With their flapping tentacles and officious natures, the aliens are amusingly whiny, wearily resigned to humanity's unpredictable nature, and overall there's an attractive affability to the tale, offsetting the lurking Cold War unease that underpins events. Indeed, the obvious inference of a story like this would be that its author nurses a somewhat pessimistic outlook on mankind's ultimate fate, but this is Westlake we're talking about here, and so there's more than a hint of optimism to the ending, with the extraterrestrials hamstrung by bureaucracy and consequently forced to passively await a doomsday that may never arrive. Which, come to think of it, is a very Westlakean predicament.

To my knowledge "They Also Serve" has never been reprinted – although it is available on Project Gutenberg – and neither has the next Westlake SF story I'll be reviewing: a much longer and more serious effort from a 1962 issue of Analog, concerning US military psi-ops. But ahead of that on Existential Ennui, I'll have another signed association edition of a Gavin Lyall thriller...

Monday, 29 August 2011

A Signed Association First Edition of Spy's Honour by Gavin Lyall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)

Continuing my series of posts on signed first editions, this week I've got two books by the same author – a British thriller writer who's made multiple appearances on Existential Ennui over the years: Gavin Lyall. And my research for one of those books has turned up an interesting nugget of info about another of Lyall's novels, so there'll also be a bonus post on him. Plus there'll be some Donald E. Westlake business as well, as I return to the short stories Westlake wrote for various science fiction magazines in the early 1960s (which I'll be cross-posting on The Violent World of Parker, of course).

The unusual thing about both of the signed Gavin Lyall books I'm showcasing this week is that, so far as I've been able to establish, Lyall didn't appear to sign that many books. AbeBooks, for example, currently lists a grand total of just three signed Lyall books, which, considering he wrote fifteen novels and two non-fiction works over nearly forty years, and that many of those were bestsellers, is a remarkably small number. Those he did sign tend to be association copies, that is, books inscribed for friends; both of the signed Lyall novels I own bear self-evidently personal inscriptions – Lyall uses just his first name in each case – and I'd be willing to bet those scant few lurking on AbeBooks are association copies too. Which makes me wonder whether, gifts for friends aside, he simply didn't sign his books.

If that is the case, that makes the few that do bear his signature rather special. Like this one, which I picked up in the splendid Dim and Distant secondhand bookshop in Heathfield, East Sussex:


Spy's Honour was published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK in hardback in 1993, with a front cover illustration by Bill Gregory. Now, it's worth noting here that Gavin Lyall's writing career can be divided up into three quite distinct phases. The first phase, from 1961's The Wrong Side of the Sky to 1975's Judas Country, consists of first-person aviation and Euro thrillers, largely – but not exclusively – starring hard-bitten freelance pilots; you can read my review of one of them, The Most Dangerous Game, here. The second phase, from 1980's The Secret Servant to 1988's Uncle Target, comprises a four-book espionage series starring 10 Downing Street troubleshooter Harry Maxim; you can read my review of the first novel in that series here.


Spy's Honour marks the beginning of the third phase of Lyall's career, and of the three, this is the one era I've yet to explore properly. The four books Lyall had published from Spy's Honour to 1999's Honourable Intentions are all set in the run-up to the First World War, and deal with Britain's nascent intelligence service. If they were published today I suspect they'd do rather well, what with the ongoing vogue for historical fiction and interest in that period in particular in the wake of Keith Jeffrey's 2010 tome MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service; but at the time I don't believe they were as successful as Lyall's earlier works, and consequently all four have fallen out of print and become quite scarce in non-ex-library first.

But this copy of Spy's Honour is even more special than most, because of what's on the front endpaper:


A "thank you" note from Gavin Lyall to a John and Marian. Bizarrely, there's also what looks to be an ownership signature opposite Lyall's inscription, which is a very odd thing to do when the book you own has been written in by its author. Perhaps the owner didn't realise it was Lyall's own hand, but I can be rather more confident in its authenticity because of the other signed edition I've managed to secure – a novel from towards the end of the first phase of his career. And that'll be coming right up after a Donald E. Westlake science fiction story...

Friday, 26 August 2011

Donald E. Westlake Non-Fiction: "Break-Out", in Ed McBain's Mystery Book No. 3, 1961 (Pocket Books)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Back in May of this year, I posted a series of reviews on Existential Ennui of some of the short stories Donald E. Westlake wrote for American science fiction magazines in the 1950s and '60s (along with a bibliography of those tales). Some of those stories were later collected in book form – notably in 1989's Tomorrow's Crimes – but many have never been seen since. Now that I'm blogging over on The Violent World of Parker, I'll be returning to Westlake's SF stories in another series of posts starting next week – in amongst the still-ongoing Existential Ennui posts on signed editions, that is – with a handful of further futuristic tales dating from around 1962.


But in the midst of my feverish online quest for old science fiction magazines, I turned up something by Westlake that wasn't science fiction, or crime fiction – or even fiction for that matter: an obscure essay in a short-lived crime story magazine; an essay which, while not an essential piece of the Westlake puzzle, is still interesting for how it represents a little-examined aspect of the great man's writing career.


Westlake didn't write a hell of a lot of non-fiction, at least not compared to the reams of fiction he bashed out over the years. There's his 1972 book-length account of the 1969 British invasion of the Caribbean island of Aguilla, of course (Under an English Heaven), and his earlier pseudonymous biography of Elizabeth Taylor (which Trent blogged about on TVWoP just the other day). Alongside those, the "official" bibliography on his website lists just six other non-fiction articles, two of those being forewords or introductions to books. But in fact, Westlake did pen a number of other non-fiction pieces besides, certainly more than that abbreviated biblio suggests. There was a 1971 feature on Aguilla for The New York Times (perhaps the inspiration for Under an English Heaven); a piece titled "Love Stuff, Cops-and-Robbers Style" that same year in The Los Angeles Times; an article titled "Discovering Belize" in 1984, again for The New York Times (and possibly an earlier one in 1982, comparing the situation in Belize at the time to that of the Falkland Islands); and a handful of other essays as well. Including, in 1961, this:


"Break-Out" appeared in the third and, as it turned out, final issue of Ed McBain's Mystery Book, published by Pocket Books in 1961. A digest-sized newsstand collection of mostly short stories and novelettes, this particular issue featured fiction from, among others, Frederic Brown, Irving Shulman, and an early short by Lawrence Block:


Halfway through the magazine, however, comes "Break-Out". Essentially it's an overview of factual prison escapes, some well-known, others more obscure, from twentieth-century Alcatraz escapee Ted Cole to eighteenth-century English highwayman and repeat prison-buster Jack Sheppard. Jailbreak by jailbreak, Westlake details each escape and then examines how successful each escapee was in staying out of jail. Indeed, it's the aftermath of the breakouts which become the article's focus as it develops. As Westlake observes, few planned for what they'd do once they were free, and consequently swiftly ended up back inside.

But Westlake makes the larger point that there seems to be a correlation between how hard jails make it for inmates to escape, and how determined certain inmates become to meet that challenge. As he writes in the article:

Here is the core of the problem. The tougher the prison officials made their prison—the more they challenged Sheppard and told him that this time he couldn't escape—the more determined and daring and ingenious Sheppard become.

It's a fascinating little piece, and though I don't think one could draw any direct parallels with Westlake's fiction – the later Richard Stark Parker novel Breakout, for example (title and general theme aside) – it's evident that prison breaks were a subject Westlake was genuinely interested in himself, rather than something he wrote about simply for a paycheck. In fact, looking at his relatively small body of non-fiction overall, I reckon you could say the same about all of it: when he chose to wrote factual pieces, it was first and foremost because those subjects interested him. In that way, they perhaps reflect more of the man behind the words than many of his stories do.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Signed First Edition of And Then You Die by Michael Dibdin (Aurelio Zen #8); Faber, 2002

From a supposed – but in point of fact highly suspect – Benjamin Black/John Banville signature, to a rather more genuine Michael Dibdin one...


This is the UK hardback first edition/first printing of And Then You Die, published by Faber & Faber in 2002, with a dustjacket designed by Pentagram. It's the eighth in the late Mr. Dibdin's eleven-novel series starring Commissioner Aurelio Zen, a detective in the Italian police service, attached to the Ministry of the Interior. Now, I have to admit, I wasn't really aware of Dibdin or Zen until the start of this year, when the Beeb broadcast Zen, three feature-length adaptations of the first three books in the series (in a mixed-up order). It was perfect Sunday night viewing: witty, stylish, and with a charismatic central performance by Rufus Sewell as the Venetian-born, Rome-based Zen. Mystifyingly, the BBC elected not to renew the series, BBC One controller Danny Cohen reasoning that there were already too many male detectives and crime shows airing. Which is true in as much as there are a lot of TV 'tec shows, but rather ignores the fact that the majority of them are rubbish – whereas Zen was not. Pillock.

Anyway, suitably inspired, I decided to investigate Dibdin's work, and set about tracking down first editions of the Zen books (as well as a first of one of his non-Zen novels, Dirty Tricks, having read Olman's glowing review of it). I'll be detailing that collecting quest in future posts, but it was made much easier by a big score in Henry Pordes secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road, where I hoovered up four fine condition firsts in one fell swoop. Three of those books were only a fiver each, but the fourth – the copy of And Then You Die seen above – bore no pencilled price on the front endpaper. What it did have, however, was this:


Michael Dibdin's signature. I took the stack of books to the counter in the hope that the man at the till wouldn't spot the signature and would sell me the book at the same price as the others. Unfortunately, however, he did notice it. But after a moment's thought, he proposed a price of £15, which sounded to me at the time very reasonable indeed. And I've since learned it was even more reasonable than I figured: there's a Faber first on eBay at the moment for £40, and only two others on AbeBooks, priced at £65 and £85. As to the veracity of the signature, I've checked it against other examples of Dibdin's autograph, and can confidently state that it's the genuine article.

Matter of fact, one of the signatures I compared it to was one in another Dibdin first edition I scored, this time at the most recent Lewes Book Fair, back at the beginning of August. I'll be blogging about that book at the climax of this series on signed editions, but next I'll be turning to an author who's a firm favourite of mine, a British thriller writer who I don't believe signed many books in his lifetime, and yet who I've managed to secure two first editions bearing inscriptions by him.

Ahead of that, though, there's that Violent World of Parker post I mentioned...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A Signed (er, by Someone...) First Edition of The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (John Banville), Plus Christine Falls and a Bit of Richard Stark Parker Business

On with the signed editions we go, and here's a book I picked up just last weekend on an inaugural visit to Dim and Distant, a terrific secondhand bookshop in the small town of Heathfield, East Sussex:


The Silver Swan was published in hardback by Picador in 2007. Benjamin Black is, of course, the crime-writing alias of literary giant John Banville, and while I wasn't terribly keen on the single Black novel I've read – 2008's The Lemur – the critical weight of opinion on his expanding criminal oeuvre convinced me to put down four quid for The Silver Swan – his second B. Black offering – when I saw it in amongst the extensive selection of hardbacks on offer at Dim and Distant. Well, that, and this:


Which I figured was Mr. Banville's abbreviated signature. But having looked online, it doesn't appear to bear any resemblance to other examples of Banville's John Hancock, either his own or his alter ego's. If it's not his signature, though, I'm curious as to why whoever scrawled on it chose to do so on the book's title page, as owner inscriptions usually appear on endpapers. Strange. Anyway, even if it is some random sod's signature rather than the author's, £4 is still a fair price for a first printing, especially as I also found this next to it:


A hardback first edition/first printing of his debut Black novel, Christine Falls, published by Picador in 2006. So I can at least read the first two books in Banville/Black's series centring on Dublin pathologist Quirke in the correct order.

Banville is a fan of a writer who's an abiding obsession of mine, Donald E. Westlake, in particular Westlake's pseudonymous Richard Stark Parker novels. He provided the foreword to The University of Chicago Press' 2009 reprint of The Score (Parker #5), but his appreciation was underlined more recently when The Guardian ran a feature in their Saturday review section in July titled "Partners in Crime Fiction", wherein a variety of contemporary novelists chose their favourite crime writers (to tie in with the Harrogate Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival; my old mucker Keith Walters was one of two "bloggers in residence" at the event and has a series of posts on it on his Books and Writers blog). In his Benjamin Black guise Banville led the article, and his pithy Stark testimonial is well worth a read if you haven't chanced across it yet.

What's next then? Well, if you click on the back cover of The Silver Swan, that might provide a clue as to the identity of the author of the next signed novel I'll be showcasing – and I reckon I'm on much firmer ground regarding the authenticity of that signature. But there could well be another Violent World of Parker post ahead of that, so you'll just have to wait and see which one appears first. Oh the excitement...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Lewes Book Bargains: Signed First Editions of Robert Rankin's The Witches of Chiswick, Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood, and Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station

After yesterday's Westlake Score – also available on The Violent World of Parker, of course – it's back to the signed first editions again. And I've got a clutch of Rankins and a Wambaugh for this latest post, all of which I picked up dead cheap in charity shops in Lewes, the picturesque East Sussex town in which I live and work. Let's deal with the Rankins first:


Robert Rankin's The Witches of Chiswick was published in the UK in hardback by Gollancz in 2003, with a front cover designed by Rankin himself and produced by Sally Hurst. I believe – and I could be wrong; I've not read the book yet, so I'm only going by what I've found online – that having ranged over science fiction, fantasy and the occult in his career, The Witches of Chiswick marked Rankin's first foray into steampunk (a genre I've touched upon briefly before in this post on The Difference Engine). Rankin lives down the road from me, in Brighton, where steampunk has gripped certain sections of the populace for a while now – club nights, readings and what have you; he was made the first Fellow of the Victorian Steampunk Society in 2009.

He also has a suitably elaborate John Hancock:


Next, another Rankin – or rather, two Rankins:


Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood was also first published in hardback in 2003, this time by Orion. The photo on the front of the dustjacket is by Ross Gillespie and Tricia Malley, but the author pic on the back is by Rankin – as in, the photographer Rankin, not Ian himself. Although I suppose he could've been holding a remote shutter trigger in his other hand. Anyway, as with Robert Rankin, I've never read any of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels – of which A Question of Blood is the fourteenth... but my mum has, and she loves 'em. (She's also met Mr. Rankin, I believe, when she attended a signing.) And what with my interest in crime fiction, it's about time I gave one of them a go.

So what does an Ian Rankin signature look like? It looks like this:


Splendid. And finally:


This one's a little different: it's the American hardback first edition/first printing of Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station, published by Little, Brown in 2006. Now, attentive readers of Existential Ennui might at this point hear distant bells ringing in their heads. That's because I blogged about this very book at the end of last year, in a UK first edition which I also picked up in a Lewes charity shop. Needless to say, that edition has now returned to the charity shop from whence it came, and this edition has taken its place on my increasingly crowded shelves.

The signature on the title page also includes a dedication:


Who Stuart is/was and how this US first ended up in Lewes will probably remain a mystery, but there was also a little piece of paraphernalia inside the book:


An official Joseph Wambaugh bookmark. Quite a nice additional extra there. The jacket on this American edition was designed by Mario J. Pulice, who is creative director at Little, Brown... and who also harbours (hey!) an unusual passion for a particular 1930s ship. According to this 2010 New York Times piece, Mr. Pulice turned his NY apartment into a shrine to the Art Deco luxury ocean liner the Normandie. So accurate was the recreation – featuring original fixtures and fittings from the ship – that the South Street Seaport Museum borrowed a good chunk of it for a 2010 exhibition, DecoDence. Well I never. The things people do to their flats, eh?

Next up, another signed edition, this time from John Banville (although it might not actually be his signature...), along with a bit of Richard Stark/Parker business. And thereafter we'll be getting into the really good signed books...

Monday, 22 August 2011

Westlake Score: The Split by Richard Stark; UK Movie Tie-in First Edition (Coronet Paperback, 1969)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)


This latest Westlake Score was inspired by my learned friend Olman, who almost secured a copy of the book in question during a recent holiday ramble around a number bookshops in the Canadian Maritimes (not as unusual as that sounds; I did a similar thing on my holiday this year). Olman spied this book – the 1969 UK Hodder-Coronet movie tie-in paperback edition of The Split – in one store, but it was priced at $30, which he reasoned (correctly) was a bit too much. Inveterate collector that I am, and especially of the British editions of Richard Stark's Parker novels, I was suitably moved to have a look online and see if any copies were floating about over here in the UK, undetected. Turns out there was one, and I nabbed it for a tenner.

Why would I wish to purchase a forty-plus-year-old British copy of Stark's seventh Parker novel when I already own it in its original 1966 US Pocket Books softcover edition and its 1985 UK Allison & Busby hardback incarnation, I hear you cry? The reasons are manifold. For one thing, The Split – or The Seventh, to give it its US title; it was retitled in some markets as a result of Gordon Flemyng's 1969 Jim Brown-starring movie – is among my favourite Parkers, a blisteringly mean tale of a heist that turns into a spectacular bloodbath, with possibly the best ending in the entire series. For another, the cover of this UK edition is kinda cool: that's a great and unusual still from the film. Then there's the fact that it's pretty scarce in this edition; there are only two copies of the '69 Coronet softcover that I can see on AbeBooks, both in the States, both for around £20–£25.

But mostly it's because I am, as I say, a hopelessly obsessive collector, particularly of first editions. And that's what this edition of The Split is: the UK first edition, much as the 1967 Coronet movie tie-in paperback of Point Blank! is the first UK edition of Westlake's debut novel as Richard Stark (it's never been published in the UK under its original 1962 title, The Hunter). Why any of that should matter to a sane person is beyond me, but in my defence, one thing the Coronet paperbacks do have going for them are the different types of covers they sported over the years – even from printing to printing. Allow me to demonstrate. Illustrate. Whichever.

We begin, in 1967, with this:


The UK first edition of The Hunter, published, as I mentioned, as Point Blank! to tie in with John Boorman's movie adaptation of that year. Next, we get these:


The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, original US pub date 1967) and The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, also 1967), both published in paperback by Coronet in 1968. This style of cover (illustrator unknown, I'm afraid, although I speculated here that it might be John M. Burns) also cropped up in the two Parker novels Coronet published in 1969 alongside the movie tie-in paperback of The Split:


The Black Ice Score (Parker #11, US 1968 – and don't you just love that surprisingly witty and apposite front-cover strapline?) and The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, US 1969). At least, I think the Coronet paperback of The Sour Lemon Score came out in 1969; I don't own a copy of that one to check. Anyway, the next two Parker novels Coronet issued, in 1970, were these:


Reprints of the first two they'd published back in 1967 and 1968 respectively: Point Blank! and The Rare Coin Score. What's interesting about this short-lived iteration of cover design is how it seems to ape that of The Split, with lots of negative space. And then from 1971 we get this more familiar look:


The famed "bullet hole" double-cover design, as originated by Raymond Hawkey (although the books you can see above – the third printings of Point Blank! and The Rare Coin Score – date from 1972), under which wrapping almost all of the Parkers were either published or reissued – right up to the 1977 Coronet edition of Butcher's Moon (Parker #16, originally 1974), which boasts an entirely different cover design altogether. But that's a tale for another time...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Signed Editions of Plugged by Eoin Colfer (Headline) and Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver (Hodder & Stoughton, Indies Only Edition)

After the dizzying heights of my interview with Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay and my latest – and longest, I believe – Parker Progress Report (also available on The Violent World of Parker, of course), it's back down to earth with a bump, as I return, finally, to those promised signed editions. And just for change on Existential Ennui, these next couple of signed books I'm showcasing – following last week's Anthony Price signed firsts – are relatively new, both having been published this year. Let's take a gander at this one first:


Eoin Colfer's Plugged was published in hardback in the UK by Headline in May of this year, with a dustjacket designed by James Edgar – who may well be this James Edgar, who runs the Letterpress workshop at London's Camberwell art college (around where I spent many a drunken evening in the 1990s, as I had friends who went there). Colfer is best-known for his Artemis Fowl children's novels, and Plugged was trumpeted as his first foray into more mature fiction, although that does slightly ignore his 2009 continuation of Douglas Adams's Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy novels, And Another Thing..., which I read and enjoyed at the time. I've yet to read Plugged, but my old mate Keith Walters reviewed it on his Books and Writers blog, so go read that to find out more about it. (Keith also recently reviewed Vampire Art Now, a book I oversaw as part of my day job at The Ilex Press.)


Signed editions of Plugged aren't terribly scarce or pricey at present – you can pick one up on Amazon for £12.99 – but I found a slightly cheaper copy, and since I wanted to read the book anyway, it's always nice to have a signed first edition/first printing.

Next:


Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche was also published in hardback in the UK in May, this time by Hodder & Stoughton. As I'm sure everyone's well aware, Carte Blanche is the latest officially-sanctioned-by-the-Fleming-estate James Bond novel, following Sebastian Faulks's 2008 outing Devil May Care. I'm an admirer of Ian Fleming's original Bond novels, but I've not got very far into Deaver's contemporary take on 007 yet, chiefly because I keep getting distracted by other books. The reviews have been generally positive, although Steven Poole's one in The Guardian was rather less so, calling the novel "one giant steaming curd". (There's another, more appreciate review of the novel on The Guardian website by Stephanie Merritt, which I could've sworn I saw at the time in The Guardian newsprint edition and was struck by the decision to publish a hasty follow-up to Poole's caustic verdict. But according to the site, Merritt's review seems to have been in The Guardian's Sunday sister paper, The Observer, so evidently I misremembered.)


The edition of Carte Blanche seen here is the signed, numbered "indies only" – as in only available through independent booksellers – edition, limited to 1500 copies of the first printing of the hardback (still available for around twenty quid), which sports a reversed-out black dustjacket as opposed to the regular hardback's white jacket:


Both, however, feature the same cover photograph by David Gill. There's no overall design credit for the book, but it's nicely thought-through, with a fetching red finish and debossed "007" on the case:


So then. What's next, boys and girls? Well it might just be another Westlake Score...

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Parker Progress Report: A Review of Dead Skip by Joe Gores and Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (Random House, 1972)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Well I hope we all enjoyed my pithy Q&A with the creator of the Dexter series of novels Jeff Lindsay on Monday; don't forget you can read more from Jeff this week on Blogomatic 3000, Another Cookie Crumbles and Shots. Back here on Existential Ennui, though, it's back to regular business, with a Parker Progress Report.

For the uninitiated, over the past year or so I've been making my way through Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels – and the spin-off Alan Grofield books – bunging up reviews as I go along. The last Parker Progress Report (as I term these Parker missives) I posted, back in January, was on the fifteenth Parker novel, Plunder Squad, and having reviewed the third Grofield novel, The Blackbird (a Grofield File, if you will), in November of last year, one might reasonably assume that my next review would either be of the sixteenth Parker novel, Butcher's Moon (1974), or the fourth and final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie (1971).

But there's a book that was published in the same year as Plunder Squad (1972), one which, although not actually written by Donald E. Westlake, one could still make a strong claim for it fitting into the Parkerverse. That book is the second novel by crime writer Joe Gores, Dead Skip, which begins Gores's six-novel series (plus assorted short stories) centring on the operatives of Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm of "skip tracers", or private investigators who specialise in car repossession. Dead Skip's story primarily focuses on three DKA investigators: Bart Heslip, who winds up in a coma following what appears to be a car accident; Larry Ballard, who suspects there's something fishy about Heslip's supposed accident; and the boss of DKA, Dan Kearny himself.

Quite apart from its Parker connections – which I'll return to shortly – Dead Skip is a fine novel in and of itself. Gores was a private investigator for twelve years, which lends the workings of the story an added plausibility, an authenticity, even. Much of the novel is taken up with Ballard's legwork, as he retraces Heslip's steps in order to try and work out which of his fellow P.I.'s open cases might be the one that led to Heslip laid up in hospital with a fifty-fifty chance of ever recovering. Trudging from door to door, driving back and forth across San Francisco, Ballard hits brick wall after blind alley, in the process encountering a colourful cast of hookers, barflies, errant wives and embezzlers, any one of whom could be behind what Ballard believes was actually an assault on Heslip.

It's only when the grizzled, shrewd, experienced Kearny himself hits the streets towards the end of the novel that the strands of the investigation begin to tie together – and it's here that Parker enters the fray. Following up one of Ballard's leads, Kearny finds himself in the Concord suburb of San Francisco, and at a nondescript single-storey house in that suburb. Parked outside this ordinary house, however, are five cars. Obviously Kearny knows a thing or two about cars, and quickly spots that three of them are rentals – from three different rental companies. His hackles raised, Kearny rings the doorbell, and is met by a "wide and blocky" man with "flat square shoulders, a good half a head taller than Kearny's five-nine. His hands were out of a foundry, his wrists roped with veins. His face was bony, as flat and hard as the shoulders, rough-hewn in the same foundry as the hands."

This, needless to say, is Parker. What Kearny has stumbled upon is a meeting to plan one of the – ultimately abortive – heists in Plunder Squad; the exact same scene plays out from Parker's perspective in that Stark novel (although slightly shorter: about four pages to Dead Skip's six). But what's interesting is the way Gores depicts Parker, and the back-story he builds into the encounter. At first Kearny doesn't recognise Parker, but as he's about to be turned away from the door, he suddenly recalls his name. Turns out the two have met before, "off stage", in the first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962), when Parker broke out of a prison farm and was on the lam. According to Kearny, Parker shacked up with a woman in Fresco, and that woman was Kearny's sister, with whom Kearny stayed one night, helping Parker to kill a bottle.

Now, for anyone familiar with the Parker novels, all this is of course new information, but Gores takes great care to ensure Kearny and Parker's relationship dovetails with the established Stark "facts". He also effectively conveys Parker's cold, taciturn, dangerous nature: Parker helps Kearny out in his investigation (mostly to get rid of Kearny, one suspects) by bringing to the door the wife of a member of the plunder squad, but when the address she furnishes for Kearny's suspect is identified by Kearny as being incorrect, we get this passage: 

Parker didn't move, but the atmosphere changed. To Kearny it was as though the other man were leaning over her like an oncoming storm. You could almost see the shadow crossing her face. "Once more," Parker said, and there wasn't anything in his voice at all.

Clearly this is the same man we know from the Stark novels, the Parker we all know and fear.

It's fascinating to read the entire encounter with Kearny in Plunder Squad. Last month Violent World of Parker supremo Trent posted a PDF download of a Donald E. Westlake interview from a 1988 issue of Armchair Detective, and the subject of Dead Skip and Plunder Squad crops up in that. For me, that interview shed new light on how the scene came about, as, according to Westlake, it was Gores who penned his side of the encounter first, and Westlake who had to make his novel fit around that. Which kind of helps to explain the curiously bent-out-of-shape nature of Plunder Squad, with its cul-de-sacs and plot non sequiturs – aspects which in fact make the novel more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

Bearing this in mind, it's possible to spot the odd sly dig at Gores in Westlake's take on the encounter. For one thing, Westlake opts to tackle the scene very early in Plunder Squad, perhaps evincing his mild frustration at having to derail his own story. But there's also a telling moment straight after Kearny reminds Parker of the drinking session the two had at Kearny's sister's place: 

Parker remembered. Kearny had a private detective's ticket, but his field was bad credit risks, not wanted convicts. Parker had allowed him to kill most of that bottle that night, and had left early the next morning.

Westlake reveals in that Armchair Detective interview that he and Gores had planned a follow-up, this time with Westlake writing the scene for Gores to fit his story around. "It never happened the second time," said Westlake, "which is unfortunate, because, see, it's easy for the first guy. Joe could just write, ' . . . and Parker opened the door.' Then, in my book, I had to explain why. I had to get him there. Then I was going to do a thing where somebody from Dan Kearny Associates would pass through my book, and leave it to Joe to figure out. Joe stopped doing novels for several years."

The crossover between Dead Skip and Plunder Squad is typical of the games Westlake played both with his fellow writers and within his own books in the '60s and '70s. For my money, Westlake was at his most formally audacious during this period: tinkering with the structure of the Parker novels, spinning a bit-part player off into his own series of books (Alan Grofield), even leaking elements of the Parkers into his newly instigated Dortmunder series. I wonder occasionally what readers at the time made of these games, these shared chapters and crossovers – in a pre-internet era, how many were able to make the connections between a Stark Parker, a Stark Grofield, a Westlake Dortmunder, a Gores DKA?

I'll be returning to this period of formal deconstruction down the tracks, but before we draw a line under this (mildly and unintentionally epic) post, I just wanted to bring to your attention one other, earlier, largely unremarked nod to Westlake/Stark in Dead Skip, one which comes across as oddly meta in the context of what's to come...

Twenty pages before the Parker scene, Larry Ballard is talking to the female manager of an apartment block, who mentions in passing, "I've never met a real detective before... but I love Agatha Christie . . ." Ballard doesn't respond verbally, but in his omniscient narration Gores wryly notes that Ballard "only read Richard Stark".