Friday 22 October 2010

The Mac's Place Quartet: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas / Steve McQueen and The Cold War Swap

And so Existential Ennui's rolling tribute to underappreciated author Ross Thomas – previous posts can be found here, here, and here – continues with this:

A 1968 UK first edition hardback of Cast a Yellow Shadow, published by Hodder & Stoughton, with a dustjacket design by Baker/Broom/Edwards. This is Thomas' second novel, published in the States by Morrow in 1967, a year after his debut, The Cold War Swap (a.k.a. Spy in the Vodka). It's also the second book to feature bar owner Mac McCorkle and his business partner – and occasional secret agent for the US government – Mike Padillo. This time out, the action relocates from Bonn, West Germany, to Washington, DC, where Mac has opened up a new establishment – still called Mac's Place – and where Padillo makes a reappearance following his disappearance at the end of The Cold War Swap. However, he's been stabbed, and Mac soon finds his own wife has been kidnapped and is being held by officials of an African nation who want Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister.

There aren't too many copies of this UK edition for sale online, just two or three from the UK, a couple from the States, and then a bunch from South Africa and Australia, which is common with otherwise scarce British hardback first editions from the '60s and '70s: there are large numbers of expats in both those countries, many of whom would have taken their books with them when they emigrated, books that have since ended up in second hand bookshops. Y'know, I've always wanted to go to Australia. I've got relations out there. Perhaps some kind of combined familial visit/bookshop tour might be in order...

There's an interesting bit of blurb on the back cover of this Hodder edition of Cast a Yellow Shadow, in between the stuff about awards and press quotes for Thomas' previous book, which states, "now being filmed as The Cold War Swap starring Steve McQueen". That got me intrigued: obviously that movie never saw light of day, but the fact that the blurb states it was actually being filmed at the time suggests it might have got some way along the production process. So I did some digging, and while I couldn't find out how far along it got, I did find an interview with Ross Thomas where he said that Steve McQueen was indeed interested in starring in a movie of The Cold War Swap, but he couldn't decide whether to play McCorkle or Padillo. In the end he decided to play both characters in one, which is possibly where the project faltered. If anybody has any more info on this abortive adaptation, the comments section below awaits your input...

Thursday 21 October 2010

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets, Starring Mardou, Ted May, Phil Barrett, and More

For this third instalment of Notes from the Small Press – which, for latecomers, is a series of posts on small press comics I have known – we head to 2005, and an anthology that, much like the Fast Fiction Presents: The Elephant of Surprise comic featured in the first Notes, acts as a useful snapshot of a particular moment in British mini comix.

Small Pets was an anthology put together by UK cartoonist Mardou for the 2005 Web and Mini Comix Thing, a once-a-year, one-day, London-based small press event run by Patrick Findlay (which, I think, he's now knocked on the head). I have to declare an interest here: I wrote the foreword to the comic, in my then-capacity as senior editor for Titan Books, although I didn't agree to write it (or indeed this here blog post) out of any sense of egotism (well, no more than usual) or nepotism (Mardou was, and still is, a pal). Rather, it was plain to see at the time that Small Pets was stuffed full of brilliant comics and creators, and I was chuffed to be associated – if only in a tiny way – with such a talented bunch of writers and artists. The table of contents will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches on offer:

As with The Elephant of Surprise, Small Pets featured contributions from most, if not all, of the leading lights on the UK small press scene at the time, plus a couple of guest Americans and an Irishman. And as with The Elephant, it just so happened that all of those cartoonists were simultaneously hitting their creative stride. Irish comics creator Phil Barrett contributed two stories of everyday surrealism, with both"Wee Creatures" and "Small Changes" dropping whimsical elements – mysterious teddy/snake hybrids in a kid's bedroom; an outlandishly oversized man making his way in the world – into ordinary situations. As a gloriously base counterpoint to Barrett's more grounded work, Jon Chandler's flatulent "Two Fables" gets two pages out of passing wind.

Ellen Lindner's elegant line and exuberant scripting are on full display in her rumination on wage slavery, "Coming Out of a Coma", while Jeremy Dennis' two stories are fine examples of her affecting autobiographical comics.

Both Lindner and Dennis are also co-conspirators with Mardou in the occasional Whores of Mensa anthology, another splendid example of small press togetherness. And speaking of Mardou, her contribution to Small Pets (aside from editing the whole shebang, of course), "A John So Small", is a brilliantly wonky take on the Oldest Profession, featuring a crossed-wires sex pest who gets off on literary little people. Mardou's story is followed, oddly enough, by one from her future husband, Ted May, whose "Longbox" is a prime example of his off-kilter Kirby-meets-underground-comix stylings.

And those are only a few examples from a cast list that also includes Richard Cowdry, John Allison, Sean Azzopardi, and loads more besides. Looking back on Small Pets from a few years' remove, it really is remarkable how many great cartoonists Mardou managed to gather together, and the resulting comic has lost none of its energy. There's a palpable excitement rippling through the pages, as if all concerned knew this would turn out to be something special. Perhaps they all thought nothing of the sort, but in any case I stand by my slightly hyperbolic introduction: I think Small Pets really did represent a new Fast Fiction-style golden age of UK small press comics, one of those all too infrequent nexus points where a disparate group of artists simultaneously reach a creative peak and everything seems possible.

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Girst

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch  

Spoke too soon:

She's just finished:

A day off work well spent there, I feel.

My Friend Tim Went to New York Comic Con and All He Got Me Was This Lousy Signed Limited Edition of Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Outfit

Actually that's not all he got me; he also gave me a thousand-piece Elephantmen/Hipflask jigsaw puzzle, which I then gave to Rachel, who has been happily doing it ever since:

Did I say "happily"? I meant "obsessively, thinking about it constantly, devoting every waking hour to it to the exclusion of pretty much anything else". Bless. The puzzle's a lot further along than that picture now; I reckon she'll be done by the weekend. But anyway, the main thing Tim got me from New York Comic Con – which took place a couple of weeks back in (and the clue's in the title here) New York – was a copy of the limited edition of Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Parker: The Outfit, featuring a signed tipped-in drawing:

Tim offered to swap this copy of The Outfit, which he got from Mr. Cooke himself, for the regular copy I'd already bought (and reviewed). Which is a thoroughly lovely thing for him to do, and for which I'm incredibly grateful. So now I have a signed limited edition of Parker: The Outfit from NYCC to go along with the signed limited edition of Parker: The Hunter I got from the ace London comic shop Gosh:

Who's a lucky boy, then?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

A Meandering Review of the Novel Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Well I fair plowed through this one. Considering Case Histories clocks in at around 300 pages and I only started reading it Wednesday last week, polishing it off by Monday isn't bad at all. It's understandable though: on this evidence, Kate Atkinson is a really good, compelling writer. I'm not going to post a proper summary/analysis here – I'm sure there's plenty of that online already – but for posterity, and for my own reference, some stray thoughts:

I loved all of the characters in Case Histories. Character is what Atkinson is all about. The various strands of the story proceed in fits and starts, rubbing up against each other and interweaving, but they're always related from the perspective of a particular character. Not in the first person, mind: Atkinson writes here in the omniscient third person. But she does get inside the heads of her characters brilliantly, so that a lot of the events in the book are related by people looking back on those events and attempting to interpret them, or experiencing them now and trying to interpret them as they go along, with all the intellectual and emotional muddle that entails.

Atkinson's secret is, she writes how people think. So, say, Theo, whose daughter was killed ten years ago (one of the case histories of the title), might be doing one thing but thinking another, or rather doing one thing that sets him thinking about another. Atkinson follows that thought process, sometimes revealing clues along the way, or at least hinting at them, sometimes just filling in background. At one point, private investigator Jackson Brodie – our ostensible hero, although the likes of bereaved sisters Amelia and Julia get just as much page time – visits Amelia and Julia's other surviving sister, Sylvia, in a convent. Sylvia has taken the name Sister Michael, which sets Jackson off ruminating on why high street store Marks & Spencer use St Michael as the name for their own-brand goods. It's the kind of inconsequential connection one's mind makes all the time, the sort of mental sidestep that can lead to inspiration or, just as likely, an interesting but ultimately useless cul-de-sac. Both eventualities are in abundance in Case Histories.

Towards the end of the novel, unexpectedly it becomes really funny, so much so that I laughed out loud a couple of times. Jackson in particular comes into his own in the second half of the book: he's increasingly put-upon and disaster-prone, lurching from humiliation at the hands of his ex-wife and her new partner, to being mugged (or not, as the case may be), to having his house blown up – a turn of events that stopped me in my tracks it was so unexpected – much of which results in repeated trips to the hospital.

The final revelations of the three main case histories don't come as much of a shock; I'd guessed most of them by that point anyway. But that doesn't matter: as ever, it's the journey that's important, and Case Histories is a winding, complicated excursion in the company of a disparate bunch of messed-up people who you nevertheless really wouldn't mind hanging out with again.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Westlake Score: Backstage Love by Alan Marshall (Midwood/Tower Sleaze Paperback, 1959)

Like a lot of writers toiling in the unforgiving fields of pulpy postwar paperbacks, Donald E. Westlake wrote under an array of pseudonyms. The most famous of those is, of course, Richard Stark, under which moniker Westlake created the Parker series of crime novels in the early '60s. But as well known as that particular pen name is today, it's easy to forget that, back then, it was just one of many used by Westlake to churn out umpteen books every year. Richard Stark may have proved to be rather special, but from Westlake's perspective there weren't nothing special 'bout Stark at the time.

Aside from Stark, Westlake wrote books under the names Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Curt Clark. But all of those pseudonyms debuted after Stark's debut, 1962's The Hunter; there are a whole boatload more alter egos who preceded the birth of Richard Stark. I blogged about one of those, John B. Allan, back at the start of June, but Allan's single contribution to the Westlake canon, a 1961 biography of Elizabeth Taylor, is somewhat mild in comparison to the material published under some of his other nom de plumes in the late '50s and early '60s. For, like many of his contemporaries, including Lawrence Block, Westlake bashed out (so to speak) dozens of pseudonymous soft porn paperbacks.

Now, I hadn't intended to start collecting any of the soft porn books Westlake wrote under names like Edwin West or Andrew Shaw. But as luck would have it, a chance trip to a bookshop over in Essex the other week turned up a novel written under the disguise that Westlake used the most for his more titillating titles:

A US paperback of Backstage Love by Alan Marshall, published by the amusingly named Midwood/Tower Publications in 1959. This was lurking in a pile of similarly smutty paperbacks in an alcove under some stairs to the side of the rather ramshackle shop. It took me a few moments before I realised what it was; I would've recognised one of the better-known Westlake alter egos right away, but I'm less familiar with the filthier end of his oeuvre. And not carrying the complete annotated list of Westlake wank-fodder round in my head, I wasn't completely sure Backstage Love was the genuine article: quite apart from the immediate poser of whether Alan Marshall was indeed Westlake, there's also the thorny problem that, as with many of these soft porn author identities, other writers also used the Alan Marshall moniker, so not all the Marshall-written books were by Donald E. Westlake.

I'd like to say I leafed through the book and immediately recognised Westlake's style, but while these opening lines:

He had to change buses in New York, with a two hour wait. He had never been in New York City before, so he left the Port Authority Terminal and walked up a block to 42nd Street. It was early June and the late-morning sun made the sidewalks look bright and the buildings look clean.

could conceivably have been penned by him, coming across as proto-Stark, they could also have been penned by countless other writers. No, what I think really tipped me off was the setting for the novel: a summer stock theatre. That's a theme that Westlake has returned to more than once, with the events of Pity Him Afterwards (1964) being set in a similar location, and Alan Grofield from the Parker novels spending his summers acting in stock theatre. And anyway, at £1.50 it was worth the gamble.

There's a few copies of Backstage Love on AbeBooks for up to £25, but those are all in the States; it's unusual to chance across a copy in a UK bookshop. I rhapsodised briefly on Sunday about the pre-internet 1970s and 1980s (and even '90s) when books like this were tantalisingly out of reach for us Brits; finding this book was almost like stepping back in time to those years, when a junk shop in Penge Market might, if you're lucky, turn up a dreamed-of comic or paperback. I figured that sort of thing just didn't happen anymore, with collectors being so virulent. Turns out, it does.

The cover artist on Backstage Love is the appropriately named Rudy Nappi, who, rather ironically given the book's naughty nature, is best known for his covers for that squeakiest of squeaky clean characters, Nancy Drew. Which just goes to show, everyone has a dark side...

The Mac's Place Quartet: Spy in the Vodka (The Cold War Swap) by Ross Thomas

As promised at the end of last week, over the coming week (and indeed probably into next week, and perhaps even beyond) Existential Ennui will largely be focusing on two writers who between them have monopolised much of my book-collecting time this year. On Sunday – slightly earlier than planned, but the muse overtook me – I posted the first of a number of forthcoming missives on Donald E. Westlake, who, regular readers will know, has been a firm friend for most of the year. And today sees the first in a series of posts on a writer who, thanks to Book Glutton, has recently become something of a pal too: Ross Thomas. Doubtless there'll be posts on other matters mixed in here and there, but Westlake and Thomas will loom large for the foreseeable future.

And let's open the Thomas account with something a little special:

That there's the UK hardback first edition of Spy in the Vodka by Ross Thomas, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1967, with a dustjacket designed by Peter Calcott. This is Thomas' debut novel... a statement which may have anyone who's au fait with Thomas' oeuvre, particularly anyone American, scratching their head. After all, as any Ross Thomas enthusiast will tell you, his debut novel – perhaps even his best-known novel – was 1966's The Cold War Swap. And that statement is also true.

So how can Spy in the Vodka and The Cold War Swap both be Ross Thomas' debut novel? You guessed it: they're the same book. As often happens with UK editions of American books (and vice versa, of course), The Cold War Swap gained a new title for its UK debut. But only for this first hardback printing, it seems; as early as 1968, Hodder had reverted to the original title for their paperback edition. Which begs the question, why change the title at all? Especially when the title you changed it to bears a remarkable resemblance to another espionage thriller by another American author published in the UK in the same year – 1967 – this time by T.V. Boardman. Namely, Spy in the Ointment by our aforementioned friend Donald E. Westlake. Perhaps Hodder realised the close resemblance of the titles after the fact, which was why they reverted the US title. Pure speculation on my part, mind.

Copies of Spy in the Vodka aren't exactly abundant; there's a few on AbeBooks, mostly going for rather a lot of money, and mostly with dustjackets that are in various states of disrepair – as is the one adorning my copy. Seems this particular jacket is rather delicate (see also those two Le Carre books I picked up). I mentioned in this really annoying post that I'd be returning to one of the two series that Thomas wrote during his career, and as well as being his first book, Spy in the Vodka/The Cold War Swap is also the first book in that series. Much more importantly, however (ahem), it's also the first book by Thomas that I've read – and I like what I see.

It's narrated by Mac McCorkle, an American who owns a bar, Mac's Place, in Bonn, West Germany (this is during the Cold War, remember, when Germany was two nations). His business partner is one Mike Padillo, who is also an occasional and increasingly reluctant secret agent – and perhaps even an assassin – for the US government. McCorkle drinks too much, carouses too much, but he isn't a young man anymore, while Padillo, for his part, has had enough of the double life he leads. For his latest mission Padillo is tasked with carrying out an exchange of spies in Berlin, but there's a twist, and inevitably things go somewhat sour.

It's very much a book of two halves: in the first half we follow Mac as he tries to find out what's happened to the vanished Padillo, and while there is violence, there's an easygoing lilt to the story that lulls you into a false sense of security. Once Padillo reappears halfway through, however, events take a sinister turn, and there are double-crosses and sleeper agents and killings aplenty, culminating in nightmarish attempt to escape from East Berlin. The tone throughout is resigned and world-weary, although leavened by (still cynical) humour and dry wit; as with Le Carre there are no real winners or losers here, just men (and women) trying to get out from under and ending up having to save their own skin into the bargain. It's Cold War realpolitik but on a human scale, which is, I think, the best thing about the book. I'm certainly inclined to read more Ross Thomas... which is just as well as I have more Ross Thomas to read. About which, more soon...

Sunday 17 October 2010

Richard Stark, Harry Bennett, Parker Book Covers, and The Seventh (a Westlake Score)

A couple of months back I wrote a post on artist Robert McGinnis and his portrayals of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's character Parker on the covers of the Parker novels published by Fawcett/Gold Medal (the four books from 1967's The Rare Coin Score to 1969's The Sour Lemon Score, plus a few reprints too). That's still one of the most popular posts on Existential Ennui, but in my rush to identify the perfect Parker I kind of skirted around the artist responsible for the lion's share of the covers for the original run of paperback Parkers, i.e. the eight books published by Pocket Books from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966). And that's an injustice that needs addressing, because the man in question, Harry Bennett, was, and continues to be, a brilliant artist in his own right.

Bennett's been on my mind because I recently nabbed a US paperback first printing of the 1966 seventh Parker novel – which, cunningly, Westlake named The Seventh, and not just because of its chronological significance – on eBay. Here in the UK, American printings of the Parker novels don't turn up on eBay that often, so when they do, I'll sometimes bid for them, even though I have at least one edition  – mostly Allison & Busby editions – of every Parker novel anyway. (I could, of course, simply buy copies from booksellers in the States via AbeBooks, but where's the fun in that?) To a Brit living thousands of miles away from America, who for the longest time dreamed of getting his hands on the exotic-seeming books and comic books and records that originated in that distant, unreachable country in those pre-internet years (even when, in my teens, UK bookshops, comic shops and record shops started importing US wares, there were still items that were legendarily elusive), there's a tangible thrill in holding a copy of an original printing of a Richard Stark book. And owning a copy of The Seventh is a particular joy, because of the Parker novels I've read thus far (I'm on the fourteenth, 1971's Slayground at the moment), The Seventh may well be my favourite.

So, to kick off a week – or even a fortnight; we'll see how things pan out – in which I'll have a number of posts on various Donald E. Westlake paperbacks, let's have a look at that copy of The Seventh, and the artist responsible for its cover. And the first thing to note is that, unlike most (all?) of the covers Harry Bennett drew and painted for those first eight Parker novels, on The Seventh we get two illustrations for the price of one. Because as well as that colour piece on the front cover – which I guess must be Bennett's interpretation of the nameless thorn in Parker's side, accompanied by the unfortunate Ellie – we also get an expressive line drawing on the back cover, depicting Parker and his six doomed cohorts from the football stadium score (plus Ellie again, presumably). I actually prefer this back cover drawing to the one on the front; there's an almost  European sensibility to the linework, as if the drawing could be a panel lifted from a bande dessinee. That casual distortion is a hallmark of a lot of Bennett's work, although he did draw and paint book covers in a number of styles.

One thing I mentioned in that McGinnis post was that Bennett's depiction of Parker on his eight covers varies wildly. It's hard to get a sense of how Bennett sees Parker; for example, on the back of The Seventh, presumably that's Parker in the foreground, but it's also the least characterful guy of the bunch. If we go right back to Bennett's first Parker cover, for The Hunter, the only really distinctive thing about Parker there is the size of his hands (which Bennett surely got from Stark/Westlake's memorable description of them near the start of the novel). And if we compare the Parker on The Hunter to the one on the back of The Seventh, well, those are two completely different people. I guess you could make a case for the Parker on the covers of The Outfit (1963) and The Mourner (1964) being the same as the one on The Hunter, but I've got no idea which, if any, of the people sitting in the cab of the truck on the cover of The Score (1964) is Parker, and the incidental Parkers on The Jugger (1965) and The Handle are different guys again.

In fact I think of all Bennett's Parker covers, the one that best captures Parker is the cover to The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), where all we can see of him are his huge hands – almost the same ones as on The Hunter – and dark, steady, piercing eyes. What that cover also does, though, is neatly illustrate the point that, at root, it doesn't really matter how Bennett depicts Parker; these are still extraordinary book covers. Just look at that bird's nest mess of ink and daubs of colour, at the thick black lines that call to mind Max Beckmann more than they do Bennett's book cover contemporaries. Evidently, this is an artist who knows his art history.

Born in South Salem in 1919, Bennett served as a major in the Pacific during World War II, painting the scenes he saw whilst fighting (he also suffered a broken back). He studied fine art at the Institute of Chicago and graphics at the American Academy of Art, and did advertising work for Pepsi and Buick before switching to book covers. But beyond his commercial career, Bennett was becoming an accomplished and respected painter. In 2008 the RiverSea Gallery in Astoria, Oregon held a restrospective exhibition of Bennett's paintings, to act as a farewell to the local artist, who was moving to the east coast. Follow that link and you'll find a few fine examples of his work, along with a profile which reveals that when Bennett arrived in Oregon in 1986 he experienced something of an artistic epiphany, over the next two decades painting hundreds of pictures of the people and places from the local area.

Even before that, however, when Bennett was cranking out covers for gothic romances by Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney – probably the work he's best known for – it was abundantly clear this was no run-of-the-mill cover hack. One need only regard the way the ghostly statuette figures on the cover of The Mourner grasp that bold blue background like fingers scrabbling for purchase, or how Bennett uses abstract blocks of primary colour as a shorthand for street signs on the cover of The Jugger. Clearly, this is a confident, clever artist.

Fine art purists might dismiss Bennett's covers as being merely illustrative, but that's to ignore their formal qualities as pictures. The covers of The Man with the Getaway Face, The Jugger and The Handle stand as works of art, ones which could happily adorn any wall. And even if one were to take them simply as illustrations, they still show a keen mind at work in the choices Bennett makes; that Jugger cover neatly summarises the small town setting of the novel, the urban paraphernalia offset by the good-ol'-boy sheriff. Where many covers, particularly in the crime fiction field, opt for quite literal interpretations of the particular material – a gumshoe, a moll – Bennett, though still figurative in approach, is quite happy to mix near-abstract elements with scenes lifted from the page.

And Bennett is as good now as he ever was. His son, Tom, is also an accomplished artist, and often posts updates about Harry on his shared blog. And as these wonderful drawings show, Bennett's art is still sharp and expressive. It's nice to know that the man who lent his extraordinary talents to those early Parkers and helped define the look and feel of Parker's world in many fans' minds is still out there, doing his thing. Long may he continue.