Saturday 18 September 2010

Westlake Score: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Tucker Coe

What's this? Blogging on a Saturday? This is unheard of! Whatever is the world coming to?

Well, I figured I'd round off Westlake Week Mark II with one last Donald E. Westlake Score, in the shape of this:

It's a UK hardback first edition of the first of Westlake's series of five novels written under the pseudonym Tucker Coe, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, published by Souvenir Press in 1967 (originally published in the States by Random House in 1966). All five of the Coe novels star disgraced ex-cop Mitchell Tobin, and are more serious in tone than many of the books Westlake wrote under his own name. The dustjacket on this one is by S. R. Boldero, who illustrated a number of dustjackets for Souvenir Press, including a Modesty Blaise novel, as well as loads of paperback cover for Pan, Arrow, and more besides. As ever, the redoubtable Steve Holland has the most comprehensive guide to Boldero's work at his Bear Alley blog.

I had to go all the way to Australia for this one. Not literally, obviously: I mean I bought it off a dealer in Australia; the only copy listed for sale in the UK should have been de-listed, as it sold a while ago. No matter though; even with the postage it was still pretty inexpensive, and it's a nice addition to the collection.

NB: Go here for my review of the novel.

Friday 17 September 2010

Dortmunder Daze: Donald E. Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Shelf Porn

Well, I pondered, and so instead of adding to and expanding my first edition cover gallery of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels, I came up with this:

As you can see, I gave the problem a lot of thought. Ahem. Anyway, it's not often one sees images of the spines of books online, as opposed to the front (or, less frequently, back) covers, so it's a little different at least. All of these books are hardback with dustjacket; from the left, we have:

Watch Your Back!, Mysterious Press, US, 2005
The Road to Ruin, Robert Hale, UK, 2005
Bad News, Robert Hale, UK, 2002
What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Mysterious Press, US, 1996
Don't Ask, Mysterious Press, US, 1993
Drowned Hopes, Mysterious Press, US, 1990
Good Behaviour, Allison & Busby/W.H. Allen & Co., UK, 1987
Why Me, Viking Press, US, 1983
Nobody's Perfect, Michael Evans & Co. US, 1977
Jimmy the Kid, Michael Evans & Co. US, 1974
Jimmy the Kid, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1975
Bank Shot, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1972
The Hot Rock, Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1971

And look of that. I've linked each of those to the original post on the book. How's that for service? Existential Ennui: going above and beyond the call of duty.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Westlake Score: Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

Even I'm getting slightly bored of these Dortmunder new arrivals now, so you'll be glad to know this is the last one I have to show (for a while anyway). And we're back to the US first editions with this one, after our brief sojourn with the UK Robert Hale editions of Bad News and The Road to Ruin:

It's a US hardback first edition/printing of Westlake's Watch Your Back!, published by Mysterious Press in 2005, with a rather bold dustjacket designed by Bradford Foltz. This is the twelfth novel to feature John Dortmunder and crew, and its arrival means I now have numbers one to twelve of the series, with only the final two, What's So Funny? (2007) and Get Real (2009), still to get. No rush for those though; I have, after all, ten Dortmunder books to read before I get to those.

Traditionally, at this point I'd post a first edition cover gallery of Dortmunder novels, to follow on from this one last month. But to be honest, you've already seen most of the covers that would be in said gallery earlier this week (Good Behaviour and US editions of Bad News and The Road to Ruin excepted), so it'd be a bit of a waste of everyone's time. Maybe I can do something else instead though. I'll have a ponder.

Westlake Score: The Road to Ruin by Donald E. Westlake

And so we saunter casually into the latter half of Westlake Week Mark II, perhaps pausing to reflect briefly on the various Westlake Scores, reviews and extended and largely pointless screeds about signed books we've encountered along the way, before stopping to doff our cap to yet another recent book arrival:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's The Road to Ruin, published by Robert Hale in 2005 (originally published in the States by Mysterious Press in 2004), with a dustjacket illustration by regular Hale Westlake/Richard Stark cover artist Derek Colligan. This is the eleventh in Westlake's series featuring John Dortmunder, following 2002/2001's Bad News, the other Dortmunder book published by Hale during the period when they had the UK rights to Westlake's new work. It's just a shame the three books prior to these two – Drowned Hopes (1990), Don't Ask (1993) and What's the Wordt That Could Happen? (1996) – weren't published in the UK, or at least not until 2008 in the case of two of 'em. As I've pointed out before, it must've been a right bugger being a Westlake/ Dortmunder fan in the UK in the '90s – and remember this was before internet shopping became so widespread, so it would've been difficult to obtain those books in this country. You have to wonder how that publishing gap impacted Hale's sales...

The eagle-eyed among you might have spotted that a fair proportion of the Westlake Scores I've posted this week have been Dortmunder novels; basically I've been working my way along the list, collecting those books in the series I don't already have. Which is possibly a little foolhardy, seeing as at this point I've only read the first two books in the series, The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. But I have faith in Westlake. He won't let me down.

So, The Road to Ruin makes it eleven out of fourteen... but wait. What's this, hewing into view? Could it be another Westlake Score...?

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Sign Your Name Across My Book: Those Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark Signed Editions in Full

There's an awful lot of discussion, debate and argument about eBooks at the moment, which are variously described as a publishing revolution or the end of publishing as we know it (or indeed both). It's still too early to determine what they mean for publishing in general and book collecting in particular (although I doubt that'll stop me posting something really boring on the subject in the near future), but it strikes me there's one thing an eBook will be able never replace, and that's a signed copy of a book.

Lots of people love signed books. Book signings by popular authors can see queues stretch out the door and round the block, while signed copies of books often fetch a premium online. But for a lot of book collectors, signed editions can be a mixed blessing. For one thing, as with all autographed memorabilia, there's the question of authenticity: if you haven't had a book signed for you in person, what guarantee do you have that the signature isn't a fake? Then there's the issue of dedications: the fact that a book's been dedicated to a particular person can be offputting for some collectors (although not for me) – unless, of course, it's dedicated to another author, say. And then there are those collectors who would simply rather have their books as pristine as possible, with nothing, not even the author's own script, sullying the condition.

Personally, I'm more interested in whether a book is a genuine first edition rather than whether it's signed or not. An author signature on a book is a nice bonus for me, but if it's an author signature on a second – or later – impression of a first edition, or even – heaven forfend – a second edition, I wouldn't want the book in the first place, signature or no. But every now and then, in my ridiculous clambers across the irresistible but dangerous face of the internet for first editions by particular authors, I end up with a signed book into the bargain, usually because it's no more expensive to buy a signed edition than an unsigned one. And so it is with Donald E. Westlake.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I've got five signed Westlake novels now, four of which were bought online. I guess it's entirely feasible that all of these autographs are fake (although the one book I bought in a shop does have a "Signed by the author" sticker on it, so that's a bit more certain), but I don't think they are, for these reason:

1) Not to be unkind, but in the grand scheme of things, i.e. the wider world outside the Westlake-obsessed nexus this blog intersects with, the name Donald E. Westlake isn't that big a deal. There's a cult following for the Richard Stark books, sure, and to a lesser degree for other Westlake works, but Westlake isn't, and never was, a huge best-seller. Therefore, any forgers aren't gonna make much money off his signature. Related to this point is:

2) Westlake signed a hell of a lot of books in his time. A cursory search on AbeBooks will show that Westlake-signed books aren't exactly thin on the ground, and he was well known for doing store signings. With so many signed editions out there, particularly Westlake books that aren't that valuable or scarce anyway, there's little point in faking up a signature.

3) Three of the five signed editions I own are also dedicated. As I reasoned in this post, if you're going to go to the trouble of faking a signature in order to add value to a book, it's unlikely you'd fake a dedication too, as that will often as not put off any potential buyer. And finally:

4) If you look at the signatures themselves, they're either the work of a highly skilled forger with access to a variety of different Westlake signatures upon which to base his or her brilliant facsimiles, or, much more likely, the work of the same bloke, i.e., Don. So let's have a look at 'em, shall we?

Now, I'm going to show these in order of book publication, but of course that's no guarantee that that's the same order in which the books were signed. I can be certain that Bad News is the most recent signature, as that book – the Robert Hale edition anyway – was only published in 2002, but there's no way of knowing for sure when any of the others were signed. However, I think we can make a few assumptions, starting with:

This is the US first edition of the Richard Stark novel The Blackbird, published in 1969. Note that Westlake has signed (and dedicated) this as Stark ("through DW"), which would lead one to suspect it was signed around its initial publication, as at that point Westlake hadn't been outed as Stark (I think that happened in the early 1970s, prior to 1974's Jimmy the Kid). All supposition of course, but it kinda makes sense. Of all the signatures I'll be showing, this is possibly the most disputable, as it's trickier to compare a Stark signature to a Westlake signature than it is a Westlake one to a Westlake one. But even so, if you compare, say, the "For" at the start of the inscription to the "For" in the inscription in Don't Ask (see next book but one), I think you can ascertain it's the same man.

Next, we have this:

This dedication is in my 1971 US first edition of the Stark novel Slayground, but in this case, the book is signed using Westlake's real name, which leads me to suspect it was signed some time after publication. I could be wrong, but it makes sense. This inscription is written with a biro rather than the marker used for The Blackbird, and of course Westlake's signed his own name rather than Stark's, so it's not straightforward comparing it with the Blackbird one, but if you look at the way the letters lean and join (or not, as the case may be), it's fairly evident they're from the same hand. But as I say, it's actually more instructive comparing the Blackbird inscription with our next one:

This, as evidenced by the title, is in my 1993 first edition of Don't Ask. I think from this point on it's fairly safe to assume the signatures date from around the time of publication; that's the most likely time for a book to be signed, when an author is doing the rounds as part of their publicity and promotional chores. As already mentioned, you can compare aspects of this dedication with the one in The Blackbird, but you can also compare Westlake's name with his name in Slayground: this signature is slightly looser that one, but it's the same middle "E", the same elongated stroke off the "W"... The same man, in other words. I quite like this dedication too; that "with pleasure" suggests Westlake was somehow impressed by the good doctor.

Our final two examples are both straight signatures, so let's look at them together:

That's my 1996 first of What's the Worst That Could Happen? up top and my 2002 first of Bad News underneath. The only thing really to note here – and you'll have to click on the picture to see this properly – is the way Westlake has actually joined the "D" in his first name to the "o" in the Bad News signature. He doesn't seem to have done that in any of the other signatures I own. Are there any conclusions we can draw from this? Er, well, no, not really... unless... unless that means the Bad News signature is a fake?! But look! It's got an official sticker on the cover and everything!

Aaaand I think that's quite enough of that, don't you?

Westlake Score: What's the Worst That Could Happen? by Donald E. Westlake

It's Wednesday, which means we're now halfway through Westlake Week Mark II. And what better way to celebrate than with yet another Westlake Score:

This, folks, is the US hardback first edition/first printing of Donald E. Westlake's What's the Worst That Could Happen?, published by Mysterious Press in 1996, with a dustjacket illustration by Jeff Fitz Maurice and jacket design Jackie Merri Meyer. It's the ninth Westlake novel to feature hard luck career criminal John Dortmunder, following 1993's Don't Ask. This particular copy came from the same dealer I got my copy of the last-Dortmunder-but-one, Drowned Hopes (1990), and like that book it again comes from the collection of A-Team producer Frank Lupo. But it hasn't only passed through Mr. Lupo's hands. Oh no. It's also passed through Mr. Westlake's hands. Regardez-vous:

Like the copy of Don't Ask I showcased yesterday, this copy of What's the Worst That Could Happen? is also signed, although not dedicated in this instance. But it does mean I now have five books bearing Westlake's John Hancock, so now's probably a good juncture for me to post some ill-informed thoughts on Westlake's autograph, n'est ce pas?

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Westlake Score: Don't Ask by Donald E. Westlake

And we return to Westlake Week Mark II after those short messages, with this:

A US hardback first edition/first printing of Donald E. Westlake's Don't Ask, published by Mysterious Press in 1993, with a slightly ugly dustjacket illustration by Wilson McLean and jacket design by Jackie Merri Meyer. This is the eighth of Westlake's Dortmunder novels, following 1990's Drowned Hopes, and as with that book I had to go for an American first edition here, as there was no British hardback edition, or indeed any British edition at all until the 2008 Quercus paperback. There are plenty of copies of Don't Ask for sale online – at least from the States – but it's a bit of a minefield. Many of those are print-on-demand editions, so finding a proper first printing was kind of tricky, with a few blind alleys along the way. I got there in the end though, and for not much more than a fiver (excluding shipping from the US, so more like fifteen quid in all). Which is all the more remarkable when you consider this:

Yep, it's signed, and dedicated too. A lot of book collectors really don't like dedications, much preferring a simple signature, but I rather like them. They're a bit more personal than a straight signature, and they're less likely to be forgeries too. And it's kind of nice to know a book you own has at one point been in the hands of the author him- or herself, signed and dedicated in person to a fan of that author's work, and then no doubt treasured by said fan... right up until the point it's flogged to an uncaring, money-grubbing, heartless dealer. (Dealers: I josh. Possibly.) But then it finds its way into my hands, and ends up being treasured all over again, not to mention written about at tedious length on a tiresome blog. So thank you for selling it, Dr. Alexander Whatever-the-hell-your-surname-is. Your loss is my and my dwindling readership's, er, gain.

Westlake Week Interruptus: Comics Sales Tank/Present Tense Novels Declared Rubbish

We interrupt Westlake Week Mark II to bring you these breaking stories:

In lieu of my late, unlamented Must Be Thursday posts, a story over at ICV2 caught my eye. Their latest sales estimates for American comic books are up... and it ain't pretty viewing. For the first time in a long while, no single title sold anywhere near 100,000 copies, which is pretty tragic. Even ICV2 were driven to mention the impact that the $3.99 price point is having on comics sales. I know I've cut back my comics consumption as a direct result of the price of the things, although that's not the whole story. For a lot of comics fans I think it's a combination of cost, lacklustre material, and simply growing away from superhero comic books (not before time, some might say). My generation of comics readers is slowly drifting away from the hobby... and there aren't enough new comics readers – as in readers of comics periodicals, which are still the backbone of the industry – coming along to replace us.

Another, non-comics story that nabbed my attention was this post on The Guardian's Books Blog, wherein the merits – or otherwise – of present tense novels are discussed. Half of the novels on Booker shortlist this year are apparently written in the present tense, which just sounds really bloody annoying to me. I struggle enough with first-person narration in novels, let alone having to cope with the present tense too. As the post and the links within it point out, present tense narration isn't a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be becoming ever more prevalent. Possibly it's a consequence of magazine articles and interviews being written in the present tense, which is something I gave no thought to when I was writing them myself years ago, but which now seems increasingly weird to me. Because when you stop to think about it, it's a further, unnecessary artifice: why should an interview be written in the present tense, when in fact it's been written after the fact, i.e. transcribed and expanded at a later date from an interview that happened some time ago? And that goes even more so for a novel, where a fiction is being described: what exactly does the added artifice of pretending that the events are happening RIGHT NOW bring to the equation? Apart from annoying me, that is.

So there you go. We now return you to Westlake Week Mark II.

The Grofield Files: The Dame (1969) by Richard Stark; a Review

Gird your loins, people: it's Westlake Week Mark II, Day 2. And today, instead of more Westlake Scores (oh yes, there are Westlake Scores a-plenty to come...), I thought I'd post a review of a Donald Westlake book – or rather a Richard Stark book, the second of Westlake/Stark's novels to star part-time actor/part-time thief/occasional Parker cohort Alan Grofield. And like its predecessor, it's a right old mixed bag.

Originally published in 1969, two years after The Damsel (Grofield #1), The Dame in fact follows on almost directly from the first book. As the novel opens, Grofield is hopping off a plane at Puerto Rico airport, having just left Mexico and the clutches of Elly, his romantic partner in The Damsel. He's come to Puerto Rico on the promise of some kind of financial reward for a shady undertaking of some kind... and if that sounds vague, that's because that's all Grofield himself knows at this point. It's a thin opening premise, and immediately presents problems, not least the fact that Grofield still has all his cash from the score he and Parker undertook in The Handle. Grofield doesn't need to work for a while, so his motivation for going to Puerto Rico – where he has no idea what he'll be doing, or if there's any money at all in it for him – and therefore the whole raison d'etre of the book, is somewhat suspect. Like, why is he even bothering?

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel never really recovers from this fatal undermining. A couple of times Grofield ends up doing things almost because the plot demands he do them, not out of any particular character motivation. Indeed, here Grofield doesn't seem to have much of a character at all, apart from being a bit of a wise-ass. Westlake drops the quirks he established for Grofield in earlier Parker books and in The Damsel, like the fact that Grofield hears a constant movie soundtrack in his head. Instead the writer simply moves his (literal) actor around the stage, dumping him in a slightly boring murder mystery and giving him the occasional nudge when the already slack pace slackens too much.

For some reason Westlake also jettisons the four-part Stark structure and temporal tricks established over the course of the Parker series and The Damsel (no Stark Cutaway here, I'm afraid), making The Dame a very straightforward affair. And on top of all that, the book suffers from the same tonal problem that blighted The Damsel, once again falling awkwardly between two stools, being neither tough enough to be a good Parker novel nor funny enough to be a good Westlake caper. There's not a lot of tension here, and no laffs either, although if you're lucky you might raise a small smile.

But despite these (admittedly lengthy) criticisms, this isn't a bad book. It is, after all, still Westlake, and is as elegantly and unfussily written as you'd expect. And there is good stuff here, particularly in the middle section, where Westlake shoves Grofield into an Agatha Christie story, casting him in the role of the interrogator and having him question the residents of a house in the Puerto Rican jungle in order to establish who the murderer is (and so clear himself). This is where The Dame starts to come alive, to the extent that it's easy to imagine Westlake had the idea of doing his own version of a Christie whodunnit and built the rest of the book around these sometimes witty, dialogue-heavy scenes.

Whatever the case, like The Damsel before it, The Dame has to be considered a lesser Westlake effort, one really only for Parker completists (which is probably most of the people reading this post). Still, despite my reservations, it can't be that rubbish a book: I'm still planning on reading the next Grofield novel, The Blackbird. Guess that's just the inexorable pull of the man like Westlake and the Parker universe: once you're hooked, you'll read anything even remotely Parker-related, no matter how half-arsed.

Monday 13 September 2010

Westlake Score: Drowned Hopes by Donald E. Westlake (Frank Lupo Collection)

Our second Westlake Score of the day, brought to you in conjunction with Westlake Week Mark II, is the first of a flurry of Westlake first editions I bought recently to feature hapless thief John Dortmunder:

That's the 1990 US Mysterious Press hardback first edition/printing of Drowned Hopes, the seventh Dortmunder novel, with a dustjacket design by Harold Nolan. After scoring a UK hardback first edition of the previous Dortmunder novel, Good Behaviour, I had to switch back to US first editions for this one, as there was no UK hardback of Drowned Hopes – nor indeed of the next couple of Dortmunders. Seems British Westlake fans were rather ill-served in the 1990s; must've been a bit frustrating for anyone in the UK trying to keep up with Dortmunder and crew's adventures. In fact I don't think Drowned Hopes saw publication in the UK until 2008, when Quercus issued it as a paperback (I may be wrong there though).

Anyway, unlike most of the second-hand books I buy, where I generally have little to no idea who might've owned a book previously, this time I know a bit of this book's history. According to the dealer I bought it from, it was part of a Westlake and wider crime/mystery collection assembled by American TV writer and producer Frank Lupo, creator of, amongst others, The A-Team. I only have the dealer's word on this of course, but this copy of Drowned Hopes is certainly in remarkably fine condition (and at over 400 pages, I think the longest Westlake novel I own). So if it did indeed belong to Mr. Lupo, all I can say is, thanks for keeping it in such great condition, Frank. And rest assured I'll look after it.

Westlake Score: The Axe by Donald E. Westlake (Robert Hale Edition)

And so, as trailed at the end of last week, we begin Westlake Week Mark II, wherein, apropros of nothing other than I've had a fair number of first editions of his books turn up in the mail recently, I'll be grouping together a bunch of Donald E. Westlake-related posts, including showcases of those aforementioned first editions (many of them Dortmunder novels), a review of a Richard Stark book, a look at Westlake's signature, and possibly more besides, although we'll have to see how we get on. I did a shorter, three-day Westlake Week back at the start of August, and judging by the view stats a few of those posts were rather popular (as ever helped along, no doubt, by links to them from Trent at Violent World of Parker).

(Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the top-three most popular posts on Existential Ennui – at least going back to May of this year; I don't have data before that – are as follows: That Night at #3; Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis and the Search for the Perfect Parker at #2; and The Hot Rock and the Hunter: Novels Versus Graphic Novels at #1. Which suggests that readers of this blog are a mix of Westlake/Stark obsessives and sadistic gore hounds. In other words, my kinda people.)

And we'll kick off with this:

A UK hardback first edition of Donald Westlake's The Axe, published by Robert Hale in 1999 (originally published as The Ax – no 'e', of course – by Mysterious Press in the US in 1997). Like a lot of the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark books published by Robert Hale in the late-1990s/2000s, it's not always easy to find first editions that aren't also ex-library, despite the fact that these books weren't published that long ago. It's not uncommon for the bulk of a hardback printing to go to libraries, so I guess that's what happened in a lot of cases with the Hale Westlake/Starks. So I was pleased to come across this copy of The Axe, which is in fine condition.

The jacket illustration on this edition is by Michael Thomas, which makes a change; usually Derek Colligan provided the jacket illos for Hale's Stark/Westlake editions. As for the novel itself, The Axe – or The Ax, if you please – is widely considered one of Westlake's best books, perhaps even his best. It's a serious character study about an unemployed executive who murders the other candidates for his ideal job; I'm thinking of shuffling it to the top of my Westlake to-read pile, ahead of the various Parkers, Dortmunders and others.