Friday 6 August 2010

Dortmunder Daze: Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake

Well, Westlake Week looked like it was juddering to a premature halt when I got home from work yesterday evening, as the book I was hoping would turn up so I could write the couple of posts I wanted to finish with, hadn't. Rats. But like Britain in the 1970s, Westlake Week was only ever destined for a three-day week anyway, and luckily, during the course of this truncated week, I reminded myself I was planning to write something on the second Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot, so all is not lost. Plus, you never know: if that missing book does turn up today or tomorrow, Westlake Week might stretch into the weekend. And if you're just joining us, previous posts in this run are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

So, to hard luck thief John Dortmunder, and the second book in Donald Westlake's fourteen-novel series. I wrote about the first book, The Hot Rock (1970), here and here, in a roundabout sort of way, but I didn't really post a proper review of it, mostly because I wasn't sure what I made of it and wanted to wait till I'd read another in the series. I'm glad I did, because although The Hot Rock was enjoyable enough – mostly for its elaborate plot, whereby Dortmunder and his crew have to keep trying to steal the same emerald from increasingly difficult locations and employing increasingly preposterous methods, including the use of a helicopter and a locomotive – Bank Shot (1972) is a whole lot better.

This time out, Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch – all of whom debuted in The Hot Rock – are joined by ex-FBI man Victor, black power activist/metrosexual/safe-cracker Herman and, latterly, Dortmunder's girlfriend May and Murch's Mom (invariably referred to throughout the story as "Murch's Mom") in a ludicrous scheme to rob a bank – as in steal an entire bank, a temporary bank housed in a mobile home. As with The Hot Rock, it's the cracked nature of the heist that provides the initial interest and occasional smiles, but whereas in the former novel I found the plot the most amusing part, here there are added charms.

For one, the characters are starting to come into their own. I liked Dortmunder and his crew in The Hot Rock, but some of the bickering and the misunderstandings that characterize their various relationships got a bit much after a while. It wasn't quite clicking for me. In Bank Shot, though, the existing interplay between Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch isn't so overdone, and the addition of Victor, Herman, and in particular the two ladies, brings an added dimension. They're starting to feel like real people to me, even though Dortmunder himself is slightly relegated in the pecking order.

For another, the closing stages of Bank Shot are where the book develops into something a cut above. There was some sense of this in The Hot Rock: probably the best part of that book is actually after all the heists, when Dortmunder inadvertently hijacks a plane to fly to, of all places, New Jersey. In Bank Shot, Westlake cranks up the post-robbery insanity even higher, as our hapless heroes hide the mobile bank in a trailer park and then right out in the open, disguising it as a diner. This is where the occasional smiles become outright laughs, as a police patrol car acting as a mobile headquarters takes up residence next to the 'diner' and an elaborate sequence of deadpan gags develop around the police captain's desire for coffee and danish.

Maybe with The Hot Rock it was as a consequence of my expectations that I wasn't bowled over by it – prior to that I'd mostly read Westlake's Richard Stark/Parker novels rather than his more comic capers, and I'd heard that the more humorous novels were side-splitting. But now, with Bank Shot, I'm beginning to get it. This is a very funny book, particularly towards the end, and I'm starting to fall for Westlake's cast of down-at-heel thieves and misfits. And with only The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid (er, times two), Nobody's Perfect and Bad News in my collection, we all know what that means: a-collecting we will go...

Thursday 5 August 2010

The Many Editions of Parker

Those two Slayground posts got me thinking about all the various editions of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels, and the fact that I've ended up with quite a wide variety of different editions from the US and UK. The indispensable Violent World of Parker has loads of pictures of the covers of the various Parkers from all around the world (click on each of the novels from here and you'll see each one has "Known printings and cover gallery"), with which I can't really compete. But I can offer a slightly more meagre selection from my own collection, so let's round off today's Westlake Week posts with a little gallery. Enjoy:

Point Blank (Coronet paperback, UK, 1967), The Man with the Getaway Face (Pocket Books paperback, US, 1963), The Outfit (Berkley paperback, US, 1973)

The Mourner (Allison & Busby hardback, UK, 1987), The Score (Allison & Busby hardback, UK, 1985), The Rare Coin Score (Coronet paperback, UK, 1968)
Slayground (Avon paperback, US, 1984), Plunder Squad (Coronet paperback, UK, 1974), Butcher's Moon (Random House hardback, US, 1974)
Comeback (Mysterious Press hardback, US, 1997), Backflash (Mysterious Press hardback, US, 1998)
Breakout (Robert Hale hardback, UK, 2003), Ask the Parrot (Quercus hardback, UK, 2007)

Westlake Score: Slayground by Richard Stark (Random House, 1971); Signed Copy

No, I haven't duplicated a post accidentally. I really do have two different editions of the same book to showcase as part of Westlake Week, which, depending on your point of view, is either incredibly cool, incredibly sad or incredibly idiotic. I lean towards option a) myself, but hey: whatever floats your boat. Still, it does bear out the old saying: you wait ages for a Slayground and then two come along at once. Let's have a look, shall we?

This is the very first edition of Richard Stark's Slayground, published in hardback by Random House in 1971, dustjacket design by the sexily named Peter Raunch. I saw it online for a remarkably low price and snapped it up – not just because it's a first edition (and first printing) and in great condition (with only patches of lifting on the dustjacket laminate, which is common with this edition), nor merely because I now have the final three Parker novels from the initial run of the series in US first editions:

but because of this:

It's another signed edition, this time dedicated to "Mike", whoever he may be. So, it makes a nice pair with that US first of The Blackbird, which, as I mentioned, Slayground shares its opening chapter with. One thing I hadn't considered though is that The Blackbird predates Slayground by two years, published, as it was, in 1969; the copyright page of Slayground states: "Chapter One reprinted by permission of The Macmillan Company. From The Blackbird by Richard Stark." Any Stark fans reading Slayground when it first came out must've experienced a sense of deja vu if they'd read The Blackbird a year or so before... I imagine it's unlikely Westlake wrote The Blackbird that far in advance, so Slayground must have just taken a while to see publication. And when you compare the first chapters of Slayground and The Blackbird, there are marked differences between the two: though both written in the third person, Slayground is very much told from Parker's perspective, whereas The Blackbird is from his cohort's, Alan Grofield, the star of that novel. Here's the first paragraph of Slayground:

Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other. Grofield was out and running too, and Laufman stayed hunched over the wheel, his foot tapping the accelerator.

And the first paragraph from The Blackbird:

Grofield jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the empty satchel in the other. Parker was out and running too, and Laufman stayed hunched over the wheel, his foot tapping the accelerator.

Only subtle differences there, but here's the third paragraph of Slayground:

Parker ran to the rear door of the armored car, slapped the packet of explosive against the metal near the lock so that the suction cups grabbed, then pulled the cord and stepped back out of sight. The armored car's right rear tire turned slowly beside his head.

And The Blackbird:

Grofield ran to the front of the armored car, running around the big old-fashioned grill, sideways now at chest level. Through the bulletproof windshield he could see the uniformed driver in there, turned every which way but conscious and moving around, getting a phone receiver out from under the dashboard.

Thereafter the two books diverge and re-entwine again throughout their respective opening chapters, and then take completely different paths from Chapter 2 onwards. It's an interesting experiment on Westlake's part though, like his slightly later weaving in of the fictional – as in it doesn't exist in our real world – Parker novel Child Heist into the John Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid. It's part of what makes Westlake's work so fascinating, the interconnectedness of it all.

Anyway, having two copies of Slayground to post about – three actually, including the Allison & Busby edition I already had – has given me an idea for the next post in Westlake Week...

Westlake Score: Slayground by Richard Stark (Avon Edition)

Next up in Westlake Week we have this:

A US paperback of Richard Stark's Slayground, published by Avon in 1984 (first printing). Bit of an odd one for me to procure, seeing as I already have an Allison & Busby hardback of this, the fourteenth Parker novel, originally published in 1971. But I saw it going fairly cheap on eBay UK, and just thought, sod it: I don't have any of the Parker books in these Avon editions, and I like the photo cover (no idea who created these covers for Avon), so why the hell not?

There are only five other Richard Stark/Parker novels listed on page two of this edition as having been published by Avon – the first five, in fact – and I know from Trent's list at Violent World of Parker that Avon did publish other books in the series. Which means that, once again, like Allison & Busby and doubtless others besides, a publisher issued the Parker novels out of sequence. Publishers sure didn't make it easy for Parker fans to read the books in the correct order over the years. Thank the lord for the internet.

Slayground famously shares a first chapter with the afore-blogged-about The Blackbird, which is why I mentioned in that post I'd be coming back to The Blackbird. Except I won't. Not in this particular post. I'll save that for the next post, for reasons to be revealed...

Westlake Score: The Blackbird by Richard Stark (Macmillan Edition)

It's Westlake Week, Day Two. Which, if you've just joined us, might be slightly confusing, seeing as it's Thursday now, which means Westlake Week must've started yesterday, Wednesday. That's just how we roll here at Existential Ennui: Wednesday is the new Monday. Or possibly Sunday, depending on your own view on when the week begins.

And if you have just joined us, Westlake Week essentially consists of me showing off all the Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark books I've managed to acquire recently. Yesterday we had a signed UK first edition of the Dortmunder novel Bad News, a UK Allison & Busby hardback of The Rare Coin Score, and an Allison & Busby Parker novel round-up. All jolly exciting, I'm sure you'll agree. Today, we'll have to see how we get on for time, but to kick off, we have this:

A US hardback first edition/first printing of The Blackbird by Richard Stark, published by The Macmillan Company as part of their Cock Robin Mystery series in 1969, with a jacket design by Jack Wolf. This book, if you don't know, is the third of Westlake/Stark's companion novels to his Parker series, featuring instead Parker's occasional larcenous cohort (and part-time actor) Alan Grofield. I've got a UK first edition of the first one, The Damsel, and a US first of the fourth and last one, Lemons Never Lie, so only one to go to complete the set. I've only read The Damsel thus far, but going on that evidence the Grofield novels are closer in tone to Westlake's non-Parker work: a bit more humour in them, although still with violent overtones (and apparently Lemons Never Lie is much closer in tone to a Parker novel than the other Grofield books).

This particular copy of The Blackbird is a bit special, however, because as well as being in wonderful, near-fine condition, there's this:

Yup, like my copy of Bad News, it's signed, and dedicated too, to Elliott, whoever he may be. Unusually, Westlake's signed it as "Richard", with an added "Through DW", which leads me to think it may have been signed close to publication, before Westlake was outed as Stark in the New York Times. It's a possibility anyway.

And I'll be coming back to The Blackbird in subsequent posts, for reasons to be revealed...

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Richard Stark Allison & Busby Editions (Slight Return)

So, with the addition of The Rare Coin Score, I'm pretty much able to draw a line under my collection of the UK Allison & Busby editions of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels. As I mentioned in that previous post, I've got all eight of the original A&B editions (which were published out of sequence) from the mid-'80s:

and all I'm missing from the later waves of A&B editions are a couple of hardbacks where all I currently have are paperbacks. I'm not about to go out of my way to get those though; if I see 'em cheap at any point I'll pick them up, but otherwise the paperbacks I have will suffice. This, then (drum roll, please), is my Richard Stark Allison & Busby Parker Collection, in Parker series order (not A&B publication order, which was all over the shop, although I have included A&B pub dates in brackets):

Point Blank (Hardcover, 1984), The Man with the Getaway Face (Hardcover, 1984), The Outfit (Hardcover, 1988)

The Mourner (Hardcover, 1987), The Score (Hardcover, 1985), The Jugger (Paperback, 1986)

The Split (Hardcover, 1985), The Handle (Hardcover, 1985), The Rare Coin Score (Hardcover, 1984)

The Green Eagle Score (Hardcover, 1986), The Black Ice Score (Paperback, 1986), The Sour Lemon Score (Hardcover, 1986)

Deadly Edge (Paperback Only, 1990), Slayground (Hardcover, 1984)

And that's it as far as Allison & Busby went; far as I can work out, they never published the other two Parker novels in the original run – Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon – and only issued Deadly Edge in a paperback, not a hardcover. Incidentally, I was chatting with the proprietor of one of the bookshops I visited during my tour of London bookshops, and when I mentioned I'd found an Allison & Busby edition of The Rare Coin Score earlier that day, he made a remark to the effect that he considered A&B a bit of a cowboy outfit, with awful paper stock and production values. That's certainly born out by some of the copies I own, where browning paper is evident – not to mention the dreadful proofing on the A&B Parkers (they're littered with errors that aren't in other editions). A little second hand bookseller gossip there. Still, nice to have hardbacks of most of the Parkers.

Westlake Score: The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark (Allison & Busby Edition)

And so we reach the final book from my recent tour of London's bookshops (although by no means our final Westlake Score...), and for me this was the real prize, a book I've been hunting an affordable copy of for months:

A UK hardback first edition of Richard Stark's The Rare Coin Score, published by Allison & Busby in 1984. This is the ninth in Westlake/Stark's series of novels featuring serial heister Parker (first published in the US in 1967), but it was the second book in the series that Allison & Busby published (and its debut in hardback), following Slayground and just before Point Blank. And it's the only one of the first eight A&B Parkers with the Mick Keates typographically inclined dustjackets that I was still missing (full rundown of those covers here). No longer, however.

I found this in Sotheran's of Sackville Street, off London's Piccadilly, apparently "the longest established antiquarian booksellers in the world". I'd never been there before; we just happened to pass it when we were in town that day after seeing the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. On first impression it's an imposing place: a huge, airy room with almost all of the books in slightly forbidding, locked, glass-fronted bookcases, which isn't exactly conducive to browsing. But I had a look at the spines on the modern first shelves anyway, not expecting to see much of interest, and wary that anything I did see would be extortionate.

And then I came across this copy of The Rare Coin Score, the only Westlake or Stark book on the shelves, sitting there as if it were waiting for me. Even then, I was debating whether or not to get someone to unlock the bookcase, certain that the book would be out of my price range. But then one of the, as it turns out, thoroughly nice and helpful chaps who buzz about the place sauntered over and offered to open the glass doors. So I had a look at the book, and it was exceptionally reasonably priced, positively cheap even, considering there aren't really any copies of this edition for sale online from UK dealers. Even the other nice man who took my money did a slight double-take when he saw the price of it.

So, that's one collecting goal accomplished: all eight of Allison & Busby's original editions of the Parker novels. Which means, time for another Parker Progress Report!

Westlake Score: Bad News by Donald E. Westlake (Robert Hale Edition)

Right then. As I've been promising for a week now, it's time to get cracking on the various Donald Westlake/Richard Stark books I've managed to bag recently. From here on out (for a wee while at least) it's Westlake all the way. I'll be blogging about my various Westlake Scores, interspersed with some equally nerdy galleries and showcases. Most of these posts will probably only be of interest to me, Book Glutton, Olman and maybe Trent, so fair warning to anyone else foolish enough to be reading this blog: it's now officially Westlake Week. Er, except starting on a Wednesday.

And we begin with the first of two scores from the London segment of my recent bookshop splurge:

A UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Bad News, published by Robert Hale in 2002 (first published in the US by Mysterious Press in 2001). I bought this in Nigel Williams Rare Books on Cecil Court, which is far and away the most comprehensive shop for modern first editions on that famed street. Like most of the shops on Cecil Court, it's not cheap, but the breadth of their stock, which is housed in the basement (the ground floor is given over to children's books, also a strong selection), has to be seen to be believed. In fact, we can have a look, courtesy of their website:

Look at that. That's all fiction, modern firsts the lot. I love poring over their shelves, but I rarely buy anything there. However, I made an exception for this copy of Bad News, which is the tenth of Westlake's novels featuring John Dortmunder and crew. I only have the first four Dortmunders at the moment, so I was skipping ahead slightly by buying Bad News, but in fact getting a decent copy of this Robert Hale edition isn't as easy as you might suppose, even though it's only eight years old. Most, if not all, of the ones for sale online are ex-library, which this copy isn't, and it wasn't expensive either. Plus, it has an added appeal, which that sticker on the cover has almost certainly given the game away on, but I'll come to that a moment.

The jacket painting is by Derek Colligan, who also painted the jackets for the six Stark/Parker novels Hale published in the 2000s (Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak, Breakout, and Nobody Runs Forever). Hale only published one other Dortmunder novel, the subsequent one, The Road to Ruin, but they did, as I say, publish a run of the later Parker novels, plus whatever else Westlake wrote during that period, including The Axe, all with covers by Colligan I believe. Presumabaly Hale simply signed up Westlake's entire output to publish in the UK market under a five-year deal that came to an end in 2005.

As for that added appeal I mentioned... here it is:

Yup, as the sticker on the cover claimed, it is indeed a signed edition. And don't be surprised if we happen to see that signature again very soon as we work our way through these Westlake Scores... Note that there are only two 'By the same author' titles listed on the half title verso, so this is the third Westlake novel Robert Hale published. Bit mean of Hale not to list some of the other hundred or so books Westlake had written prior to this though...

And while we're on a Dortmunder tip, having now read the second Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot, and liked it a lot more than the first, The Hot Rock (I'll be posting a review at some point), it looks as if I'll be collecting the rest of the books in the series. Which, seeing as I only have first editions of the initial four and now the tenth, and that there are fourteen books in the series altogether, means I've got a fair bit of collecting to do. Here we go again...

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Going Underground: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard, and Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Before we get to the promised cavalcade of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake Scores, I thought I'd take a slight detour to chew over some recent non-Westlake reads (yes, I do read other books). Quite by chance, I've read three books in quick succession over the past few weeks where the main protagonist finds himself cast away or trapped in a small patch of land. Two of the books are actually very similar in their choice of urban location, while the third is more rural, but still bears a remarkable similarity to the others.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household was the first of this triumvirate I read, and the most rural. Originally published in 1939, it's the first-person account of an unnamed British man (who, though nameless, hints throughout that he is a Lord, and well-recognised in England), his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate a European dictator, and his subsequent escape into the English countryside, all the while pursued by agents of the dictator. There's an extended sequence in the novel where our hero digs himself a burrow in the Dorset moors, and it's this section that's the most compelling and bears the most resemblance to the other two books, as he gradually loses all trace of his previously civilized nature and sinks into a filthy, degraded, but also strangely alluring existence.

Alluring, because it's at this point that he seems most free, and most happy, despite the squalor he's living in. Reduced to merely surviving, any and all problems melt away in the face of more immediate concerns: finding food, keeping warm. It's an extremely simplified way of life, but one our hero almost revels in, particularly when he is granted the occasional company of a grumpy, feral cat.

It's this acceptance of, and in turn embracing of, a downgraded existence that I was reminded of when I was reading the second book, William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009). Here, a young man called Adam Kindred is being hunted for a murder he didn't commit, so, much like Household's character, he removes himself from society and in this case goes underground in London. Again, as he divests himself of the trappings of civilization – he can't use his credit cards or contact anyone lest he be tracked – he finds a kind of peace in a triangle of overgrown wasteland near Chelsea Bridge, with a camping stove to heat his tins of beans and three old tyres fashioned into a chair.

Even when he's forced to leave this patch of ground and starts to slowly rejoin society, Kindred feels the occasional pang for his lost parcel of land, much as Rogue Male's protagonist is reluctant to leave his lair. And once again, this is probably the most vivid part of the novel, enjoyable though the subsequent chapters are. Like Household, Boyd, through Kindred, seems to be yearning for a simpler way of life, one where a small triangle of land can offer more fulfillment than a wider life of conspicuous consumption – even if it does mean having to snack on the occasional seagull.

Of course, the protagonist in the third novel of our triumvirate has even less choice in the matter than either Kindred or Lord No-Name: in J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island (1973), an architect named Robert Maitland crashes through a barrier on London's Westway onto another triangle of wasteland, and becomes trapped. His injuries prevent him from escaping, and in any case no one will stop to help him. I'm only a third of the way through the book at the moment, so I don't know if Maitland will come to embrace his new existence, but it's still striking that both Maitland and Kindred wind up in triangles of land in west London, only a couple of miles apart.

It's too early to pass judgment on Concrete Island yet, but the other two novels are both fine works. Household has a clipped style befitting his ennobled narrator, while Boyd's early tendency to pepper his prose with off-piste words – a boscy here, a ratiocination there – settles down once the narrative starts to gain momentum. But both books paint compelling portraits of individuals cast adrift from mainstream society, and, possibly with Concrete Island (we shall see...), show that going underground needn't necessarily be such a bad thing. Seagull snacking aside.

Monday 2 August 2010

Must Be Thursday 5/8/10

And we're back with our regular if slightly pissed off guide to the comics I might be getting this week. Why pissed off? Nothing to do with the comics: Royal Mail have managed to lose a package of mine, somewhere between trying to deliver it and sending it back to the delivery office because it was too big for the letterbox. Which is an impressive feat, even by their standards. Useless bastards.

Anyway. Comics. Grr. Shitflaps. Here's what I'll almost certainly be getting:

Dunno if it's my general foul mood or the uninspired nature of the comics themselves, but out of all these so-called 'definites', there's only one that's really that interesting to me, which is Marvel Universe vs. Punisher #1. I'll come back to that, but Red Hood: Lost Days #3 (top left) is Judd Winick's continuing exploration of ex-Robin Jason Todd's movements after he returned from the dead, scratching a Jason Todd fanboy itch that I suspect no one other than me even has, and one I'm not sure I even have. So maybe not quite so 'definite' after all...

Avengers Prime #2 (top right) is, like Red Hood, another miniseries filling in continuity gaps, this time from the end of Marvel's Siege event to the new world order of their current Heroic Age status quo. Essentially, Brian Michael Bendis and Alan Davis have sent the three main Avengers – Steve Rogers, Thor and Iron Man – off to another dimension so they can hit things and bond, thus healing the wounds from their previous relationship woes. Marriage counselling for musclebound he-men, in other words. Do we really need to witness every little character moment from the already-unwieldy massive patchwork quilt that is the Marvel Universe (and, for that matter, the DC Universe)? Bendis clearly believes we do, and since I'll probably be buying it, I evidently do too, even though I kind of... don't. Still, purty artwork from Mr. Davis, no doubt.

Captain America #608 (bottom left) continues Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice's current storyline about Baron Zemo, not a single moment of which I can currently recall. Remind me, these are the 'definite buys', aren't they? Hmm. Well, I have previously loved what Brubaker's done with Cap, so maybe it'll improve soon. Fingers crossed, eh? And finally there's the aforementioned Marvel Universe vs. Punisher, which might be a kind of homage to Garth Ennis' fun Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, except this time it's Punisher fighting zombified versions of Marvel's characters. I think. But it's written by horror writer Jonathan Maberry, so it could be a good'un.

Ooh, I just had a call from Royal Mail – looks like they found my package. I take it all back.

Meanwhile – and speaking of Garth Ennis – over in the 'Of Some Interest But Probably Not Enough to Buy Them' corner, we have this:

Crossed Family Values #3. I read the first two issues of this, which is David 'Stray Bullets' Lapham's miniseries set in the same world as Ennis' original Crossed series, and it's pretty nasty stuff, even by the standards of Crossed. It's also Just Not Garth: the writing's nowhere near as affecting as Ennis', and it was Ennis' black, bleak take on an end-of-the-world scenario (er, as if an end-of-the-world scenario could be anything but bleak) that made Crossed so compelling. So I might not bother with the rest of it. But, Avatar have announced there'll be a new Crossed ongoing series next year, the first arc of which will be written by Garth. So there's some good news at least.

And finally, we have this:

Amazing Spider-Man
#639. When I previewed the previous issue, I figured it might be Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada's attempt to put wrong all the things he effed up with that One More Day story. Having now read that last issue, which largely consisted of Peter and MJ talking about their relationship (gah!), I'm not sure that is what's happening... and I'm not sure I can be arsed to read anymore to find out where it's all going. So, it's probably sayonara Spidey for me once more. C'est la vie.

Cecil Court Score: Pronto by Elmore Leonard

Moving on from Charing Cross Road on my seemingly never-ending round-up of the books I bought on my recent jaunt round the bookshops of London, we come to Cecil Court, which runs between Charing Cross Road and St. Martin's Lane. As any British bibliophile will tell you, Cecil Court is second hand book nirvana: a whole street of bookshops catering to all tastes. Being central London it can also be an expensive place to shop, but if you go in armed with a foreknowledge of what a reasonable amount to pay for a particular book is, you can still emerge with, if not a bargain, then at least a fairly priced prize.

Having said all that, this was probably a little overpriced:

A UK hardback first edition of Elmore Leonard's Pronto, published by Viking in 1993, jacket illustration by Mark Taylor. I bought this in what is usually one of the more hideously overpriced shops in Cecil Court – naming no names, regular visitors will probably know the one – but although I know I paid slightly over the odds for this copy, at least, unlike a lot of online sales, I could see the condition it was in (excellent). As for why I wanted it: I've read a few of Leonard's books before and enjoyed them, but this particular one forms the basis for the new(ish) US TV show Justified, which is ace. I don't know if much more than the character of US Marshal Raylan Givens makes it over from the book to the show – in fact I think the first episode owes more to the later Givens-starring short story Fire in the Hole, from Leonard's 2002 collection When the Women Come Out to Dance – but Givens, as played by Timothy Olyphant (brilliant in Deadwood, nearly as brilliant here), is the main reason to watch it, so I'm interested to see how he comes across in the novel.

(UPDATE: I've since reviewed Pronto – and the other Raylan Givens stories – in relation to Justified.)

Charing Cross Catch: The Dark Half by Stephen King

And so we continue with the books wot I bought during my recent books bonanza, moving on to the London segment of the splurge. I was going to blog about these ones in the order I bought them, but I want to save the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark ones – for lo, there were indeed Westlake/Stark purchases – for last, as I was rather chuffed with those, plus I've got some other things on a Westlake tip that have arrived since, so I'll have a torrent of Westlake scores to post one after the other. Our Westlake cup runneth over.

But before all that, here's a book I bought in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road (a solid, reasonably-priced bookshop, always worth a look) that, cunningly, still has a Westlake connection:

A UK hardback first edition of Stephen King's The Dark Half, published in 1989 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read this probably around the time it was published, as I did with all of King's books up until the mid-1990s, borrowed from Beckenham Library, and it's always been one of my favourites – not quite up there with The Stand and Salem's Lot, but not far off, certainly as good as the likes of Needful Things. It's about a literary author, Thad Beaumont, who's also written a series of violent crime novels (which are much more successful than his literary efforts) under the pseudonym George Stark. He decides to kill off his alter ego... but Stark won't stay dead, and becomes a physical entity.

There's more to it than that, but Westlake fans will have noted the surname of Thad's alter ego, and as Trent at Violent World of Parker has handily excerpted, there's a passage in the book where Beaumont explains his choice of the Stark surname and expounds on Westlake and the Parker novels. Not being aware of Westlake at the time I read The Dark Half, that's probably the first time I came across a reference to Richard Stark, although I can't say if it lodged in my brain at all. But in any case, that's why I decided to pick up this copy, as well as it being a damn fine book. I like that cover too, which is much stronger than the US one, and is by one Davies. Dunno if that's a first or last name.

Interestingly, Wikipedia reckons The Dark Half was the second best-selling book of 1989, behind Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, which I've also read. And actually, glancing back at the best-sellers for the 1980s, it looks like I read the number one best-seller for the three years before that too, something I don't think has happened before or since. Curious.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark

This one I finished off just before going away nearly two weeks ago, which'll give you some idea of how behind I am with blogging (not that anyone other than me cares, I'm sure). It's the eleventh of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake's Parker novels, and it's a strange one. There's a heist, and there are the usual twists and turns, but Parker himself feels kind of absent from the book, for the most part acting merely as adviser and planner for the score, which is actually carried out by agents of an African nation.

I'd read somewhere that the African robbers were portrayed comically by Westlake, but in fact they aren't, not really: they're inexperienced at taking scores, which is why they bring in Parker, to help them retrieve their country's stolen diamonds (shades of Westlake's The Hot Rock from a couple of years later there). But they're quite well drawn by Westlake, particularly during the Stark Cutaway in Part Three, where we witness the score (during which the Africans acquit themselves admirably for first-timers) and get filled in on some of the characters' backgrounds. Manado and Formutesca in particular are well realised, and there's some nice switching of expectations with those two, culminating in a scene where another character completely misreads them and as a result seals their own fate.

And I think that's the book's only real problem: Westlake seems a lot more interested in his African protagonists than in Parker, so Parker ends up a slightly spectral presence. By the end of the novel I kind of wanted to follow Formutesca's next adventure more than Parker's. So, not as engrossing or kinetic as the likes of The Score or The Split, and not quite so good on character as The Man with the Getaway Face, but better than I'd been led to believe. Oh, and our Stark Stooge here is Hoskins, a con man whose only purpose in the novel seems to be as an occasional irritant. Not one of the more interesting Stooges.

Next up was going to be The Sour Lemon Score... but I'll hopefully be able to make a slight Parker detour before then, depending on the postman. More on that soon. And also I've got lots of Stark/Westlake book scores to blog about, both from my recent bookshop jaunt and from... elsewhere...