Friday 20 August 2010

Westlake Score: Good Behaviour by Donald E. Westlake (Plus the Neiman-Marcus Good Behavior Screw-Up)

Praise the Lord, sing Hallelujah, hang out the bunting and, if you feel so inclined, perhaps do a little jig too: the book I've been waiting for for what feels like bloody ages finally turned up in the post yesterday. Phew. That book isn't this book, however. That book – a Westlake tome, surprisingly enough – I'll come back to, but first we have this book, which I've been meaning to get to for a bit:

A UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Good Behaviour, published by Allison & Busby/W.H. Allen & Co. in 1987, with jacket design and illustration by Peter Rozycki. This is the sixth of Westlake's novels starring John Dortmunder and his motley crew of hapless thieves, which I think involves nuns, a kidnapping, and the attempted overthrow of a country. Rather different from previous Dortmunders then.

This copy of the book came alllll the way from Australia; I did find three copies of this edition on sale from the UK online, but one of those was described as having a torn dustjacket, which, on further questioning of the seller, turned out to have a few tears in it and to be "not that good", another was a library re-bind with no jacket, and the final one was too expensive. So Australia it was. Sometimes you have to go to the other side of the world to get what you want.

The reason I wanted this particular edition is, one, I usually prefer to have UK first editions if possible; two, it seems to be a lot scarcer than the 1986 US Mysterious Press first edition (titled, of course, Good Behavior, no "u"); and three, that Mysterious Press first edition isn't actually the true first edition. And therein lies one of those publishing tales that anyone who, like me, works in publishing shivers at the thought of...

Let me take you back to 1985, when US retail company Neiman-Marcus decided to do a deal with Mysterious Press to print a special limited signed, slipcased edition of Good Behavior to be sold through their department stores and catalogues as a Christmas promotion. This edition of the book, restricted to 1000 copies, was scheduled to be on sale eight months before the Mysterious Press edition, making it the proper first edition. A fine idea... except somewhere along the line someone misspelled Neiman-Marcus on the limitation leaf in the book, swapping the "e" and the "i" – and the books printed like that. It's the kind of tiny mistake that brings publishing types out in a cold sweat, and sure enough Neiman-Marcus ordered the whole run destroyed, except for supposedly thirty-six copies (although I suspect a few more escaped).

You can find Neiman-Marcus copies online easily, often for not that much money, so it's not as scarce as you might think. But I do feel for the poor sod who missed that mistake. I've had similar experiences myself, and it's not a nice place to find yourself.

Anyway. As for the other Westlake Score I mentioned at the beginning, that one completes another run of Westlake books for me, so I'll be blogging about that soon. If I don't get to it before the end of the week, however, might I direct my fellow Stark/Westlake obsessives to previous Westlake posts from this week you might have missed, either on Existential Ennui or elswehere; The Week in Westlake, if you will:

Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis, and the Search for the Perfect Parker

Dortmunder Daze: A Donald Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Cover Gallery

Westlake Score: Why Me by Donald E. Westlake

Book Glutton: Petty Complaints

Book Glutton: Arms and the Man with the Getaway Face

Violent World of Parker: Good news from University of Chicago Press

Thursday 19 August 2010

First Bourne: Carlos, Chaos and Haute Couture in Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity

Having recently finished the first novel in Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Identity (1980), I've been struggling to work out what I think of it. At times whilst reading it I thought it was brilliant: pacy and kinetic, in parts it barrels along at a fair old clip, with thoroughly thrilling action sequences. At other times, the tin-eared dialogue made me actively cringe, particularly that between Jason Bourne and Marie St Jacques. Then again, some of the scenes where shadowy American intelligence types are sitting around jawing, trying to work out what the hell Bourne's up to, are gripping. On the other hand there's the frequently tiresome (although to some extent necessary) introspection on Bourne's part, as he tries to piece his fractured past together, forever repeating key phrases ("Get Carlos! Trap Carlos!") until you're sick to the back teeth of them.

It's a puzzle. It's a really good book and a really rubbish book rolled into one baffling rubber-band ball. One thing it certainly is is reasonably close to Doug Liman's 2002 film. Both have essentially the same structure: Bourne is found at sea with no memory of who he is, and has to track his way across Europe trying to put the pieces together, all the while fending off assassins and the fuzz. Marie is in both the book and the movie, as is Alexander Conklin. But there is one character who doesn't make it over from the book – probably in part because he was languishing in jail by the time the film was made: Carlos the Jackal.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was one of the most feared terrorists the world has ever known, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. He claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1500 people, masterminded the 1975 OPEC hostage crisis, and was involved in countless terrorist operations around the world. If only half the claims about him are true, he would still rank as one of the most dangerous criminals of all time. In The Bourne Identity, Ludlum casts Carlos as the villain of the piece, pitting Bourne against him and even having the two fight hand to hand. So far so barely believable. But Ludlum goes a lot further, turning Carlos into an all-pervasive Bond villain and creating a background and scenarios for him that frequently beggar belief and occasionally enter the realm of the delusional.

For one thing, it's strongly hinted in the novel that Carlos was the person who pulled the trigger when JFK was assassinated – despite the fact that Carlos would've been fourteen years old at the time. Then we get Carlos disguised as a priest, dispensing orders from a confession booth. Best of all though is the disguise Ludlum creates for him in Paris. Here Carlos is using a high end fashion house as his front, with the higher-ups in this establishment fully aware that they're working for the most dangerous man on the planet. But that's still not quite enough for Ludlum. Because not only is Carlos using this organization for his own nefarious ends... he's also quite possibly working there himself as its chief clothes designer!

It's all utterly barking, and again either brilliant or bloody terrible. I doubt I'm ever going to work out if it's the former or the latter. I do know one thing though: on this evidence, I'll definitely be reading The Bourne Supremacy.

Damn it, Brubaker!

Ed Brubaker is possibly my favourite comics writer. I've read his stuff since he was writing and drawing his autobiographical Lowlife series in the 1990s. His 1999 Scene of the Crime miniseries for Vertigo was a mini-masterpiece, a dense and layered slacker detective tale with beautifully restrained artwork by Michael Lark. His work on Sleeper with Sean Phillips was first rate, fusing espionage with superpowers in a recognisably real world. With co-writer Greg Rucka he created one of DC Comics' best series of the 2000s in Gotham Central, a street-level saga examining what it must be like to be a policeman in Batman's city. For my money his run on Daredevil was better than Brian Michael Bendis' preceding run, and for a good long while his Captain America was the ongoing comic I most looked forward to. As for Criminal, well, that continues to be one of the best comic books on the racks. And that's not even mentioning Catwoman, Deadenders, Incognito...

Criminal and Incognito aside, however, more recently I've become slightly disenchanted with Brubaker's superhero comics. Captain America feels like it's gone off the boil; The Marvels Project was a bit of a snoozefest; Secret Avengers is decidedly skimpy. It's almost like he's coasting. And there are hints that some of these scripts might be a little... dashed off. Action scenes have taken precedence over the kind of dense plotting and deep character work Brubaker can be so good at. Dialogue is getting repetitive. But the clearest indication is the constant use of a certain phrase, one that I mentioned a couple of days ago, one that seems to crop up in every single Brubaker comic at the moment:

"Damn it!"

So bugger me if I wasn't coming back on the train from the comic shop just now and decided to read Secret Avengers #4 on the way, and in the very first panel of the comic, the very first line of dialogue was:

Gah! It's almost as if he's taunting me! And then, a mere two panels later:

Noooo! Stop it! Stop with the goddamn "damn its"!

It's not the "damn its" themselves I object to. Swearing, even minor swearing like this, really doesn't bother me (as anyone who's read this blog can attest...). It's just there's so bloody many of 'em! Y'know, I'm almost tempted to count up all the "damn its" in Brubaker's comics over the past year or so. Or perhaps I should instigate a drinking game, like that Withnail & I one: every time you come across a "damn it" in a Brubaker comic you get to down a limoncello or something.

Anyway. Maybe it's just me. Maybe Brubaker's comics are as good as they've ever been. But if I come across one more "damn it" in a Brubaker comic I'll...



Damn it.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis Book Covers, and the Search for the Perfect Parker

Inspired by Book Glutton's comment here, I thought I'd post something akin to my musings on the changing face of James Bond from a few months back, but instead examine how Richard Stark/Donald Westlake's character Parker has been portrayed by artists – mostly on book covers – over the years. A kind of Search for the Perfect Parker, if you will. Except, as it turned out, it was rather a short search...

The point of that Bond post was to look at how the various Bond cover artists' visual representations of 007 developed over the course of the early paperback editions of the books – how Bond was depicted in the years prior to the arrival of the first movie Bond, Sean Connery. Because of course once Connery became fixed as Bond in the public's mind – and then Roger Moore and the rest – there was less room for manoeuvre for cover artists. Indeed, after the 1962 movie of Dr. No, Bond book covers tended to either feature film stills or be slightly more abstract.

In the end, the pre-movie Bond that seemed nearest the mark to me was the one drawn by Yaroslav Horak for the Daily Express newspaper strip, although Sam Peffer also did a creditable job on the original Pan paperbacks of the novels. And if you chart the progress of Parker through the various iterations of the Richard Stark novels, you could easily reach a similar conclusion. The original Pocket Books paperbacks of the first eight Parker novels sported covers by artist Harry Bennett, but Parker himself doesn't feature on all of them, and when he does he's extremely changeable. For example, the Parker on the cover of The Hunter (1962) isn't particularly recognisable as (presumably) the Parker on the cover of The Mourner (1964). And while the Parker on The Hunter does have the big hands Westlake describes in the book, none of Bennett's Parkers feel quite right to me.

Skipping over the Gold Medal editions of the next few Parkers for the moment – for reasons alluded to at the start of this post – we encounter some decent line drawings of Parker on the initial Coronet UK paperback editions of the novels from the late 1960s. Thereafter, however, it's a case of steadily diminishing returns. In the 1970s we get the US Berkley paperbacks, but these tend to show Parker at a small size, making it hard to pass judgment on his depiction. The less said about the 1980s Avon US photo cover editions the better, and probably the same goes for the UK Robert Hale editions from the 2000s too (although I do have a soft spot for some of Derek Colligan's covers).

Foreign editions aside, it's not until we get to Darwyn Cooke's interpretation of the character from his graphic novels of The Hunter and The Outfit that things look up again. As with Horak's Bond, Cooke's Parker is pretty much on the money – at least for my money. He's suitably craggy, lived in, mean... and no one draws Parker's hands as well as Darwyn Cooke.

Unlike the Bond books, one thing we don't really have to contend with here are any movie Parkers, mostly because there's never actually been a movie Parker. There's been a Walker (Point Blank, 1967), a Georges (Pillaged, 1967), a McClain (The Split, 1969), a Macklin (The Outfit, 1973), a Stone (Slayground, 1983), a Porter (Payback, 1999)... there's even been a Paula (Made in U.S.A., 1966). But a Parker? Not a one. So while variations of Parker have been seen on screen – some good (Lee Marvin), some bad (I don't think Peter Coyote's take is terribly well regarded) – there's never been a defining film Parker in the way that Connery, Moore, etc. have come to define Bond in most people's minds. Various editions of the Parker books have occasionally used film stills on their covers, but the artists who've depicted Parker post-the movies have never taken any visual cues from the actors who've portrayed him – or rather versions of him.

Funnily enough, Westlake himself thought that Parker perhaps looked like a younger Jack Palance, which isn't a bad fit. But then, weirdly, authors aren't always the best judge of what their characters look like. In the Bond novels Ian Fleming has characters likening 007 to composer Hoagy Carmichael, which never seemed right to me; Bond strikes me as being more chiselled, more angled.

Anyway, there may be no movie Parker to muddy the waters, but when I started trawling through the original Parker paperbacks for the perfect Parker (it's always best to start at the beginning), I pretty quickly realised my search would be somewhat truncated. Because once Gold Medal picked up the rights from Pocket Books with the ninth novel in the series, The Rare Coin Score (1967), and brought The Hunter back into print that same year under the title Point Blank! (often mistakenly credited as being published in '62), Parker found his ultimate artist: Robert E. McGinnis.

One of the most prolific – if not the most prolific – paperback cover artists ever, McGinnis painted covers for well over a thousand books, as well as dozens of movie posters, including posters for Bond movies like Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun. He started off creating detective covers for Dell in the 1950s, before branching out into westerns, romances and other mass market titles. More recently he's been providing covers for Hard Case Crime, his artwork as rich and evocative as it's ever been.

When McGinnis met Parker in 1967, it was a match made in heaven. Two of the three Parker novels published by Gold Medal that year – The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score – boast, for me, the best depictions of the character we've yet seen, Darwyn Cooke's version included. McGinnis went on to paint another three covers for Gold Medal's Parkers from 1968 to 1969: The Black Ice Score (1968, the eleventh book in the series), The Sour Lemon Score (1969, Parker #12), and the 1968 reissue of The Seventh as The Split. Great though these three are, none of them quite hit the heights of his 1967 portrayals. The Parker on McGinnis' cover for The Split doesn't quite feel like Parker to me – maybe it's that roll-neck sweater – while on The Black Ice Score Parker has, strangely enough given Westlake's own view on Parker's appearance, assumed something of the look of Jack Palance. On The Sour Lemon Score, McGinnis' final cover for the series (thereafter the novels were picked up by Random House), Parker has receded to the background, his features indistinct.

Rewind to those 1967 McGinnis covers, however, and we really hit paydirt. Of the three, McGinnis' cover for the '67 Gold Medal reissue of The Hunter as Point Blank! probably takes the bronze medal. It's a damn fine effort at nailing Parker: the hands are big, the look is thuggish, and the way Parker casually disarms Lynn, not even glancing at her as he does so, sums up the focused, no-nonsense side of his persona. Good as Point Blank! is, though, the other two covers from the class of '67 are even better.

McGinnis's cover for the 1967 Gold Medal edition of The Rare Coin Score features a Parker depiction par excellence. Standing in profile, looking towards us but with his eyes ever-so-slightly averted, and with a sultry woman draped over him, the Parker on this cover is just so right. That woman (whoever she is – could she be Claire?) isn't distracting him in the slightest; instead he's fixed on something else – although not us, not quite. He's thinking about the score in hand – because as we all know, when Parker's working, working is all he cares about.

The next Gold Medal Parker novel, The Green Eagle Score (1967, Parker #10), pulls a similar trick. Here Parker's female companion is virtually naked, yet again Parker doesn't seem to notice her. He's fully dressed, gun in one hand, cigarette in the other, folded into a swivel chair as if waiting for something to happen. In the novels there are countless scenes of Parker waiting around for one reason or another; he's like an automaton on standby in these scenes, not thinking about anything, often sitting or lying in a darkened room. Waiting Parker can do in spades. And waiting is what McGinnis' Parker is clearly doing here.

That McGinnis' subsequent Parker covers don't quite match up to these two doesn't really matter. When I read one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, the Parker I see in my head is exactly the same one as on McGinnis' covers for The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score. With those two 1967 book covers, Robert E. McGinnis provided us with a Parker that will be difficult, if not impossible, to better – the perfect Parker.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Dortmunder Daze: A Donald Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Cover Gallery

So then, simply because I now have them all (either in UK or US editions – or both in the case of Jimmy the Kid), here, for your delectation, are the covers of first five books in Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder series; US first edition hardbacks on the left, UK first edition hardbacks on the right:

Simon & Schuster, US, 1970
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1971

Simon & Schuster, US, 1972
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1972

Michael Evans & Co., US, 1974
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1975

Michael Evans & Co., US, 1977
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1978

Viking Press, US, 1983 (no UK hardback edition)

Westlake Score: Why Me by Donald E. Westlake

Not to tempt fate or anything, but I should have a few Westlake-related posts again this week, both on a Dortmunder and Parker tip. 'Course, now I've stated that I'll doubtless be foiled by the vagaries of international shipping, but I've got at least one post brewing – other than this one – that isn't reliant on a particular book turning up. Let's kick off, though, with this:

A US hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Why Me, published by The Viking Press in 1983, with dustjacket art by Bob Shein and jacket design by R. Adelson. This is the fifth book in Westlake's series starring hard luck heister John Dortmunder, and again centres on Dortmunder and crew stealing a jewel that's a bone of contention between two countries, a la The Hot Rock – and, indeed, the Parker novel The Black Ice Score. Nothing like recycling a plot, eh? I expect Westlake throws in a fair few twists on the formula though.

And with the arrival of this, I now have first editions of all five initial Dortmunders. Time for a Dortmunder gallery, you say? Why the devil not.

Must Be Thursday 19/8/10

And so Tuesday rolls around once more, which means it's time for me to bang out a post on the American comic books I'll probably be buying this Thursday. Now, I'm really not sure how much longer I'll be doing these posts. Frankly, I thought last week's Must Be Thursday was a little lacklustre – and I'm the bugger wot wrote it. I can't quite see the point in continuing to knock out these weekly comics guides if even I'm not terribly interested in them (I'm pretty sure nobody else is). So if they suddenly vanish, don't be surprised. That's if you even notice.

All that said, let's soldier on with this week's selection and see if we can drum up some enthusiasm along the way. From DC Comics this week there are three comic books I'm interested in, two of which are published by WildStorm:

Not much to say about DC Universe Legacies #4 at top left there, except I'm still enjoying this decidedly old skool superhero affair. Next to it, however, is something called Ides of Blood #1 from WildStorm. It's yet another vampire comic, but before you grunt disinterestedly and roll over, this one looks slightly more unusual. It's an alternate history affair set in 44 BC, where Julius Caesar has conquered Transylvania and vampires are now Rome's underclass. I've never heard of the writer, Stuart C. Paul, or indeed the artist, Christian Duce (although a glance at his website reveals him to be decent enough, if a little stiff), but this could be worth a look. Interview with Mr. Paul here.

And then there's Ex Machina #50, which is the final issue of a series that has been consistently excellent and occasionally brilliant. I wrote a little about it here, so suffice it to say I'll miss it when it's gone. Sniff.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel Comics, we have these:

I'm starting to enjoy New Avengers now (#3 seen here, top left), so I'll be sticking with it for a while, but Ed Brubaker's Secret Avengers (#4 seen top right) seems to be suffering from the same drawn-out storytelling problems that all his superhero titles are afflicted with at the moment, whereby fights last for pages and dialogue is gradually disappearing. Also, everyone seems to say "damn it" all the time. There's at least one "damn it" in every Brubaker comic at the moment. Mebbe the writer's distracted by something else he's working on, but I kind of feel like I'm getting short changed on his superhero titles, which I only really buy because he's writing them. Or half-writing them, as would appear to be the case. Be nice if he could pack a bit more into each issue is all I'm asking.

Finally, there's Marvel Universe vs. Punisher #2, the first issue of which was a little cracker, a kind of I Am Legend for the Marvel U. This may not be the Max version of the Punisher, but writer Jonathan Maberry is the first person to really nail the character since Garth Ennis. Well done that man. Plus, it's Goran Parlov on art, which strengthens the ties to Ennis' run on Punisher Max. I'd rate this Comic of the Week in a normal week, but Ex Machina #50 has to take that honour. Almost Comic of the Week, then.

Monday 16 August 2010

Harry Maxim versus the Book Clubs

NB: This post was written before I became aware of "export editions", which the below copy of The Conduct of Major Maxim probably is, rather than a book club edition.

This turned up over the weekend:

A UK hardback first edition of The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1982, dustjacket design and photography by Melvyn Gill, based on a concept by Mr. Lyall himself... Except it's almost certainly not a true first edition: there's no price on the jacket front flap, which means it's more than likely a book club run-on from the first edition, even though there's nothing else on the jacket or in the book to suggest that – no "BCA" in sight. The book merely states it's a first printing. (I've got a Hutchinson copy of Kingsley Amis' Russian Hide and Seek that's like this too – exactly the same as the regular first edition, except no price on the front flap.) So it was wrongly listed as a proper first by the seller.

Then again, it was cheap, and it's in good nick, and it's effectively a first, so what the hell. But it does illustrate one of the problems of buying books online, particularly books by popular-at-the-time authors from the 1970s and '80s, when BCA – Book Club Associates – was at its peak. For the uninitiated, BCA were/are a mail order club whereby members purchase cheap versions of current novels, specially printed by the publisher of the book for the club. Sometimes BCA editions would have different covers to the regular editions, but more often they'd carry the same cover. I don't know if BCA still works like this, but it used to be that subscribers or members of book clubs got an initial number of books for literally pennies, but then had to commit to buy a certain number of books from BCA's regular mail-outs for at least a year thereafter at higher – although still reduced – prices.

Book club printings of books can come some time – years even – after the first hardback printing, but they can also be run-ons of the first printing; the publisher will increase the initial print run of the book to include however many copies BCA expects to sell to its members. Book clubs buy these books from publishers at a knock-down rate, often not much more than the cost of the printing. The benefit to the book club is obvious – they can sell books to their members cheaper – but the benefit to the publisher perhaps isn't so clear. In fact what the publisher gets by increasing their print run to account for a BCA order – which is 'firm sale', so there'll be no returns (unsold copies, which are the bane of publishers' existences) from the book club – is a better deal from the printer: the more books you print, the better price you get per unit, thus hopefully increasing the publisher's profit margin on their portion of the print run.

For most book collectors, BCA editions are pretty much a no-no. What a book collector is generally looking for is a first edition/first impression (printing) of a book. (I'm not going to get into why this matters to collectors, 'cos that'll open up a whole other can o' worms; just take it as read that it does.) Unfortunately, there are so many book club editions out there, particularly with books from that '70s/'80s period, that there's bound to be some confusion. A lot of the time you can spot a BCA edition fairly easily: they may be a slightly smaller size than the original if they're a subsequent book club printing, or on slightly cheaper paper; they may have 'BCA' on the jacket spine instead of the publisher name, or on the spine of the case (or both); they may have "Book Club Edition" printed on the copyright page. But these signs aren't necessarily always present, especially if the book club edition is a run-on – i.e. extension of – the first printing.

Take my copy of The Conduct of Major Maxim. To all intents and purposes, it's exactly the same as the first printing: printed by the same publisher at exactly the same time, on exactly the same paper stock and at exactly the same size, bearing the publisher's name on the jacket spine and case spine, and with the same 'first printing' information in the indicia. No mention of book clubs at all – except there's no price on the jacket front flap, because of course the book club sets its own price, not the publisher. So you can see how there might problems identifying it as a book club edition.

Despite all the words expended above, I'm actually fairly relaxed about first printing book club run-ons like this. As I say, there's virtually no difference from the regular first edition. But other collectors are less relaxed, and it's a minefield out there on Amazon Marketplace and AbeBooks and eBay and the rest. Some dealers know what they're talking about and will state if a book's BCA; plenty more neither know nor particularly care, and might even purposely withhold the information if they do know. I'm inclined to give the dealer in this instance the benefit of the doubt – it is only some missing price info, after all – but then I'm a forgiving sort. Sometimes.

Anyway, all that aside, the arrival of The Conduct of Major Maxim – the second in Gavin Lyall's 1980s series about British spy Harry Maxim – does mean I now have all four Harry Maxim books:

Yay for that, at least.