Friday 9 July 2010

Kingsley Amis and the Thrill of the Thriller

That post yesterday about William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms got me thinking about literary authors who try their hands at genre fiction, and how the results are viewed. Thing is, there's no getting round the fact that, in literary circles, genre fiction is generally considered an inferior beast to 'proper' novels, that is yer Booker Prize shortlist-type affairs. So whenever a literary writer stoops to reside a while in the rambling, well-worn, many-roomed mansion that is genre fiction, it's big news.

Sebastian Faulks waggled a toe in the genre pool (hey, the mansion has a pool!) with his James Bond effort Devil May Care, and Boyd has done so with his book. Both generated headlines and commentary aplenty. I haven't read either yet (although I have both to read), but while the critical reception of Ordinary Thunderstorms was generally positive (if often qualified), the response to Devil May Care suggested that even Faulks himself felt rather above the whole thing. There's certainly precedent for that, if it is the case: as Book Glutton points out in his thoughtful response to that Boyd post, Grahame Greene for a long time divided his own novels into two camps – serious literary efforts, and 'entertainments'.

I don't think thrillers, crime fiction and so on really need defending, either from critics or from authors themselves: if a writer writes well, understands plot, character, structure, pacing, it shouldn't – doesn't – matter if a book happens to tumble into a genre. Anyone with half a brain can see the pared back brilliance of Richard Stark's prose (and the likes of John Banville have said as much). But there are still plenty of literary types who see these kinds of books as anathema: witness the furore prompted by Stephen King being awarded the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award at the US National Book Awards (former CEO of Simon & Schuster Richard Snyder proclaimed King's work "non-literature").

All of which reminded me of an interview I read recently with Martin Amis, which dealt in part with a literary figure who practically wallowed in genre fiction: his father, Kingsley Amis. In that interview (which of course I can't bloody find now, but anyway), Amis mentioned that his father tended to read for pleasure. Which made me think, as opposed to what? Reading for displeasure? What Amis was getting at, I suppose, was the argument that fiction shouldn't be easy, that it should challenge, confront, perhaps change. And perhaps it should. But shouldn't it also, ultimately, be readable – that is, pleasurable?

Amis went on to say that Kingsley put more stock in the poetry he wrote (Amis Sr., that is), viewing the novel as an inferior form. Amis Jr. would be best placed to know that, I guess, but it strikes me as slightly disingenuous. For one, Amis Sr. wrote a lot of novels. If he thought so little of the form, isn't it odd that he spent so much time embracing it? For another, Amis took a great pleasure in the sort of fiction that Amis Jr. would sneer at: thrillers, spy fiction, science fiction. Kingsley loved Ian Fleming's Bond novels, the thrillers of Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household and Gavin Lyall. He wrote reviews of and essays on SF and genre fiction; there's an entire book of his writings on SF – New Maps of Hell (1960) – and on the Bond novels – The James Bond Dossier (1965). He even wrote letters to the authors he admired; Peter O'Donnell's proudest moment of his career was a letter he received from Kingsley noting how much Amis liked O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books. (You can read the letter here; note Amis admits this was the second time he'd read the books – all thirteen of them.)

Amis Sr. also wrote his own versions of these types of books: The Anti-Death League (1966), a military espionage novel (amongst other things); The Green Man (1969), a ghost story; The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), his take on an Agatha Christie whodunnit; The Alteration (1976) and Russian Hide and Seek (1980), both speculative fiction. And famously, or perhaps infamously from Martin's perspective, Kingsley wrote a Bond novel himself, 1968's Colonel Sun, under the nom de plume Robert Markham. All that novel-writing, all that reading, all those essays, all those fan letters: seems an awful lot of time, effort and energy expended on something that, according to Martin, Kingsley viewed as somehow inferior.

By saying Amis thought less of the novel than he did poetry, what I think Martin is actually doing is making excuses for his pater's predilection for 'low' fiction, for the genre novels that Kingsley enjoyed and occasionally tried his own hand at. You get the sense that Kingsley's appreciation of thrillers, SF and the like, offends Martin. I don't know if that's true or not, but Kingsley's passion for genre fiction and belief in its worth is plain to see in his own writings on the subject. Conversely, it is notable that, by the sounds of it, Kingsley tended to steer away from the sorts of novels his son writes. (Amis Jr. mentions in the interview that when Kingsley got to the part in Money where Martin himself appears as a character in the novel, he chucked the book across the room.)

In the end, I guess it all comes down to personal preference: whether you read to challenge or better yourself, or whether you read for enjoyment. Of course, there's no reason not to do both. But equally, the one shouldn't preclude the other. I've read Martin Amis and I've read Kingsley Amis. And I know which I prefer. *

(* Kingsley, obv.)

(For further thoughts on Kingsley Amis and genre works, head here for an essay by me and here for a guest post by critic Michael Barber.)

Thursday 8 July 2010

Comic Shop Scores

Final post of the day (don't all cheer): as well as the comics I said I'd probably get from the comic shop this week, I also bagged a couple of other things too – the second of which is a real score. First up, I got this:

The Playwright, by Eddie Campbell and Daren White. It's a hardback collection (and colourization, and expansion) of the strip Messers White and Campbell did for the late Australian anthology DeeVee, about a middle-aged sad sack and fantasist who spends most of his time travelling on buses and leaching after women. I read it at the time, and it's very good, like a more erudite version of Dan Clowes' Wilson. Campbell can do no wrong in my eyes, so I'm looking forward to reading (or rather re-reading in parts) this.

The other score, and this is the one that really is a score, was this:

What is it? It's the 600th issue of Wonder Woman. Not that exciting, you might think, and also, didn't you buy this last week anyway, you silly sod, you might continue to think. And yes, I did. But this particular comic is the Adam Hughes variant cover edition. And not only that, it's the sketch variant edition, of which only one was printed for every 75 regular editions. It's already going for fifty quid and up on eBay, and I bought it for... a fiver. I suspect my local comic shop might have slightly mis-priced it... I saw this lone copy on the shelf, and had an inkling what it was, so I nabbed it. There've been stories all over the press about this comic, mostly over Wonder Woman's new outfit, but this is also a complete relaunch for the character, so I can see the value of this issue going up somewhat. Only question now is, do I keep or do I sell...?

Oh, and before I go (again), next week I'll be slightly overhauling my weekly posts about the comics I'll be getting. I'm bidding a fond(ish) farewell to the various permutations of the List header, for one. Actually that might be the only change, but we'll see how things shake out. Exciting times, friends, exciting times...

Progress Report: The Books Wot I Done Read So Far This Year

Well we're over halfway through the year now (ooh, doesn't time fly!), so I thought it was about time for an update on the books I've read in the first six months of 2010. And it's been a successful year so far, I'd say. I can't remember reading this many books since the early 1990s, when I was languishing on the dole. Good job I've been making a note of them on Facebook's Visual Bookshelf application, otherwise I'd never have kept track.

Here, then, are the books wot I done read, in the order (roughly anyway) wot I done read them:

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming
The Hacienda: or How Not to Run a Club by Peter Hook
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
The Way Home by George Pelecanos
The Wrong Side of the Sky by Gavin Lyall
Point Blank by Richard Stark
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark
Moonraker by Ian Fleming
Killy by Donald Westlake
The Outfit by Richard Stark
The Mourner by Richard Stark
The Score by Richard Stark
The Jugger by Richard Stark
The Split by Richard Stark
The Handle by Richard Stark
The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
The Most Dangerous Game by Gavin Lyall
The Damsel by Richard Stark
The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe
Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell
The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark
The Glass Cell by Patricia Highsmith (nearly finished)
The Passage by Justin Cronin (over halfway through)

Of course, this list doesn't include the books I've picked up intermittently but haven't got very far with, i.e. Beautiful Shadow, a biography of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson; A View from the Foothills, Chris Mullins' political diaries; and Adventures on the High Teas, Stuart Maconie's look at soft southerners. It also doesn't include the innumerable comics and graphic novels I've read; I've probably made a note of most of those on this blog somewhere, but you'll have to look for those yourself if you're remotely interested.

So, those caveats aside, what can we ascertain from this list? Well, first of all, I've read (or nearly read in the case of those last two) thirty books so far in 2010, which puts me well within reach by year's end of the magic fifty espoused by WalkerP and his fellow fifty-bookers. It's been a good year for crime: about twenty of these books fall within the purview of crime fiction. Conversely it's been a bad year for nonfiction, with Peter Hook's The Hacienda the lone entry there.

Most-read author of the last six months is, unsurprisingly, I'm sure, Donald Westlake, either as himself or as Richard Stark: he racks up an impressive thirteen entries. But I'm also continuing to make headway through the Highsmiths: another three of Patricia's novels read so far this year, making it eleven in total from her. I've also devoured three Bond novels (taking my total up to four), two Gavin Lyalls, one Kingsley Amis (so that's four total for him), and then one each of everyone else on the list – not to mention, of course, the requisite partridge in a pear tree.

So there you have it. Let's see how well we're doing by the end of the year...

New Arrival: Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

There's a tale lies behind this one. A terrifyingly dull, finicky tale, but a tale nonetheless. Here be the book in question:

A UK hardback first edition of William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, published by Bloomsbury in 2009. I've wanted to get hold of a copy of this ever since it was first published; Boyd is firmly in the 'literary' tradition, with a backlist embracing a fair number of historical fiction novels – basically the kind of thing I usually steer well clear of. But when I heard about Ordinary Thunderstorms, around the time of its publication, it sounded rather good: a thriller about a man falsely accused of murder and pursued by both the police and the real killer. I was undergoing a burgeoning interest in mid- to late-twentieth century thrillers at the time – still am – and this seemed like a contemporary take on the genre, except with a little more depth than a lot of what passes for thrillers these days (stand up, Dan Brown et al). In particular, I was intrigued by the notion of a section in the book where the 'hero' hides out on traffic roundabout.

So I figured I'd get meself a copy and give it a go. Except, being the tiresome nerd that I am, I wanted to get a true first edition – in other words, a first printing of the hardback. I checked out the bookshops round this way, but all anyone seemed to have were trade paperbacks – those larger format softcovers that publishers sometimes release to the trade in lieu of a hardback. I had a look up in London too, but still no joy. I knew first edition hardbacks did exist – I'd seen them listed online, but they only seemed to be signed first editions for exorbitant prices. The Firsts in Print website had some of those, but I wasn't about to pay forty quid for a new hardback. That same website also stated that the hardback was only printed in tiny quantities, for libraries and for the signed edition.

Amazon's listing for the hardback said it was out of stock, but that more were due soon. But I had a feeling those would be reprints, and sure enough the hardback's now been through at least four printings. So I did what any slightly insane and obsessive book collector would do: I decided the book was probably crap anyway and gave up. And then the other day I decided to have another look online, just on the offchance, and on Amazon found a listing from a seller for a first edition hardback, for a tenner. Probably not a true first, I reasoned, but might as well drop them a line and see if it has the full strike-off line. See, it's all about that line of numbers on the indicia page; if a book has a full set from 1 to 10, it's a first printing.

The seller got back to me, said they'd have a look at the book... and then ten minutes later they emailed again and told me that yes, it did have the full number line. And it does:

So there you go. Success, finally. A true first edition of William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, good as new, bought for a quarter of what it would've set me back originally. Sometimes it pays to wait.

Told you it was a terrifyingly dull, finicky tale. Don't say you weren't warned.

'Course, what'll happen now is I'll read the book and discover it really is crap after all.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

It's... The List! Guest Starring Tamara Drewe!

Jiminy Cricket there's a feck of a lot of comics out again this week, at least ones of interest to me. Let's split 'em up into DC and Marvel (and a stray Image Comics one too):

So, from DC Comics/Vertigo, I count two definites and two maybes. The definites are Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving's Batman and Robin #13 and Judd Winick and Pablo Raimondi's Red Hood: Lost Days #2: the former 'cos it's Morrison writing Batman, and we know how fab that is; the latter 'cos it's Winick writing Red Hood, and when he writes this particular character (who, for the latecomers to class, is the former Robin – and former corpse – Jason Todd) it seems to be the only time he really comes alive. Winick, that is, although the character too. Don't know why that is, but it just is.

As for the other two comics above... I think I'll knock iZombie on the head with this third issue. I haven't minded the first two issues, but 'not minding' isn't the same as 'thoroughly enjoying', and in a week like this, where there's a fair bit of choice (not to mention the cost of comics these days), the comics that aren't pulling their weight tend to fall by the wayside. iZombie has nice art from Mike Allred, but the story isn't pulling me in, so we'll wave it goodbye. And that other Batman title is Batman Odyssey #1, which hails Neal Adams' return to the character he reinvigorated in the early '70s. I'm intrigued by it, but I dunno if it'll be any good or not. We'll see.

Aaaaand from Marvel:

I might, actually, get all of these. Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #1 is the first in a miniseries (I think) from Ed Brubaker and Dale Eaglesham... about Steve Rogers, Super Soldier. I don't know any more than that. Which begs the question, what sodding use are these weekly List posts? I'll tell you what I do know, though: Steve Rogers is the former Captain America, and Brubaker's run on the main Captain America title has been pretty great (although the last few issues have tailed off a bit...), so I'll definitely check this out. Oh, and Eaglesham's a fascinating artist, nestling somewhere between Jack Kirby and Geof Darrow. Now there's a lovely image.

Scarlet #1 is Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's new creator-owned thingy, about a woman called... er... Scarlet...? Shit, we're not doing well with the info today. Although that's not entirely my fault. Marvel's comics solicitations are often rather opaque. Here's what they say about this one:

This is the comic experience of the year! The first creator owned series by one of the most successful teams in all of modern comics. Scarlet is the story of a woman pushed to the edge by all that is wrong with the world…A woman who decides to stand up and fight back…A woman who will not back down…A woman who discovers within herself the power to start a modern American revolution!! In the vein of Alias, Powers, and Jinx, Scarlet debuts a fascinating new comics character that, with every issue, reveals new things about herself against a completely original backdrop of intrigue and drama.

Nope, still none the bloody wiser. I particularly like the line about "a fascinating new comics character that, with every issue, reveals new things about herself..." Hmm... I don't think this Marvel copywriter knew a damn thing about the comic themselves. But writer Bendis and artist Maleev were responsible for a well-regarded run on Daredevil (although I preferred Brubaker and Lark's stint meself...), and I have high hopes that Bendis will rediscover some of his indie creative mojo with this one, after a few years of increasingly flabby superhero stuff.

And lastly from Marvel (for me, anyway), we have X-Men #1. Yes, yet another X-Men #1. How many first issues of X-Men have there been now? This one comes courtesy of writer Victor Gischler (and artist Paco Medina), and follows on directly from the same writer's Death of Dracula from last week... which I haven't read yet. Crap, better get a shift on and see if it's any good before I buy this. The storyline here is titled 'Mutants Versus Vampires'. Does what it says on the tin, one hopes. Gischler is probably better known for his hard-boiled crime novels, which I'd like to check out at some point. Sigh. Another writer to add to the list of authors I need to check out...

And lastly, that one from Image, which is, of course:

The Walking Dead #74. 'Nuff said.

But! Before we go, here's something else on a comics tip I bought online recently, something I've been meaning to buy for a gosh darn age:

It's the 2007 first edition (and first printing) hardback of Posy Simmonds' Tamara Drewe, published by Jonathan Cape. I read this when it was originally serialized in the Guardian newspaper, and as a result never quite got around to buying the collected version. And then the hardcover went into further printings, and then it went into paperback, and what with my obsession with first editions it was getting less and less likely I'd pick one up, until finally, with Stephen Frears' reportedly rather good film adaptation on the way, I crumbled and found a first edition online. For those who don't know it, it's a tale of middle class lust and folly. Nobody documents the British middle classes as insightfully and scathingly as Simmonds – I saw her give a talk a few months ago where she quickly sketched a few middle class archetypes on an overhead projector, and she was utterly brilliant. As is this.

Westlake Score: Nobody's Perfect

And here we are with our second Westlake Score of the day:

A US hardback first edition of Nobody's Perfect, published by M. Evans & Company in 1977. This is the fourth Dortmunder novel, following Jimmy the Kid (see below). This copy isn't in quite as nice condition as that copy of Jimmy, but it's still pretty good – not ex-library, tight and not too grubby (that stain at top right aside). There were copies of the UK Hodder edition of this around online, but I wasn't keen on the cover of that edition:

See what I mean? The jacket on the US edition, by Nick Krenitsky, is much better I reckon. I like the way the picture frame wraps round to the back of the jacket, and also it ties in nicely to the plot of the book, which is about the theft of a painting. And that's about all I have to say on this one for now.

Westlake Score: Jimmy the Kid

I've got two Westlake Scores to showcase today, both from the same dealer in the US. First up:

A US hardback first edition of Jimmy the Kid, published by M. Evans & Company in 1974. It's the third in Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series, following The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. I was hoping to carry on collecting the UK Hodder & Stoughton firsts of the Dortmunders, but the Hodder edition of Jimmy the Kid is particularly elusive (although having said that I might now have a lead on a copy...), so I've switched to the American firsts instead.

Jimmy the Kid is notable for the fact that Dortmunder and his crew plan a kidnapping based on the plot of a novel... a novel written by one Richard Stark, called Child Heist. And as I'm sure we all know, Stark was the name under which Westlake wrote his series of Parker novels, of which Child Heist is purportedly a part. Except it's not a 'real' book. It's a phantom Parker novel, existing only in the pages of Jimmy the Kid. How meta is that? Apparently Westlake was outed as Stark in the New York Times, and Jimmy the Kid was his response. This is a really nice copy, bright and clean, with a jacket by Don Bender, and it boasts another author pic of Westlake on the back to add to my collection (see also The Hot Rock and Pity Him Afterwards), this one by Diana Bryant:

Lookin' kinda groovy there, Mr. W. So, what's the other Westlake Score of the day? See the next post...

Monday 5 July 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Green Eagle Score

Ten down, fourteen to go: polished off Parker #10, The Green Eagle Score, at the weekend. It's a solid entry in the series, this time centring on a heist at a US air force base, which is a pretty audacious idea. As is often the way in Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker books, the score goes off without a hitch but the aftermath sees yet another double cross, with the usual resultant deaths and desperate scrambles to retrieve the take and escape. At this point in the series it's got to the stage that you pretty much expect the robberies to go horribly wrong either during or after the event. Mind you, Parker himself half-expects it too, noting in this book that that's what he's there for: to plan the heists and to come up with an alternative plan when things (inevitably) go south.

Three things stuck out for me on The Green Eagle Score. The first is that Westlake works in a number of references to previous characters in the series. Handy McKay gets a mention, still running his diner; poor old Salsa gets a passing nod; and Scofe, the blind hobby shop owner and gun dealer, is referenced in a roundabout way: he isn't named, but when Parker brings the guns for this particular job, they're kept in model train boxes, which is how Scofe stores his illicit wares. I was surprised Parker went back to Scofe, actually; last time he met him, in The Score (Parker #5), Scofe's parting words to Parker were, "You scum! You vomit! You stinking cesspool!"

The second thing that struck me was an element of the plot, and how it partially shines a light on Parker's psychological makeup. Ellen, girlfriend of the finger for this job, Devers, is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Godden, to whom she reveals the workings of the forthcoming air force base robbery. As part of that, she examines her feelings about Parker, concluding that he's utterly cold and uncaring, emotionless: "It's as though I didn't matter, as though whether I was even alive or not had no meaning at all. He doesn't care. I'm a worm to him, less than a worm. Nothing to him. Not even worth feeling contempt toward." Ah, sounds like the Parker we know and, er, love.

The final thing The Green Eagle Score does is provide an insight into how men like Parker end up living the life they do. Devers works in the finance office at the base; it's he who first sees the opportunity to steal the base's payroll, and he who brings in Fusco, Ellen's ex-husband (and therefore Parker and the rest). Devers has indulged in a little skimming before, but this is his first big score. Parker's initially distrustful of him, but soon realises that Devers is a potential career heister in the making. Once he's done this job, he'll likely settle into a similar pattern to Parker: a job every year or so, living the high life in-between. He's that type. So what we're witnessing is the birth of a new Parker.

We've had a little peek into this process before, notably with Grofield, but here we get to see it happen in 'real time', as Devers enrols at Parker's School for the Criminally Minded and slowly comes to realise that this really is the life for him. Parker even offers him a helping hand, sending him off to see Handy McKay for further instruction on how to live the criminal life. Which is rather sweet. Seems Parker's a big ol' softie after all...

Next up: The Black Ice Score...

New Arrival: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Muchos gracias to Book Glutton for the heads-up on this one, my copy of which turned up over the weekend:

It's the UK hardback first edition of Justin Cronin's The Passage, published by Orion, ooh, just over a week ago. This is the first printing as well as the first edition (it's already up to a second printing), signed by the author:

I'm already over 130 pages into it, and it's utterly absorbing. I guess it's closest in content to Stephen King's The Stand (possibly my favourite book of all time): it's a near-future end-of-the-world, good-versus-evil tale, with added vampires. I'm only in the opening stages at the moment, which focus on a young girl, Amy, who seems destined to save the world somehow, as well as on military experiments on death row inmates aimed at extending life and eradicating disease, which is where the vampire angle comes in. Cronin writes in a really pleasing, uncomplicated style, reminiscent of King but without King's occasional folksiness. He does use King's trick of foreshadowing events, which helps drive the narrative, and he's got King's knack (or rather prime King's knack; less so these days) for brilliantly drawn characters.

Aside from The Stand, something else it's reminding me of is Matt Wagner's epic Grendel comics, which also weaved vampires into an end-of-the-world scenario. I don't know if Cronin has read the Grendel cycle, but he does know his comic books by the looks of it: at one point in The Passage a death row inmate being transported by the military to be experimented on notices one of the soldiers reading comics, and asks if one of the characters is Aquaman. He's then given a few comics to read: X-Men, and League of Vengeance. That second title isn't a real one: The Passage is set around ten years hence, in an America where there have been further terrorist attacks and where, globally, the war on terror has engulfed Pakistan, Iran and others. In which context, Cronin's re-naming of Justice League of America (the actual comic where Aquaman appears today) as League of Vengeance makes sense. A little inside joke for comics fans there...?