Monday, 30 January 2012

Book Review: Secret Ministry (a.k.a The Nazi Assassins; Johnny Fedora #1) by Desmond Cory (1951 Frederick Muller First Edition), and a Lewes / South Downs Connection

For this final post (for now) on Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy thrillers (see here, here, here, here and here for previous posts) we're heading right back to the beginning of the Fedora series, to the book that introduced both Cory and Fedora to the world of spy fiction:


Secret Ministry was first published in hardback in the UK by Frederick Muller in 1951, under a dustjacket designed by the great illustrator, graphic artist and children's author Val Biro. Now, all throughout these Desmond Cory posts I've been banging on about how scarce some of the Johnny Fedora novels are. In one sense, Secret Ministry isn't scarce at all – you can download it as an ebook and read it right now. But in another, more tangible sense, it's nigh on impossible to get hold of. At time of writing there's only one copy of any edition of the book under its original title available online – a Shakespeare Head Conpress Printing (whatever the hell that is) on AbeBooks – although there are also a couple of US Award paperback printings of the novel on AbeBooks under its later title of The Nazi Assassins. Of the Frederick Muller first edition, however, there is not a single, solitary trace.

So where did my copy of the Muller first come from? Not from AbeBooks, or Amazon, or eBay, or even an actual, physical, bricks-and-mortar bookshop. No, my copy came from South Africa, via an African eBay-like site called bidorbuy. See, having drawn a blank through the usual channels in my search for a first edition, I resorted to desperately Googling the book's title, and eventually came up with a listing for what looked like it could be the Muller first – the listing included an image of the cover and a date of 1951, but no further publishing info – on bidorbuy (of which I'd never heard before). Unfortunately, the listing had closed. Undeterred, I searched bidorbuy to see if the auction had been won or simply ended, and discovered the latter to be the case. Bidorbuy being an African website I had no idea whether foreign bidders could even participate on it, but I signed up anyway, and contacted the seller to see if they'd consider shipping overseas. Happily they said they would, and after some further communication, between us we managed to arrange shipping to the UK.


And I'm glad we did, for a number of reasons. In the first instance, for a collector such as myself, obviously it's quite exciting to own a copy of such an old, rare and important book – not only the debut Johnny Fedora adventure, but one of two novels Cory had published at the outset of his career in 1951 (the other being the first Lindsay Grey murder mystery, Begin, Murderer!) – and in its original dustwrapper, too (which is a little battered, but still bright). Then there's being able to compare and contrast the story to later Fedora outings to see how Cory and his leading man developed, which is certainly instructive. But for me, the book also boasts an added, more personal significance, one I had no inkling of before I read it.

Secret Ministry, you see, is set in large part in the Sussex South Downs, specifically the area around Brighton and Lewes, the latter being the town in which, for the past four years, I've lived and worked. Lewes is mentioned a couple of times in the book, and Brighton looms large as well, but much of the story centres on the fictional village of Cootsbridge – and when you consider that Desmond Cory was born in Lancing in Sussex, it's not a huge leap to conjecture that he probably based the made-up Cootsbridge on the real village of Cooksbridge, which lies about two miles north of Lewes. (By the way, Secret Ministry isn't the only spy novel set in the South Downs; Anthony Price's The Alamut Ambush is also partly set not far from Lewes.)

Johnny Fedora is sent to Sussex by Peter Holliday of the British Ministry of Information – the eponymous "Secret Ministry" – to investigate drug smuggling by Nazi agents intent in destabilizing Britain any way they can (in the early Fedora novels, Johnny is invariably pitted against Nazis rather than Soviets). At heart of the drug ring is the "Three of Clubs", a gambling den perched atop the Downs overlooking Brighton, where Johnny meets an intriguing mix of managers, barmen, cloakroom attendants, singers and wives, any one of whom could be involved in the nefarious Nazi plot. Before long, Johnny's assigned partner, Murray, winds up dead in a supposed car accident – and Murray is just the first in what will soon become a string of corpses...


I had a brief chat with spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns about Secret Ministry on Twitter the other day. Jeremy had just finished the book and noted that it was "light but very enjoyable" and "almost a comic novel, strikingly different tonally from Casino Royale" (Ian Fleming's debut James Bond novel, published two years after Secret Ministry in 1953). And it's true that Secret Ministry is a breezy read – punctuated by bursts of violence, sure, but verging on the madcap in places. But what's especially interesting about it is the way its lightness stands in stark contrast to later novels in the series. Where, say, Undertow (1962, the twelfth Fedora novel) is characterised by longish, some would say ponderous sequences where seemingly little happens – although, it should be noted, those moments of languor do add colour and psychological depth to the proceedings – Secret Ministry consists largely of hectic dashes and quickfire smart alec dialogue.

Moreover, Johnny himself is a very different kind of man than in later books. It's fair to say that Johnny becomes more thoughtful, more introspective as the series progresses (and certainly a lot less gabby: he's quite the chatterbox in Secret Ministry). Here, though, he's a whirlwind of frantic activity, forever darting about, dispensing quips, charming the ladies, charging into action. To some extent a number of those traits are evident in later books, too; Fedora is never the most subtle of operatives, and he retains his roving eye. But in Secret Ministry he displays a young man's nonchalance and lust for life – perhaps reflecting Cory's own youth and joy at embarking on a writing career – with none of the world-weariness which would infect him down the line (not cynicism, though; never cynicism for Johnny).

Many of the differences between younger Johnny and older Johnny can, of course, be attributed to both Fedora and Cory growing up. But it isn't just Cory's chief protagonist who becomes more rounded (and, it must be said, more interesting) as the series continues: Cory's writing style changes as well. Self-evidently, Cory became a much better writer as time went on, more willing to let the narrative drift if he felt a few pages of reflection might be necessary, more assured in his handling of character, in digging beneath the surface of his cast. By contrast, there's not much in the way of "down time" in Secret Ministry, and a lot of character – surface character, anyway – is conveyed through dialogue and inflection – copious dropped consonants, colloquialisms, idioms, abbreviations, all rolled out in an attempt at mimicking the way different people actually speak. Which is all very well when it's a straightforward chocks-away airforce pilot (Murray), but slightly more intrusive when it's a young man of Spanish-Irish extraction who's spent some time in America (Fedora). Thankfully it's a habit Cory quickly rids himself of, and by the time of Undertow he can confidently convey nationalities and accents without recourse to verbal tics and idiosyncrasies.


All that said, the relative unsophistication of Secret Ministry shouldn't detract from it being a thoroughly likable spy thriller: exciting, agile, action-packed, and wearing its influences lightly but proudly; at one point Johnny directly references "Cheyney and Chandler and Chase" (and also, curiously, Jane Austen). On top of that, we learn Johnny's real name (Sean O'Neill Fedora), and there are hints of the darkness to come, notably in the novel's opening scenes, where Johnny and two fellow agents separately dispatch three Nazis. The remainder of the story may be quite jolly, but right from the off Cory makes no bones about the fact that an encounter with Johnny Fedora will, likely as not, lead to an unpleasant death.

I'll have more from Desmond Cory and Johnny Fedora in the future, but next on Existential Ennui, rather than a series of spy novels, I'll be reviewing a series of spy short stories, featuring a pair of older operatives who both live, not in the Sussex South Downs, but in the Kentish North Downs... in the village of Lamperdown, to be precise...

Friday, 27 January 2012

Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora Spy Novels: Johnny Goes North (Muller, 1956; a.k.a. The Swastika Hunt) and The Head (Muller, 1960)

After yesterday's breaking news story about spy novelist Helen MacInnes's return to print, it's back to Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora espionage series. And having thoroughly explored the series-closing Feramontov Quintet – and there are some great comments on those posts now, including some fascinating additional info on the last one, so do check those out if you haven't already – I'm heading deeper into Johnny Fedora's past now, with two first editions dating from earlier in his literary career. Let's take a gander at this one first:


A UK hardback first edition of the seventh Johnny Fedora adventure, Johnny Goes North, published by Frederick Muller in 1956. Similar to the five-book Feramontov series-within-a-series, Johnny Goes North is the first in a loosely linked run of Fedora novels, at least titularly; it was followed by Johnny Goes East (1957), Johnny Goes West (1958) and Johnny Goes South (1959). The effect was slightly ruined, however, when three of the four were retitled for paperback publication (either by Award in the States or Four Square in the UK) as The Swastika Hunt (...North), Mountainhead (...East) and Overload (...South).


There's no credit for the dustjacket illustration on the Muller edition of Johnny Goes North... but it looks suspiciously like the work of British illustrator/comics artist Denis McLoughlin to me. Only problem is, I don't know if McLoughlin ever worked for Muller; he's primarily associated with T.V. Boardman, although he did do covers for others publishers besides. Go compare the Johnny Goes North cover to the ones in these Boardman/McLoughlin galleries and see what you think.

(UPDATE 1: Actually, scratch that; I think I can see a signature on the artwork, but I can't quite read it. Doesn't seem to be McLoughlin's, though; bear with me while I do some more digging.)

(UPDATE 2: OK, looks like the signature is "Chambers", but I've not yet been able to work out who that is/was. I'll update when I have.)

As for the story, according to the jacket flap copy that sees Johnny Fedora, freelance operative for British Intelligence, embarking on a Europe-wide chase with his pal Sebastian Trout of the Foreign Office following the death in Venice of an American writer and "the mysterious disappearance of a glamorous Swede". (I've been linking the Desmond Cory Website throughout this run of posts, but the Spy Guys & Gals website also has a pithy summary of this book and the other Fedora adventures, plus a good introductory overview.)


As with others of Cory's Fedora novels, Johnny Goes North is quite hard to come by, either under its original title or as The Swastika Hunt. As you can see, the jacket on my copy, which came from one of those bulk secondhand internet booksellers I usually try to avoid, is a bit battered, and although there is one other, rather nicer copy of the Muller first on AbeBooks at present, it's in Australia (the only other copy is also in Australia, and is ex-library). For any Americans interested in a cheaper alternative, there are currently two Award paperbacks of The Swastika Hunt on AbeBooks... and that's about it for available copies online.

But as uncommon as Johnny Goes North is, it's still not as scarce as the second Cory/Fedora novel I'm showcasing in this post:


A British hardback first edition of The Head, published by Frederick Muller in 1960. The eleventh Fedora novel, this one is incredibly rare: there are, to my knowledge, currently no copies whatsoever of any edition of the book for sale online. My one was a lucky eBay win, from an auction run by the Northampton Bookshop, which, judging by the pictures on its website, looks like it'd be well worth a visit (not that I'm likely to be anywhere near Northampton in the foreseeable future, mind).


Once again the dustjacket is uncredited... but there is a signature at bottom right of the illustration, which I can just make out: Ray Theobald. Theobald is perhaps better known for his science fiction art than for illustrating spy or crime fiction – there's a bibliography of his distinctive SF covers here and a short note on him here – but he did work in other genres, and there's an absolutely corking example of one of his crime covers here.


In the Johnny Fedora series The Head nestles between the North/East/West/South quartet and the Feramontov Quintet, which began with Undertow in 1962 (see the Fedora bibliography on the Desmond Cory Website). But it shares with the five Feramontov novels a common setting: Spain, a country Cory knew very well indeed. That said, it's an unusual entry in the series as a whole: it sees Johnny pitted not against a person (or persons), but a thing – a mountain, to be precise, as Fedora and a group of village locals attempt to move a statue to the mountain's peak.

There's just one final post to come now in this current Cory run, and for that one we're heading right back to the beginning of the Johnny Fedora series, with a review of a novel that's quite different in tone from the later books, in a rarely seen edition that took me on a (virtual) adventure to the continent of Africa. And therein lies a tale in itself...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

BREAKING NEWS! Queen of Spy Writers Helen MacInnes Returns to Print in 2012, Courtesy of Titan Books!

Interrupting my now-extended series of posts on Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novels, here's a rather exciting announcement for you. Regular readers may recall my having broken the news in December of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm spy novels being brought back into print by Titan Books. Well Existential Ennui is first with the news once again, because I'm pleased to report that Titan will soon be bringing another spy novelist back into print – this time an author who was known in her day as the Queen of Spy Writers (as well as the Queen of Spy Fiction and the slightly more cumbersome Queen of International Espionage Fiction): Helen MacInnes.


One of a select band of female espionage novelists (Sarah Gainham being another), MacInnes's career as a writer began in 1941 with the publication of her debut novel, Above Suspicion, which was turned into a Joan Crawford/Fred MacMurray film in 1943. She had a further twenty novels published over the next forty-plus years (and one play), a number of which were also filmed, including The Venetian Affair (1963, the Robert Vaughan-starring movie of which arrived in 1967) and The Salzburg Connection (1969, filmed in 1972; that's the Collins first edition you can see below). Like Gainham's protagonists, MacInnes's leads were usually amateurs rather than professional spies, and her novels were hailed by critics and fans as credible, plausible espionage thrillers.


And starting this summer, MacInnes's work will once again become widely available, as Titan begins reissuing the author's novels. In a press release, Titan Books' Editorial Director, Katy Wild (who knows her onions when it comes to crime and spy fiction, believe me), explained: "I have loved Helen MacInnes's novels all my life. They are exciting stories, immaculately researched, but with immense integrity and heart. I always felt that she had been unfairly neglected in the revival of interest in the classic spy thriller genre, so I was delighted when I was able to enter into an agreement with her descendants. Our agreement with them will enable us to bring the books back into print and e-book formats and show readers what they've been missing all these years."

Quite so. There'll probably be an official announcement tomorrow (so remember where you read the news first), and as ever I expect there'll be further details down the line, so keep 'em peeled. For now, though, it's back to Desmond Cory and Johnny Fedora here on Existential Ennui, with a couple of quite scarce first editions...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora Spy Novels: Feramontov (Feramontov Quintet #3, Frederick Muller, 1966) and Timelock (Feramontov Quintet #4, Muller, 1967)

I had intended this to be the final post in this current series on British author Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novels... but on reflection, I've decided to extend the run slightly. I'll explain how and why at the end of this post, but first, having reviewed books one and two in what's known as the Feramontov Quintet – the five-book series-with-a-series which finishes off the Fedora thrillers, and which all pit Johnny against Soviet spymaster Feramontov – Undertow (1962) and Hammerhead (1963, alias Shockwave), let's take a look at two further Feramontov novels I've managed to find in first edition.


First up, a British hardback first edition of Feramontov, the third book in the Feramontov Quintet – and the fourteenth Johnny Fedora novel overall – published by Frederick Muller in 1966. The jacket design is credited to Klim Forster, about whom I've been able to determine very little, although he did illustrate the cover to the 1967 Macmillan edition of Jean Stubbs's My Grand Enemy, and a 1972 Daily Telegraph Magazine article titled "The Major and the Macaroni" by journalist and Labour MP Chris Mullin (whose excellent diaries are well worth a read).


I mentioned in my introductory Desmond Cory/Johnny Fedora post that many of Cory's Fedora novels have become decidedly uncommon in first edition (or any edition in some cases), and although the Muller first of Feramontov isn't the scarcest of the Fedoras, it is still in short supply: AbeBooks currently has just three copies listed, one of those lacking a dustjacket. Set once again in Spain, the story sees Feramontov eliminating British agents; on publication in the States the novel was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review alongside Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Octopussy, the latter dismissed as "a thin and even emaciated volume", while Feramontov was hailed as being full of "colorful action, copious carnage, elaborate intrigue, frequent surprises" (see article "The Evolution of Desmond Cory" on the Desmond Cory Website).

Cory was often compared with Fleming, even though Johnny Fedora beat Bond into print by two years (the debut Fedora outing, Secret Ministry, appearing in 1951; Casino Royale wasn't published until 1953), and the second Feramontov Quintet novel I'm showcasing in this post was even more directly contrasted with Fleming's work – and just as favourably:


First published in hardback in the UK by Frederick Muller in 1967, Timelock is the fourth Fermaontov novel (and the fifteenth Fedora outing). The jacket design in this instance is credited to Abis Sida Stribley, a designer who was also a photographer; Stribley's photographs illustrated the original 1965 Woman's Own serialization of Agatha Christie's novel At Bertram's Hotel (I'm assuming the photo on the cover of Timelock is Stribley's, too). Set, like the other Feramontov novels, in Spain, Timelock is notable for the fact that Fedora and Feramontov actually meet this time; previously they'd only set eyes on each other from afar.


I bought this copy in Dim and Distant in Heathfield, East Sussex, but the Muller edition is practically common as muck in comparison with other Cory firsts: AbeBooks currently has a staggering five copies listed (although one of those might be sans jacket). As mentioned above, Timelock was again juxtaposed with Fleming's 007 adventures, this time by writer and critic Anthony Boucher, who wrote in his New York Times Magazine column Criminals at Large: "I must say once more that I find Cory's Johnny Fedora a much more persuasive violent, sexy and lucky agent than James Bond." (Again, see "The Evolution of Desmond Cory" on the Desmond Cory Website.)

I had, as I say, planned to leave it at that for now for the Cory/Fedora posts – I'm still on the hunt for an affordable first of the final Feramontov – and Fedora – novel, 1971's Sunburst – but I do actually have in my possession one or two other, earlier books from the series (I've been a busy little bee, as per usual), one of which is particularly exciting. So rather than save those for a later date, let's carry on with Cory a wee while longer, with another first edition showcase post... and another review.

Before that, though, look out for some breaking news regarding a different spy novelist – a contemporary of Cory's whose novels are all out of print... but not for much longer...

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book Review: Hammerhead / Shockwave (Feramontov Quintet #2) by Desmond Cory (Muller 1963 / Four Square 1966)

Continuing this run of posts on British thriller writer Desmond Cory's series of spy novels starring secret agent Johnny Fedora (after a brief Len Deighton interlude), next it's the turn of the second book in the Feramontov Quintet – the five novels which close out the Fedora series, which all feature feline Russian spymaster Feramontov – Hammerhead:


Except, as you can see, that's not the title which graces the above book cover. That's because, in common with others of Cory's novels (see the bibliographies on the Desmond Cory Website), Hammerhead was retitled for American publication, in this instance by Walker in the States, who issued the book in hardback as Shockwave in the same year (1963) as the British Frederick Muller hardback edition of Hammerhead. Indeed, the Muller edition was destined to be the book's only appearance as Hammerhead; thereafter, the novel became known as Shockwave even in the UK, where Four Square published a paperback edition under that title in 1966.

All of which is a little tiresome, I'm sure, for those with an, at most, nominal interest in publishing or collecting matters, but it does go some way towards explaining why the cover you can see above is the Four Square paperback of Shockwave – the remainder of the explanation being that I couldn't for the life of me find a readily available British or American hardback first edition (as I mentioned before, many of Cory's books have become uncommon in all editions). No matter, though. This paperback'll do me fine until I find a first – and in truth, I was slightly less taken by Hammerhead/Shockwave than I was by Undertow.

Don't get me wrong: Shockwave definitely has its merits. The story sees Johnny Fedora, freelance operative-cum-assassin for British Intelligence, back in Spain (Madrid this time) at the behest of Marisa de Camba – with whom, I believe, Johnny shared an adventure in The Head (1960), the Fedora novel prior to Undertow (1962). Marisa wants Johnny to look into the murky circumstances surrounding the death of a friend of hers, Sofia Domecq, and sends him to an investigative journalist, who explains that Sofia was the mistress of influential industrialist Chaval. It appears that Sofia was in possession of damaging information about Chaval's role in the Civil War, and about Chaval possibly running a drug ring in Madrid. And not only that, but Johnny learns separately from his British handlers that Chaval's company installed the electrics in a number of American "H-bomber" bases – and furthermore, the Brits have reason to believe Feramontov is somehow mixed up in all this.

In an effort to unravel the various strands of the case, Johnny and another friend of Marisa and Sofia's, Carlota, attend one of Chaval's parties, and here we encounter a scene which typifies Desmond Cory's unusual approach to thriller-writing. Johnny is caught snooping round Chaval's house, but rather than concoct a cover story, as, say, James Bond might do, Fedora comes right out and reveals that he's investigating whether or not Chaval murdered Sofia. After a violent struggle, Johnny is ejected from the party; when Carlota subsequently asks how his encounter with Chaval went, Fedora responds (somewhat prophetically), "Like a bomb," before adding after a pause: "...Right off in my face."

It's a neat illustration of Fedora's character. In many ways Johnny is a blunt instrument, prone to tackling a problem head-on – something Chaval experiences again before too long, when Fedora tortures him to get to the truth. Much of this interrogation takes place off-page, but it's no less horrific for that – and neither is a preceding passage, where Johnny uses two kitchen knives to dismember a dead body and then stuffs the pieces into a suitcase, afterwards telling a tied-up Chaval, who's complaining of cramp, "You'd feel even worse inside a suitcase. And you may come to that, even yet." For all Johnny's civilized trappings – his  talent on the piano, for example – Cory leaves us under no illusions that Fedora is a cold-blooded killer.

For his part, Feramontov possibly features even less in Shockwave than he did in Undertow. But whereas in Undertow, Feramontov's goal was rather low key – the retrieval of a ship's logbook – in Shockwave his scheme is both breathtaking in scope and apocalyptic in scale, with nothing less than the survival of Madrid at stake. Conversely, however, despite these high stakes, Desmond Cory's narrative is even more relaxed than in Undertow. The languorous interludes which peppered the previous Fedora outing are in evidence here, too, but although these do help to throw the explosions of violence – more extreme than before – into sharp relief, the pacing overall is perhaps a little too lackadaisical this time out, and those who complain of nothing happening in Cory's novels will find ample ammunition in Shockwave.

Even so, I still wouldn't place myself in the "Cory is boring" camp – not by a long chalk. The introspective nature of parts of Shockwave for me make the book more interesting – as do the novel's political aspects: Cory further develops here his intriguing and unconventional notion of Spain being at the centre of the struggle between East and West. That theme of Spain acting as a fulcrum in the Great Game would persist in the remaining Feramontov novels, and I'll be looking at first editions of two of those in the next Cory/Fedora/Feramontov post...

Friday, 20 January 2012

Deep Cover: The Hunt for Len Deighton's Dustjacket and Paperback Cover Designs


Interrupting the Desmond Cory/Johnny Fedora posts momentarily, Rob Mallows from The Deighton Dossier contacted me last night asking for assistance on a matter to do with Len Deighton's dustjacket designs. For those who don't know, prior to making a splash with his debut novel, The Ipcress File, in 1962, Deighton was a designer and illustrator (he trained alongside his friend Raymond Hawkey at the Royal College of Art), and created covers and jackets for a good number of books from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s (something of a Golden Age for cover design, in my opinion), perhaps the most famous being his design for the 1958 Andre Deutsch British edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Together with Len himself, Rob Mallows has identified twenty-two books which sport Deighton-designed covers, but he suspects there may be more, and is currently working with The Len Deighton Companion author Edward Milward-Oliver to try and track down any missing ones. Rob's posted a complete list of the known covers on The Deighton Dossier blog, so pop along there and have a look, and if you can spot any gaps in the list, do leave a comment either on that post or this one.

And with that, let's return to Desmond Cory, Johnny Fedora and Feramontov...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Book Review: Undertow (Feramontov Quintet #1) by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1962 / Walker, 1963 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2011)

In this latest run of an ongoing series of posts on various spy fiction series, I'm blogging about British author Desmond Cory's series of novels starring secret agent Johnny Fedora – specifically the five novels, commonly known as the Feramontov Quintet, which close out the Fedora adventures: Undertow (Frederick Muller, 1962), Hammerhead (Muller, 1963, alias Shockwave), Feramontov (Muller, 1966), Timelock (Muller, 1967) and Sunburst (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971). Each of those stories sees Fedora facing off against Soviet spymaster Feramontov, who makes his debut here:


That there is the 1963 US Walker hardback first edition of the twelfth Johnny Fedora novel, Undertow – jacket design by Frederick Marvin – which was as close as I could get to a 1962 British first edition. I have seen one copy of the UK Frederick Muller first for sale online, but it was sans dustjacket, which is no use to anyone – although of course if you couldn't care less about book collecting, the novel is readily available courtesy of Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint. And I really would recommend getting yourself a copy, because it is, quite simply, brilliant – so good, in fact, that it more-than-comfortably made it into my 2011 Best Books I Read This Year chart. (And let's face it: praise doesn't come much higher than that.)

The reasons for that are many, but chief among them is that Undertow is so beautifully written. Right from the off Desmond Cory's quiet facility with the written word is self-evident, as he describes the dead body of an escaped prisoner, Juan Guerrero, lying face down beside a Spanish road, a "black halo" of blood staining the ground around his head. Guerrero has been murdered by a fellow escapee from one of Franco's jails, Moreno, whose extraction has been effected by Feramontov, orchestrating events from a yacht off the coast. Feramontov and his associates Meuvret and Elsa need Moreno to secure certain logbooks, which are hidden in or near a house overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar... a house owned by an Argentinian heiress and currently occupied by two idle Englishmen...

The Englishmen are, of course, Johnny Fedora and his pal Sebastian Trout. By this point in the series Fedora is practically retired, loafing around his girlfriend's house in Spain (a country Cory knew well; he lived there for a time and eventually retired to the area around Malaga where Undertow is set), lounging by the swimming pool, drinking too much and playing the piano. It's sheer bad luck on Feramontov's part that Fedora happens to be in residence at Moreno's target, but when the housemaid winds up dead in the pool, Fedora makes it his business to find out who killed her, in the process getting sucked into Feramontov's scheme.

Cory has been criticized in some quarters for his unhurried pacing and apparent lack of interest in plotting (the words "boring", "lame", "nothing" and "happens" have been trotted out in response to his work), but that's to overlook his books' very particular qualities as idiosyncratic thrillers. For sure, Undertow is characterized by long, languorous passages where seemingly little of note occurs, and yet those sequences are wonderfully vivid and descriptive, subtly delving into the psychology of the protagonists. Take the scene where Fedora, Trout and Elsa are diving in the harbour. Fedora finds himself, unusually, utterly at peace with the world, subsumed into the aquatic environs, "a pair of eyes and a brain behind a vaseline-smeared plastic panel... no longer human... a disembodied spirit".

Cory continues: 

Looking up, he could see the sunlight broken by the wavelets on the surface into shuddering, boiling bands and flecks, into streamers of bright gold and orange that became suddenly alive with all the colours of the prism; and he could see the bubbles of his own breath rising swiftly, colourless like pearls, then glinting as though with flame as they reached that surface froth, mingled with it and disappeared...

Offsetting these calm interludes are moments of extreme violence and gripping bursts of action, which punctuate the prose at intervals. One of the most memorable of these is an assault by Feramontov-hired thugs on a police station where Fedora is being held. From start to finish this episode is just two two-page chapters long (the numberless chapters in Undertow are typically very short), but Cory packs a hell of a lot into that scant space, his economy with words lending the scene a shocking intensity.

Equally shocking are some of the things Cory's cast do to one another. Elsa goads the dangerous, unhinged Moreno into attacking her (and then nearly kills him), while the antagonistic relationship between her and Feramontov explodes into sexualised violence twice in quick succession. That Feramontov is left gasping for breath after the first encounter and sporting a bloodied lip after the second speaks to Elsa's strength as a character, but she's as damaged as the rest of them, although nowhere near as twisted and sadistic as Feramontov himself.

Mind you, Johnny's no saint either. His reasons for becoming involved in the affair amount at first to little more than boredom and a professional interest in a fellow killer (Moreno), although the death of his maid does give him an added impetus to dig deeper. But as we'll see in the next Fedora book I'll be reviewing – the second Feramontov Quintet novel, Hammerhead – Johnny isn't above resorting to questionable methods himself in order to get what he wants, even if that entails torture...


NB: A version of this review also appears on the Shots website.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Spy Thrillers of Desmond Cory: Johnny Fedora and the Feramontov Quintet

If you're wondering whether we'll ever reach the end of my protracted series of posts on spy fiction series – well, quite frankly, you're reading the wrong bloody blog (see masthead). But even the most committed of espionage enthusiasts can tire of "the Great Game" on occasion, and since the spy series posts have been running on and off for two months now, and I'm keen to mix it up a bit more going forward, you can take some solace in the fact that there will be some non-spy stuff (and indeed non-Westlake stuff for that matter) on Existential Ennui very soon indeed. But not just yet. There are still a couple of terrific spy fiction authors I'm eager to cover before moving on to other matters, not least among them being British writer Desmond Cory.

Desmond Cory – a pen name of Shaun McCarthy (1928–2001) – had dozens of crime and spy thrillers published over a forty-plus year period from 1951 to 1993. Sixteen of them feature British secret agent Johnny Fedora, and it's those novels I'll be concentrating on in this run of posts, specifically the five books which close out the series. Johnny Fedora made his debut in one of two Cory novels published in 1951, Secret Ministry (the other being a crime novel, Begin, Murderer!) – reissued in the States as The Nazi Assassins – beating another, more famous operative, Ian Fleming's James Bond, into print by two years (Casino Royale didn't arrive until 1953). Half Spanish, half Irish, a former Spanish Civil War combatant, Chicago gangster and F.B.I. counter-espionage agent – not to mention a talented piano player – Fedora is essentially freelance, hired by British Intelligence on a case-by-case basis – often assisted by Sebastian Trout of the Foreign Office – and pitted against Nazi spies, trained killers and Soviet agent provocateurs, against whom he proves highly lethal.

As is the way with a lot of the authors I blog about, Desmond Cory is largely overlooked these days, but the odd review aside, there is one excellent resource for him on the web. The Desmond Cory Website is a treasure trove of information about the author and his best-known creation, with bibliographies, book cover galleries and downloadable articles on and interviews with Cory. Even so, the majority of Cory's books have slipped out of print, some of them becoming incredibly scarce in any edition, so that reading Cory's Fedora novels – let alone collecting them – has become a tricky proposition, and nigh on impossible in some cases. The major exceptions are the first three Fedora outings, which are available as eBooks for the Kindle through Amazon, and 1962's Undertow – the first novel in what's known as the Feramontov Quintet – which Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint – home, too, to the Jonas Wilde books I've just finished blogging about – reissued towards the end of last year.

And it's to Undertow that I'll be turning next, as Johnny Fedora encounters for the first time the twisted, feline Russian spy who would bedevil him for the remainder of his literary career: Feramontov...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Book Review: The Mercenaries (1960, a.k.a. The Cutie / The Smashers) by Donald E. Westlake

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


Ahead of my next run of spy fiction posts, let's return to crime fiction giant – and perennial Existential Ennui obsession – Donald E. Westlake, and his debut novel ("official" debut, that is; he had other pseudonymous sleaze works published before it), 1960's The Mercenaries, a signed, inscribed British first edition of which I blogged about just over a week ago. I mentioned in that post that Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent had already reviewed The Mercenaries – which was reissued under Westlake's originally intended title, The Cutie, by Hard Case Crime in 2009 (and also published as The Smashers by Dell in 1962) – in the course of which review Trent reasoned that the novel laid the groundwork for Westlake's Parker series (written, of course, as Richard Stark), which would commence just two years hence with The Hunter.

It's a valid point. Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between the amorality of the Parker books and the amorality of The Mercenaries – at least as regards the bulk of the characters in the latter. The story is related in the first person by Clay, right-hand man of mob boss Ed Ganolese. Clay has been working for Ganolese ever since the mobster helped Clay out back when Clay was plain old George Clayton; as he explains to his squeeze, Ella, Clay is "Ed's boy, he's my boss, he says do, I do" – and that translates into anything from strong-arming to straight out murder.

So when a stuttering junky known as Billy-Billy comes to Clay with a dead broad on his hands and the cops on his trail, and yet still protesting his innocence, Clay's first instinct is that Billy-Billy's days are probably numbered. Trouble is, Billy-Billy is connected, and it's in Ed Ganolese's interest to look out for Billy-Billy and find the real killer. Thus Clay must turn investigator, hunting down the unknown "Cutie" who set Billy-Billy up and is now leaving a trail of bodies behind him, in turn bringing down unwanted heat on the Organization.


Much as he does in the Parker novels, in The Mercenaries Westlake immerses us in an utterly criminal world, with only Clay's girlfriend, the occasional walk-on cop and Clay's niggling conscience serving as moral compasses. But whereas in the Parkers Westlake reserves judgment on the rights and wrongs of Parker's lawless endeavours, in The Mercenaries there is a sense of the author disapproving of Clay. There's a strong suggestion that Clay will, in the end, get his comeuppance – something one never feels with Parker. Clay has his doubts about the life he leads, but they're ultimately fleeting: he's "Ed's boy", a lackey, and therefore quite different from the self-sufficient and consequently strangely admirable Parker. By comparison, there's little to admire about Clay, either on our part or, it seems, Westlake's.

The milieu of New York mob life is well-realised. There's, if not an authenticity, then at least a plausibility, a believability to The Mercenaries. Although he was hardly the first author to have criminals as his protagonists – the likes of Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald and, perhaps most significantly, Peter Rabe got there before him – Westlake's take on low level gangsterism is convincing. At root, however, The Mercenaries isn't really a gangster novel at all; it's a gumshoe tale, with Clay in the role of the P.I. Good as The Mercenaries is, it's noticeably derivative, and it was only once Westlake managed to divest himself of the Hammett (overtly namechecked on the cover of the first British edition of the book) and Chandler trappings that he began to craft something more distinctive and original, in the shape of the Parker novels and, to a lesser degree, the Dortmunder books.


To my mind, "The Mercenaries" is a more apt title than Westlake's preferred choice of "The Cutie"; the novel is populated by disagreeably venal characters, not least Clay himself. But the (almost) eponymous adversary does provide the impetus for events, and again could be seen as an indicator of things to come: in the way in which he wreaks merry havoc with Clay's life, the Cutie prefigures the anonymous foil who frustrates Parker in The Seventh (1966).

As a debut novel, The Mercenaries has a lot going for it. It's a credible portrayal of a criminal underworld, disarmingly brutal in places, and a decent whodunnit to boot. And though in and of itself it's perhaps unremarkable – there were other writers doing similar things to more forceful effect around this period – it does offer tantalising glimpses of greatness to come. As such, it's an important book in Westlake's canon, and a milestone in his career as a writer.

Next up: Desmond Cory, Johnny Fedora, and Feramontov...

Friday, 13 January 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Competition: The Two Winners!


Drum roll, please: it's time to announce the winners of my wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie competition! Yes, astonishingly, I did actually receive a good number of entries for the giveaway, and equally astonishingly almost all of them correctly answered the following question:

John le Carré's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first instalment in what's known as the Karla Trilogy, or Quest for Karla; name the second and third novels in the trilogy.

Answer being, of course: 

The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People.

So thank you to everyone who entered, and I can now reveal the two lucky people whose names were pulled out of the "hat". Stand up and take a bow:

Jon Auciello, PA
Carolyn Bostick, NY

You two will both be receiving a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Tie-in Book, T-shirt, Voice Recorder Pen and Post-it Note Cube, courtesy of the fine folk at Focus Features. Congratulations to you both! And for anyone in the States who hasn't yet seen the film, it's still on general release, and you can read my review of it right here.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Review: The Eliminator by Andrew York (Christopher Nicole); Hutchinson, 1966 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2011

On to the second of two posts on Guernsey-based author Christopher Nicole's pseudonymous series of espionage novels starring a state-sanctioned assassin, written under the nom de plume "Andrew York" (one of many Nicole aliases). And having posted a brief introduction to Nicole and a glorious gallery of first edition fillies, today I turn my attention to the first instalment in the nine-book series: The Eliminator.


Originally published in hardback in the UK by Hutchinson in 1966, The Eliminator introduces Jonas Wilde, Great Britain's state executioner. When we first meet Wilde he's on assignment in Barbados, in disguise as tourist Charles Vane, his target a wealthy businessman. Wilde is rarely given reasons for the killings he carries out; he merely takes it on trust that the individuals he assassinates (more than twenty over the course of his career) are deserving of elimination. So when, having completed his Barbados assignation, Wilde is directed by his boss, Antony Canning, to fix his sights on a scientist named Stalitz, Wilde's only reservation is that the killing has to take place in the UK.

Wilde, you see, usually operates overseas, facilitated by what's known as The Route – essentially a cover story, whereby Wilde takes a yachting holiday in the English Channel two or three times a year, stopping in at the small island of Guernsey, which he uses as a back door in and out of Britain, assisted by a small cadre of former state assassins. But Wilde is beginning to question his role as The Eliminator; his last few missions have left him uneasy, and this latest one is equally troubling. And when, having inveigled himself into the west country mansion where Stalitz is staying, the mission goes disastrously awry, Wilde discovers that everything he's been led to believe is wrong...


The Eliminator is literally a book of two halves: the first half, titled "The Assassin", details Wilde's life, his associates, how The Route works, and two of his missions; the second half, titled "The Avenger", then yanks the rug out from under Wilde's feet in spectacular fashion, sending him on a hunt for the man who has betrayed both him and his country. Both parts have their merits – the sequence in part one where Wilde gains the trust of Rhoda Gooderich, the housekeeper at the country estate, is especially delicious – but it's in part two that the tension really escalates, climaxing with a neat, unexpected twist.

Wilde is a fascinating creation: urbane, sophisticated, ruthless, but also oddly vulnerable. His role as executioner would, you might think, require emotional detachment on his part, but perversely Wilde has to work himself up into a righteous rage in order to complete his deadly assignments. Nicole/York is strong on location as well as characterization: I've been to Guernsey myself a few times, and of course Nicole lives there, so his depiction of Saint Peter Port and the surrounding area is spot on. (I also got a jolt of recognition when, in an aside, it's revealed that Wilde's Charles Vane alias has an equally fictional sister in Beckenham – the suburban town where I grew up.)

But the abiding impression one is left with is how elegantly written The Eliminator is – which is why it's so surprising that the Jonas Wilde series has slipped into semi-obscurity. It's something that John at Pretty Sinister Books remarked upon in his recent review, and hopefully something that will be addressed now that Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint is reviving the series. Certainly The Eliminator is a cut above the more run-of-the-mill James Bond-inspired sixties spy boom dross – I couldn't help thinking whilst reading it that, like the Bond novels, it would have made an excellent film – and I'll definitely be returning to Wilde's world before too long.

(UPDATE 1: As John from Pretty Sinister Books has now pointed out in the comments below, the book was made into a film – read his post on it here.)

(UPDATE 2: Mike Ripley has since drawn my attention to this article on the website of Ostara Publishing, Top Notch Thrillers' parent publisher – the article originally appeared in Crime Time – outlining the strange set of coincidences surrounding the reissuing of The Eliminator, not least of which being that Christopher Nicole's yacht, Rose of Arden – the real-life equivalent of Jonas Wilde's yacht, Regina A – wound up in the ownership of Ostara's founder, Andrew Cocks, and consequently can be seen on the cover of the Top Notch Thrillers edition!)

(UPDATE 3: I've since conducted an interview with Christopher Nicole, which explores the Jonas Wilde books and Nicole's wider literary career.) 


And speaking of Bond-inspired espionage, I'll be staying with the 1960s spy fiction for my next run of posts – except the star of this next series actually predates 007. Ahead of that, though: those Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy competition winners revealed...

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Eliminator / Jonas Wilde Spy Novel Series by Andrew York (Christopher Nicole): Introduction, Bibliography and First Edition Cover Gallery

Well the entries for Friday's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy competition have been trickling in at a steady pace; don't forget you have until midnight EST on Thursday to be in with a chance of bagging that movie tie-in swag, and that the two winners will be announced this Friday. (NB: competition only open to US addressees.) Ahead of that, though, let's return to my series of posts on spy fiction series, with a series of novels starring a state-sanctioned assassin...


I actually have Pretty Sinister Books blog maestro John to thank for bringing this particular (decidedly obscure) spy series to my attention; back in August of last year John posted a review of the first book in the series, 1966's The Eliminator, which had been reissued by Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thriller imprint. (John has since also reviewed the second book, 1967's The Co-ordinator, while Top Notch have gone on to publish the third and fourth.) Written by British author Andrew York, The Eliminator was followed by eight sequels over the next decade, all of them featuring the suave, sophisticated killer Jonas Wilde – the United Kingdom's state executioner.

But the Jonas Wilde books weren't the only series of novels created by York. For not only did York pen four novels starring West Indies police commissioner Colonel James Munroe Tallant (1977's Tallant for Trouble et al) and a trio of books for younger readers starring British intelligence operative Jonathan Anders (1969's The Doom Fisherman, etc.) – plus a couple of standalone works – but under various other guises he also wrote something like 200 books besides, many of those series as well. "Andrew York", you see, was just one of a bewildering array of aliases used by Christopher Nicole, a Guernsey-based author who utilised pen names like Caroline Gray, Alan Savage, Alison York and around ten others to write thrillers, historical novels and non-fiction. (In a neat illustration of the befuddling nature of Nicole's bibliography, in the States the three Andrew York/Jonathan Anders books were published concurrently with the UK editions but under Nicole's real name, and with different titles – Operation Destruct, Operation Manhunt and Operation Neptune.)

There's rather a lot to explore with Mr. Nicole – who I believe is still writing – and I suspect I'll be digging further into his Byzantine backlist in the future. For now, though, let's concentrate on the Jonas Wilde books. I'll be reviewing the first novel in the series, The Eliminator, in the next post (and to prepare yourselves you can of course read Pretty Sinister Books' thoughts on both that and its sequel). But ahead of that, let's have a full Jonas Wilde bibliography-cum-cover gallery. All of the Wilde novels were initially published in hardback by Hutchinson in the UK, and while there's not a huge demand for first editions, some of the books have become remarkably elusive – so much so that I'm still missing two of them. I'll fill in the gaps as and when I manage to get my hands on the two absent volumes (although I have found a front cover image for one of them), but for now – and, to my knowledge, for the first time anywhere – feast your eyes on these first edition fillies (er, plus what seems to be an upturned wheelchair)...

(UPDATE: I've since conducted an interview with Christopher Nicole, which explores the Jonas Wilde books and Nicole's wider literary career.)

Andrew York / Jonas Wilde Illustrated Bibliography


1. The Eliminator (Hutchinson, 1966): dustjacket design by Michael Brett; front cover photograph by George Coral; author photograph by Mark Gerson

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2. The Co-ordinator (Hutchinson, 1967): front cover photograph by Ivor Keenman

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3. The Predator (Hutchinson, 1968): front cover photograph by George Coral

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4. The Deviator (Hutchinson, 1969): jacket ripped on corner, but looks to be front cover photograph by George Coral again

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5. The Dominator (Hutchinson, 1969): front cover photograph by George Coral

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6. The Infiltrator (Hutchinson, 1971): dustjacket design by Keith Inman

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7. The Expurgator (Hutchinson, 1972): dustjacket design by Michael Bramman

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8. The Captivator (Hutchinson, 1974)

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9. The Fascinator (Hutchinson, 1975): dustjacket photograph by Chris Parker