Friday, 29 November 2013

Anthony Price's David Audley Spy Novels in British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

When I noted at the start of my review of spy novelist Anthony Price's fifth novel, Other Paths to Glory (Gollancz, 1974), in June of last year that it had "been a good six months since I last posted anything substantial about Anthony Price and his David Audley series of espionage novels", little did I realise that it would be another year-and-a-half before I returned to Mr. Price. The consequence, I suppose, of having a 'to-read' pile akin to, if not a mountain, then at least an impressive hillock – not to mention having a six-month-old daughter as well, I guess – but even so, the lack of any Price posts still represents a dreadful dereliction of duty, even if I have mentioned him in passing here and there (and exchanged the odd private letter with him too; oh I'm such a namedropper).

To make amends, then, I'm rounding off Existential Ennui's regular blogging for 2013 – yes, the traditional Existential Ennui festive piss-up--I mean, review of the year is almost upon us, God help us – with a pair of Anthony Price posts. There'll be a review of his sixth novel, Our Man in Camelot (Gollancz, 1975), up anon, but first I thought I'd showcase some of the first editions of his novels I've picked up over the last year or two (or three in some cases), not least because the dust jackets of these ones fit the bill for my recently established British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, and the addition of them to said gallery takes the number of book covers therein up to 120 (a total which almost rivals that of the original Existential Ennui gallery, Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s). And they are:

The Hour of the Donkey, published in hardback by Gollancz in 1980. The tenth novel in the nineteen-book David Audley series, it was the third to feature a pictorial dust jacket, as opposed to the initial seven Audley thrillers, all of which sported variations on the iconic – largely typographic – Gollancz yellow wrapper design. The striking jacket photograph is by Oliver Hatch, who was already represented in British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s by his jacket for the Price novel prior to this one, Tomorrow's Ghost (Gollancz, 1979). I have a feeling one of Hatch's photos appears on the front of the novel prior to that one too, The '44 Vintage (1978), but I don't own a copy of the Gollancz edition (I have a signed US edition instead) so I can't say for certain. I do, however, know that Mr. Hatch's work appears on the front of the novel subsequent to The Hour of the Donkey:

Soldier No More, the eleventh Audley thriller, published in hardback by Gollancz in 1981 – that much is evident from merely a glance at the cover. It's worth noting, by the way, that as with all the images in this post (and indeed all the images across Existential Ennui) you can see the front of the jacket at a larger size if you click on it, and read a synopsis of the plot if you click on the image of the case and jacket flaps. But it's worth clicking on the back cover too, I feel – on all the back covers in this post, in fact, as the notices for Price's novels carried thereon give a feel for how well-respected his work was (and still is, I hasten to add).

Skipping over the next Audley novel, The Old Vengeful (Gollancz, 1982) – I do own it, but its wrapper, featuring a Turner watercolour, is atypical both of thriller cover design of the era and of the Audley series itself at this juncture – we come to the thirteenth Audley outing:

Gunner Kelly, published in hardback by Gollancz in 1983. The front cover photo is credited to Bruce Coleman Ltd., now known as Bruce Coleman Inc., a nature photography library which can be viewed here, but the jacket design is by Brian Nicholls, who also designed the wrapper of the 1983 Gollancz reissue of the second Audley novel, The Alamut Ambush (originally 1971), which I'd already included in British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s. Nicholls may well have also been responsible for the jackets of the last two Audley novels I'm showcasing here:

Sion Crossing, published in hardback by Gollancz in 1984, and:

Here Be Monsters, published in hardback by Gollancz in 1985, but neither design is credited, merely the pictures on the front – respectively a nineteenth century drawing by Theodore Russell Davis and a fifteenth century illustration of The Romance of the Rose, the latter held by the Bodleian Library in Price's native Oxford. After this point the Gollancz jackets for Price's remaining four Audley novels took on a more typographic aspect, in a way mirroring those wrapping the Audley novels of the early to mid-1970s – novels such as 1975's Our Man in Camelot. (See what I did there...?)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Parker Scores: UK Hardback Editions of Richard Stark's Point Blank, The Man with the Getaway Face, Slayground and The Outfit (Allison & Busby, 1984/1989)

NB: A Version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

This, I fear, will be my final Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui cross-post of 2013. The year is fast disappearing on me, and I can't in all honesty see myself returning to Donald E. Westlake or Richard Stark – or any others of Westlake aliases for that matter – before it breathes its last. Rest assured, however, that I'll be back blogging at The Violent World of Parker in the new year, although I suspect not with any greater frequency than I have of late; the demands of fatherhood, and life, and work – not to mention Existential Ennui (with which I'll be soldiering on in my usual intermittent fashion in the interim) – mean that I'll probably only manage one cross-post a month, if that. Cause for celebration in some quarters I'm sure, but at least I'm going out with a bang in the shape of a sizeable Parker Score, comprising not one, not two, not three, but four Allison & Busby British hardback editions: Point Blank, The Man with the Getaway Face, Slayground (all 1984) and The Outfit (1988).

Now, I should point out that I already owned all four of these editions. But these 'new' copies, which I purchased from Brighton book dealer Alan White, are in better condition than my ones, and Alan did me such a good deal on them I couldn't resist 'upgrading'. That said, my old copies are still in pretty good nick – even The Man with the Getaway Face, which is ex-library – so I'll be offloading them on eBay at some point, along with some other Westlake goodies. Although I might keep my other copy of The Outfit; curiously, and intriguingly, the copy I bought off Alan is bound in red leather rather than the usual black Arlin – although still foil-blocked on the spine – which makes me wonder if it wasn't rebound for either a private library or maybe even Allison & Busby's own files.

It'll be interesting – to me anyway – to see whether the Allison & Busby hardbacks hold their value once the new IDW hardback editions of the Parker novels start arriving next year. While the A&B editions weren't, in many cases, the first time the Parkers had appeared in hardback – Random House got there first with Deadly Edge and Slayground in 1971 and Plunder Squad in 1972, followed by Gold Lion with three earlier Parkers in 1973 and Gregg Press with another handful of early ones in 1981 – A&B did manage to issue more Parkers in hardback than any other publisher – thirteen in total from the sixteen-book 1962–1974 original run (A&B never published Plunder Squad or Butcher's Moon, and only ever published Deadly Edge in paperback). Presumably – assuming their new editions are successful enough – at some point IDW will pass that milestone, but even so, I think I'll still treasure my A&B editions not only as the piece of publishing history – especially British publishing history – they are, but also for how the collecting of those books led to both Existential Ennui becoming what it is today (for better or for worse) and to my becoming co-blogger at The Violent World of Parker (ditto).

Of course, whether or not I'll be able to resist the urge to start collecting the IDW editions too is another matter entirely...

Anyway, the acquisition of these books affords me the opportunity to add yet more Richard Stark covers to Existential Ennui's bulging British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page, even though these Allison & Busby dust jackets, all designed by Mick Keates, are perhaps more indicative of the publisher's house style than of that particular era of cover design.

And there'll be further additions to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s fairly soon, as I make a return to the work of spy novelist Anthony Price...

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Man from Destiny and The Brave Cannot Yield by Ian Mackintosh (Robert Hale, 1969/1970)

I'm going to try and make this final Ian Mackintosh post shorter than the ones on Mackintosh's first and second novels, A Slaying in September (1967) and Count Not the Cost (also 1967) – and indeed the introductory one on Mackintosh and his most celebrated creation, The Sandbaggers – which shouldn't be a problem since I won't be reviewing the two Mackintosh novels under discussion –

The Man from Destiny, published in hardback by Robert Hale in 1969 with a dust jacket designed by Barbara Walton, and

The Brave Cannot Yield, published in hardback by Robert Hale in 1970 with a dust jacket designed by Kingaby/Keeman – for the simple reason that I haven't read them yet. Even so, it's worth showcasing them, I think, because like A Slaying in September, Count Not the Cost and the third novel Mackintosh published in this formative phase of his writing career, 1968's A Drug Called Power (which I don't own), they're so incredibly scarce they haven't been seen online in this depth before (merely the front of their jackets, in this Mystery*File post). And anyway, given that my reviews of A Slaying in September and Count Not the Cost weren't exactly glowing, and that having flicked through The Man from Destiny and The Brave Cannot Yield I can't imagine I'll respond to them any more favourably than I did their forebears, it's perhaps best for all concerned that I don't review them – at least not for a while anyway.

Let's stick to the certitudes for now then, which are that while The Man from Destiny is a standalone work, starring one Danny Mason, a young man engaged in a war against his twin brother and father's criminal organisation, The Brave Cannot Yield is a sequel – a sequel to a sequel, in fact, being the third (and final) Mackintosh novel to feature private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld-turned-British secret agent Tim Blackgrove – the others being A Slaying in September and A Drug Called Power. (An aside: I must admit I initially mocked the notion of a private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld-turned British secret agent being named Tim, but late in A Slaying in September it's revealed that 'Tim' is a nickname, an acronym composed of the first letters of Blackgrove's actual forenames, the first of which, we learn in The Brave Cannot Yield, is Tyrone. Although on reflection, Tyrone is almost as ridiculous a name for a private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld-turned British secret agent as Tim.)

Other certitudes are that while my copy of The Man from Destiny is in pretty good nick, my copy of The Brave Cannot Yield is an ex-library one missing not only its front endpaper but its first page as well. A shocking state of affairs, obviously – ex-library is one thing, but I can't abide mutilated (by librarians, invariably) books – but one I have resigned myself to on account of it's unlikely I'll come across a better – or indeed any other – copy of it anytime soon. Both books were acquired from the legend that is Jamie Sturgeon, and the covers of both have now been deposited in their respective appropriate Existential Ennui galleries – Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s in the case of Barbara Walton's fine effort for The Man from Destiny, and British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s for Kingaby/Keeman's, ah, idiosyncratic offering for The Brave Cannot Yield.

And speaking of British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s, I'll shortly be adding yet more covers to the page...

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Sandbaggers Writer Ian Mackintosh's Second Novel, Count Not the Cost (Robert Hale, 1967); Book Review

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

If A Slaying in September, the 1967 debut novel by naval officer turned writer Ian Mackintosh – who would go on to create cult TV spy show The Sandbaggers (among other celebrated television endeavours) – was bad – and it really was quite dreadful – his second novel was perhaps even worse.

Count Not the Cost was published in the same year as A Slaying in September, again by Robert Hale in hardback, sporting a beautiful dust jacket, designed by Barbara Walton – and now residing in my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – which belied the literary horrors lurking within. Like A Slaying in September and the rest of the five crime and spy thrillers Mackintosh published in the late-1960s before he broke into TV writing with BBC drama Warship, this was to be the novel's only printing; and like its brethren it's now so scarce that at the time of writing not a single copy can be found for sale online. Mine is an ex-library copy (an ex-City of London Police Library copy, to be precise), which I acquired from book dealer par excellence Jamie Sturgeon last year; it was the first Ian Mackintosh novel I read, and its sublime awfulness inspired me in part – the other part being the collector's urge to own that which is rare – to purchase three of the remaining four early Mackintosh novels from Jamie (the only one I'm missing is the third one, A Drug Called Power, 1968).

You may be wondering why on earth I'd purchase a handful of secondhand books – a couple of them ex-library for God's sake – which I was almost certain would be bloody terrible; but as the excerpts in my review of A Slaying in September hopefully demonstrated, this is a different order of bloody terrible we're dealing with here. I hesitate to trot out the hackneyed phrase 'so bad they're good', but when it comes to Mackintosh's early novels, there's a lot of truth in that. Whether they were written in jest or, more disturbingly, in earnest, there's a compulsive quality to these books – the two that I've read anyway (and having flicked through the other two, I've seen nothing to dissuade me from my belief that they're just as crap); they induce in the reader – at least this reader – an irresistible urge to keep turning the pages even though you know it's only going to get worse.

Count Not the Cost is no different. The antihero of the piece this time is Rod Holt, a grey-eyed "gunman", as his friend Commander Hammond of Scotland Yard puts it, "an outlaw and an outcast", a "San Francisco guttersnipe... officially a trouble-shooter for the Olinett Diamond Company" who "does free-lance investigations" – and as such, aside from the American heritage, being a bit older and being possessed of an inclination to wearing black rather than grey, cut from the same cloth as the hero of A Slaying in September, Tim Blackgrove. If anything, however, Rod is even more emotionally crippled than Tim. Where Blackgrove fell for a shop assistant (whilst buying fags) and spent a third of that novel mooning around after her – with some success, it must be said, albeit with a sting in the tail – Holt has devoted his entire existence to the safety and wellbeing of a woman – Jean Lamont – who absolutely loathes him.

To that end he elects to assist her current beau, dashing but ineffectual Frenchman Luc Lenoir, in his struggle against a bunch of French fanatics who believe that Lenoir and a friend of his late father's, Gaspard Rousseau – whom Lenoir hopes to bring to England from Hong Kong – are members of the OAS and thus enemies of France. Or something; to be honest the narrative is so garbled I kind of lost track of why the hell anyone was doing anything. In any case, after a dust-up or two with the French fanatics on British soil, Holt jets to Hong Kong, hooks up with beautiful but deadly smuggler Laura Paine and sets about devising a plan to bring Rousseau back to Blighty. Or possibly just kill him. I dunno; could be either. Or both.

Somewhere in all this there's the makings of a really good spy thriller. Unfortunately this isn't it. But the undercooked plot is only part of the problem; more of an issue is Holt and his devotion to Jean Lamont, which in some ways is akin to a monk's vow of chastity (although Holt does get to shag Laura Paine). And here we find commonality with the dominant theme of A Slaying in September – that of the seemingly hard-bitten hero who is in reality a lovelorn, self-doubting, self-loathing wreck. Rotten metaphors – and there are some choice ones here, as in A Slaying in September – and sloppy plotting aside, Mackintosh's prose is at its most turgid when he's dealing with Holt's broken heart, attaining an overwrought, hysterical tone and tenor more befitting of a romance novel (or rather how I imagine romance novels to be; I can't say I remember ever reading one) or a 1970s girls' comic (I'm on rather firmer ground here because I read a lot of those as a kid – don't ask).

I speculated in the previous post that Mackintosh's novels of this period might actually be parody, but on reflection, and with a couple of them under my belt, I'm starting to wonder whether they were his way of working through the pain of either rejection or an unrequited love. He was only in his mid-twenties, possibly even younger, when he wrote these books (whilst at sea and stationed at a remote naval base in Scotland), so any teenage yearnings he might have had wouldn't have been that distant a memory – or perhaps not distant at all but a more recent crushing of his feelings. Pure conjecture of course, but there's a rawness – as well as, inevitably, a rubbishness – to the passages where Rod Holt rages at Jean Lamont and her rejection of him (for reasons to do with the death of Holt's one-time CIA partner, also Jean's husband), not least the early one where Holt is introduced:

'Five years,' muttered the man in grey. Five long years. And now she was back. He had not seen her, but he knew – as he knew of every movement she had made in those endless, hate-filled years. He hated her still and loved her still and, against his better judgement, he had returned to the House of Memories.

His eyes went to the lonely, rusting sentinel that was the pole of the bus-stop. It was also the headstone of his grave. And how he loathed the thought of all those queues of stupid, fat-faced and vacant-looking women with their laden bags and big backsides, trampling across his tomb. He wanted to wait for them, to descend on them, to smack their baskets into their chattering faces and to wipe away their smug smiles. He wanted them on their pudgy, work-worn, peasant knees, to worship at his burial-ground.

And, by God, it was his burial-ground! Because of the childish sentimentality of his past, this little patch of hard-standing was stained with the blood of wounds of a thousand battles of his own emotions and somewhere within, his life was entombed and linked forever to this damned bungalow and to the girl whom he could not forget.

The bitch!

All at once, a huge hammer hit his heart, crushing it, driving from it the very breath of existence and leaving only a mangled mechanism that sobbed on in dry gasps and pulsed painfully in defiance of his wish to run. A terrible wave of agony hurtled upwards from his soul to crash against his reeling brain and threaten his very sanity.

The bitch!

Then again, maybe it is parody. I suspect I'm rather overthinking it. But that's the thing: these frightful novels hold a mysterious power. I defy anyone not to read the above excerpt and be gripped by an overwhelming urge to read on, although I guess for me it might also be the scarcity of the books as much as the overblown, overripe prose within. Whatever: there's no denying I've been dwelling on them quite a lot of late, turning them over and over in my head. I mean, look at the length of these bloody blog posts for one thing. Thankfully for all concerned there's just one last post to come, a double-bill affair in which I'll be taking a briefer look at the two remaining Ian Mackintosh books in my possession: The Man from Destiny (1969) and The Brave Cannot Yield (1970).

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Sandbaggers Creator Ian Mackintosh's Debut Novel, A Slaying in September (Robert Hale, 1967); Book Review

A dozen years before his presumed death in a plane accident; a decade before he created celebrated cult TV spy series The Sandbaggers (1978–1980); five years before he broke into television with the hugely successful BBC drama series Warship (1973-1977), Ian Mackintosh made his debut as a novelist.

He'd turned to writing, according to his brother Lawrie, in the early years of his naval career (he served in the Royal Navy from 1958 until his retirement in 1976, whereupon he was awarded an MBE) "to relieve the boredom, first at sea and later when posted to [a] remote Naval base in Scotland". The results were five crime and spy thrillers published in quick succession over a four-year period: A Slaying in September (1967), Count Not the Cost (1967), A Drug Called Power (1968), The Man from Destiny (1969) and The Brave Cannot Yield (1970). Each received just the one printing, in hardback, by Robert Hale; there were no paperback editions, and with Hale's print runs at the time being notoriously conservative – see also the Elmore Leonard books they published around this period – in the years since all five have become so unbelievably scarce that there is, at time of writing, not a single solitary copy of any of them available on the web. Consequently, online commentary on them is scant, largely comprising this Mystery*File post and my own post on the novels and Mackintosh's later work on The Sandbaggers from last week.

It's fair to say, then, that they represent something of a blind spot in Mackintosh's otherwise thoroughly raked-over oeuvre and life (aside from The Sandbaggers site, which boasts a good selection of articles and clippings on Mackintosh, there's a 2012 biography on him, The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh); but thanks to book dealer to the stars Jamie Sturgeon I've managed to secure four of those five novels, among them Mackintosh's debut, A Slaying in September, published in hardback in 1967 with a dust jacket designed by Colin Andrews.

Written, like the other four books from this period – and like Mackintosh's later The Sandbaggers novelisation (Corgi, 1978) – in the third person, the novel introduces grey-eyed, black-clad loner and, as the press have apparently dubbed him, "Hired Gun of Big Business"/"High Society's Trouble Shooter" Tim Blackgrove, although the villagers who live near the shop Blackgrove buys his fags from, and which he's frequented ever since, a year ago, "on the run, the police behind him and his quarry in front... he had – with typical Blackgrove unconcern – taken time off to buy cigarettes [a]nd... found himself looking across the counter into the most appealing face he had ever seen", refer to him "simply as 'the detective from London who goes to the shop'".

So far, so bizarre – and we're still only on page two. For the unwary reader – those perhaps only familiar with Mackintosh's work on The Sandbaggers or Warship or even Wilde Alliance, or his novelisations of those TV shows – and of course having first surmounted the not inconsiderable challenge of actually laying hands on a copy of any of his five early novels exposure to his writing, at least in its late-1960s incarnation, is an unsettling, unbalancing experience (I should mention that this was the second Mackintosh novel I'd read). As you turn the pages, initial misgivings give way to profound doubts and then slack-jawed disbelief, until, in the case of A Slaying in September, you reach the end of the first chapter, where Blackgrove, having bantered playfully with Julie, the doomed daughter of his occasional employer Julian Cambridges (or as Blackgrove labels her in his head, "Silly bitch!"), is described thus:

He was near to being contented. But then, he was deaf to the relentless rumblings of the tumbrils on the deadly road of his own destiny.

Alliterative, melodramatic metaphors such as this litter the text like twisted twigs bobbing atop a murky winter lido. But they're merely a symptom of the malaise which infects the novel – the fever sweat signifying the underlying illness, if you will (a disease which is evidently contagious). Because the bald fact of the matter is that A Slaying in September is really, really bad – hilariously, audaciously so – not just in terms of the tortured metaphors, or the cardboard cut-out characters, or the by turns hysterical and portentous dialogue – all of which abounds in abundance – but in the rubbish plotting too.

All of these elements come together in a kind of awful extended crescendo in the long middle stretch of the book. Having decamped to Antwerp on the trail of the drug dealer who murdered Julie Cambridges – and upon arrival, in a vengeful fury, torturing and killing a couple of drug addict underlings and dumping them in the same country ditch – Blackgrove practically forgets all about his self-appointed mission of retribution and spends over a third of the novel doing little other than moping about after the comely wench from the village shop, who's inexplicably turned up in the Belgian city. (There is an eventual explanation for this, one which forms the twist in the tale, but it truly beggars belief.) Seemingly the muse has transported Mackintosh to a higher plane of terrible prose here, because he pummels us with one putridly overripe passage after another:

...He felt awed. For so many months, he had been longing for a meeting with a girl who had the youth and vitality and the eyes and smile of that little shop-assistant; someone who would be a soulmate and who would understand him in all his moods and with all his weaknesses, who would be a shelter from his insecurity and a loving envoy from a Heaven where he would never again walk alone and where, through her, he would truly find himself...

...Fool! It might still be a dream! He sneered at his sentimentality. But he knew simultaneously, in the register of his own soul, that this girl's smile could, at will, send a flame through him, a fire that licked dangerously at the stockade of indifference which locked his heart and made him the man he was...

...Would not his life remain true to the pattern he had chosen for it: a tortuous testimony of canker and havoc, of truculence and fury, bringing disaster to himself and all those who touched upon it?...

I could go on. And I think I will:

...He had always believed that to 'feel one's heart soften' was a phrase used solely in women's magazines, but he could now feel his own iron soul liquefy in the glory of her smile and he knew that the rigid hold which he kept on the reins of his life was relaxing with dangerous celerity...

...But Alex's words were bricks of gold for the castle of hope he was building in his heart and he was warmed to the remotest and coldest regions of his soul...

...He had been damming up his floods of loneliness with a wall of self-delusion, telling himself that, inevitably, an angel would call for him, an angel who would be his very own, to guide him along the secret escape-route from the deadly quicksand that was his life. But his angel had come – and gone again. She had overflown his quagmire of hopelessness...

Thing is, in the word selection and the irresistible surge of the sentence structure, it's evident from these excerpts that Mackintosh could write. It's just that what he chose to write at this formative stage of his career were barking, overblown, intermittently violent potboilers.

Part of me wonders whether he wasn't bashing this stuff out with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek – if he was perhaps parodying the spy novels and crime fiction and even romance novels which were prevalent at the time. There's a line in A Slaying in September, one which seems to me to be especially arch and knowing, which suggests that he knew exactly what he was up to: "If he wanted to, he could ask himself how many more times he would see some soul take that last ferry-ride across the Jordan, but euphemisms did not help." The only problem with that theory is Mackintosh wrote five of these buggers (three of them starring Tim bloody Blackgrove), which to my mind is wearing the joke really thin.

I guess you could chalk it up to youthful inexperience (Mackintosh must have only been in his mid-twenties when he penned A Slaying in September), to a writer taking his first faltering literary steps – first novel nerves, as it were; except that Mackintosh's second book, Count Not the Cost, published in the same year as A Slaying in September, is, if anything, even worse...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Ian Mackintosh, The Sandbaggers (TV Series and Novelisation, 1978), and the Writer's '60s Spy and Crime Thriller Novels

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 15/11/12.

Ian Mackintosh – or MacKintosh, depending on who you believe – is a name which excites a fair bit of interest in certain spy-obsessed circles, due in large part to his being the creator and writer of (most of) The Sandbaggers:

a cult television series which ran on ITV from 1978 to 1980, starring Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, the head of a small team of troubleshooters – the eponymous "Sandbaggers" – within Britain's Special Intelligence Service – this being the Mackintosh-penned novelisation of a couple of episodes thereof, published in paperback by Corgi in 1978. I've only ever seen the odd clip of The Sandbaggers (a state of affairs I intend to rectify) and don't remember it being on telly when I was a kid (unlike another British TV spy series, Callan, which I wrote about the other week and do dimly recall) but I have been aware of it for a while due to Greg Rucka pointing to it as the chief inspiration for his fine espionage comic book (and novel) series Queen & Country in an essay in the first issue in 2001. And Rucka's not alone in his admiration either: earlier this year The Guardian ran a positive review of the three-season DVD box set of The Sandbaggers (written, incidentally, by an old mucker of mine from Mixmag days, Toby Manning) and there's an active dedicated fan site.

For espionage enthusiasts, a big part of the appeal of The Sandbaggers lies in the fascination with Ian Mackintosh's life. A career naval officer who was awarded an MBE upon his retirement in 1976, he created the hugely successful BBC drama Warship in 1973, embarking on a new career as a television writer and producer in its wake. And then in July 1979, halfway into the writing of the third season of The Sandbaggers (Mackintosh wrote all thirteen episodes of the preceding two seasons), the light aircraft Mackintosh was flying in with his girlfriend, Susan Insole, and his friend, Graham Barber – who was piloting the airplane – vanished over the Gulf of Alaska after sending out a distress signal. No survivors or wreckage were ever found, and this, along with Barber reportedly having failed to file a flight plan and the plane making an unscheduled stop at a disused World War II airfield, has led to much speculation about what actually happened, not least in Robert G. Folsom's biography The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh (Potomac Books, 2012).

Further fanning the flames of intrigue, fans of The Sandbaggers have long wondered whether Mackintosh was himself a spy, such was the apparent authenticity of the series. And reading Mackintosh's The Sandbaggers novelisation, the picture he paints of SIS does seem plausible: a grey, worn-out world of late nights, endless paperwork and office politics, and with the fug of cigarette smoke hanging heavy in the air, punctuated by all-too-rare and usually grubby missions where the odds of making it back alive are fifty-fifty. Small wonder, then, that Greg Rucka drew on the series so heavily for Queen & Country, right down to the overworked, irritable head of department – Burnside in The Sandbaggers, Paul Crocker in Queen & Country – and the M.O. of having two Sandbaggers – Minders in Rucka's comic book – on standby and referring to them as Sandbagger One and Two (or Minder One and Two).

Irrespective of its origins – not having seen the TV series I can't comment on how accurate an adaptation it is – The Sandbaggers novelisation is an effectively downbeat and latterly – during a climactic assault on a mountainous Cyprus stronghold by Sandbagger One (Willie Caine) and a female double-agent – nail-biting little spy thriller. (Randall Masteller at Spy Guys and Gals reckons so too, though he thinks less highly of the subsequent loose spin-off novel The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number, written by Donald Lancaster – an alias of Australian mystery novelist William Marshall – and published by Corgi in 1980.) It's also quite uncommon these days: it's been out of print for decades and there are a scant few copies available online. But even more scarce, and little-remarked upon – this Mystery*File review being (heretofore) practically the only online commentary – are the handful of novels Ian Mackintosh penned in the late-1960s before he embarked on his TV career – and it's these that kindled my particular interest in the writer.

From 1967 to 1970 Mackintosh published five crime and spy thrillers. Each received just the one printing – by Robert Hale in hardback in the UK – and each is so scarce that there isn't a single copy of any of them currently for sale online. Their titles in order are:

A Slaying in September (Hale, 1967)
Count Not the Cost (Hale, 1967)
A Drug Called Power (Hale, 1968)
The Man from Destiny (Hale, 1969)
The Brave Cannot Yield (Hale, 1970)

I blogged about one of them, Count Not the Cost, in passing a couple of months ago, as part of this Barbara and Eileen Walton cover gallery. I acquired that ex-library copy from fabled crime fiction book dealer Jamie Sturgeon last year, and since then have taken three other Mackintosh novels off his hands (the only one I'm now missing is A Drug Called Power). What's remarkable about them – aside from their scarcity – at least the two that I've read thus far (the first two), is how extraordinarily, deliciously bad they are: overwrought, hysterical, melodramatic and laced with the kind of painfully over-extended metaphors that cause editors to wake in the wee small hours bathed in sweat. Compare The Sandbaggers novelisation, with its pared-back prose and attempts at naturalistic dialogue, with A Slaying in September or Count Not the Cost and it's almost as if they're the work of a different writer, although in Burnside's romantic obsession with Sandbagger Two – the chilly, remote but beautiful Laura Dickens – there are admittedly hints of Mackintosh's earlier writing.

Indeed, so terrible are these books that they frequently teeter over into brilliance. Certainly they're compulsively readable, and part of me wonders whether they weren't Mackintosh's idea of an extended situationist prank (largely at the expense of Robert Hale, who never managed to sell paperback rights on any of the novels). (There's an inscription by Mackintosh in one of Jamie's own copies of the novels which suggests that might not be far from the truth.) Three of them – A Slaying in September, A Drug Called Power and The Brave Cannot Yield – star private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld Tim Blackgrove, but the (anti)heroes of the other two novels – Rod Holt (Count Not the Cost) and Danny Mason (The Man from Destiny) – are so similar to Blackgrove as to be almost indistinguishable: grey-eyed, pale, haunted loners prone to excessive violence who are nonetheless (reluctant) media celebrities.

As you may have gathered, I've become ever-so-slightly obsessed by these bloody awful but strangely beguiling books; so over the next few posts I'll be taking a closer look at them, starting with Mackintosh's debut, A Slaying in September.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell Spy Novels in British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

It's been nearly two years since I last devoted a post to William Haggard, an author fellow spy novelist Anthony Price once memorably described as "more right wing than even me!" But though I haven't written about Haggard at any length for a while – and in truth am not planning to do so now either – I have been quietly collecting cheap first editions of his Colonel Charles Russell spy series when I see them. I must have acquired another five since I posted this cover gallery in 2011, and it so happens that three of them meet the criteria for my recently established British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery (in which I'd already deposited a pair of Haggard covers: The Bitter Harvest, 1971, and Yesterday's Enemy, 1975) – i.e. they're thrillers, and they were published in the '70s. And since as of Friday British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s needed just three books to bring the number of covers therein up to 110, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to blog about them, however briefly. And they are:

The Old Masters, the fifteenth instalment in the twenty-six-book Colonel Russell series, published in hardback by Cassell in 1973, jacket design by Design Practitioners. I can't recall now where I bought this copy – or indeed an increasing number of the secondhand books I've bought over the past few years and then stowed on my 'to-blog-about' shelves. I have a feeling I got it from Eastbourne's excellent Tome (where secondhand books are two pound a pop), so for the sake of expediency let's just say that is where I got it, and that I got these ones there too:

The Scorpion's Tail, the sixteenth Colonel Russell novel, published in hardback by Cassell in 1975, jacket photograph by Michael Lyster and further credited to the Zoological Society of London, and:

The Poison People, the eighteenth Colonel Russell novel, published in hardback by Cassell in 1978, dust jacket uncredited. Interesting thing about this one is, as noted by commenter 'faithful researcher' in March last year, the plot hinges on the death of a chap named Harry Maxim – which makes ones wonder if perhaps Gavin Lyall read Haggard.

I've loads more additions to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s lined up, but next I'm turning to another writer of '70s spy fiction – of the televisual variety.