Friday 19 November 2010

If You Can't Be Good by Ross Thomas, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, and the Return of Beverley le Barrow

And so we reach the end of Paperback Week with two books that act as taster of things to come on Existential Ennui (and apologies for that cumbersome post title, but it makes it easier to search for, should I or anyone else not in their right mind wish to do so):

Up top we have the UK Pan paperback edition of Ross Thomas' political thriller If You Can't Be Good, published in 1975 and reprinted in 1976 (originally published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton in 1974); and underneath that is the UK Panther paperback of Kingsley Amis' alternate history tale The Alteration, published in 1978 and reprinted twice (originally published in hardback by Cape in 1976). So why am I showing you these two somewhat disparate books? (Apart from they're both paperbacks, and I'm a fan of both authors.) And what could possibly connect them? (Ditto.) And why should you even care? (You'll have to answer that one yourself I'm afraid.)

Well, the Ross Thomas paperback I bought partly because I can't seem to find a reasonably priced copy of the UK Hamilton hardback anywhere, and I've been hoovering up Ross Thomas UK hardback firsts recently (more on that in a moment), but also because the cover intrigued me. See, to me that photo looks suspiciously like the work of Beverley le Barrow, also sometimes called Beverly Lebarrow. We've run into Beverley before on Existential Ennui, first on a couple of other Ross Thomas books, then on a 1976 edition of P.D. James' Cover Her Face, and I've become weirdly fascinated by her. I knew that Beverley 'had form' as far as '70s UK hardback editions of Ross Thomas books (and others) went, so I nabbed this copy of If You Can't Be Good on eBay to see if this was her work too. Unfortunately, there's no cover credit anywhere on the book. Shit. But if we compare it to these previously featured Le Barrow efforts:

I think we can surmise that it's almost certainly her work. And having now done some of my customarily exhaustive research, I've discovered that Beverley was very active throughout the 1970s, providing covers not only for Hamish Hamilton but also Panther and Grafton, Michael Joseph, and more besides. She seems to have been something of a 'glamour' photographer too; many of the models she used on her book covers were, I think, regulars on the third page of certain British newspapers (note the exposed nipple on that If You Can't Be Good cover). Sometimes she used actors as well. And while her photos did grace such insalubrious fare as the works of Xaviera Hollander, Douglas Hayes and Stanley Morgan, she also created covers for Dick Francis, Brian W. Aldiss... and Kingsley Amis.

Yep, that The Alteration cover is by Beverley too. I saw an image of that Panther edition cover online and thought it looked like it might be by her, so I bought a copy – despite already owning a hardback first edition of the novel; you see the sacrifices I make for you? – and found that it was. And it's not the only Amis cover one of her photos has appeared on:

The 1978 Panther paperback reprint of Amis' pseudonymous James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, also sports a Le Barrow cover photo. Indeed, Panther reissued every single Bond novel as a paperback in the late 1970s, all with Beverley le Barrow covers, perhaps her crowning achievement. I'll be returning to those in a few weeks with a full cover gallery, but you won't have to wait all that time for some more Le Barrow goodness, oh no. There'll be more from our Bev right around the corner, because next week is Ross Thomas Week here on Existential Ennui, featuring reviews of some of his novels, showcases of UK first editions – including a couple of absolutely stonking Le Barrow covers – some behind-the-scenes publishing history, and more besides. Truly, there will never have been so much Ross Thomasness gathered together in one place on the internet.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Jim Thompson, The Getaway (Sphere), and Ruminations on Paperbacks v. Hardcovers

We're approaching the end of Paperback Week now; I've got one more book to show from the Paperback and Pulp Fair, and then a double-header that'll act as both an introduction to next week's blogging and a tease for a future post. Let's have a look that Fair book first though:

The UK first paperback edition of Jim Thompson's The Getaway, published by Sphere in 1973. I've read The Killer Inside Me, which, looking back, was a bit of a slog if I'm honest, although that was more to do with the brutal nature of the story than with the writing. But I like Sam Peckinpah's 1972 movie adaptation of The Getaway, and I've always wanted to read the original, so when I saw this at the Paperback Fair for two quid, I 'ad it.

The Getaway was originally published in the US in 1959, but it didn't get published in the UK until 1972 (when the Pekinpah movie was released) by W.H. Allen. And unusually for Thompson, and unlike the '59 American Signet edition, Allen issued the book as a hardback. In fact only four Jim Thompson novels made it into hardback in his lifetime (not three, as is sometimes misstated): that British edition of The Getaway, and the US first editions of his first three novels – Now and On Earth (Modern Age, 1942), Heed the Thunder (Greenberg, 1946) and Nothing More Than Murder (Harper & Brothers, 1949). Now and On Earth is so scarce it'll set you back ten grand or so, but even the others can run into the thousands of pounds. After those first three novels, though, and with the exception of that later UK hardback, Thompson was essentially consigned to the lowly paperback format for the rest of his life. (He was reevaluated and rehabilitated in multiple hardcover editions once he was in the ground.)

Indeed, what links Jim Thompson and Richard Stark and Peter Rabe (and maybe even, to a lesser extent, John D. MacDonald and Ross Macdonald, although that's arguable and depends on your point of view), aside from their being rough contemporaries and criminally minded (fictionally speaking) is that their natural home could be said to be the paperback book. After his early dalliance with hardcovers the bulk of Jim Thompson's work debuted in paperback, and the same with Rabe, while the first twelve Parker books Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark all came out first in paperback (the Parker novels started appearing in hardback from 1971's Deadly Edge onwards). Because back then – and even today in some circles – genre fiction was considered – if it was considered at all – disposable trash, and disposable trash deserves an equally disposable format. Tellingly, the last novel of Thompson's to debut in hardback in America, Nothing More Than Murder, was also his first crime novel (his previous two books were a semi-autobiographical novel and a family drama). I don't know if that's the reason Thompson's novels moved to paperback, but it sort of makes sense.

As I mentioned back at the start of Paperback Week, only half-jokingly really, paperbacks are often seen as the hardback's poor relation, particularly in the book collecting world, where the overwhelming emphasis, from prominence to terminology, is on hardcovers, and paperbacks are consigned to... well, an anonymous, windowless, airless, smallish room in the basement of an otherwise swanky London hotel. In the UK there are something like forty or fifty book fairs every month, but those are devoted largely – although not exclusively – to hardbacks. Meanwhile, in the entire country, at least so far as I'm aware, there is but a single, annual paperback fair.

I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make here, if any; after all, I mostly collect hardbacks myself. But I kind of like the fact that Thompson et al weren't respectable enough to warrant hardback publication. Their novels are about the bad stuff that fuels a lot of fiction – murder, crime – but more than that their books have unrepentant criminals as their heroes, living in amoral worlds where bad deeds often go unpunished. The novels are short, sharp, blunt and nasty, hastily written a lot of the time, yet searingly brilliant. Far from being something to be ashamed of, the paperback format, with its lurid covers, just seems right for them, a badge of honour even.

Here's a thought though, something I've been mulling over recently: is the experience of reading a novel in paperback different from that of reading one in hardback? One for another time, perhaps...

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Westlake Score: The Hunter by Richard Stark (Pocket Books/Permabook Paperback, 1962/1963)

Yes, as you probably guessed from the lead-in on that last post, it's our old friend Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark – in a style influenced by the star of the previous post, Peter Rabe – for his debut Parker masterpiece, 1962's The Hunter:

(A word of caution before we go any further: this post is likely to be significantly more self-indulgent than usual. So, y'know – don't blame me if it's an even more tiresome read than is normally the case. You have been warned.)

So then. As with the last few books featured in Paperback Week, I got this little beauty at the London Pulp and Paperback Fair, and for me, this one was the absolute killer buy of the day. Because this American Pocket Books paperback original of The Hunter is a piece of publishing history, and not the kind of thing that comes along too often here in the UK. For example, right now, there's only one copy of this US edition listed on AbeBooks from a UK seller, in nowhere near as good condition as my copy, for £30 (although it is, to be fair, signed). There are more copies available from the States, but prices on those range from twenty to eighty pounds, plus shipping. Whereas I bought this copy for...


That's right: £3.50.

I was, you can probably imagine, pretty gobsmacked when I came across it, rummaging through a box of paperbacks at the Fair, and even more gobsmacked when I saw that price. And it wasn't as if that particular dealer was an amateur: he had plenty of other paperbacks on display behind his table, bagged and no doubt appropriately – or even inappropriately – priced. The only thing I can figure is, he was one of the few remaining dealers who didn't know who Stark was. Maybe cult crime fiction wasn't his area of expertise.

Now, having done all that deeply unattractive crowing, let me point out that this copy isn't, in fact, the 1962 first printing. It's the 1963 Permabook edition, which, according to the copyright page, was printed from new plates (I think my Pocket Books copy of The Man with the Getaway Face is also a Perma). But to collectors that doesn't seem to matter; the '63 Perma edition is the most expensive one listed on AbeBooks, and the remainder of the maybe dozen copies listed are a mix of '63 and '62 printings. In any case, I care not a jot: it's an original, and it's mine.

UPDATE: I've since learned that my copy is the first printing; the copyright line in the Pocket edition of The Hunter states it was printed December 1962, but published February 1963, hence the confusion.

The cover artist for this first Parker novel – and the seven to follow – was the brilliant Harry Bennett, who I wrote about at length in this post. The little blue sticker you can see top right corner, with the "2/6" price on it (which is pre-decimalization British money), is presumably a holdover from when the book was originally imported into the UK. I don't know who "TP" were, but it looks as if they imported a rather random selection of books in the '60s: I found a listing online for a 1960 US edition of Francis Cargo's Frenzy (originally published as Jesus la Caille in 1914), which has a similar price sticker on the front; that novel is about a gay pimp in the Paris underworld. Of course, what used to happen in the 1960s (and earlier) was American paperbacks were unselectively shipped to Britain on boats in bulk, often merely to act as ballast, so it would always be a somewhat disparate selection. Funny to think of this copy of The Hunter, floating across the Atlantic decades ago, only to eventually wind up in my sweaty paws. I wonder where it's been hiding all this time...?

New Rabe: My Lovely Executioner by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal Paperback)

Continuing Paperback Week – and also continuing with the books I bought at the recent London Paperback and Pulp Fair – we have this:

The US paperback first edition/first printing of Peter Rabe's My Lovely Executioner, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1960. I was rather pleased with this find, which I chanced upon after a hell of a lot of rifling through boxes of books. I did see another Peter Rabe US paperback at the Fair (and one or two later UK editions too), but it was a second printing and kind of falling apart. This one, however, although it's evidently been stuffed in someone's back pocket and then sat on – hence those spine folds – is in otherwise good nick, and it's a first printing.

I've blogged about Peter Rabe a few times before, so I won't add anything here about him, except to direct you to George Tuttle's bittersweet interview with the author, conducted shortly before Rabe's death in 1990. I also can't tell you who the cover artist is on this first edition of My Lovely Executioner (not doing very well today, am I? Never mind, if you're really unlucky there might be a second post today anyway), but I can tell you that, unlike the other Rabe books I own, this one's written in the first person, narrated by escaped prisoner Jimmy Gallivan, who gets wrapped up in a fellow escapee's dastardly scheme.

I'll be returning to Rabe at some point post-Paperback Week, with at least one post on a surprising (it was to me, anyway) edition of one of his novels. Next up this week, however, we have something from a firm favourite of Existential Ennui, not to mention a successor to and inheritor of Peter Rabe's pulpy crown. Can you guess who it is yet?

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The Only Girl in the Game by John D. MacDonald (Pan Paperback)

Aaaaand the connection between Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald is... their surname. Yeah, OK, it's a bit lame, but there is more to it than that. First, though, there's this:

The 1967 UK Pan paperback (first thus) of John D. MacDonald's The Only Girl in the Game, originally published in the States by Gold Medal in 1960 and in the UK (in a now-very valuable hardback, natch) by Robert Hale in 1962. As with the book featured in the previous post, I bought this at the recent London Pulp and Paperback Fair. I've never read any MacDonald, but the cover caught my eye, and the Las Vegas setting intrigued me, and it was cheap, and I knew I wanted to read something of MacDonald's at some point, but didn't want to get sucked into another series – in MacDonald's case the Travis McGee novels. So I grabbed this.

And as it turns out, it looks as if it's going to be a splendid introduction to MacDonald's writing. The excellent blog Mystery File has a terrific post on MacDonald, focusing on, as luck would have it, The Only Girl in the Game. Follow that link and give it a read, and I'll meet you back here when you're done.

Finished? Good, wasn't it? Plus, it saves you the horror of having to read one of my dreadful sight-unseen plot summaries, not to mention me the chore of having to write one. Anyway, back to that Macdonald / MacDonald connection. Aside from the similar surnames – Ross Macdonald's being invented, of course – the two Macs were also contemporaries. And both being creators of a series of first-person novels starring a private investigator – Macdonald's Lew Archer and MacDonald's aforementioned Travis McGee – you'd think they might have had much in common, maybe even have been friends, or at least associates. Not so. A 1976 Roger Ebert interview with John D. MacDonald recently surfaced online, and towards the end of that, Ebert raises the question of the similarity between the two writers' names. MacDonald points out that Ross Macdonald's then-latest book, The Blue Hammer, sported the kind of title that John D. might've picked for one of his own famously colour-themed Travis McGee titles. He then goes on to say:

"I wrote him... I said, 'no doubt this is innocence on your part, but people are going to think it's meretricious.' He didn't reply. I must confess I feel a little irritated by that."

Not a lot of love lost there, then. As for the cover of this Pan edition of The Only Girl in the Game, I can't tell you for sure who was responsible for that snazzy photo-montage, but it's possible David Larkin had a hand in it, as I think by this point he'd taken over as Pan's art director, moving the imprint's covers in a more photographic direction. As ever, if you want to know more about Pan Books, head over to the Pan Paperback Collectors Website, where you'll find a near-complete Pan bibliography and accompanying covers.

The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald (Fontana Paperback), plus Harper, William Goldman, Paul Newman, Francis Clifford, and Frank Sinatra

Next in Paperback Week – which, if you're just joining us, and as the overarching title 'Paperback Week' kind of implies, is essentially a week dedicated to paperback books – we move on to the books I picked up at the recent London Paperback and Pulp Fair. And we also move from one Ross... to another:

Namely Ross Macdonald (or Kenneth Millar, to give him his real name), and the 1966 first UK Fontana paperback edition of his debut novel, The Moving Target – originally published in the UK by Cassell in 1952 and in the US by Random House in 1949, under the name John Macdonald. So what's so special about this little paperback, I hear you cry? And perhaps more importantly, why on earth would I want to buy it when I already have a 1971 second impression Fontana paperback of the very same novel? As ever, those are both excellent, not to mention pertinent, questions. You people are on fire right now.

Really, it comes down to the scarcity of this edition – there are only a couple of copies of this '66 printing for sale online – and to that fab cover, which I suspect is the reason for its scarcity. Because it's the tie-in edition to the effortlessly wonderful William Goldman-written, Paul Newman-starring 1966 movie adaptation of the novel, Harper (or as it was called on its original UK cinema release... The Moving Target). I don't know if Harper is one of my favourite films ever, but it's certainly up there, and it does contain some of the greatest dialogue in cinema history, including one exchange that's always stuck in my head, where Pamela Tiffin's character (that's her on the back cover of the book) says to Paul Newman as P.I. Lew Harper (Lew Archer in Macdonald's book), "You probably still think a woman's place is in the home." To which Harper retorts, "Not in my home." And there are plenty more snarky lines where that came from.

As I mentioned there would be between some of the books I'm featuring this week, there's a thread connecting this particular edition of The Moving Target with the author of the first book in Paperback Week, Francis Clifford. Clifford's 1966 espionage novel The Naked Runner was turned into a critically ill-regarded (at least, back then) movie in 1967, starring Frank Sinatra. Sinatra needed a hit at the time, and The Naked Runner actually ended up doing pretty well at the box office by all accounts, perhaps due not only to Sinatra but to the solid job done by the director, Sidney J. Furie (who also made the brilliant The Ipcress File... the, er, less brilliant The Young Ones... the, um, even less brilliant Superman IV: The Quest for Peace... OK, let's stick with The Ipcress File). But Sinatra only agreed to star in the The Naked Runner because negotiations on another movie had broken down. That film? Harper.

There you go, y'see? Connecting threads. Hmm, I wonder what the connection to the next post might be...?

Monday 15 November 2010

The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas (Hodder Paperback); A Mac's Place Quartet Reprise

From Francis Clifford's Honour the Shrine, next up in Paperback Week we turn to the novel that inspired my acquisition of that Clifford book in the first place – or rather, the paperback edition of that novel:

This is the UK first paperback edition of Ross Thomas' The Cold War Swap, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968. But not only is it the first UK paperback edition of the novel, it's also the first UK edition of the novel – at least under its original American title. As I detailed (at length, as ever) in this post, Hodder initially published the novel in 1967 in the UK under the title Spy in the Vodka, for reasons known only to themselves, although it may merely have been so as to surf the spy fiction wave washing through publishing at the time (as if 'Cold War Swap' didn't scream 'espionage!' already). Whatever the truth, it's telling that they reverted to the original name for this first paperback edition, and that every edition thereafter stuck to the original title.

I wrote about the story itself in that previous post, but I've had a little time to digest it now, and it's improving with age; what's stayed with me is the elegance of the prose, the wry narration, the occasionally bleak, dark passages, particularly the bits set in East Berlin. It's also notable how different it is from another Ross Thomas novel I'm reading right now, which, if my plans work out, I'll hopefully be blogging about next week as part of a whole week's worth of posts dedicated to Mr. Thomas. Have to say, though, I'm slightly perplexed by one of the press quotes on the back of this paperback, from Julian Symons of The Sunday Times (who crops up a lot on the back covers and flaps of the books I buy; being a crime writer himself he was obviously the go-to guy for thrillers and the like during this period), who reckoned that The Cold War Swap was "upbeat and cheerful". To dust down a hoary old cliche of a question: did he read the same book as me? There's plenty of dry wit in the book, but cheerful? Upbeat? With all that death and double-crossing? I beg to differ.

As to why I bought this paperback when I already have that Spy in the Vodka hardback... er... well... that's a very good question. To which my answers would be: it was on eBay, it was cheap (which copies of this fairly scarce edition usually aren't), and I liked the cover (although I haven't a clue who designed it or took the photo), with that cute little spy in the ice cube, which is quite fitting for a novel that's based in part around a bar – Mac's Place – and is variously soaked in booze (the narrator, Mac McCorkle, is certainly fond of a tipple or ten). And you can read more about that bar (and Mac, and his partner, Mike Padillo) here, here, here and, indeed, here.

Paperback Week: Honour the Shrine by Francis Clifford (Corgi)

This week, all week, Existential Ennui will be celebrating the humble paperback book. Because at a time when e-books look increasingly likely to eventually supplant the paperback, this most humble yet still special, versatile and fantastically successful format can surely do with some celebrating. While hardbacks, with their fancy wraparound dustjackets (and doesn't that 'jacket' just imply aloofness, a cut above, upper class?) and solid, dependable case binding are seen as the respectable face of book collecting and publishing, the poor little paperback, forever getting folded and creased and spine-cracked, stuffed in pockets and handbags and left on trains and in loos, is damned as disposable, discardable, destroyable. In second hand bookshops, hardbacks get to nestle snugly inside in the warm on specially constructed bookcases; meanwhile, outside, the paperbacks sit and shiver in dump bins, browning and warping in the elements. If jacketed hardbacks are the aristocracy of the book world, paperbacks are the lumpen proletariat.

Don't get me wrong – anyone who's read this blog will know that I do love hardbacks. But there is also a place for paperbacks in my collection too. Often their covers and design outshine their supposedly more sophisticated brethren. So this week I'll be singing the praises of the paperback, through a series of posts on recently acquired books, many of which I picked up at the London Paperback and Pulp Fair, which took place at the end of October in a swanky London hotel... or rather, in the basement of a swanky London hotel, in an anonymous, windowless, airless, smallish room – which kind of says it all really. Perversely, however, the first couple of paperbacks I'll be showing you didn't come from the Paperback and Pulp Fair (as you'll see, there'll be connecting threads between the books I show this week other than simply where they came from). They came instead from the good ol' internet. And we'll begin with this:

The UK first Corgi paperback edition of Honour the Shrine by Francis Clifford, published in 1957 (originally published in hardback by Cape in 1953). Clifford is the nom de plume of Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson, author of nineteen novels from 1953 to 1979, a mixture of thrillers and crime and espionage works. Like a lot of British – and American – thriller writers from the 20th century, he's increasingly overlooked, and his entire body of work is now out of print, with the exception of 1962's Time is an Ambush, which is available print-on-demand from Ostara Publishing. Ostara also have the best online biography of Clifford, which you can find here.

Honour the Shrine is Clifford's debut novel, a taut, first-person World War II tale centring on a British mission to blow up a bridge in Japanese-occupied Burma; the reason I picked it up (for a pittance, it has to be said) was because of a comment Book Glutton left on this post about Ross Thomas' Spy in the Vodka (a.k.a. The Cold War Swap), the back cover of which has a raft of glowing review quotes for Clifford's 1966 novel The Naked Runner (also published by Hodder, Thomas' UK publisher at the time). Slightly counterintuitively, though, rather than buy The Naked Runner, I bought Cifford's first book instead, mostly because it happened to float past my eyes on eBay. However, The Naked Runner does look like a cracker – certainly better than the supposedly rubbish Frank Sinatra-starring film it was turned into in 1967 – so I'll be returning to it in the not-too-distant future...

The publisher of this edition of Honour the Shrine, Corgi, was a mainstay of the British publishing scene in the second half of the 20th century, pumping out cheap paperback reprints of every type of fiction. Corgis don't seem to be as collectible as say, Pan, but they're still worth nabbing, as their painted covers can be at least the equal of more desirable paperbacks (I own a rather lovely 1952 first UK paperback edition of Patricia Highsmith's debut, Strangers on a Train, for example). The cover artist here is John Richards, and as is often the case, that bastion of decency and good taste Steve Holland has pretty much the only bio on him, right here. Go take a butcher's.