Friday 10 September 2010

Three for Four: Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes, Let's Hear it for the Deaf Man by Ed McBain, and The Looking-Glass War by John Le Carré

So then, I know I stated I'd be blogging about new book acquisitions in the order they've been arriving, as I attempt to catch up with myself following my recent drift into the arena of the unwell, but I've changed my mind. I'm a mercurial beast like that. Instead, I've decided to leave the Westlake Scores (for there are many) and other Westlake/Stark business till next week, so you can expect another Westlake Week in just a few days' time. Unless I change my mind again – I've got other books to blog about too, plus I'd like to write something about Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's Stumptown comic book series, which has just completed its first arc – in which case, you, er, can't.

Either way, that's all in the future. For now, I thought I'd showcase a handfull of books purchased in an honest-to-god, bricks-and-mortar, proper, physical, actual, real bookshop, of all things. I often have a rummage in Lewes' various bookshops, and on the way home from the doctor's last week I popped into A & Y Cumming, up on the High Street near the castle. Like all of Lewes' second hand bookshops, their stock doesn't change that much, but they have a decent selection of reasonably priced modern firsts (among other things), and they're always worth a browse. On this visit, however, I discovered that their stock had suddenly gone from 'reasonably priced' to 'really rather cheap', and I ended up walking out with three first editions at four quid a pop (plus another four-quid first, Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood, for Rachel). None of these books are particularly scarce or valuable, but even so, that's a real bargain.

First up, there was this:

A UK William Collins 1976 hardback first edition hardback of Helen MacInnes' Agent in Place, dustjacket designed by Futura Arts. I was only dimly aware of MacInnes when I saw this on the bookshelf; dubbed variously 'the queen of spy writers' and 'the queen of international espionage fiction' (both rather cumbersome tags, and not a patch on, say, Grahame Greene's description of Patricia Highsmith as the "poet of apprehension") MacInnes wrote over twenty books from 1941 to 1984 (she died in 1985), many of which were very well regarded, mixing romance elements in with the thrills. Like a lot of thriller/espionage writers, she's increasingly overlooked, and a lot of her back catalogue – possibly all of it – has fallen out of print. This particular novel is about a Nato memorandum that's fallen into the wrong hands and subsequent efforts to minimise the damage. Sounds good to me.


A UK Hamish Hamilton 1973 first edition hardback of Ed McBain's Let's Hear it for the Deaf Man, one of McBain/Hunter's umpteen 87th Precinct Mysteries, with a dustjacket designed by Colin Andrews and that rather cool author pic on the back by Richard A. Kenerson. This one features occasional recurring nemesis the Deaf Man, a criminal mastermind who first appeared in 1960's The Heckler and who has a habit of sending misleading clues to the detectives of the 87th Precinct. And in Let's Hear it for the Deaf Man, we the reader get to see those clues, which for the most part are pictures, too:

As I mentioned a month ago, I haven't read any McBain books yet, so this may well be my first experience of his work (at some point in the distant future, the way the books are piling up at the moment).

And finally, and the pick of the bunch:

A UK Heinemann 1965 first edition hardback of John le Carré's The Looking-Glass War, his fourth novel following Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963). The dustjacket on this one's a bit battered, but the book itself is in very good condition, clean and un-foxed, and at four quid I can't really grumble too much. The only problem is, I'm now in two minds over whether to read this first or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), as both feature spymaster George Smiley (although to a much lesser degree in The Looking-Glass War). Hmm. Chewy one.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Richard Stark-Related Links and a Plug for 500 Essential Cult Books and 500 Essential Cult Movies

A few things that might be of interest...

Trent at the utterly indispensable Violent World of Parker site has added a few bits and bobs to help keep the site up and running, including links to AbeBooks (a.k.a. Advanced Book Exchange) on his bibliography page that he'll see some kick-back from. If you're thinking of buying any Richard Stark or Donald Westlake novels, why not click through on the links Trent's provided and do some good at the same time?

Steve Holland over at Bear Alley has a cover gallery of the UK Coronet Parker paperbacks up, which is well worth a look.

And speaking of Steve – and seeing as I plugged a book I worked on the other day – I thought I'd plug another couple which I oversaw that might be of interest to the Stark/Westlake obsessives out there, one of which Steve did some writing for:

That's 500 Essential Cult Books by Gina McKinnon with Steve Holland, and 500 Essential Cult Movies by Jennifer Eiss with JP Rutter and Steve White (UK Ilex and US Sterling covers seen above). They're both damn fine books, if I do say so myself, certainly among the better books I've edited, very informatively and entertainingly written, and unlike a lot of 'guide' books, lavishly illustrated too. Needless to say Stark's The Hunter is in Cult Books and Point Blank is in Cult Movies, alongside all manner of other curios, many of which are, oddly enough, personal favourites of mine. Ahem. 500 Essential Cult Books can be ordered from the UK and US here and here, and 500 Essential Cult Movies can be ordered here and here.

Parker Progress Report: Deadly Edge by Richard Stark; Review

Hmm. This one's a bit... odd.

Where the previous book in Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker series, The Sour Lemon Score, is a streamlined mean machine, Deadly Edge is a rather more clunky affair. For a start, there's the structure of the thing. Deadly Edge (Parker #13, in case you were wondering) is, like its predecessors, broken up into the now-traditional four parts. But in Part One, which details Parker and his latest crew's heist on a rock concert, rather than break the section up with chapters as he usually does, Westlake instead elects to write it as one long act. That's nearly fifty pages (in the Allison & Busby edition I was reading, anyway) of uninterrupted prose, which is unheard of in a Parker book. It's a strange choice, and one that has a deadening effect on the story, turning that first part of the book into something of a slog.

In spite of that soporific effect, however, I'm quite intrigued by this stylistic choice. The rest of Deadly Edge reverts to the short, punchy chapters-within-parts we've become so familiar with, so why did Westlake plump for a different approach with Part One? When you read the subsequent parts of the novel, Part One begins to feel more and more like a completely different book, one where Westlake seems to be trying to make the robbery (which, in earlier books in the series, would sometimes be detailed methodically, perhaps best evidenced in Parker #2, The Man with the Getaway Face) seem as mundane and matter-of-fact as he can.

With the discovery of a body at the end of Part One, however, and following a few chapters at the start of Part Two where Parker and his squeeze Claire play happy homemakers (not as incongruous as that sounds), the book shifts up a gear, sending Parker off in pursuit of a killer. This section of the novel is pretty effective, certainly more gripping than Part One, but it's also fairly scant; Parker rubs up against a local mob outfit, but nothing really comes of it, and before you know it Westlake has downshifted again, flung open the passenger door and brusquely deposited you in Part Three, in the company of the fragrant Claire.

Here again, Deadly Edge diverges from the norm. Usually the Stark Cutaways in Part Three of the Parker novels follow Parker's nemesis in that particular book (although there are exceptions). Here, in a part-flashback, we get to spend some quality time with Claire instead, who's bought a house by a lake for her and Parker to kick back in and has no intention of abandoning it now, even though someone is bumping off Parker's partners from his most recent score. Contrary to some Parker fans, I actually rather like Claire, so weirdly Part Three was for me the most enjoyable section of the book (alongside the scenes in Part Two where Parker does his best to appear normal and relaxed in the house, as opposed to the emotionless criminal automaton he really is). When unwelcome visitors turn up, Claire holds it together pretty well, and there's a brilliantly tense scene round the kitchen table.

(Incidentally, I think I spotted a mistake on Westlake's part. At one point, Claire recognises the name of one of Parker's cohorts... but I'm pretty sure Parker never mentioned that name to her.)

Part Four focuses on Parker again – and an incredibly cautious Parker at that. He takes a bloody age to exact vengeance on his foes; it never seems to be quite the right time or place for him to dispatch them, but that does give us a first-rate scene in a pitch-black room where Parker's unparalleled skills at doing nothing are put to the test. And then we're left with a rather sweet closing moment, one where, if this were a movie, you'd half expect Bing Crosby to start crooning as the credits roll.

So, as I say, all in all, an odd one. There's a weird stylistic experiment at the start, no Stark Stooge to speak of (Claire certainly doesn't fit that description), and some rather bizarre but beguiling Parker-at-home business. All of which makes for an interesting read, but not one of the best in the series thus far. Still, next up in the Parkers it's Slayground, for many the high water mark of the entire run (although I've got a review of the Alan Grofield novel The Dame to knock out first, and I might read The Blackbird before – or even concurrently – with Slayground).

Tuesday 7 September 2010

New Arrival: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Hodder First Edition)

As mentioned in the previous post, I've got a great stack of books to showcase, most of which were snaffled off the internet shortly before my detour from wellness, and have been trickling in ever since. I'll be blogging about them in roughly the order they arrived, interspersed with other posts so it doesn't all get too tiresome (for you lot I mean, although I guess for me too). And we'll begin with this:

A UK hardback first edition/impression of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1974. This is one of those books I've been meaning to get my hands on for some time; I vaguely recall the BBC TV series from 1979, starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley, and earlier in the year I picked up a first edition of the third book in le Carré's Karla Trilogy, Smiley's People (1979; the second being 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy), so I figured I'd nab this one too. That rather fab front jacket photo is by Jerry Harpur, who may or may not be the same Jerry Harpur renowned for his photographs of gardens (my research for this post was, as ever, I'm sure you can tell, in-depth and extensive), while the design concept was by Lippincott and Margulies Limited of London.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the plot of which alludes to the Burgess/Blunt/Philby/Maclean Cambridge spy ring, isn't the first of le Carré's novels to feature George Smiley. The character pops up in the author's debut novel, Call for the Dead (1961), and in the likes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965). But Le Carré revised Smiley's history and background somewhat for the Karla Trilogy, so I should be able to read Tinker, Tailor without having to read any of the earlier novels. That said, I do also now have one of those earlier novels, which I'll be blogging about at some point...

It's actually remarkably tricky to get hold of true first editions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; there are plenty of Book Club editions around, but decent copies of the first printing of the hardback, with a dustjacket? Not so much. This copy has a fold in the jacket, but other than that it's in pretty good nick, and it was fairly cheap too (a tenner, as opposed to the forty-plus quid I just saw a copy go for on eBay). It took a fair bit of internet research, with a certain amount of back and forth with dealers, before I determined this was the right book, but I got there in the end. Go me.

UPDATE: I've since reviewed the novel, contrasting it with the BBC TV series. And you can read that post here.

Monday 6 September 2010

A Harvey for Helen: The Art of Osamu Tezuka, God of Manga

So, as anyone who's read the previous post will know, it hasn't exactly been a joyous week or so chez Jones/Louis. I spent all of the Bank Holiday weekend in the hospital, with the rest of the week taken up variously by trips to the doctor's, trips back to the hospital, and a certain amount of rest and recuperation in-between. There'll probably be further follow-up hospital visits down the line, but for now, so long as I'm sensible (no booze, no spicy food, no ibuprofen or aspirin, cut down on coffee, etc.), I should be okay.

Necessarily – and hopefully understandably – blogging has taken a back seat while all this has been going on, so I've got quite the little backlog to get through, including reviews of Richard Stark's Deadly Edge and The Damsel, lots of new Westlake Scores, and plenty of other New Arrivals to boot. However, I doubt I'll be blogging at the same pace (or doing anything else at the same pace, frankly) I was before being struck down with the bleedin' (literally) ulcer, so it's going to take a while to catch up with myself. Still, no rush, eh? No, really: no rush, please.

But before we get to all that, in amongst all the gloomy unwellness of the past week I did receive one piece of rather good news: a book I edited won an award! Yup, The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga bagged the Best American Edition of Foreign Material at the Harvey Awards ceremony at the Baltimore Comic-Con, beating out a list including well-regarded manga titles Pluto and 20th Century Boys and the acclaimed graphic novel The Photographer. In fact it's the first time this particular award has been won by a book about comics, rather than a book comprising comics, so it's all the more notable. I mentioned back in April that we'd been nominated for an Eisner Award, which we ultimately didn't win, so it's nice to walk off with a prize from the other big American comics awards.

So congratulations to the book's author and guiding light, the effervescent Helen McCarthy, and also to all my friends and colleagues at Ilex Press, who put the book together. And hell: congratulations to me too. I worked bloody hard on that book, and with everything that's happened recently, for once I think I can indulge in a little self-back-slapping.