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.