Friday 13 August 2010

Westlake Score: Trust Me on This by Donald E. Westlake

Let's round off the week with another Westlake Score – although not the Westlake Score I mentioned here. That book still hasn't bloody turned up, which leads me to suspect the American dealer I got it from has stuck it on a boat instead of a plane and pocketed the difference in postage. If it ever does arrive, and that does turn out to be the case, I shall be having strong words and requesting a refund, mark my words. Gits.

This Westlake Score, on the other hand, was something I spotted going for a pittance on eBay:

A UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Trust Me on This, published by Allison & Busby/W.H.Allen & Co. in 1989 (originally published by Mysterious Press in the US in 1988). This is Westlake's glimpse into the inner workings of a tabloid newspaper (rest assured there's also a murder in it), and is reckoned to be one of his best by some readers. It's definitely a subject I'm interested in: I was a music journalist for about seven or eight years, so I've probably got some tangential familiarity with the subject matter, and I've devoured a fair few books about journalism over the years, from Evelyn Waugh's sublime Scoop to Andrew Marr's My Trade and, ahem, Piers Morgan's The Insider (actually very good on the nitty-gritty of tabloid journalism), not to mention more serious efforts like John Lloyd's What the Media are Doing to Our Politics and Nick Davies' Flat Earth News.

A good addition to the Westlake collection, then. And you never know: if the gods are smiling on me, I might have something else Westlake-y to blog about over the weekend. We shall see...

Thursday 12 August 2010

New Arrival: The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

This one was recommended to me by Katy, my former boss at Titan Books, who sent me a very excited message on Facebook directing me to this obituary of the author. I took one look and straight away snapped up a very inexpensive copy of the book that commands the lion's share of that obit:

A UK hardback first edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, published by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited in 1972, with a jacket design by Tom Simmonds – who also provided UK covers for such classics as Peter Benchley's Jaws and Sylvia Plath's (originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, of course) The Bell Jar:

I'd seen the great Peter Yates film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, starring a marvellously beat down Robert Mitchum, years ago, but I'd never come across the book before, or indeed any other of Higgins' close to thirty novels. Eddie Coyle was his debut novel – or at least the first to be published – and set the template for his dialogue-rich style. Apparently it got to the stage with his later novels that they pretty much consisted only of dialogue, but even in Eddie Coyle you get great swathes of conversation and comparatively little description – much like Gregory Mcdonald's underrated Fletch and Flynn books.

Eddie Coyle actually started life as a short story, or at least part of it did; a different version of the sixth chapter in the book was first published under the title "Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened" in the North American Review in autumn 1970. Higgins sent the story to a friend of his, who asked if it was part of a novel he knew Higgins was working on; it wasn't, but Higgins was thus inspired to turn it into one. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the result, a brutal, bleak depiction of the Boston underworld, informed by Higgins' day job as assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

So, an unexpected – but very welcome – addition to the pile. Thanks Katy!

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Charity Shop Score: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

There was a good interview with Don DeLillo by Robert McCrum in The Observer at the weekend, so he was fresh in my mind when I sauntered into one of the charity shops down the road a few days later and found a really cheap copy of this:

A 2003 UK hardback first edition of Cosmopolis, published by Picador. It's a later, and therefore shorter, DeLillo novel, and not a terribly highly regarded one I don't think – certainly not as lauded as something like Underworld. Never having read any DeLillo I have no idea what to expect, but it sounds intriguing: a billionaire is driven across Manhattan in a stretch limo in search of a haircut, thwarted variously by traffic jams, funeral processions and riots, stalked by two men, and gradually losing his fortune as he progresses.

I dunno why, but I have this strange but definite demarcation in my head between literary authors and the kinds of writers I tend to read – genre writers, for want of another term. Like, it's perfectly fine for me to get happily stuck into a thriller or suspense novel, but I approach a more 'serious' effort – when I do even approach them – with a certain amount of trepidation. Which is daft really. They're all books, after all, written in English, not some special secret language that only dead clever types can comprehend. Still, it's a thing. Hope it doesn't intrude on this book too much.

Unlikely Authors to Bump Into at Homebase, #532: Gavin Lyall and Duncan Kyle

Of all the places you might expect to chance across second hand books, DIY emporium Homebase wouldn't be an obvious location. But the Lewes branch of Homebase was indeed where I stumbled upon three books by deceased and increasingly forgotten British thriller writers Gavin Lyall and Duncan Kyle, on a small shelf of books donated for charity, just next to the checkout tills. From Mr. Lyall, there was this:

A 1989 UK Coronet first paperback edition of Uncle Target, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1988. This is the fourth and final of Lyall's series starring super spy Harry Maxim. I've already got the first and third ones – The Secret Servant and The Crocus List – in hardback first editions, so only the second one, The Conduct of Major Maxim, to find now. I haven't actually read any of them yet, mind; I'm working my way through the 1960s Lyalls first, which are top notch. I may skip ahead to The Secret Servant soon though.

And from Mr. Kyle – real name John Franklin Broxholme – there were these:

Up top there is a 1983 UK Fontana first paperback edition of Stalking Point (originally published by William Collins Sons & Co. in 1981), and underneath is a 1976 Book Club Associates hardback edition of Terror's Cradle (originally published by Saint Martin's Press in 1974), jacket illustration by Paul Wright. I usually steer away from BCA editions, but this copy of Terror's Cradle was dead cheap, and also I have a feeling that jacket's different to the Saint Martin's one. In any case, I've been meaning to read some Kyle for a while, and these two – one, Stalking Point, a World War II thriller, the other a tale of a journalist up against the CIA and the KGB, set partly in the Shetlands – seem as good a place as any to dive in.

As ever with these Brit thriller writers, if you want to know more you can do a lot worse than visiting my learned friend and colleague Steve Holland at his excellent Bear Alley site. Steve's Gavin Lyall bio and cover gallery is here, and his Duncan Kyle bio and gallery is here.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

The Church of the Latter-Day Saints McBain, Zelazny, Coben, Pelecanos and Vine

Otherwise known as St. Anne's Church, Lewes:

where there was a book sale at the weekend, which we pottered along to after the Lewes Book Fair. By the time we rocked up there were people leaving with bulging laundry bags stuffed with books, so who knows what bargains we missed, but even so, it was still worth going along. The books were all arranged along amongst the pews – paperbacks on the floor, hardbacks resting on those shelves you get on the backs of pews – twenty pence a book, six for a quid. Not quite sure what Our Lord would've made of the frenzied scrabble for cheap books inside his House, but I guess the money was going to a good cause (presumably, anyway; for all I know it could've gone to the vicar's fags 'n' booze fund). Needless to say I emerged with a small pile of books, as follows:

A 1982 first Pan UK paperback of Ed McBain's Ghosts (originally published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK in 1980), cover photo by Colin Thomas. I've never read any of McBain's – real name Evan Hunter – 87th Precinct novels, of which there are well over fifty I think, so I hope I don't enjoy it too much, 'cos that would mean embarking on yet another collecting marathon, which in turn would almost certainly result in my being murdered by Rachel. And:

A 1973 Sphere UK paperback of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (originally published by Faber in the UK in 1971), cover illustration by Gordon C. Davies. And it was the cover that grabbed my attention with this one. Look at that painting: a futuristic biker on what looks like a funky moped. How could anyone resist that? And then when I got home I read the back cover copy:

and was even more glad I picked it up. Check this out:

Damnation Alley: three thousand miles of radioactive wasteland, torn by hurricane winds and giant fire storms, the domain of mutants and monsters, a wasteland few men had ever crossed.

My inner child was shouting "Oh yes! YES!" by now. But wait! There's more!

Hell Tanner: the last Angel left alive, his gang wiped out in the Big Raid that destroyed most of America. Hell Tanner, the only man in California with a chance of getting through Damnation Alley to Boston with the plague serum the ravaged city needed to survive... a terrifying story of an odyssey through a man-made hell.

At which point my inner child punched the air, did a triple somersault and proclaimed this potentially the best book ever written. And then my inner child caught sight of the only press quote the publishers had managed to find from the hardback edition of the book:

"Very good" THE OBSERVER

and promptly shut up. Not exactly a ringing endorsement there. Incidentally, there was a 1977 movie made of this book, starring Jan-Michael Vincent – of then-future Airwolf fame – and George Peppard – of then-future A-Team fame. Two (then) future '80s icons, together for possibly the first and only time. I'd never come across this particular cinematic milestone before, but apparently it was one of two science fiction films scheduled for release by 20th Century Fox in 1977. Damnation Alley was supposed to be the big hit of the two, but as it turned out, it was the other film that did rather well instead. That film? Star Wars.

Still, maybe Damnation Alley the movie is as utterly awesome as Damnation Alley the book looks to be.

Or maybe not.

So those were the two paperbacks I bought. I also bought three hardbacks, which were also twenty pee each (yes, I know I should've added another book to make up the six-for-a-pound offer, but, y'know – I'm all about the giving, me):

A UK hardback first edition of Tell No One by Harlan Coben, published by Orion in 2001, cover design by blacksheep. This was turned into a rather terrific – and rather successful – French film in 2006. If the book's half as good as the film, it'll be... well, probably merely OK, actually, but here's hoping it's better than that. Next:

A UK hardback first edition of Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos, published again by Orion, this time in 2004, with a jacket photo by Harvey Tulcensky. To date I've only read one Pelecanos novel – The Way Home – but I've got another one, Drama City (signed, natch), waiting in the wings, and now this too. I became aware of Mr. P. through his work on The Wire (see also Dennis Lehane and Richard Price); Hard Revolution is part of his series featuring private investigators Derek Strange and Terry Quinn – except I think Hard Revolution is sort of a prequel to those, following a younger Strange when he was a policeman in 1960s Washington, DC. So I should be able to read it without reading the preceding three books in the series.

And finally:

This was quite a surprise. It's a US hardback first edition of The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, published by Shaye Areheart in 2005, jacket design by David Tran. I picked it up, read the jacket copy – it's about a dysfunctional family living in a big ol' house with a mysteriously locked library – ummed and ahhed for a bit – hey, twenty pence is twenty pence – and then I noticed this on the first page:

At first I thought it was a previous owner's name... but then I realised it was a signature. Ruth Rendell's signature, in fact. Which baffled me momentarily, until I remembered that Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine are one and the same – Ruth Rendell being Barbara Vine's real name. At which point I offered Our Lord a swift prayer of thanks and hot-footed it to the nice lady taking the money.

Truly, God moves in mysterious ways...

From the Lewes Book Fair: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

So then, The Lewes Book Fair, which took place on Saturday at Lewes Town Hall, was a charming affair, as ever. Plenty of fascinating things to look at, including a first edition of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (which I want to get my hands on at some point, although that copy was a bit too pricey), a first of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and lots more besides. In the end, however, I bought just the one book, which was this:

A UK first edition hardback of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, published by Gollancz in 1990, dustjacket illustration by Ian Miller. This isn't a book I had on my collecting list or anything, but then that's the point of book fairs: to chance upon things you wouldn't normally think about buying. It caught my eye after a few circuits round the hall; I've never read any Gibson – or Sterling for that matter – but this early steampunk tale sounded interesting. There's a full synopsis here if you wanna know more.

And then after the book fair, as I mentioned, we headed up to St. Anne's Church to give thanks to the Lord... no, wait, to check out the book sale they had on there the same day. But let's deal with that in the next post...

Must Be Thursday 12/8/10

In which we – or rather I – run down – as in detail, not denigrate, although often that occurs too – the comics – as in American comic books – that are released this Thursday – i.e. available in UK comic shops, which release that particular week's newly published comic books every Thursday, as opposed to the United States, where they're released a day earlier, on Wednesdays – that we – in fact I – might end up buying. Clear?

And from Marvel Comics we – as in, I, possibly – have these:

Not an awful lot to say about these, which kind of begs the question, why am I even bothering with these weekly posts about new comics? Don't ask me, I only work here. Invincible Iron-Man #29 continues Matt Fraction's storyline dealing with Tony Stark's efforts to bring cheap, clean energy to the world, a theme that Joe Casey also played with in the late lamented Wildcats. Steve Rogers: Super Soldier is Ed Brubaker and Dale Eaglesham's miniseries about... no, I can't remember what it's about now. X-Men #2, however, is about vampires. The first issue wasn't that great, though, so not sure how long I'll stick with Victor Gischler and Paco Medina's new series.

And from DC Comics we have these:

Unwritten #16 sees Tom Taylor finally meet up with his father/creator, Wilson, which should be interesting. As for Superman #702, the previous issue of J. Michael Straczynski's new direction was so bloody mawkish it kind of put me off Superman comics again. So I'll flick through this and if it contains any images of anyone – anyone – crying, that's it for me. There's far too much crying in comics these days. Comics need to cease the goddamn blubbing and man up.

And finally, from Image, there's issue #76 of the ever-dependable Walking Dead, of which there seem to have been three issue in the space of six weeks recently. Now that's a serious work ethic. Slacker comics creators – you know who you are – take note.

Monday 9 August 2010

Doing the Dexter Dance*

Let's talk Dexter.

This is one of those instances where I've ended up reading a book after having seen its film or TV adaptation. Usually I prefer to read the novel first – indeed sometimes I'll make a point of reading a novel before I get to see the adaptation, as with Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island – but that's not always possible, especially if I'm not even aware of a particular author's work at that time (I'm not as widely read as I maybe should be). I can think of a few instances off the top of my head where that's happened: I saw the films of both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley's Game before I ever got near Patricia Highsmith's novels, and Point Blank many years prior to getting hooked on Richard Stark.

What is generally true, though, is that movies or TV shows are rarely better than the novels they're adapted from. They may approach a book in terms of quality, they may even equal it on occasion, but they very rarely better it. What's more common is that a film adaptation will go in a different direction than the source material, and may even end up being something quite extraordinary and transcend its origins, but as a consequence make any meaningful comparison with the original novel redundant. Slavishly faithful movies and TV shows do happen – Watchmen, say, or the aforementioned Shutter Island, both of which only slightly tampered with the originals – but there, often as not, something is lost. With Watchmen it was the intelligence and the formal complexity of the comics; with Shutter Island it was, I think, the book's soul – it wasn't a terribly deep novel, but Teddy's pain came across much more vividly in the novel.

And then there's Dexter, the TV show. Based on Jeff Lindsay's (a.k.a. Jeffry P. Freundlich) series of books about serial killer/blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan, each season of Dexter is akin to a complete crime thriller. There are individual episode stories, sure, but there's always an overall arc for the series. I'd seen all four seasons of the show (season five starts soon) by the time I got round to reading the first book in the series, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I was struck by how similar the novel is to the first season. The plots of both are almost identical, and the characters are instantly recognizable. Thereafter the two diverge, but having recently read the fourth book in the series, 2009's Dexter by Design (I've yet to read numbers two and three), I realised that, for me, the TV show has become the definitive experience.

Now, this could well be because I saw so much of it before I read the books, but I don't think that's the whole reason. As ever with novels versus adaptations, the Dexter I saw in my head when I read Dexter by Design didn't quite match the telly version... but he also didn't quite match up to the screen Dexter, as portrayed by Michael C. Hall. Good though a lot of Dexter's internal monologue is in the book, it wasn't quite as zingy as Hall's voiceovers in the TV show, and sometimes the narration even dragged a bit. More than that, however, the print Dexter lacks some of the extra layers of the TV Dexter.

In the books (at least the two I've read), by the time of Dexter by Design, Dexter himself is essentially unchanged. He's discovered more about his Dark Passenger, sure, but other than that he's pretty much the same emotionless murderer he always was, except perhaps with some small sense of obligation to his adopted – and now in turn also homicidal – children. But on the TV show, the writers – Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and Melissa Rosenberg – and in particular Hall have imbued Dexter with real depth, making him more human and more sympathetic – at least as sympathetic as a serial killer can be, anyway.

I guess fans of the books might complain that the television show dilutes Dexter, but I'd argue it actually enhances him, makes him a more rounded character, as it drills into what makes him tick and how inevitably he can come to question his existence. That's thrown into sharp relief by two similar plot strands in Dexter by Design and the TV show. In both that novel and in the season 4 episode Slack Tide, Dexter makes a mistake and kills an essentially innocent – if disagreeable – person. But whereas in the book this does little more than slightly trouble him, in the show it really has an impact and leads to something of a crisis. The same goes for the plots too. It seems to me that while the Dexter novels are fun, the show has more depth; it's a lot more gripping, with real consequences for Dexter and the other characters.

I picked up a first edition of the recently published fifth novel, Dexter is Delicious, the other week, so I'm intrigued to see how that one stacks up, particularly as it sees the return of an important character who shuffled off this mortal coil in the TV show but is very much alive in the books. But on the evidence thus far, in the case of Dexter books versus Dexter telly, I reckon that, for once, you could make a strong argument for an adaptation turning out to be better than its inspiration.

Er, which I guess is what I've just tried to do.

(* This is the dance that me and Rachel do to the theme tune of Dexter when we watch the show. Yes, we do a Dexter Dance. Demonstrations upon request.)

New(ish) Arrival: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

So, after last week's flurry of new arrivals as part of Westlake Week, I figured this week would be slightly more relaxed, with only one or two new arrivals to blog about, which have been waiting patiently in the wings while I worked through the various Westlake/Stark Scores. I mean, there are a few of other books I ordered online a while back, and those I was planning to drop in as and when they arrived, but not an awful lot, so I was hoping to have cleared the backlog. And then at the weekend I happened to pop along to a book sale at a church up the road, and the Lewes Book Fair, and also, bizarrely, DIY emporium Homebase, and ended up with another shedload of books from those three locations, mostly at around twenty pence a pop. So now I'm completely behind again. Buggeration.

Before we get to those, however, let's deal with this:

A UK first edition/first printing hardback of Blacklands by Belinda Bauer, published by Bantam at the start of this year. I read a review of this around the time it came out, then promptly forgot about it. Nul points. But then I realised recently it had already come out in paperback, and found a cheap first edition hardback online. Douze points. Set on Exmoor, it's about the game of cat and mouse between a twelve-year-old boy and a serial killer/paedophile, which doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laffs, but is apparently a darn good read. It's Bauer's debut novel and has been shortlisted for a Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award, alongside the likes of James Lee Burke, Denise Mina, and George Pelecanos' The Way Home (which I've read – an excellent book). I think I'll be shuffling it to the top of my groaning 'to read' pile...

(UPDATE: Which I duly did, and posted this review the following month.)