Thursday 25 November 2010

Two More by Ross Thomas: Missionary Stew and Briarpatch (Hamish Hamilton First Editions)

And so as we cling for dear life to the literary sled hurtling down the snowbound slope (what the...?) that is Ross Thomas Week, we holler a cheery "Happy Thanksgiving!" to our American friends as we whistle past them, picking up speed as we careen ever closer to the end. And with the finish line so firmly in our sights (oh for Christ's sake, get on with it...), today we have two books in a single post instead of the traditional one. Both are among Ross Thomas's better known novels, and the first of them is this:

A 1984 UK hardback first edition of Missionary Stew, published by Hamish Hamilton (originally published in the US in 1983 by Simon & Schuster). Notoriously, the opening chapter of this one sees a character becoming an unwitting cannibal; for more on the story go read Ed Gorman's review right here, and also perhaps have a look at this short piece on Thomas, which I've probably linked to before, but which has lots of testimonials in the comments section singing the praises of both Missionary Stew and other Thomas tomes.

I got this copy of Missionary Stew for the ridiculous price of 95p, taking a punt on a copy from an Amazon dealer that turned out to be in near fine condition. Result. Sadly, by this juncture in Ross Thomas's UK publishing history, the days of Beverley le Barrow cover photos were long gone. Instead, Hamilton turned to Pat Doyle for the design of Missionary Stew's dustjacket. I haven't been able to find out anything about Pat, besides chancing upon a couple of other random covers he designed, including one for the UK Gollancz first edition of John Crowley's fantasy novel Little, Big, but by the looks of that decidedly barren Missionary Stew back cover he was either an advocate of the minimalist school of design or Hamish Hamilton only paid him half his fee. However, I do have to hand one other example of his work, which, funnily enough, is this:

The UK hardback first edition of Briarpatch, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1985 (originally Simon & Schuster in the States in 1984). Yep, that's a Pat Doyle cover too, and a much more successful effort I'd say than his Missionary Stew jacket. I like the treatment of the title, set into the barbed wire fence like that. Nicely done. The story centres on Benjamin Dill's efforts to investigate the brutal murder of his sister, a complex and thorny quest featuring a thoroughly Thomassian cast of greedy politicians, corrupt cops, petty criminals and scheming friends and family members. 

Briarpatch won the 1985 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and in 2002 Orion in the UK picked it up for inclusion in their Crime Masterworks line, alongside Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Jim Thompson's The Getaway and, latterly, Gavin Lyall's Midnight Plus One. So it's in exceedingly good company. This Hamilton edition is pretty scarce; there are only four copies listed on AbeBooks – only one of those from a UK seller, and that's an ex-library copy – and another three on on Amazon UK Marketplace, again mostly ex-library.

Just one more book to go now in Ross Thomas Week...

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