Wednesday, 30 June 2010

New Arrival: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

For once I didn't have any new arrivals to post about today, which was doubtless something of a relief for my groaning bookshelves. But I happened to pop in British Bookshops up the road when I was out and about just now, and there on the shelf (where on the shelf? right there) was this:

A UK first edition hardback of Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, published by Doubleday in 2008, and at a bargain price too. Good old British Bookshops. Every now and again they come up trumps (witness the signed first edition of Peter Hook's The Hacienda I picked up for a song at the start of the year). And in an ironic twist, The Given Day is... historical fiction, set, as it is, in Boston after World War I. Which rather makes a mockery of my mini-rant in the previous post. Sigh. What a tool. Anyway, it's a weighty old tome, clocking in at 700-plus pages, so gawd knows when I'll get round to reading it. I really liked Shutter Island, and I've got Mystic River to read still (and something else on the way...), but this does look good. Here's wot The Guardian said:

Dennis Lehane, who put in shift work as a writer on The Wire, does here for historical Boston what David Simon did for contemporary Baltimore, creating a cross-section of society within a police framework to show city corruption infiltrating every level from the highest down to the street. His sprawling epic is set at a volatile time in Boston's history, 1918, and is peppered with real-life cameos, Bolsheviks, anarchists, labour strikes, a nascent FBI and a poorly paid police force treated so pejoratively by its command that a strike is on the cards.

So there you go.

Old Books for New

The only problem with collecting twentieth century first editions, I'm finding – apart from the expense, the time, and the all-consuming feverish obsession that takes hold of you and permeates your every waking and even sleeping hour to the extent that you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night worrying whether a book you've ordered in haste online does, after all, come with a dustjacket – is I tend to be not so aware of new books. I do read the Guardian and the Observer book sections at the weekend, but they lean towards nonfiction, and the fiction they do cover is usually more 'highbrow' than my standard interests. I get emails from Firsts In Print, but again, they're generally about yer historical fiction and the like. (And what exactly is the current obsession with historical fiction? Why not simply read books that were written in that period? Er, unless, of course, books weren't being written in that period... But still, my point stands. I think.)

Book Glutton kindly drew my attention to a new book in the comments here (which I've just ordered), but the odd helpful suggestion aside, where should I go to find out about new books of a crime/thriller/SF-bent? Any suggestions gratefully received...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Rabe v. Stark

A few meandering thoughts on Peter Rabe and Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake, triggered in part by the opening line of one of Rabe's Daniel Port-starring books (which I'll get to in a minute), but also prompted by the opening paragraph of Stark's The Green Eagle Score (1967), which I'm reading at the moment. That opening para didn't make me think of Rabe per se, but it did remind me to write this post, in a roundabout way. Let's have a look at it:

Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits. He was standing near Parker’s gear, not facing anywhere in particular, and he looked like a rip in the picture. The hotel loomed up behind him, white and windowed, the Puerto Rican sun beat down, the sea foamed white on the beach, and he stood there like a homesick mortician.

"...he looked like a rip in the picture." Brilliant stuff. And actually fairly atypical; Westlake tended to begin his Parker novels right in the thick of the action, which is possibly something he picked up from Rabe. As has been stated before by myself and others (including Westlake), Peter Rabe was a big inspiration for Westlake. And not just on the Richard Stark/Parker novels either; I think you can see Rabe's influence across Westlake's books, from the taut hard-faced crime setting of the Parkers to the snappy dialogue of the Dortmunders.

But where you can see it most clearly is in the opening lines of the Parker novels. Like Rabe, Westlake/Stark almost always begins his books right in the thick of it. The Green Eagle Score and the preceding Rare Coin Score (1967) may both start on beaches, but other than those, the Parker novels usually begin with Parker in motion, either doing something or sometimes engaged in an act of violence. The first eight and the last eight Parkers all start with "when": "When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed" (The Outfit, 1963); "When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call" (The Score, 1964). (Handily, there's a list of Parker opening lines here.) Even those that don't start with a "when" still have Parker in action ("Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other" – Slayground, 1971).

Rabe does a similar thing. Daniel Port, his reluctant hoodlum, isn't quite so single-minded as Parker, so the openings aren't quite so focused. But they still throw you right into it. Here's The Out is Death (1957), for example: "The tight overcoat gave him the long shape of a tube and he walked bent forward to keep the rain out of his face." That "long shape of a tube" recalls Westlake/Stark's stripped down descriptions (rooms shaped like oblongs etc.); no words wasted, all the info you need. All of the three Port novels I own open a bit like that. But there's one opening line in particular that really made me sit up. It's from Bring Me Another Corpse (1959), and you'll see what I mean straight away:

When the road flattened out towards Albany, Daniel Port started to drive faster.

Now that could have come straight out of a Parker novel. There's the opening "when"; there's the character's name; and there's also that comma right in the middle of the sentence, breaking it in two like a hinge.

Damned if the Stark/Parker template isn't set right there – three years before the first Parker novel.

Westlake Score: Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake

You might notice I've given up numbering these Westlake Scores in the post headers. For one thing, it'll start to look a bit much when we get into double-digits; for another, I completely forgot to title my post about The Spy in the Ointment as a Westlake Score, so this new one will be #8 and there'd be no #7 (unless I re-title that Spy post, and I can't be arsed with that), and confusion would reign. So we'll just call them Westlake Scores and leave it at that (er, if I remember). And if you're still reading after all that blather, let's have a look at my latest score:

It's a UK hardback first edition of Bank Shot, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1972, the second of Westlake's Dortmunder novels (my 1971 Hodder first of the debut Dortmunder, The Hot Rock, on the right there for comparison). This rather fine copy actually came all the way from Australia; there's only one copy of this edition available online from the UK so far as I can see, and that's ex-library. This one ain't, and I defy you to find a nicer copy. (I defy you! I do!) I considered getting a US first, but I really like the cover on this one; same general design as The Hot Rock (and Somebody Owes Me Money for that matter), but with nice typography and a well wikkid bullet motif.

I was a bit cool on The Hot Rock when I was halfway through reading it; I think I was so used to Westlake's lean, straight-faced Richard Stark/Parker books that the more laidback approach in The Hot Rock threw me a bit. But by the time I'd finished it I realised I had really enjoyed it (particularly the final sequence where Dortmunder's on the run at an airport and has to hitch a lift in a small plane, much to the bemusement of the pilot), and also that I really liked John Dortmunder. He's often described as a hard-luck version of Parker, and there's some truth in that, but he's seemingly a more decent human being than Parker, and therefore more readily likeable. Bank Shot is about Dortmunder and crew's attempt to steal a whole bank – a mobile one – which is an intriguingly daft premise. Should be good, and also I should have news on the next few books in the series soon...

"Your name will also go on The List. What is it?" "Don't tell him Pike!"

Heh, that post header will confuse a few people I'm sure. It's from a classic episode of Dad's Army, in case you were wondering, in honour of our truly embarrassing defeat in the World Cup at the hands – or rather feet – of the Germans. I don't really follow football so much, but I did catch some of that match and, Jesus, England were a shambles. Anyway, it's time to look at the comics I'll be getting, or might be getting, or even won't be getting, this week! And I will almost certainly definitely probably be getting these:

Captain America
#607 is a cert, as is Garth Ennis' Chronicles of Wormwood: The Last Battle #4, which is nearly-prime (although not quite) Preacher-style Ennis. (I've been mulling over re-reading Preacher soon. God that was a brilliant comic. Whither its like now?) I'll also more than likely get the Invincible Iron Man Annual, as Matt Fraction's Iron Man is well readable, like, and I'll probably get Wonder Woman #600, another anniversary issue from DC. Let's hope it's better than the atrocious Superman #700 from last week, the only high point of which was J. Michael Straczynski's story at the back, and even that wasn't that great (his characterisations of Batman and the Flash were a bit off in my opinion – neither of them would be as offhand as he made them out to be). JMS writes some of this issue too, and then takes over the title, so we'll see what he does with Diana. The last time I enjoyed a Wonder Woman comic was Greg Rucka's run years ago, which was damn fine stuff.

I'll take a look at these too:

Action Comics
#890 is Brit writer Paul Cornell's first stab at the title, focusing on Lex Luthor (Superman has been removed from the comic, as he embarks on his trek across America in JMS' Superman). Cornell's a decent writer, best known for his Doctor Who work, and his recent run on Captain Britain was reasonably enjoyable. I might also give Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards' Turf #2 a look, although I don't think I ever finished the first issue. Way too wordy, Wossy. Get that man an editor. And there's Death of Dracula #1, which seems to be Marvel's attempt to make sense of vampire mythology within the Marvel Universe. I'm as much a sucker (hey!) for vamps as the next nerd, so I guess I'll take a look-see at it. As for Secret Avengers #2, much as I love Brubaker, I wasn't feeling the first issue of this at all. Might still give this second issue a go though.

Crikey that's a lot of comics. Bit of a big week. Still, I'm up in London on new comics day (Thursday), so I might be able to use a pal's (hello Mart!) Forbidden Planet discount and splurge.

But star of the week, if it turns up, is this, from Fantagraphics:

Norwegian cartoonist Jason's Werewolves of Montpelier. No idea what it's about, but I love Jason's comics (the heartbreaking Hey, Wait..., the thrilling I Killed Adolf Hitler), which are like an anthropomorphic take on early cinema (to the extent that many of his graphic novels are 'silent'). His work is quite unlike anything else around right now, and all the better for it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

New Arrivals (The Spy in the Ointment by Donald Westlake / Final Notice by Joe Gores) and More

Bit of a lengthy, cumbersome title for this post, but I sometimes have to search this blog myself to find book covers and whatnot, and it makes life easier if the titles of the posts bear some relation to what's in 'em. And it only took me till now to work that out. Sigh. Anyway, let's have a look-see at the two books Mr. Postman brought me over the weekend – both of which I bought online for the princely sum of a fiver apiece:

That's a UK first edition of Donald E. Westlake's The Spy in the Ointment, published in hardback by T. V. Boardman in 1967 (originally published in the States in 1966). The wrapper is by Martin Pickwick – it's the same illustration as the US Random House edition I believe. I was actually surprised by how cheap this was; there aren't many copies of this edition online, and this one's in good condition; the jacket's a little rubbed, and the folds at the jacket spine are weakening a bit, but I've put it in a protective cover now so it should be OK. The Spy in the Ointment is, I think, Westlake's take on the kinds of spy novels that were big in the 1960s (Bond, Modesty Blaise etc.), and having read a few of those, it'll be interesting to see what Westlake does with the form.

The other new arrival was this:

A UK first edition of Joe Gores' Final Notice, published in hardback by Victor Gollancz in 1974 (originally published by Random House in the US in 1973). This is the second of Gores' DKA (Dan Kearney & Associates) mysteries; regular readers might recall my recent rant about his first DKA novel, Dead Skip. This one is in mint condition – it looks absolutely unread, and is so clean and bright it could've rolled off the presses yesterday. Smashing.

In other thrilling book news, I picked this up in a charity shop in Brighton at the weekend:

A battered old Penguin paperback of Chandler's The Long Good-Bye. It's actually the 1959 first Penguin printing, but it's really rather tatty, as you can see. Still, it's readable enough, and I've been wanting to see how Chandler stacks up against the likes of Westlake and Peter Rabe.

Speaking of whom, I finished Dig My Grave Deep, which I really dug (deep). It kept me guessing right up till the finish how Daniel Port's quest to escape the clutches of the mob would end, and now I can't wait to read the next Port tale, The Out is Death. I also polished off Peter O'Donnell's first Modesty Blaise novel, which was a solid spy thriller. What really worked for me were O'Donnell's characterisations: it's true that Modesty herself and Willie Garvin don't quite shake off their comic strip origins, but British secret service head Tarrant and his deputy Fraser are deliciously realised, the latter taking a pervy pleasure in his work. The interplay between those two really zings; hopefully we'll see a lot more of them in the next Modesty novel, Sabre-Tooth.

But before I get to that, next up I'm reading Patricia Highsmith's The Glass Cell and Richard Stark's The Green Eagle Score. I'm only a few pages into the former, but already it's quite different to a lot of other Highsmiths, set, as it is, in a US prison. As for Green Eagle, I'll be starting that today. Always good to get back to the Parkers...


Gracias to Trent at Violent World of Parker for the links to here he's been throwing up on Twitter. That actually made me remember I too have a Twitter feed, which has been languishing, unloved and un-updated, for some time. Here it is:


Can't promise I'll update much – I rarely even remember to update my Facebook status – but, y'know, it's there. I'm not entirely sure why I joined Twitter in the first place, and by the lack of activity it's safe to assume I never really worked out a purpose for tweeting, but I'll try and remember to link to Existential Ennui from Twitter whenever I post something new here, or at least something worth reading (the two things don't necessarily correlate).

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

New Rabes: The Out is Death and Bring Me Another Corpse by Peter Rabe

On Monday I mentioned I'd have a couple more Peter Rabe books turning up soon, and here they are:

A 1959 first UK edition of The Out is Death (originally issued in the US in 1957), with a cover by Mitchell Hooks, and a 1960 UK edition of Bring Me Another Corpse (originally issued in the US in 1959), cover artist unknown. Both of these were published in paperback in the UK by Frederick Muller, in association with Fawcett Gold Medal, the original US publisher – essentially the same books and covers, but with a UK price on the cover and UK title/copyright page. And they're both Daniel Port books – Rabe's loose series of novels featuring a reluctant hoodlum, numbers two and five, I believe.

I'm currently halfway through the first Daniel Port novel:

and I'm beginning to see Rabe's influence on Donald Westlake. Rabe has a really understated way of dealing with, say, violence, for instance. In another writer's hands a violent sequence might be described thoroughly, but Rabe almost completely avoids the violence itself, simply describing the effects in a blunt, factual manner – much like Westlake does in his Parker novels. Occasionally it's almost comedic. Here's one example:

Port knocked on the door... Kirby opened it. He took one look, a smirk came over his face, and he stepped back ceremoniously. "Walk in! Walk while you can walk," he added, and started to laugh.
Simon stepped to one side so Port could go in first, and then he followed without haste. He walked slowly up to Kirby and moved his arm towards Kirby so that it looked like nothing. Kirby collapsed on the floor and Simon shut the door quietly.

Or how about this, from the same chapter. Here, Port is addressing the unfortunate Kirby's partner, George:

"And now I want to ask you something else. You know this girl Katie?"
"I don't know no girl Katie."
"Yesterday. The one you took away from my friend Simon."
"Oh," said George and looked at Simon.
He meant to say more, but Simon had thrown the chair at him.

Great stuff. I reckon I'll definitely be trying to track down the books in the series I'm missing.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Hot Rock and The Hunter: Novels versus Graphic Novels versus Graphic Novels

Unusually among the various authors I collect – and probably unusually amongst authors in general – Donald E. Westlake has had two of his books adapted as graphic novels now. Last year American comics creator Darwyn Cooke published an adaptation of the first Richard Stark book, The Hunter, and a few weeks ago saw the first English-language publication (it came out in France a few years ago) of French creator Christian Lacroix's (a.k.a. LAX) adaptation of the debut Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock. I've actually read both the original novels and the graphic novels, so I thought I'd witter on a while about them. Who the hell knows if I'll come up with anything insightful, though, so if you make the effort to read it, I'd like to apologise in advance if, as is highly likely, this post turns out to be a tremendous waste of your time. Still, no change there, eh?

First up, it's worth noting that The Hunter and The Hot Rock are quite different books. For those who don't know, Westlake wrote in a number of 'voices', but essentially you can break his novels down into two categories: the funny ones, and the not-funny ones. The funny, or rather comedic, ones were mostly written under his own name, and include a series of crime caper books starring career criminal John Dortmunder and his crew of thieves, of which The Hot Rock (1970) is the first. The not-funny, or rather mirthless, ones were mostly written under the pen name Richard Stark and comprise in large part of heist novels featuring career criminal Parker (no first name) and his crew(s); The Hunter (1962) is the first of those.

That said, it's the same man writing both novels. The Hunter may be tighter and grimmer, and The Hot Rock more relaxed and amusing, but the prose is clearly that of the same person: straightforward, never overly descriptive, no wasted words, characters that speak plainly (even though they frequently misunderstand each other), and a real feel for the inner workings of the criminal world. And both Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter and LAX's The Hot Rock make a good fist of adapting the books into comics form. They're both pretty faithful, each going for a period approach, with only small changes to the structures: some added swearing and the omission of a twist ending in The Hunter; a dash of nudity at the start of The Hot Rock that isn't the in the novel. Where they differ is in their comics storytelling chops.

Cooke and LAX are both, in their own ways, excellent artists. Cooke is very much in the American tradition of artists like Alex Toth and Bruce Timm, with a little David Mazzucchelli mixed in: a stylist, for sure, with a clever and pleasing shorthand, but grounded in believable anatomy and surroundings. LAX is more akin to European artists like Jacques Tardi, with a mildly distorted, elegant linework and character features which can approach caricature. But whatever your personal stylistic preference (and mine, I should make clear, is for Cooke), where Cooke wins out is in his ability to tell a story in comics form.

You can see this most clearly in how each artist approaches the opening sequences of the two books. Cooke opt for a bravura, largely wordless opening in The Hunter, tracking Parker as he makes his way across New York's George Washington Bridge on foot, then showing him faking a driver's license, appropriating some poor schmuck's bank account, buying new threads and swindling cash, then finally coming to rest in a hotel room with a pint of vodka, all of which is lifted straight from the first chapter of the novel. It's a supreme piece of storytelling, imparting almost everything you need to know in images alone.

Oddly enough, LAX also has a sequence of 'silent' panels at the start of The Hot Rock, although nowhere near as extended as Cooke's. Dortmunder is released from prison, and as he walks along the sidewalk a car pulls alongside him. We know it's his associate, Kelp, who's driving the car, as LAX has already shown him stealing it, but Dortmunder doesn't know who it is in the car, so he panics and runs away. The car follows him until Dortmunder is trapped against a wall. Then Kelp reveals himself and says he couldn't work out how to roll down the electronic window to say hello. Dortmunder socks him in the eye.

Again, this is pretty much how things pan out in the novel too, except it's made much clearer in the novel that Kelp can't control the car because he's trying to work out the window buttons, so there's a little confusion in the graphic novel over why the car is swerving around so much. LAX doesn't help matters with his panel progression either; it's a jumpy, staccato choice of layout, with little flow from one panel to the next. That approach can work well in comics, but not in an establishing scene like this.

That haphazard storytelling follows through the rest of the graphic novel. Where Cooke opts for clearly defined sequences of exposition – filling in backstory, pausing for reflection – LAX scatters captions liberally, to the extent that it's not always apparent what's caption and what's dialogue. All of the words, regardless of whether they're captions or speech balloons, being placed in rectangles and in the same font also doesn't help here.

I don't want to be too down on LAX's The Hot Rock. It is a good graphic novel, a largely faithful adaptation that captures the tone of the novel (although personally I wasn't keen on the artist's interpretation of some of the characters, Greenwood in particular). If you know the novel, you'll enjoy this version of it, and if you don't, it's a pretty good way into Westlake's world. But what I really took away from it was an even greater appreciation of Cooke's The Hunter. Even before I read the LAX book I was finding new things each time I returned to Cooke's graphic novel, but now its elegant simplicity has been thrown into even greater relief for me. I'd go so far as to rank it as the best graphic novel of last year, above Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp even. It really is that great.

In a just universe – just for LAX, that is – Cooke's The Hunter wouldn't exist, and LAX's The Hot Rock would stand tall as the best graphic novel adaptation of Westlake's work; the creator obviously put a lot of effort into it and the results are enjoyable. Unfortunately – again, for LAX, but not so much for us – in The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke produced not only a great adaptation, but a dazzling work of comics storytelling in its own right. Hate to say it, but sux to be LAX.

Houston, we have List (off)!

"Three: it's the magic number," warbled De La Soul, and many weeks, including this week, they're entirely correct when it comes to new comics. For there are three comics out this week I wish to buy. And they are:

Avengers #2. I was in two minds about the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr's Avengers. I liked it, but there was also something about it that left me a bit cold. I think it's probably more to do with getting slightly tired of superhero comics in general, or at least the modern approach to them. What should be an infinitely flexible template for new stories – because superhero comics can encompass any genre you care to mention, from crime to romance to science fiction – has largely engendered some rather lazy writing. In the first issue of Avengers, we had lots of heroes chatting about being in the Avengers, and then a villain popped out of nowhere and informed our heroes that they must travel to the future to stop their kids from destroying it. Which is a tired idea. Mind you, the villain is Kang, who I have a weird fondness for, so it's not all bad. I just wish superhero comics had a bit more ambition. Grant Morrison's comics still do, but the likes of Bendis and Brubaker seem to have lapsed into fairly formulaic approaches. Maybe they should re-read some of their own back catalogue – Torso, Daredevil, Scene of the Crime, Gotham Central – and try and rediscover some of that ol' magic. But what the fuck do I know about anything, eh?

Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne #3. Speaking of Grant Morrison, here he is with the latest chapter of Bruce Wayne's time-travelling adventure! I'm still seeing lots of criticism of Morrison online at the moment. To use a hoary old cliche, are these people reading the same comics as me? This stuff's great! You get Batman in different time periods, you get a universe-imperilling subplot, and you get Batman at the end of time manipulating his own adventure. Can't say Morrison lacks for ambition. Yanick Paquette on art duties this time – that's his variant cover there, which I shall try to nab. And speaking of variants:

That's an Eduardo Risso – of 100 Bullets fame – variant for Superman #700 on the right there (with Gary Frank's regular cover on the left). Gosh that's nice. Definitely gonna see if I can score one of those, to match my Mike Mignola variant of Batman #700. This issue has Dan Jurgens and James Robinson wrapping up various plot points, before J. Michael Straczynski takes over with his Bold New Direction, which apparently involves Superman going walkabout across America, a bit like the writer's Midnight Nation (which I loved). Possibly. I'm intrigued anyway.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Joe Gores: Dead Skip and the Dedication Mystery (Signed and Dedicated Random House First Edition)

As outlined below, this was the other of my Oxfam Finds, although, as I mentioned, I went into the Tunbridge Wells Oxfam Bookshop with a fairly good idea that they had this. Then again, you can never tell with AbeBooks: quite often listings don't get taken down even after a book has sold. Anyway, here's what I was after:

It's a US hardback first edition of Joe Gores' Dead Skip, his second novel (following 1969's A Time of Predators), published by Random House in 1972. There's a number of copies of this online, but a lot of those are Book Club editions or later printings. This is a genuine first: the strike-off line runs to '2' on the title verso, with 'First Edition' written underneath, which was how Random denoted their first printings back then (as I've rather tiresomely blogged about before).

But that's not the only reason I wanted to get it. For one, as The Violent World of Parker has helpfully pointed out, Dead Skip shares a scene with one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, Plunder Squad (Parker #15, fact fans, which I also own in a Random first edition). In Plunder Squad, a man knocks at the door of the house where Parker is planning a heist. Parker answers... and the man turns out to be Dan Kearny, one of the characters in Dead Skip, who's investigating the attempted murder of one of his agents. Kearny is the owner of Dan Kearny & Associates (or DKA), a car repo company that gets involved in mysteries; Gores wrote a series of DKA novels, of which Dead Skip is the first. (I've got a review of Plunder Squad right here and a review of Dead Skip right here.)

So there's that Parker connection. But there's more. Because the Tunbridge Wells Oxfam Bookshop's listing for Dead Skip on AbeBooks stated that this was a signed edition. And not just signed, but dedicated too. That got me intrigued. I mean, I figured it would probably only be something along the lines of "To Phil, best wishes, Joe" or something, but seeing as we were gonna be in Tunbridge Wells anyway, I thought, what the hell, might as well have a look.

When we got to the shop, I couldn't see the book anywhere – not on the shelves, not even behind the counter in the display cabinet. I didn't get my hopes up, but I asked the nice lady behind the counter if she knew of it, and after asking for the title again, and then again, she made a call on a knackered old wall-mounted phone that kept cutting out, presumably to some secret underground bunker where Oxfam evidently keep all the really good shit, and after a while a door opened and another lady popped out, book in hand, and my heart leapt (oh shut up). It was a lovely-looking copy, showing practically no signs of the nearly forty years it'd been in existence, so I opened it up to have a butcher's at the signature and the dedication. And oh, my word, what a dedication:

Here it is again for a clearer view:

And if you still can't see that it reads:

To Rona

In remembrance of that "unforgettable" night... and because A TIME OF PREDATORS bombed so thoroughly in U.K. that I doubt this one will ever see print there anyway. With warmest regards


Pretty cool, huh?

Obviously I bought the book, and I've been pondering the inscription ever since. For a start, Gores was wrong about Dead Skip: the novel was published in the UK, later in 1973, by Victor Gollancz. And then there are the questions. Who was Rona? I'm guessing she is/was British, hence the later reference to the UK, and Gores must have known her to some extent to have given her a first edition inscribed so. I kind of think he sent her the book, rather than dedicated it at a book signing or some such: if it had been at a signing, it would've been a UK edition, and anyway the inscription is too personal for that. But what was the "unforgettable" night? Placing "unforgettable" in quotes like that is a knowing wink: Gores probably isn't referring to anything romantic, but whatever happened on that night – a drunken party? A disastrous dinner? – seems to warrant an "unforgettable" that could be misconstrued by an 'outsider' as something else – and intentionally so, like an inside joke.

I hate to say it, but I guess for the book to have ended up in a charity shop, Rona may well no longer be with us. If you owned a book with such a personal inscription in it, you wouldn't surrender it to charity unless it was out of your control; you might sell it, if you really had to, but giving it away? Unlikely, particularly as it's clearly been kept in such great condition. I suppose I'll never know the answer to that one – or indeed to my other questions.

For a review of Dead Skip, go here.

Oxfam Finds: I Want it Now by Kingsley Amis / On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

So, a trip to Tunbridge Wells at the weekend turned up three good finds, all of which came from the Oxfam Bookshop there. Oxfam Bookshops have come in for a fair bit of stick recently from more traditional booksellers; the charge is that Oxfam have been opening up dedicated bookshops right on top of existing secondhand bookshops and thus undermining them and, in some cases, leading to their closure. And you can see why that might be the case: Oxfam get their books for free and can therefore undercut other bookshops. I know the one in Tunbridge Wells is very close to the other secondhand bookshops in the Pantiles district, and I've also seen one in Eastbourne that is just over the road from that town's biggest secondhand bookshop, Camilla's (and I've heard the owner of Camilla's bemoaning the Oxfam shop).

You can read more about this situation all over the internet – there's a good roundup here – but I have to say, the Oxfam in Tunbridge Wells is rather good. They had a good stock (my other half, Rachel, also found a really nice book there), reasonably priced, with modern firsts getting their own section. They also have more stock behind the scenes, which they advertise on AbeBooks. I went in there with the intention of asking about a book I'd seen listed by them on Abe (which I'll deal with in a separate post), but I found a few other things too just browsing the shelves (and at least one book I decided not to buy but wish I had now – c'est la vie).

First up, I nabbed this for a few quid:

A first edition of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, published Jonathan Cape in 2007 (jacket photo by Chris Fraser Smith). It's not exactly hard to get hold of first editions of this at low prices, but this one was in immaculate condition, and I've been wanting to try a McEwan for a while (either this or Saturday), so I figured, why not? But I was more chuffed with this:

A first edition of Kingsley Amis' I Want it Now, published by Cape again in 1968, with a jacket by George Coral. I've got quite a collection of Amis firsts now, and much as I love Lucky Jim (which I only have in a Penguin paperback first), I prefer the mid-period Amis novels, like The Green Man and (my favourite so far) The Anti-Death League, where Amis was experimenting with genre and different approaches. I Want it Now focuses on pop music and the permissive society; this copy was in really good nick – a bit of edge wear on the jacket, but otherwise bright and with clean pages. And I couldn't argue with the price: £3.75. Bargain.

So, what was the other book I got there? Well. See above...

New Rabe: Dig My Grave Deep

"New Rabe"? "New Rave"? Geddit? No? Sod yer then. Best I could do for this latest series (hopefully) of posts, which will focus on my Peter Rabe acquisitions. I've mentioned Rabe once or twice before. Full name Peter Rabinowitsch, he was an American crime fiction writer who produced around thirty novels in the 1950s/60s/70s. His first book, From Here to Maternity (1955), was actually about the birth of his first son (and also illustrated by him), but after that he turned to crime (so to speak) and produced a raft of hard-boiled novels, mostly for Gold Medal. Donald Westlake wrote of him: "Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of." (Rabe's own titles were famously largely rejected by his publishers in favour of often bizarre ones thought up by said publishers. Benny Muscles In and Kill the Boss Good-Bye, anyone?)

I already own a couple of Rabe first editions:

A 1959 first UK edition of Journey into Terror (originally published in the US in 1957), and a 1958 US first edition of Blood on the Desert (both paperback – all of Rabe's books were published in paperback). And now I have a third:

A 1957 first edition UK edition of Dig My Grave Deep, published Frederick Muller/Gold Medal (originally published in the US in 1956), with a cover painting by Lu Kimmel. This is the first of Rabe's series of novels featuring gangster Daniel Port. I've just started reading it – Port wants to quit the mob life, but his boss won't let him go, so he agrees to sort out the ward of the city he oversees, and then he can hopefully leave. The writing is straightforward, description kept to a minimum, and characters are never obvious. Port has a scheme in mind, but thus far we're not party to it. He's no Parker – he's younger for one thing, and not as terse – but he's clearly as smart as Parker in his own way, and certainly as guarded. It's a good, clear read so far, and bodes well for further Rabe reads – of which I should have a few more soon...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Everyone's a Critic: Those Shelves Again

Due to popular demand, a further rearrangement:

How's that?

And we have confirmation of the origin of that cabinet: it was indeed made by my girlfriend Rachel's granddad. It's actually a drinks/glasses cabinet; you can just about see the engraving of cocktail shakers in the glass doors.

Existential Ennui: answering questions, filling in facts.

Sunday Afternoon Book Sort

I'll have a few new posts soon (probably tomorrow) about my latest book acquisitions, one on a Peter Rabe tip, the others picked up on a trip to the Oxfam Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells yesterday. (Ooh, the excitement! The thrills and spills just never stop here at Existential Ennui.)

But in the meantime, and tangentially related to the previous highly tedious post on collecting (which I thought about deleting it's so boring), one of the nerdy things collectors do – or at least I do – is rearrange their collections. When comics took up most of my collecting energy, I'd have to (yes, have to) occasionally sort through them and put them in series order in their boxes (and actually, I need – yes, need – to do that again soon; I don't buy quite so many comics these days, but even getting a few a week, they still pile up and need sorting out). Books, which are my main focus these days, don't require quite so much arranging, but it's always nice to have them in some sort of order, usually arranged by author.

It's strangely enjoyable rearranging a collection, creating a (loose) order out of chaos. I've just spent a couple of hours re-shelving books, as I had a bunch of graphic novels stacked alongside some novels, and I probably don't need to tell you how utterly, grievously wrong that was. And if I do need to tell you, you're reading the wrong blog.

Anyway, I've now sorted out the shelf that was annoying me (as well as some others, which I won't show this time; cue sighs of relief all round), and it's in a better place now. I'm still not completely happy with it – you'll see the non-fiction down the end of the bottom shelf doesn't quite work – but it'll do for the moment while I ponder further rearranging. Oh, and this also sort of answers Book Glutton's request in the comments on this post to see another pic of my Stark/Westlakes (minus the paperbacks this time). Note the new copy of Ask the Parrot far right on the upper shelf, which has replaced the ex-library copy I was ranting about in that post. Fucking hell I'm sad.

Click on the image for a larger version. (And yes, those are even more books you can see stuffed down the back. I think I might need some more shelves...). Eagle-eyed viewers might spot a couple of the books I picked up in Tunbridge Wells. Er, if said eagle-eyed viewers have been slavishly following this blog and have a detailed working knowledge of my book collection. So, no. Eagle-eyed viewers won't be able to spot those two books. Sigh. Still, feel free to guess.

Friday, 18 June 2010

On Collecting

Call it a hobby. Call it a compulsion. Call it a disease, even. For some of us, collecting is in our blood.

I've been pondering how my collecting habits have changed over the years, both in what I collect and the way I collect. (And yes, I know what you're thinking: the days must fly by chez Louis.) Increasingly over the past year, I've been collecting modern firsts (Patricia Highsmith, Donald Westlake and others), but I've also been doing a large part of my collecting online, so much so that I've developed a daily habit of checking eBay for particular authors and titles, checking Amazon, checking AbeBooks... It's got to the stage where if I don't see an auction to watch on eBay every day or something to buy elsewhere online, I'm slightly disappointed. (Today I'm not disappointed; I found something to watch on eBay, and the lead on a couple of Peter Rabe books I mentioned yesterday paid off. Huzzah.)

I don't do all of my collecting online, of course. I still haunt bookshops, book fairs, comic shops, junk shops and the like. I still get the thrill of anticipation when visiting a shop I've never been to before, or even a shop I have been to before, even if it's just up the road. For instance, I'm off to Tunbridge Wells tomorrow with the bird to meet a friend, but I know that trip will involve visits to the various second hand bookshops there, and that's what I'm really looking forward to (particularly because I've seen a book listed online at one of the shops, which I'm really hoping will be there...). I mean, it'll be nice to see our friend... but y'know... books...

Even so, internet shopping has utterly transformed the way I collect. Not everything you might want to find is online, but most things are. Gawd knows how I'd have followed my Westlake/Stark obsession years ago without the internet. I guess it'd have involved visiting bookshops and book fairs even more, picking up catalogues and the like – basically the way I used to collect comics. I was a regular at comic marts in the late 1980s and then again in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when I got back into comics after a ten year break, mostly at the London marts, turning up on the dot of opening time, rifling through comic boxes, wants list in hand.

I've always collected something. The first thing I remember collecting was, bizarrely, the backs of football stickers. I've never been remotely interested in football, but for some reason, back in primary school, when footie stickers first came in, me and a friend started collecting the peel-off backs, picking up the discarded ones. After that, it was probably Star Wars bubblegum cards, and then American comics, starting with Captain America, then Batman, Superman, eventually discovering Alan Moore and Warrior, Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, then graduating to indie and UK small press: Fast Fiction, Escape, Eddie Campbell and Chris Reynolds and John Bagnall and the like.

In early teens – concurrently with the superhero phase of comics collecting in the mid-1980s – I got into music in a big way, and started collecting records. I was heavily into electro and hip hop, so I'd make regular trips up to Groove Records on Denmark Street in Soho (long gone now – the shop, not the street) and the other record shops up in town and buy the latest import electro 12"s (all of which I've long since sold, guh). After that, and following a brief flirtation with electro pop, I got into indie: Wedding Present, McCarthy, Creation Records. And so a new phase of collecting began, which changed again when I discovered (or maybe rediscovered) dance music: techno, R&S, rave, hardcore. That led to a job as a music journalist on Mixmag, whereupon I started getting free records, and that obsession ballooned.

Somewhere along the line I rediscovered comic books, and as my interest in dance music waned I found myself working for a comics and graphic novels publisher, Titan. And then I started getting free comics and graphic novels. And my comics collection grew to a ridiculous size (which it still is, despite regular culling). And now it's books – novels, first editions, which again has grown and grown.

And now this post has wandered off the trail somewhat, if it was even following a trail. So I'll stop there.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Books Bits and Bobs: Killy, The Rare Coin Score, The Hot Rock, and Peter Rabe

Per the title of this post, it's a bits and bobs day today. First up, apropos of nothing, here's a pic of an early Donald Westlake book I got hold of a while back and never posted the cover:

That's the UK first edition hardback of Killy, published by T. V. Boardman & Company in 1964 (a year after the US first) as part of their American Bloodhound series (no. 454, to be precise). The cover's by Denis McLoughlin, who was pretty much Boardman's one-man art department. I haven't seen this particular cover online before, so here it is. Lovely stuff.

I finished reading The Rare Coin Score, which was a good, solid Parker (and number 9 in the series, fact fans). For a change, there isn't much of a Stark Cutaway in this one; in Part Three we hang out with a coin dealer for a while, and a security guard, and one of Parker's crew, and the finger for the heist, Billy Lebatard, but it's more about advancing the plot than filling in backstory – and it's hard to see what the interlude with the security guard (or the coin dealer for that matter) brings to the table (I'm not even sure if it's the same guard who gets shot later). But I'd say the Stark Stooge in this one is the aforementioned Billy; he's out of his depth right from the get-go, and it's not hard to guess how his story ends.

I've taken a slight detour from the Parkers and am now halfway through Westlake's first John Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, which is an amusing read, although not as laff-out-loud funny as I'd been led to believe. But the structure is inherently comedic, as Dortmunder and his crew have to keep trying to steal the same diamond, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here. I've just ordered a nice-looking Hodder & Stoughton UK first edition of the second Dortmunder book, Bank Shot!, from Australia of all places, to match my Hodder first of The Hot Rock, so I'll give that one a go too, and then we'll see. (Not least because there are no Hodder copies whatsoever online of the third one, Jimmy the Kid... I'm getting the feeling collecting these may be even harder than collecting Allison & Busby Parkers.)

I also bought a copy of the new graphic novel adaptation of The Hot Rock, by LAX (originally published in France a couple of years ago). So I may do a compare-and-contrast when I've read both the novel and the graphic novel. Gee, I bet you can't wait, can you?

Finally, a new arrival:

A 1959 first UK edition of Peter Rabe's Journey into Terror, published by Frederick Muller/Fawcett/Gold Medal in paperback a couple of years after the US edition (with the same fab cover by M. Hooks, the only difference being a UK price of 2 shillings in the top right corner). I've mentioned Rabe before, and previously nabbed a copy of his Blood on the Desert off eBay (same as I did this one). Rabe wrote loads of pulpy crime novels in the 1950s and 1960s, but I've recently discovered some of them comprise a loose series of six books, featuring a retired gangster called Daniel Port. The first one of the series is Dig My Grave Deep; I've just ordered a cheap UK first of that from Amazon, and I'm looking into the others. I know that Donald Westlake was a fan of and influenced by Rabe, so I'm wondering if Port was an influence on Parker. We shall see...

Parker Covers for Trent

If you're reading, Trent, these are for you; a few gaps I can fill in your cover galleries on The Violent World of Parker. Feel free to click on 'em and grab 'em (they're a bit dark, but I'm sure you can lighten 'em up):

Point Blank, Coronet, UK paperback, 1967

The Split
(a.k.a. The Seventh), Allison & Busby, UK hardback, 1985

The Damsel, Hodder & Stoughton, UK hardback, 1968

The Rare Coin Score, Coronet, UK paperback, Second Impression 1970

The Rare Coin Score, Coronet, UK paperback, Third Impression 1972

The Green Eagle Score, Coronet, UK paperback, 1968

Deadly Edge, Allison & Busby, UK paperback, 1990

Plunder Squad, Coronet, UK paperback, 1974

Breakout, Robert Hale, UK hardback, 2003