Saturday 30 October 2010

Lewes Book Bargain: The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean

Right then. Time to try and clear the decks a bit, because next week Existential Ennui will be dedicated to two authors; one of them because his new novel is published next week, and the other because... well, he's got links to the first one and I've got a couple of recently bought books of his to blog about, and that's reason enough round these here parts. Yes, looming large in your future it's Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos Week, as Tuesday sees the arrival of Lehane's latest book, Moonlight Mile – at least, in the States, anyway; here in the UK it's not published till bloody February – and also I've got a stack of rather special recent Lehane acquisitions burning a hole in, er, the shelf, or whatever the literary equivalent of burning a hole in one's pocket is, and they're directly related to Moonlight Mile; plus I've got those Pelecanos ones I mentioned. So next week it's ahoy Lehane! And, er, put 'er there, Pelecanos! And beyond that, there's more to come on Donald Westlake (as ever), Ross Thomas (some crackers there), and some more small press comics stuff too.

But first, I've got a clutch of recent Lewes Book Bargains to catch up on, all bagged in various Lewes charity shops, mostly dating from the 1970s (the books, not the shops, although the interiors of the shops might suggest otherwise...), and including a couple of real doozies. Not sure this one qualifies as one of those, however:

A UK hardback first edition of The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean, published by Collins in 1973. Now, I'm not necessarily saying it's rubbish – I haven't, after all, even read it yet – but I was thoroughly amused by this string of posts on a motoring message board, which I stumbled across when researching the book. It's always fascinating to read the thoughts of specialist nerds when a writer or filmmaker or whoever dares to venture into their particular area of expertise; I've been guilty of this kind of picky response myself, I'm sure, but hopefully I've never got quite so irate as some of these silly sods. Opinions on MacLean's novel from message board regulars range from exasperation that the author made the apparently fundamental error of believing that "GP cars were fitted both with speedometers and headlights" (er...) to an artistic appraisal of the book as being "TOTAL KRAPPP!!!!" A nice, balanced assessment there.

And actually that's fairly representative of message boards in general. Almost invariably they're forums for backbiting and bitching and nastiness, and when they're not they're either so over-moderated that any potentially constructive criticism is effectively neutered, or so bland and nice it's like wandering into a Hare Krishna AGM. But anyway, The Way to Dusty Death may not be one of MacLean's better-liked books – even one of the main fan sites only scores it six out of ten – but I think we can hazard it's a bit better than the exhaust fume-addled folk on that message board maintain. It's about skullduggery in the world of Grand Prix motor racing, which, being a sometime fan of Formula One, doesn't sound too bad to me.

There's no credit on the dustjacket for the design or image, but there is a signature on the back flap: John Constable. Which, I'm sure you can imagine, makes researching it pretty much impossible. But no matter; with my ongoing interest in British thriller writers, Alistair MacLean is an author I've been wanting to check out for a while (I have an abiding love of Where Eagles Dare, the film he wrote the screenplay for and the novel of simultaneously), and a Formula One-focused thriller seems as good a place as any to do just that.

Friday 29 October 2010

My Friend Tim... New York Comic Con... Darwyn Cooke... The Outfit... Blah Blah (Slight Return)

Quick addendum to this post about Tim giving me the limited-to-500 New York Comic Con edition of Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Outfit: not only do I now have in my possession the exclusive dustjacket to go with it – which wasn't ready in time for the show, but which IDW subsequently shipped to Tim, lovely folk that they are – but I also have provenance for the book itself. As captured by an ace photographer (er, Tim again), here's Darwyn Cooke himself, colouring and signing my very copy of The Outfit:

Splendid. Excuse me while I have a small nerdgasm.

Thursday 28 October 2010

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

For this fourth instalment of Notes from the Small Press – which I think we're all on the same page now as to what these posts are all about; first instalment here, second here, and third here – we come right up to date with a brand new mini comic, one which has a particular link to the previous Notes:

Anais in Paris is a 51/2" x 8" 24-page comic by British expat (she now lives in the US) cartoonist Mardou, who was the editorial force behind the 2005 Small Pets anthology featured in the last Notes. It's a biography of, as the comic itself titles her, "muse, groupie, literary legend – Anais Nin". And let's just let that one sink in a while: a biography of Anais Nin, in comics form, that's just 21 pages long (not including covers etc.). By anyone's reckoning, that would be something of a challenge. You might be able to compress, say, my life thus far into 21 pages (probably less, actually, but anyway), but to do justice to the life of an important literary figure like Nin in so few pages would be next to impossible.

Luckily, Mardou clearly felt so too, which is why she largely concentrates here on Nin's time in Paris, from 1924 to 1939, the years covered in Volume 1 of Nin's diaries. Even so, as Mardou herself admits in her introduction (which also details the complicated origins of the comic, almost worth the price of admission alone), Anais in Paris was "a lot of work and [I] don't expect to attempt anything similar for a long time". What's surprising, then, is that the end result feels so effortlessly breezy. After a few pages of background and scene-setting, we follow Nin and her new husband, banker Hugh Guiler, as they move to Paris in 1924. At this point Nin is actually quite prim and reserved, but once she's had her first book published and met Henry Miller, the floodgates open. Or, as Mardou puts it, "A comet was let loose!"

It's exuberant asides like that which lend Anais in Paris its freshness. In one brilliant sequence Mardou presents a series of snapshots of events across three panels, summing up a period of years in Nin's life in a flurry of images, captions, exclamations, speech balloons and thought bubbles.

It's the kind of confident abridgement that only a talented, experienced cartoonist could attempt, and Mardou is both those things. The first time I came across her work was, I think, back in 2003 or 2004, in the pages of the first issue of her own comic, Manhole. She was also collaborating with writers Fortenski and John Dunning in A4-sized comics Stiro and Lolajean Riddle, but, good though some of that material was, it was evident even then that the comics she was writing herself as well as drawing were more promising. Though the artwork was a little rough round the edges, the writing was sharp, mixing autobiographical elements with fiction and examining the stuff that makes up most of our lives: relationships, rubbish jobs, and going out and getting pissed.

The comics that Mardou published in the all-girl anthology Whores of Mensa (alongside Jeremy Dennis, Lucy Sweet and Ellen Linder) demonstrated a definite leap forward in her artistic abilities, and by the time the second issue of Manhole rolled round in 2006 (by which point she'd upped sticks and moved to Missouri), comprising mostly of one long story, the splendid "The King of It", both drawing and writing were working in unison. In Manhole #2 – and everything since – much of the awkwardness in her drawing disappeared, and that which remains goes hand in hand with the social situations she depicts, where being at right angles with life is just an everyday thing.

Anais in Paris represents another string to her bow, a delightful experiment and, despite the effort that went into it, probably a welcome diversion from her main creative focus of the last few years: an extended, autobiographical graphic novel dealing with drugs and clubs and friends and a particular place and time (one I'm pretty familiar with) that promises to be something special. While we wait for that, however, we have Anais in Paris (which can be purchased from the USS Catastrophe shop, along with Manholes #2 and #3), not to mention the sketchbook drawings and comics Mardou posts on her blog. All of which, as ever, I urge you to check out.

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 3: Small Pets

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  

The Mac's Place Quartet: Twilight at Mac's Place by Ross Thomas

Rounding off a run of posts on undervalued crime/espionage author Ross Thomas and his short series of books centring on fictional bar Mac's Place – although there is, I should point out, more to come on some of Thomas' other novels – we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of Twilight at Mac's Place, published by Scribners in 1991 (originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1990). This is the fourth and final book to focus on Mac McCorkle and Mike Padillo, following 1966's The Cold War Swap (published, as we've established, as Spy in the Vodka in the UK in 1967), 1967's Cast a Yellow Shadow (published in the UK in '68), and 1971's The Backup Men. This one's a little different, however: while McCorkle and Padillo do feature, to a greater extent the spotlight follows a new character, a homicide detective turned actor called Granville Haynes, who's offered $100,000, sight unseen, for the memoirs of his recently deceased father, veteran CIA man Steadfast Haynes. As you'd expect from a Ross Thomas novel, intrigue, treachery and murder follow.

And there's another change from the previous three books in the series: Twilight at Mac's Place is written in the third person instead of the first person. I think Thomas wrote in both manners throughout his career (correct me if I'm wrong, Book Glutton), but it is common for authors to write their early books in the first person and then switch to third person for later books. Some of the authors I'm interested in spring instantly to mind: George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Gavin Lyall (although not Kingsley Amis, who switched back and forth)... And having done a fair bit of writing myself – not novels, but countless magazine articles and reviews – and edited both non-fiction and fiction, I have to say I do find it a lot easier to witter on in the first person on this blog than I have writing from a more elevated, removed perspective in the past. Bit of a stretch, I know – Christ knows I'm no Lyall or Lehane – but there might be a vague comparison there. Maybe. In any case, for fiction writers it's probably something to do with finding their early voice through a version of their own voice – the first person – before gaining the confidence to adopt a more omniscient approach.

The front cover illustration on the dustjacket of this UK edition of Twilight at Mac's Place is by Stan Watts, whose photorealistic paintings have adorned, among other things, albums by Jeff Beck and Suicidal Tendencies and Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series of books. The back cover textures are credited to Elaine Cox... which, if regular readers cast their minds back, was how I knew the identical uncredited textures on the back of Voodoo Ltd. were also by Elaine Cox. Y'see? It all connects up eventually. I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but I believe Elaine is a painter and jeweller whose work is inspired by landscape; there are lots of examples of her mysterious, evocative multimedia paintings and stylish jewellery at her website. Assuming I've got the right Elaine Cox, that is. If not, what the hell: consider it a free plug.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Westlake Score: Under an English Heaven by Donald E. Westlake

Here's a curiosity from Westlake's canon, one of the few non-fiction books he wrote during the course of his prodigious career (the only other one I know of is the biography of Elizabeth Taylor he penned under the nom de plume John B. Allan):

This is the UK paperback edition of Under an English Heaven, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1993. And it's curious for a couple of reasons, quite apart from it simply being non-fiction. Firstly, there's the subject matter, which isn't exactly something you'd expect a crime/caper author like Westlake to pick: it's about the 1969 invasion of the Caribbean island of Anguilla by over 300 British paratroopers and marines, and the reasons for and events leading up to it. It's an obscure period of colonial history that I doubt many Brits would even be aware of (I certainly wasn't) let alone anyone else, but evidently it chimed enough with Westlake – who presumably would've known about it at the time – for him to explore the invasion and try and find some comic potential in it.

Secondly, there's the matter of this particular edition of the book. Under an English Heaven was first published in 1972 in hardback by Simon & Schuster in the US. Hodder picked up the rights for a UK hardback edition in 1973... and that was that. There were no other editions for twenty years, until this UK paperback was published. Except, it doesn't seem to have been properly published. My copy has no barcode or ISBN number on the back, and no price either. The interiors, meanwhile, are a straight rerun of the '73 interiors, with no post-'73 books listed under "Also by Donald E. Westlake", and only an extra line added to the indicia stating "This edition 1993". On top of that, the paperback is incredibly scarce: there are a couple of dozen or so of the S&S and H&S hardbacks listed online, but only a handful of these Hodder paperbacks.

There are a few possible explanations. One is that the paperback was only printed as a proof or review copy ahead of a new edition, perhaps a new UK hardback – there is a 1993 hardback listed (but unavailable) on Amazon US, although not on Amazon UK – that never materialised. Another is that it was produced for an event of some kind; some of the few paperbacks floating around the web have been signed by Anguillan politician Jeremiah Gumbs. Or it could've been printed for contractual reasons: publishers have been known to produce copies of books just to keep them officially 'in print', thereby keeping hold of the rights. I have no idea what kind of contract Westlake signed with Hodder, but the fact that this paperback appeared exactly twenty years after the UK hardback might be significant.

It's an intriguing little mystery. Perhaps one day I'll get to the bottom of it...

Monday 25 October 2010

The Mac's Place Quartet: The Backup Men by Ross Thomas (Lawrence Ratzkin Cover Design)

Next up in Existential Ennui's ongoing tribute to critically acclaimed but increasingly overlooked espionage/crime writer Ross Thomas, we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of The Backup Men, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971 (published in the States in the same year by William Morrow). This is Thomas' sixth book, but the third in his series featuring saloon owner Mac McCorkle and his business partner and part time spy Mike Padillo, following 1966's The Cold War Swap (published as Spy in the Vodka in the UK in 1967) and 1967's Cast a Yellow Shadow (published in the UK in '68). This time out the pair have to protect the future king of an oil-rich country from assassination, with all the murky big American oil business that scenario entails.

For this one I took a punt on a sight-unseen copy from one of those big bargain books retailers that litter eBay. You know the ones: they never have an image of the book in question accompanying their listings, and the info in said listings can be scant and inaccurate (not stating a book is ex-library is a popular omission). In this instance, however, I asked a further question about the book and actually got a helpful response, so I snapped it up for a tenner. And it's in pretty good condition: the jacket's price-clipped, with a bit of edge wear at the spine, but the book itself is virtually pristine.

And that, in fact, sets it apart from most of the other seven or eight copies listed online by booksellers around the world. Because there's a curious defect associated with this Hodder edition of the book, to do with the copyright info: in most copies, that info is inked out with a black pen. Apparently this was done by Hodder themselves, although I have no idea why; I can't see anything egregious about the copyright info in my copy... and yes, that does mean what that implies – the copyright info is entirely unblemished in my copy:

Which, judging by the only other un-inked-out copy on AbeBooks, which is on sale for £130, makes my one rather valuable. Of course, the market for Ross Thomas first editions seems to be virtually non-existent at the moment – basically, I'm it – so there isn't exactly a queue of people wanting to get their hands on this hardback. But even so. Always nice to have something rare.

The dustjacket on this edition – and indeed on the Morrow edition; both UK and US versions have the same jacket, I believe – was designed by Lawrence Ratzkin, whose playful, distinctive designs graced American editions of J. G. Ballard's Crash, Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses and Black Angels, a plethora of SF novels and anthologies, including Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Robert Silverberg's The Calibrated Alligator, and more besides. He was also responsible for many a cover for Harper's Magazine from the late '60s, which boasted some striking examples of ingenious text/image juxtaposition.

I think Ratzkin was (I'll stick with past tense, as I suspect he may be dead now) also a photographer: I'm not sure if this website was his, but Ratzkin, if indeed it is the same man, definitely took photos in and around New York; a selection of his black and white shots accompanied Eve Merriam's poems in the 1969 edition of The Inner City Mother Goose. One thing is for certain: he was exasperated by the way book publishing developed (if that's the right word) towards the end of the 20th century, as it shifted from editorial-led decision-making to being in thrall to the nebulous methods of the sales and marketing departments. As Ratzkin wrote in this 1997 letter to The New York Times, "Publishers and editors have relinquished literary taste and publishing judgment to the yahoos." Couldn't have put it better myself.

The Hodder Coronet Parker Editions: The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark

Here's a recent Donald E. Westlake Score that takes me one step closer to completing a run of particular editions of Richard Stark's Parker novels:

The first UK edition of the eleventh Parker novel, The Black Ice Score, published in paperback by Coronet in 1969 (originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1968). This particular edition of The Black Ice Score is so scarce I've never seen another copy of it anywhere online; I've only ever seen the occasional copy of the second and third printings (1972 and 1974), the ones with the Raymond Hawkey 'bullet hole' covers. Currently there are a couple of copies of that edition for sale on AbeBooks for around £25. But of this earlier edition I'd caught nary a glimpse. In fact, I wasn't even sure it existed: I have copies of two of the other Coronet paperbacks with this style of cover design, The Rare Coin Score (Coronet, 1968, Parker #9) and The Green Eagle Score (Coronet, 1968, Parker #10), and Trent at Violent World of Parker has a cover for the similarly styled 1969 Coronet edition of Parker #12, The Sour Lemon Score. But I hadn't seen a cover for this edition of The Black Ice Score anywhere.

I still don't know who the cover artist was on these early Coronet editions – John M. Burns, perhaps? – but the indicia of The Black Ice Score does clear up a lingering question of chronology. Under "Other Coronet Books by Richard Stark", the following books are listed: Point Blank! (Coronet, 1967), The Rare Coin Score (see above), The Green Eagle Score (see above)... and The Split (Parker #7). Now, in this post, I'd reasoned that Coronet hadn't published The Split – the first 1969 Coronet edition of which has a movie tie-in cover – until after The Sour Lemon Score. But it turns out the movie tie-in of The Split was published in the UK right in the middle of the run of four Parker novels with The Black Ice Score-syle illustrated covers. Which will be of no interest to anyone other than me, but what the hell: at least I know now.

I still, however, don't know which of the Parker books was the first to sport the Hawkey bullet hole cover design. I think the next Parker book Coronet published after The Sour Lemon Score was the 1970 reprint of The Rare Coin Score with the photographic movie-style cover, and I have a feeling the 1971 edition of The Steel Hit (Parker #2) was the the first to sport the bullet hole look... but I couldn't say for sure. That's a (tedious) question for another day, though. For now, let's just gaze awhile upon my slightly more complete run (just The Sour Lemon Score to find now) of Coronet illo cover Parkers:

Sunday 24 October 2010

New Arrival: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre (Signed First Edition)

OK, I crumbled. For a month now, since its publication in the middle of September, I've been seeing hardback first editions of Le Carre's latest, Our Kind of Traitor, in the local bookshops. Except none of those first editions, not even on the day of publication, were first impressions: by the time the book arrived down here in Lewes it was already on its third printing. So for weeks, the new Le Carre has sat on the shelves of WHSmith's and British Bookshops, calling to me with its buffed copper dustjacket, taunting me with its tarty half-price offers, but always ultimately disappointing me whenever I picked up a copy and discovered the dreaded numeral '3' on the copyright page.

Finally, I could take no more. I caved, and bought this online:

A first edition, first impression, with the magic number '1' in the indicia. But not only that. There's also this:

Yes, it's a signed edition. I didn't realise Le Carre signed books as Le Carre, which is of course a pen name (his real name is David Cornwell). But apparently he does. Anyway, luckily I managed to find a copy from an Amazon Marketplace dealer – the same fellow behind the Firsts in Print website, I think – that only set me back the full price of the book, which, considering signed true firsts are going for all sorts of daft prices on eBay, could've been a lot worse. And even though Our Kind of Traitor falls firmly under Roly's broad brush assessment of later Le Carre, it's still a new Le Carre, and when I've been on such a Le Carre kick of late, it seems to churlish not to get his new one. So I have.