Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Guest Post: Roald Dahl's First Novel, Some Time Never (Sometime Never), by Adam Newell

Right then. Time for another guest post. And having played host previously to Paul Simpson and Michael Barber, for this latest guest post I'm turning Existential Ennui over to Adam Newell, a friend and former colleague of mine from Titan Books. Adam has been a book collector a lot longer than I have, and has probably forgotten more about bibliophiliacal matters than I'll ever learn. He's turned up something very interesting indeed for this essay, so without further ado, take it away, Adam...

Some Time Never: a Novel You’ve Never Heard of, by an Author You Most Certainly Have

by Adam Newell

This author is perhaps not an obvious fit for the usual preoccupations of this esteemed blog – though he wrote the screenplay to a Bond movie (You Only Live Twice), so he counts as a spy/thriller writer, and his short stories certainly feature the odd crime, perhaps most memorably murder with a frozen leg of lamb – but this post is about a SF novel (well, kind of) and will, I hope, interest book collectors, so here goes…

These days Roald Dahl is known by all as a children’s author, and remembered by many for his ‘adult’ fiction, the dark, twisted short stories published in various collections over the years, many of which were famously adapted for TV as the Tales of the Unexpected. Particular fans of the latter will perhaps have tracked down what its current synopsis on Amazon describes as Dahl’s first-ever novel: My Uncle Oswald, a ribald romp from 1979, which acts as a feature-length prequel for the titular character, dubbed ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, introduced in two previous short stories (‘The Visitor’ and ‘Bitch’ from the collection Switch Bitch). It’s great fun, but doesn’t read like Dahl was making a serious attempt to write ‘a novel’; it comes across more like a short story that outgrew its wordcount, as indeed it was: he later admitted that his original commission, a request from Playboy for a new Oswald tale, “refused to stop” and grew into a book.

The thing is (and now we’re finally getting to the point of this post), My Uncle Oswald is not Dahl’s ‘first-ever novel’. That distinction belongs to a book called Some Time Never, published by Scribners in the US in 1948, with a UK edition (confusingly titled Sometime Never) from Collins the following year. It has never been reprinted. You’ll search in vain for a mention of it on roalddahl.com. Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell you much. Copies are hard to come by: of the mere dozen or so examples on ABE at present, you’ll have to pay well into three figures for one with a decent dustjacket, and the UK edition appears to be really scarce, with only two copies currently for sale (it’s entirely possible that the print run for that edition was only in the hundreds). Even a reading copy will cost you a few notes, and that’s what I finally managed to snap up a while back: a jacketless ex-library copy of the UK edition, for £20, which I bought the day it was listed on ABE, thanks to my wants list alert. I’d been wanting to read this apparently ‘suppressed’ work by one of my favourite writers for years!

So what’s it all about? I’ll let the flap copy from the US edition sum it up, as it actually tells pretty much the whole plot in précis:

Some Time Never is a blend of superbly written realism and outrageous fantasy, with an almost Swiftian quality in its savage wit and subtle humor.

It is the story of the hitherto little-known Gremlins. It is moreover a piercing commentary on Man and the qualities in Man which are leading him to his destruction.

The Gremlins were the original rulers of the earth in ages past, but with the advent of Man and the spread of his obnoxious activities to every part of the globe, the Gremlins were forced underground to a subterranean network of tunnels. Out for revenge and for the restoration of their former dominant position in the world’s affairs, the Gremlins bent every effort to plotting Man’s annihilation.

During the Battle of Britain these odd and menacing creatures began an offensive against pilots in an effort to hasten the eradication of the human race. From the experiences of three Royal Air Force pilots, Stuffy, Peternip and Progboot, we get an appalling picture of Gremlin activities, and through the eyes of the Gremlins themselves we get a portrait of Man that is far from flattering.

After the Battle of Britain the Gremlins became convinced that Man would effect his own self-destruction without any help from them – so they ceased their ingenious offensive and retired underground to wait. The atom bomb appeared, more devastating weapons followed, World War III took a terrible toll the world over and finally World War IV finished the job. The Gremlins emerged from their underground tunnels and took over world in which all human life and all works of Man had been destroyed.

The theme of this book is a serious one. Mr Dahl’s implications are the most serious a writer could suggest. Ironic and witty, Some Time Never will amuse you, even give you you a few hearty laughs – but it will also make you think.

As someone who’s written a few blurbs myself (it’s part of the day job), I can tell you that the above is a valiant attempt to summarize/’sell to a general readership’ a book that vehemently resists such things. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book – far from it.

By 1948 Dahl had already had two books published: 1943 saw The Gremlins, an illustrated children’s story, and his first collection of adult short stories, Over to You: 10 stories of flyers and flying came out in 1946. Some Time Never is in some ways a combined offshoot of both: taking the whimsical characters of the former and putting them into the adult style of the latter. (The story of The Gremlins book, and the ultimately abandoned Walt Disney movie version of it, need not detain us here, but thanks to the scene-setting Introduction in Dark Horse’s still in print 2006 edition of that previously impossible-to-find-for-less-than-$300 book, it is now easily accessible.)

So why is Some Time Never out print? Why has it seemingly been airbrushed from the Dahl timeline? Does it hang together as a novel? No, in all honesty, it doesn’t. This is a young writer writing his ‘important first novel’ and he’s trying really hard, but it doesn’t entirely work. Mind you, his chosen theme is about as big as you can get: the destruction of mankind in a nuclear holocaust. Dahl started writing the book in 1946, and even in 1948 it was still one of the first (possibly the first?) novels published post-Hiroshima to address that looming possibility. There is some very powerful writing though, especially in the chapter after the bomb has hit London. Stuffy survives the initial blast, and emerges from a tube station to wander the ruined streets in a daze:

He walked around a double-decker bus which was standing upright in the middle of the road, and as he went past it he saw through the open glassless windows that the bus was full of people, all sitting in their places, silent, immobile, as though they were waiting for the bus to start again. But their faces were scorched and seared and half-melted and all of them had had their hats blown off their heads so that they sat there bald-headed, scorch-skinned, grotesque, but very upright in their seats. Up in front, the black-faced driver was still sitting with his hands resting on the wheel, looking straight in front of him though the empty sockets of his eyes.

It’s a long way from the BFG doing a whizzpopper in front of the Queen, isn’t it?

And yet, the book also deals in fascinated detail with the green bowler hat-wearing Gremlins and their love of snozzberries (a fruit later revived for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so it’s still very much proto-Dahl.

At the risk of making this already long post stupidly long, I won’t attempt more lit crit here, though I will agree with Donald Sturrock (whose excellent authorised biography of Dahl, Storyteller, covers the novel in commendable detail) that Some Time Never is “extraordinary, undervalued and visionary”.
Its author evidently thought otherwise. Writing the “bastard book” was a long and wearing process, and though Dahl had high hopes for it, Scribner’s respected editor Maxwell Perkins (who had discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald) died before he’d had a chance to read it, it didn’t get any illustrations (Dahl had wanted Mervyn Peake), the reviews were lukewarm and the sales were negligible. Sturrock recounts how Dahl refused a publisher’s request to print a paperback edition after his later success: “Why in God’s world anybody should want to paperback that ghastly book I don’t know.” He later told a fan who’d written asking where she could get a copy that “It’s not worth reading.”

I’d have to disagree with Mr Dahl: it’s well worth tracking down. It’s a shame that it will probably never be reprinted, but then why would the massive Dahl industry machine bother with bringing back a flawed, untypical and adult novel just to potentially sell a few thousand copies, and get a few eyebrow-raised reviews in the broadsheets, especially if Dahl himself had ended up being embarrassed by it? Better to protect the brand. That’s perfectly understandable, but still a shame. What’s more, Sturrock’s biography reveals the existence of several unpublished short stories in the author’s files, and indeed the manuscript of something called Fifty Thousand Frogskins, a novel that Dahl wrote directly after Some Time Never, which never got properly published at all…

(UPDATE 5/3/11: As a direct consequence of Adam's guest post, I ended up buying a copy of the Collins first of Sometime Never, and you can read about – and see – that copy right here.)

Monday, 27 February 2012

An Ill-Tempered Announcement About Commenting, and Some Links and Plugs

Let's get the ill-tempered announcement part of this post out of the way first, and then we can move on to more pleasant matters.

If you've tried to leave a comment on Existential Ennui recently – an unlikely scenario, I know, but indulge me – you might have noticed that there's now an additional step to negotiate: word recognition, or "captcha", to use the common parlance. This is the process whereby you have to retype in a little box at the bottom of the comment panel the randomly generated – and partly nonsensical – words which you can see in another box just above that one, to "prove you're not a robot", as Blogger puts it. Slightly offensive to robots (some of my best friends... etc., etc.), but there you have it.

I've enabled this feature because a gradually increasing number of spam comments have been making it through Blogger's spam filters and onto Existential Ennui itself, culminating in a massive spam attack a week ago, when over 500 spam comments went straight through to the blog. As you can probably imagine, that was incredibly fucking annoying, and if I ever get the opportunity to royally fuck with the witless cretins responsible – I'm looking at you, Coach Factory Outlet Online, Coach Outlet Online Store and Louis Vuitton Outlet UK (and please don't Google these cocksuckers and contribute to their worthless hits) – then I will grasp that opportunity with both hands and gleefully fuck them in their eye sockets.

Until that joyful day arrives, we're all stuck with word recognition on commenting. I hope you'll understand why I've had to introduce it, and why I may yet have to go even further and introduce comment approval, too; even with captcha enabled, the odd spam comment is still making it through the spam guards. Hopefully it won't come to that, but we'll see how we get on. Either way, please don't let it put you off commenting.

That tiresome piece of business out of the way, I thought I'd take the opportunity to throw a few Marvel Bullpen-style links and plugs your way, beginning, naturally, with a link to something I wrote:

ITEM! If you'll cast your mind(s) back to January, you'll recall that I ran a series of posts on Desmond Cory and his Johnny Fedora spy thrillers, during the course of which I reviewed Cory's 1962 mini-masterpiece Undertow. Well, seeing as Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint reissued Undertow late last year, that review can now be found – in an altered and quite possibly improved form – on the website of Shots Magazine, one of the UK's longest-running and most respected crime fiction publications. It's my first review for Shots, so go have a read and see what you think.

ITEM! Back in December of last year I mentioned that Ethan Iverson's brilliant Do the Math website had linked Existential Ennui, something I was dead chuffed about because Do the Math's overview of Donald E. Westlake had been instrumental in helping me navigate Westlake's Byzantine backlist. Well Ethan's been at it again, and now has a page dedicated to the work of another author who's a firm favourite round these parts: Ross Thomas. It's a lengthy article, but Ethan's in-depth, detailed research and insight into each of Thomas's novels – including the Oliver Bleeck ones – make it an essay deserving of your undivided attention.

ITEM! The sixth issue of my pal Martin Eden's splendid gay superhero team comic, Spandex – which I've blogged about before – is out now, and can be ordered here. This issue is especially noteworthy because it also comes with three free mini-comics featuring some of the more minor characters from the series, produced in collaboration with different artists – the Cherry Blossom Girl mini in particular, with art by T'sao Wei, is rather fine. Titan Books will be publishing a collection of Spandex in May, so I'll be returning to Mr. Eden and his cast of colourful characters then, but in the lead up to the pub date, Martin is blogging about various aspects of Spandex on the Titan website, so check back there for updates.

ITEM! Talented Lewes-based book cover designer Neil Gower – who I've mentioned once or twice previously, and whose splendid work is simpatico with the ideals of this similarly Lewes-based blog – popped up on BBC Breakfast the other week, being interviewed as part of a piece on teenagers designing new covers for William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Neil puts in a fleeting appearance towards the end of the item, but it's worth a look because it affords a glimpse into both his working methods – very much traditional as opposed to digital – and his studio. And I'll have more on Mr. Gower soon...

ITEM! British cartoonist John Bagnall posted a short but interesting piece on a twentieth century British artist I'd never encountered before: Algernon Newton. Newton's largely people-free landscapes and cityscapes are, to my mind, curiously appealing, and I'll certainly be exploring his work further. John's blog continues to be a great source of inspirational artwork, both other folk's and his own; I'd urge you to bookmark it if you haven't already.

ITEM! Lastly, if you've any interest in books as physical objects, doubtless you'll have seen this much-shared Flavorwire post showcasing beautiful bookshops (which provoked a caustic response from secondhand book dealer Rick Gekoski on the Guardian website). But what you might not have noticed is that Flavorwire has since followed it up with a post on beautiful personal libraries (link via The Spectator), which is perhaps even more envy-inducing. I do fear for the spines of some of the books in the featured libraries, though: a number of them appear to be shelved in direct sunlight, so I can foresee some severe spine fading occurring – unlike the books in my own "library":

which are largely hidden from the sun's rays; recent house guest Sammy the cat admiring my shaded shelves, there.

Anyway, enough of the linkage: what can you look forward to on Existential Ennui in the not-too-distant future? Well, later this week there'll hopefully be a Westlake Score and a Notes from the Small Press, and the week after that will see the return of two firm friends – of each other that is; they're more passing acquaintances of Existential Ennui's – Kim Philby and Graham Greene. And looking further ahead, in the tradition of previous Existential Ennui chats with Anthony Price and Jeff Lindsay, I have a couple more exclusive interviews lined up for you. Before all that, though, let's have a guest post, courtesy of a good friend of mine – and an occasional commenter – Adam Newell, on a little-known Roald Dahl novel...

Friday, 24 February 2012

Four George Pelecanos First Editions: Right as Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), Shame the Devil (2000)

Let's round off this short run of George Pelecanos posts with a bunch of first editions, all of which I bought in the same London bookshop in summer of last year, and most of which feature one of the leads from Pelecanos's latest novel, What It Was. Beginning with:

A British hardback first edition of Right as Rain, published by Orion in 2001, the same year as the US Little, Brown first edition. This, like all of the books I'll be showcasing in this post, was bought in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road in June 2011, during my two-week tour of England's secondhand bookshops (obviously this was during the London leg of the tour). The first editions in Henry Pordes are situated on the ground floor as you enter, but on the spur of the moment I decided to have a quick look in the basement, which is usually stocked with (not especially interesting, before you ask) paperbacks. On this occasion, however, the shop had evidently had a clear-out, because there was a stack of first editions downstairs, all priced at a few quid each, and mostly of a crime fiction bent. And even better, four of 'em were by George Pelecanos.

Naturally, I snapped those four up. None of them are especially scarce or valuable, but they are all in very fine condition, about the best state a person could ever hope to acquire them in, so I was dead chuffed to nab the whole lot for under fifteen quid, especially as each one individually would normally cost about that anyway. Right as Rain is the first in Pelecanos's series starring Washington P.I.s Derek Strange and Terry Quinn – the former of whom, as I indicated in the intro to this post, also features in What It Was (in a much younger incarnation, What It Was being set in 1972). There's a synopsis and excerpt on George Pelecanos's website, and an insightful review of the novel on Rick Kleffel's Agony Column.

And from the first Strange/Quinn outing... to the second:

Hell to Pay, again published in hardback in the UK by Orion, this time in 2002. Not untypically for Orion, the design of the dustjacket is uncredited – Right as Rain's jacket design is similarly uncredited – but the front cover photo is by Ed Holub – and if you're wondering at this point why I didn't tell you who took the photo on the front of Right as Rain, that's because there's no credit for that, either. Hell to Pay is, as I say, the second of Pelecanos's three novels starring Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (Strange of course features in a further two – the aforementioned What It Was, and 2004's Hard Revolution); there's a synopsis and extract on the author's website, and an entertaining and personal review by Karen G. Anderson on the January Magazine site. And to complete the set:

The third Strange/Quinn novel, Soul Circus, published in hardback by Orion in 2003. The cover photo is again by Ed Holub – or "Edward" as he's credited here – and as with the previous two books, you can find a synopsis and excerpt on Pelecanos's site. Reviews aplenty there are of this one online, but you could do a lot worse than the reliable Mark Lawson of The Guardian.

That brings us to the end of the Strange/Quinn segment of this post... and also to the end of the British first editions. Because the final George Pelecanos first I found in Henry Pordes was an American one:

Shame the Devil, published by Little, Brown in the States in 2000. This one is the fourth entry in what's known as the D.C. Quartet – but it's also an entry in the Nick Stefanos series – see also A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (1993) and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995) (and, in briefer appearances, Soul Circus and What It Was) – as Nick features in this one, too. George Pelecanos's website has a synopsis (no extract in this instance, though), but allow me to direct you towards my esteemed friend Olman for a fuller review, including links to reviews of the three prior D.C. Quartet novels. Unlike Orion, Little, Brown are perfectly happy to credit cover designers, and the jacket on this US edition was designed by Tom Brown, utilising a photograph by Joshua Sheldon. And also unlike Orion – and most other British publishers for that matter – Little, Brown have chosen to finish the book with lovely deckled edges – on which nerdily bibliophiliac note it's probably best to draw a line under the Pelecanos posts.

Next on Existential Ennui: a bit of housekeeping, and some links.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Book Review: What It Was, by George Pelecanos; Orion Limited Edition Signed Hardback, 2012

On to the second post in this short George Pelecanos "season" on Existential Ennui. And having reviewed Pelecanos's 2011 novel The Cut, I'm turning now to the second Pelecanos book to have been published in the past six months – in a rather splendid UK-only edition....

Published by Orion on 9 February, this is the British hardback of What It Was, George Pelecanos's eighteenth novel, and the fifth to star Washington, D.C. policeman-turned-P.I. Derek Strange – or rather, co-star; Strange is teamed with fellow investigator Terry Quinn in three of those books, and shares this latest one with two other leads. Before we get into the plot, though, I just wanted to spend a moment on this particular edition of What It Was, because it's a little unusual. For one thing, the format isn't the standard hardback arlin-covered case with dustjacket; there's no jacket, and the case is finished as metallic gold, with that striking blaxploitation-style image (different to the US edition) printed directly onto it. For another, the UK hardback is limited to just a thousand, numbered copies. And finally, each of those thousand, numbered copies is signed by Mr. Pelecanos himself:

Mine's number 137, as you can see. It's an interesting strategy on Orion's part, reflecting recent news of ebook sales apparently eating into hardcover sales, as a result of which many publishers are now seeking to make their hardbacks more desirable as objects. And it certainly did the trick here: ordinarily I tend to hold off buying brand new hardbacks, waiting until I chance across cheaper copies, but in this instance I snapped one up from Amazon as soon as it became available.

I'm glad I did, too, because What It Was is at least the equal of The Cut, and in some respects even better. Set in Washington during the summer of 1972 – also, not entirely coincidentally, when the Watergate scandal broke – it's the story of Robert Lee Jones, a.k.a. Red Fury, a small-time crook who suddenly steps up a league and starts robbing and murdering his way across the city in an attempt to secure his legend. But it's also the story of Derek Strange, not long departed from the D.C. police force following his experiences during the 1968 race riots (as related in 2004's Hard Revolution), now beginning to establish himself as a private investigator and on the hunt for a missing ring; and of Frank Vaughn, alias Hound Dog, the veteran cop on the trail of Red. And over the course of the summer the fates of all three men become intertwined, leading towards a bloody showdown in a forgotten part of the capitol.

I hesitate to use the word "fun" to describe a novel in which lots of people are shot and killed, but in comparison to the gloomy likes of The Way Home (2009) and, to an extent, The Cut, What It Was is practically a knockabout farce. Pelecanos seems to be enjoying himself immensely – he wrote the book fast, in three months – detailing a period of American history when black music and cinema and fashion were all reaching a colourful, superfly crescendo (almost obsessively detailing, in fact: much in the way that The Cut seemed preoccupied with geography and street names, What It Was compulsively catalogues clobber; barely a character is introduced without reference to their "stacks" and "bells"). In a note at the start of the book Pelecanos reveals that What It Was began life as a much more weighty Watergate novel – one the author "had no great desire to write" – and elements of that intended work do make it over to What It Was, notably a fleeting appearance from a real life, key (but ultimately tragic) player in the scandal. Thankfully, however, What It Was wears its history – its own and the era it documents – lightly; it's the characters that matter here.

And those characters all feel so alive, both in the sense of being rounded and believable, and in that they're open to the possibilities and opportunities of the epoch they're living through: Strange striking out on his own as a P.I.; Vaughn revelling in the job he loves (and is damn good at, despite what the suits believe); Red violently carving out his place in history. Unlike the bad guys in other Pelecanos books, though, Jones isn't a completely monstrous creation (a visiting mobster – with imbecilic partner in tow – fills that role this time): he's merciless, sure, but also charismatic, engendering unquestioning loyalty in both his girlfriend, Coco, and his right-hand man, Alfonzo Jefferson. Certainly Vaughn, for one, understands and even respects Red's motives; as the detective tells Strange: "The clock ticks. You get toward the finish line, you realize that what's important is the name you leave behind... Red Jones gets it."

That notion of leaving a mark on history is reinforced by the novel's framing device, which features Derek Strange in a bar in the here and now telling the tale of Red Jones and Frank Vaughn (and himself) to a character from a different Pelecanos series: Nick Stefanos, star of A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (1993) and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995). Strange and Stefanos have known each other for a while – Nick made a guest appearance in the last "contemporary" Strange novel, 2003's Soul Circus – but in the closing moments of this latest drinking session, Pelecanos seems to be suggesting that not only has their legend yet to be written... but that it'll be a legend shared.

And speaking of Soul Circus, that novel and its two fellow Derek Strange/Terry Quinn outings will form the basis of my third and final Pelecanos post, in which I'll be looking at first editions of all three books...

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Cut (Reagan Arthur / Orion, 2011) by George Pelecanos: Book Review

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

It's been a while since I blogged about American author George Pelecanos; the last time I did so at any length was back in November 2010, although I did mention him in passing in this review of Richard Price's The Wanderers last year. But it just so happens that I've recently read two of Pelecanos's novels in quick succession – and since I also have a bunch of others of his books still waiting to be blogged about, I thought I'd gather all of that together for a short run of Pelecanos posts, beginning with a review of a novel which made it to the number 9 spot in my 10 Best Books I Read in 2011 chart:

The Cut, first published in 2011 by Reagan Arthur in the US and Orion in the UK (which is the edition you can see above). Now, I've a particular reason for cross-posting this review on The Violent World of Parker, as well as on Existential Ennui. I mean, George Pelecanos being ostensibly a crime novelist, and Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark being an acknowledged influence on Pelecanos, obviously there's a certain amount of crossover anyway. But on top of that there's an explicit nod to Westlake's work in The Cut, one which will bring a smile to every Parker appreciator's face.

I'll return to that shortly, but first, the novel itself. The initial offering in a projected new series from Pelecanos, The Cut stars Spero Lucas, a young private investigator based in Washington, D.C. Except Spero isn't, in the strictest sense, an investigator; he's actually more of a finder. For a percentage of whatever it is he's recovering, Spero will track down lost or stolen property, whether that property be legit or otherwise. Spero's latest case sees him tasked with retrieving a package of marijuana, which was delivered via FedEx to a suburban address (a popular way of importing drugs, apparently) and then promptly stolen before the lieutenants working for the owner of the weed, Anwan Hawkins (who is currently languishing in jail), could get to it. In the course of the ensuing investigation, Spero finds himself tangling with a gang of ruthless killers and a corrupt cop, in the process unwittingly causing the kidnapping of a schoolboy...

I mentioned above that George Pelecanos is (ostensibly) a crime writer, but in truth his books are really only crime fiction in the way that, say, The Wire is crime fiction. Like that groundbreaking TV show – for which Pelecanos wrote, of course (and continues to do so for Treme, The Wire creator David Simon's follow-up) – while there is lawlessness in Pelecanos's books, that's only one strand of their genetic make-up. At root, Pelecanos is a chronicler of contemporary urban America – especially Washington, his home town – with all that that entails: criminal activity, obviously, but also the city's bars, restaurants, parks, police, neighbourhoods and people – working class, middle class, underclass, and all points in-between.

I've never been to Washington, but so effectively does Pelecanos convey the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of the place that, should I ever find myself there, I'll probably experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. (I'll certainly be seeking out one of the delicious-sounding breakfasts Spero indulges in.) Indeed, so detailed are Pelecanos's descriptions of Washington's streets, blocks and corners in the novel that occasionally the experience is akin to reading an A-Z. Curiously, though, despite this seemingly slavish attention to detail, the geography isn't always accurate: my good and learned friend Book Glutton – a resident of D.C. – reports that some of the boundaries, bars and street numbers in The Cut are a little off – and also that some aspects of the police work depicted are inaccurate.

These are minor quibbles, however, to be chalked up to either artistic license or possibly deliberate obfuscation in order to protect real people and places: more importantly, Book Glutton reckons that The Cut brilliantly captures what it's like to live in Washington, and to me it felt utterly convincing: a vivid picture of a city largely recovered from the years of gang violence which blighted it, but still with its problems. It's also, I'd venture, a better book than Pelecanos's previous novel, The Way Home, which, though good, featured a pair of villains who'd apparently wandered in from a completely different story. By contrast, the bad guys in The Cut are integrated in a much more organic fashion, and in Spero Lucas, Pelecanos has the kind of intriguing protagonist that The Way Home lacked. Adopted and raised by a Greek family, an Iraq War veteran who's pretty handy in a fight (look out for a brutal, desperate hand-to-hand struggle in a vacant lot), Spero isn't without his flaws – he has a tendency to follow his dick around, for one thing – but he's an engaging lead, and having learned some hard lessons by the close of the novel he emerges as a character who should easily sustain a series.

As for that Westlake/Stark connection, that comes three-quarters of the way into the novel, in scene in which Spero's adoptive brother, Leo, is teaching a public high school English lesson. The book Leo has chosen for his class is the debut Parker outing, The Hunter (in an '80s Avon edition, no less), and the discussion around the novel is lively and entertaining, the unruly kids finding Parker a compelling creation. But there's one kid in class, Ernest, who's a real movie buff, and in Ernest's thoughts on which is the best Parker movie, the guiding hand of Pelecanos the Westlake fan can be clearly seen.

Pelecanos seems to be on something of a roll at the moment: The Cut only arrived in August of last year, and yet the author has already had another novel published in the interim. And in the next Pelecanos post, I'll be reviewing that novel, in a highly collectible British edition...

Friday, 17 February 2012

Dortmunder Daze / Parker Progress Report for Donald E. Westlake Day: a Review of Jimmy the Kid (Dortmunder #3, 1974), feat. Child Heist

(NB: This post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

As you'll no doubt already be aware if you've read Violent World of Parker supremo Trent's earlier post, today is Donald E. Westlake Day. Instigated by Patti Abbott to mark the imminent publication by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books of the "lost" Westlake novel The Comedy is Finished (imminent in the States, anyway; I don't think it's out in the UK till April, so I'll be reviewing it on Existential Ennui nearer that pub date), all over the web today fine folk are posting reviews of an array of Westlake works. Trent's already reviewed Westlake's 2004 standalone novel Money for Nothing, and for my part, I'm pressing on with my ongoing reviews of Westlake's two best-known series: the serious novels starring taciturn crime automaton Parker (written, of course, under the alias Richard Stark), and the not-so-serious ones starring hard-luck heister John Dortmunder (written, of course, as, er, well, Donald E. Westlake). And it just so happens that I've serendipitously reached a juncture at which those two otherwise independent-from-one-another series intersect: Jimmy the Kid.

First published by Evans in the US in 1974 and Hodder in the UK in 1975, Jimmy the Kid – the third Dortmunder novel, following The Hot Rock (1970) and Bank Shot (1972) – is in many ways the culmination of the inter-book experiments Westlake had been running since he'd spun the first Alan Grofield solo novel, The Damsel (1967), out of the eighth Parker novel, The Handle (1966; and even earlier if you count Westlake's sleaze paperback collaborations with the likes of Lawrence Block) – see Plunder Squad's crossover with Joe Gores's Dead Skip, Butcher's Moon's revisiting of characters and plot threads from across the whole Parker series, and so on. Jimmy the Kid, however, goes one better. The story sees Dortmunder and his luckless crew – Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, Murch's Mom and Dortmunder's girlfriend, May – enacting an elaborate scheme to kidnap a kid for a ransom. But the plan has come from a novel place: a novel, in fact; a novel Kelp read during a brief stay inside; a novel titled Child Heist, written by an author named Richard Stark, and starring a taciturn crime automaton known as Parker...

It's a metafictional conceit worthy of James Hogg or Laurence Sterne: not merely a book-within-a-book, but a book-within-a-book written by the author's pseudonymous alter ego, in the authentically flat, pared-back style of that alter ego, and featuring that alter ego's most famous creation. Entire chapters of the Parker vehicle Child Heist are stitched into Jimmy the Kid, alongside subsequent chapters where Dortmunder and co. attempt to follow Parker and co.'s plans (and usually screw them up). Moreover, Child Heist is itself a work of fiction – i.e., it's a fictional piece of fiction. Outside of Jimmy the Kid, it doesn't exist – there's is no Parker novel called Child Heist. And to cap it all, towards the end of Jimmy the Kid, the similarly fictional author Richard Stark also puts in an appearance (as does his lawyer).

At a near-forty year remove, it's difficult to imagine what readers in 1974 would have made of all this. For sure, even if they'd heard of Richard Stark or knew his work, few would have been aware of the relationship between Stark and Westlake – after all, even today, outside of hardcore Parker nuts like us lot, to what extent is Joe Reading Public truly cognizant of Westlake's "dark half" (or indeed Stark's lighter one)? And even for those fortunate enough to have made the connection back then, with little in the way of bibliographical guidance in that pre-internet era, to be presented with the tantalising prospect of a "missing" Parker novel must have been maddening (and judging by the search terms I see in Existential Ennui's back-of-house stats, still is for some Parker neophytes).

It's a shame, then, that Jimmy the Kid the novel doesn't quite live up to the promise of Jimmy the Kid the meta-experiment. The innate absurdity of the set-up doesn't especially translate into belly laughs, although there are certainly moments that raise a smile and occasionally a chuckle. For my money (ahem), the preceding Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot, is the better book. There, the equally ludicrous scenario which plays out is matched by an expertly executed, gradually escalating climactic joke; in Jimmy the Kid, while there is a comedic twist, it's perhaps too heavily telegraphed to be completely effective.

Mind you, the way it's handled is both inventive and amusing, and does at least set Dortmunder up for one last, well-aimed kick in the teeth. And anyway, for the Dortmunder fan, the Parker completist, and for those interested in the literary games Westlake played, Jimmy the Kid is pretty much indispensable: a unique book in the Westlake canon. Which is why for many – Trent among them – it's a cause for celebration that after years spent languishing in semi-obscurity as an out-of-print curio, Jimmy the Kid is now readily available for the Kindle. Although it's perhaps less of a cause for celebration for those of us who forked out for first editions of the damn thing...

Next on Existential Ennui, kicking off a short run of George Pelecanos posts, we move from a novel featuring a metafictional guest appearance from Parker, to another, more recent novel which also boasts a meta-Parker appearance...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard: a British First Edition (Viking/Penguin, 1990)

Just a wee (er, ish) addendum to Monday's post on Elmore Leonard's new novel Raylan and its relationship to Justified, the TV show which both inspired it and was itself inspired by earlier Leonard/Raylan Givens stories – I mentioned in that post that Martin Amis once described Leonard's 1990 novel Get Shorty – which was, of course, filmed (quite successfully, although not as successfully as Justified) by Barry Sonnenfeld in 1995, with John Travolta in the role of gangster-turned-movie mogul Chili Palmer, and followed by a sequel, the not-quite-as-good Be Cool, in 1999, which was also filmed (rather less successfully), this time by F. Gary Gray in 2005 – as "a masterpiece", and that I wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment. (That Amis quote, by the way, I spotted the other weekend in this excellent Guardian essay on Leonard by Philip Hensher.) But it struck me whilst writing that post that despite Get Shorty being not only my favourite Elmore Leonard work but also one of my favourite novels, period, I didn't actually own a copy (I believe I borrowed the one I read from Beckenham Library in the early-'90s).

Naturally I immediately set about rectifying this egregious state of affairs, and went in search of a first edition of the book. A straightforward task, you might reasonably assume, since first editions of Get Shorty litter the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace like bodies litter Leonard's backlist. Ah, but you see, the vast majority of those are the American first edition, published by Delacorte Press; the British first edition is in much shorter supply – and even shorter now that I have this:

A near-fine copy of the British first edition/first impression, published by Viking/Penguin in the same year as the Delacorte first, 1990, my acquisition of which reduces the available number of British firsts on AbeBooks worldwide to, currently, eight – and two of those are ex-library. Of course, since the Viking edition and the Delacorte edition are virtually identical – same dustjacket design, same interiors (bar the copyright page) – you'd be forgiven for wondering why I'd want the British edition anyway, especially since it's probably printed, like most British editions of American books, on what's almost certainly an inferior paper stock. But I'm afraid the only explanations I can offer there are (i) because it's scarcer than the American one; (ii) because I'm British myself, and therefore guided by a misplaced pride in my homeland; and (iii) because I'm an idiot.

The jacket design is uncredited, but it's done in the same "big book look" style as the covers of all of Leonard's novels around this early-1990s period – see also Maximum Bob (1991), Rum Punch (1992) and the Raylan Givens novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995) – and will be very familiar to readers of a certain age (i.e., my age). I know that the illustrations on the covers of those last two are by Mark Taylor, so it's a fairly safe bet that the illo of the Hollywood sign on Get Shorty is by Mr. Taylor, too.

Anyway. Next up: it's Donald E. Westlake Day!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Justified: Raylan Givens in Raylan by Elmore Leonard (Book / TV Show Review)

Way back in the dim and distant past – in fact around this time last year, oddly enough – I posted a series of reviews of Elmore Leonard's crime fiction stories featuring US Marshal Raylan Givens, comparing them to the TV show they inspired, Justified – my belaboured point being that Justified is the most faithful adaptation – in spirit, tone, characterization and even dialogue – of Leonard's work yet seen. Those three posts – on the novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995) and the short story "Fire in the Hole" (2002), plus an introductory piece – proved pretty popular, together receiving thousands of hits from fans of Justified investigating the source material. The final one in particular, on "Fire in the Hole", ended 2011 as the most viewed post of the year on Existential Ennui, and continues to attract a fair bit of traffic even now (perhaps understandably, given each episode of Justified boasts the legend "Based on the short story 'Fire in the Hole' by Elmore Leonard" in its titles).

Justified is now into its third season in the States and seemingly going from strength to strength, but an unexpected bonus of the show's creative success has been that it inspired Elmore Leonard – an executive producer on Justified – to pen further Raylan Givens stories, something I doubt he'd have done if the show hadn't existed. Indeed, according to Justified's creator and show runner, Graham Yost (quoted in this recent Reuters piece), it was the actor who plays Raylan, Timothy Olyphant, who suggested to Leonard that he write some more Raylan tales – and those tales in turn inspired aspects of Justified's second season and reportedly even its third (Leonard was showing his new stories to Yost and co. as he wrote them).

The end result of Olyphant's intervention, the prosaically titled Raylan, is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK on Thursday (it's been out in the US for about a month already), and the first thing to note is that it isn't so much a novel as three short stories – or, more accurately, novellas – stitched together – a consequence of the way the book was written; according to Yost, Leonard wrote one story, then just kept going until he had three. But the three separate tales aren't presented as such, and so even though there are plot strands which tie them together, there's an episodic feel to the work, with noticeable changes of direction. Moreover, the relationship between Leonard's book and Justified isn't quite so clear cut this time; whereas previously the show's makers lifted Leonard's Raylan stories almost verbatim, this time they've been more selective, taking elements and scenes and altering them as they've seen fit. (Leonard's instructions to Yost regarding the novel were, "Hang it up and strip it for parts.")

The main plot in the first third of Raylan hasn't yet shown up in Justified, and centres on the illegal removing of internal organs from unwitting victims around Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan grew up and now lives and works (having been exiled there in "Fire in the Hole"). But it does involve Pervis Crowe and his feckless offspring Dickie and Coover – and it's these three characters, in an altered form, that Yost and his team made the focus of the second season of Justified. While in the book the Crowes are distantly related to the hapless Dewey Crowe, in the show they become the Bennetts, and Pervis changes from patriarch to matriarch, in the form of Mags Bennett. Hopefully that organ-stealing story will turn up in Justified at some point though, because it's a classic example of the way Leonard confounds expectations – the kicker is that the organ thieves are selling them back to their original "owners" – and climaxes with Raylan naked bar his boots in a bathtub filled with ice (steady, ladies).

Story #2 forms the basis of Justified season two's main arc, and sees Raylan assigned to protect hard-assed operator Carol Conlan of M-T Mining, a company seeking to buy the presumed coal-rich Big Black Mountain, which, it transpires, is owned by Pervis Crowe. Here we see the return of Boyd Crowder, Raylan's former friend and now nemesis. Boyd is working for M-T, and gets mixed up in a shooting when a disgruntled local vents his frustration at the way the mining company has been polluting the area. This part of the book hinges on a town meeting to discuss M-T's plans, during the course of which Raylan fatally undermines Carol's argument, and amidst all the – admittedly enjoyable – gunplay of Raylan, to my mind it's this scene which is the highlight of the entire enterprise; it's notable that it's duly transported wholesale – along with Carol – to season two of Justified.

Now, those familiar with Leonard's original "Fire in the Hole" story might, at this point, be wondering how on earth Boyd Crowder can feature in Raylan, since, counter to the events of Justified, Boyd died at the end of Leonard's tale. Leonard offers no explanation for Boyd's miraculous resurrection, although he does slyly address it in a couple of lines from Raylan during a tense standoff: "You thinking about the time I shot you and you rose from the dead? It only happens once in your life." But it's clear throughout Raylan that Justified didn't merely reignite Leonard's interest in the character of Givens; seems the writer fell back in love with much of the cast of Harlan County, not just Boyd but also Ava (it was Leonard's idea to have those two getting together, something that again plays out in Justified season two) and especially Raylan's long-suffering boss, Art Mullen, who features repeatedly in the book.

The final section of Raylan again changes tack, setting Givens on the trail of twenty-three year old Rachel Nevada, alias Jackie Nevada. Jackie is something of a card sharp, but she may also be mixed up in a string of bank robberies, so Raylan heads over to Lexington to get to the bottom of things, in the process partnering up with Marshal Bill Nichols. Nichols has already made an earlier appearance in Raylan, in a scene which is one of the most wryly amusing in the book: 

Nichols said, "You've shot and killed a man?"

"Yes, I have," Raylan said.

"An armed fugitive?"

"More than one," Raylan said.

"It doesn't matter how many, does it?"

"Not a bit," Raylan said. "Once or twice I might've been lucky."

"You get to where you have to pull—"

"Knowing you better shoot to kill," Raylan said.

Nichols gave Raylan a nod.

They knew each other.

Essentially, Nichols is an older version of Raylan, and though Leonard doesn't do much with him in Raylan, one senses the author is setting him up for further appearances down the line. The same goes for Jackie Nevada, with whom Raylan really hits it off – and Graham Yost having stated that he and his fellow writers and producers will be using further bits of Raylan in season three of Justified (and season four, if there is one), I wouldn't be at all surprised if both Jackie and Nichols make it onto our TV screens at some point.

Martin Amis once said of Elmore Leonard that Leonard is "incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence" (Amis also favourably reviewed Riding the Rap, and called Get Shorty – quite correctly in my opinion – "a masterpiece"), and that's as true of Raylan as of any others of Leonard's novels and stories. Due to its origins it's not the most tightly plotted of his books, but in its charmingly meandering way it's as sublime – not to mention purely pleasurable – a reading experience as you could wish for. That's down to Leonard's by-this-juncture utterly effortless storytelling, not to mention his beautifully idiosyncratic and allusive dialogue, the way he can lightly sketch characters who nevertheless fair leap from the page, and the occasional emotional gut-punches he seeds throughout the book.

But Raylan also exerts a strange fascination for the way it came into being. It's been called an "alternate universe" version of Justified in some quarters, but that strikes me as an inadequate explanation for what it actually is: a piece of Elmore Leonard fiction inspired by a television show that was in turn inspired by another piece of Elmore Leonard fiction; art, imitating art, imitating art, the one feeding off the other, feeding off the other, and so on. And if Leonard, suitably inspired by what the makers of Justified have done with the stories he wrote having been inspired by what they'd done with the original stories he wrote, chooses to write yet more Raylan Givens stories, which the makers of Justified then base further stories on...

...well then I think my head might just explode.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Dan J. Marlowe and Earl Drake, 5: Collecting the Man with Nobody's Face, inc. Bibliography

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

For Part 1, go here; for Part 2, here; for Part 3, here; and for Part 4, go here.

Dan J. Marlowe's final Earl Drake espionage adventure, Operation Counterpunch, appeared in 1976, by which point the series numbered twelve volumes, including the initial two hard-boiled crime works, The Name of the Game is Death (1962) and One Endless Hour (1969). In the States all of the novels had been published as paperback originals by Fawcett Gold Medal, which meant that in the UK, Hodder Fawcett/Coronet had acquired the rights (much as Coronet had begun publishing Richard Stark's Parker novels once Fawcett in the US picked up the rights as of 1967's The Rare Coin Score). But as it happened, Coronet wasn't the only publisher to issue the Earl Drake novels in Britain in the early '70s...

In 1973, British publisher Gold Lion (no relation to Gold Medal... I don't think) issued the initial six Earl Drake novels over successive month... all of them in hardback with dustjackets – the only time any of Marlowe's novels have appeared in that format. Evidently Gold Lion – a publisher which would only exist for a couple of years – were on something of an American crime thriller acquisition spree at that juncture, because in the same year they also published three Parker novels as hardbacks – see this post from last year. Like those three Parkers, the dustjacket designs on the Drakes were variously illustrative and photographic – perhaps the most striking being the photo covers of The Name of the Game is Death (the interior of which is the revised 1973 Gold Medal text) and Operation Fireball – and also like those Parkers, all of the Drake hardbacks have since become incredibly scarce. To give you an indication, at present AbeBooks has just four Drake Gold Lions listed, three of those being copies of the same book, Operation Breakthrough.

Over in the States all twelve of the Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks – two of which, Operations Fireball and Flashpoint, boast Robert McGinnis cover art (the latter of those, in its 1972 retitled edition, I nabbed at November's London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair) – can be acquired fairly easily online, although if you're seeking first editions, it can be a bit of a minefield working out which are first printings and which are later printings. One thing to bear in mind especially is which version of the debut Drake, The Name of the Game is Death, you want. As I outlined in the previous post, for hard-boiled crime aficionados, the original 1962 printing is probably preferable (if pricey; a cheaper alternative is the later Black Lizard edition of that version), while for those with more of an interest in the Earl Drake series as a whole, the 1973 revised edition may well suit.

In the UK, only the revised edition was ever published, in hardback by the aforementioned Gold Lion in 1973 under the novel's original title, and in paperback by Coronet that same year under the new title Operation Overkill, although retaining the interior running head The Name of the Game is Death:

Coronet issued all of the Drake novels – bar the final one, which to my knowledge they never published – from 1972 to 1977, although not always in the correct order (I believe they actually began with the sixth one, Operation Drumfire). They did, however, add the appellation "Operation" to all of the titles, even One Endless Hour, which became Operation Endless Hour. The covers of the Coronet editions are all variations on the same theme, a curious mixture of photography and illustration, with a photo of leggy model – the same model on each cover, I believe – collaged into line-and-wash artwork, all set against a white background. I rather like them.

Most of the Coronet editions are in relatively plentiful supply online, apart from the first two, Operation Overkill and Operation Endless Hour, which are becoming uncommon, and the final Drake novel Coronet published, Operation Deathmaker, which is highly uncommon. As for the final Drake novel overall, Operation Counterpunch, the only option there if you want a copy is the US Gold Medal edition.

Mind you, I say the final Drake novel overall: there's a level of disagreement online as to the correct running order of the entire series. Each of the four bibliographies I've been referring to throughout this run of posts – Mystery*File, Thrilling Detective, Fantastic Fiction and Spy Guys & Gals – has the books in a slightly different order. This confusion seems to have arisen because Gold Medal, who originally didn't number the books at all, introduced a numbering system midway through the run, adding numbers to the covers of the earlier volumes as they reprinted them. But then to add to the muddle, it appears as if the publisher numbered some volumes earlier or later than where in the sequence they originally appeared.

For my Earl Drake bibliography I've gone with the Spy Guys & Gals running order, even though the copyright dates given suggest that Spy Guys & Gals used the later Gold Medal numbering. I've done this partly because, broadly speaking, I've found the site to be accurate in matters to do with spy fiction (although I'll happily revise the running order if a compelling case to do so is presented to me), but also because their list handily includes pithy synopses of all of the novels and a fair-minded overview. The Gold Medal pub dates I've chiefly taken from the Mystery*File bibliography (which in turn was adapted from Allen J. Hubin's Crime Fiction IV), while the Gold Lion and Coronet pub dates I researched myself.

(UPDATE: It's since been pointed out by Violent World of Parker reader Jason that the Thrilling Detective running order is the correct one, so I've changed the below bibliography accordingly.)


1. The Name of the Game is Death (US Fawcett Gold Medal PB, 1962; revised edn. 1973 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973) / Operation Overkill (UK Hodder Fawcett Coronet PB, 1973)

2. One Endless Hour (US Gold Medal PB, 1969 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973) / Operation Endless Hour (UK Coronet PB, 1975)

3. Operation Fireball (US Gold Medal PB, 1969 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973 / UK Coronet PB, 1974)

4. Flashpoint (US Gold Medal PB, 1970) / Operation Flashpoint (US Gold Medal PB, 1972 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973 / UK Coronet PB, 1973)

5. Operation Breakthrough (US Gold Medal PB, 1971 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973 / UK Coronet PB, 1973)
6. Operation Drumfire (US Gold Medal PB, 1972 / UK Coronet PB, 1972 / UK Gold Lion HB, 1973)

7. Operation Checkmate (US Gold Medal PB, 1972 / UK Coronet PB, 1973)

8. Operation Stranglehold (US Gold Medal PB, 1973 / UK Coronet PB, 1974)

9. Operation Whiplash (US Gold Medal PB, 1973 / UK Coronet PB, 1974)

10. Operation Hammerlock (US Gold Medal PB, 1974 / UK Coronet PB, 1975)

11. Operation Deathmaker (US Gold Medal PB, 1975 / UK Coronet PB, 1977)

12. Operation Counterpunch (US Gold Medal PB, 1976)

Next up on Existential Ennui: the return of Raylan Givens...