Saturday 4 December 2010

Why Lucky Jim Was Right: Kingsley Amis, Robert Markham, Colonel Sun, Ian Fleming's James Bond, and What Became of Jane Austen?

Like most blogs, Existential Ennui is at root a repository for baseless supposition, badly thought through argument, shonky reasoning and ill-considered criticism (mine, largely). But every now and then, quite by accident, something I write turns out to be correct – or at least to contain a glimmer of truth.

I picked up a copy of this the other weekend (at the brilliant Much Ado Books, which has moved to an even more lovely building in Alfriston that makes you feel like you're browsing in someone's house):

A UK hardback first edition of Kingsley Amis's What Became of Jane Austen?, published by Jonathan Cape in 1970. It's a collection of Amis's essays and criticism, mostly – although not exclusively – on literary matters. Highlights include a 1957 article where Amis expresses his regret at not making more of an effort with Dylan Thomas in a pub following Thomas's talk at the University College of Swansea in 1951, where Amis was a lecturer; a long piece on fictional policemen; another on horror movies; and various other excursions on Kipling, Roth, and God.

But there are two essays in particular which are pertinent both to the preoccupations of this blog and my wider preoccupations. The first of those is a 1968 piece – and its three addenda – titled "A New James Bond". I'm not sure where it originally appeared, but it was published around the same time as Amis's pseudonymous Bond novel Colonel Sun (written as Robert Markham) and is a spirited defense of both that book and of Ian Fleming and Bond in general. In it, Amis counters the criticism he faced when he agreed to write a Bond novel, dismissing accusations of profiteering ("most people who have done much writing will probably agree on reflection that to write at length just for money... is a uniquely, odiously painful activity; not really worth the money, in fact") and Lefty baiting (although he admits that did become "a major fringe benefit") to state simply that he considered it "an honour to have been selected to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming".

Because the thing is – and as I conjectured in this post on Amis – to the exasperation of many, including possibly Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis genuinely admired the work of Fleming and other genre writers, rating some of them as highly as other, more literary types. I suspected that was the caseafter all, Amis wote an entire book's worth of considered criticism on Fleming's creation (The James Bond Dossier, 1965; he also penned a more humorous look at 007, The Book of Bond, published the same year) – but "A New James Bond" confirms it. Here's a passage from the piece to that effect:

"I lament what I take to be a trend against the genres. It might well be agreed that the best of serious fiction, so to call it, is better than anything any genre can offer. But this best is horribly rare, and a clumsy dissection of the heart is so much worse than boring as to be painful, and most contemporary novels are like spy novels with no spies or crime novels with no crimes, and John D. MacDonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?"

Amis also takes to task some of the ill-informed criticism of Fleming and Bond. I touched on this on Friday in a post on John le Carre, where I quoted Le Carre (originally quoted in Donald McCormick's Who's Who in Spy Fiction, 1977) dismissing 007, a character he apparently despises. (In the second addendum of "A New James Bond", Amis is rather kinder to Le Carre than Le Carre is to Fleming, rating him a much better writer than Len Deighton and calling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold "a thrilling and genuinely chilling book".) But I also delved into similar territory in this post on the perceived misogyny of the Bond novels. Turns out Amis had already addressed this very issue decades earlier:

"The 'unpleasantness' of Bond deserves a moment's further notice. The curious momentary suspicion one feels from time to time, that the critics have somehow got hold of a completely different version of the work one has been reading, has never invaded my mind more powerfully than in the case of Ian Fleming and his critics. Bond emerges from their treatment as a frightening snob, a ceaseless fornicator and a brutal scourge of the weak and helpless; these are the principal charges. Although you will probably not believe me when I tell you, none of them has any substance.

"Not once, in the twelve novels and eight stories, does Bond or his creator come anywhere near judging a character by his or her social standing. We hear a good deal about high living and the elegant scene at Blades Club, but that is a different matter; at worst, harmless vulgarity. The practice of fornication in itself is not enough, these days, to brand a man as a monster, but then perhaps Bond goes at it too hard, weaves a compensation-fantasy for author and reader, is on a wish-fulfilment deal and all that. I myself could see no harm in this even if it were true, but it is not. One girl per trip, Bond's average, is not excessive for a personable heterosexual bachelor, and his powers of performance would not rate the briefest of footnotes in Kinsey. It is true that all the girls are pretty and put up little resistance to Bond's advances, and this may help to explain his unpopularity with those critics who find it difficult to seduce even very ugly girls."

(Incidentally, unlike some other authors, who seemingly objected to being labelled as espionage writers and thus asked to be excluded, Kingsley Amis does have an entry in Donald McCormick's Who's Who in Spy Fiction, even though at the time he only had one spy novel – Colonel Sun – to his name. I suspect he would have been rather pleased to have been included.)

In the aforementioned second addendum to "A New James Bond", Amis compares the scorn poured on Fleming's creation with the much warmer critical reception of Le Carre's supposedly more realistic take on the spy, noting that critics were simply "more comfortable with books that confirmed their prejudices about the wickedness of the West, a more wicked sort of wickedness than that of the East... because the West pretends to hypocritical rubbish to do with freedom and so on, while the East makes no bones about its devotion to things like terror." This passage bears a direct relation to the other piece in What Became of Jane Austen? that struck me, "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" (1967), perhaps the most notorious essay Amis ever wrote. This missive is regularly held up as evidence of Amis's betrayal of the Left and embracing of the Right, i.e. Conservatism with a large 'C'. But as ever, one should never put much stock in hearsay. Much as he does in "A New James Bond", Amis speaks an awful lot of sense in "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right". He cites the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary as the final nail in the coffin of his disillusionment with Communism, then goes on to explain why the Left in general has little to offer beyond dogma and habit.

I certainly don't agree with everything Amis writes in the essay, particularly the passages on education, where he's far too anti-comprehensive schools for my liking. But that's not the point. Throughout, he is utterly, unfailingly reasonable, as he is in all his critical writing. To listen to the received wisdom on Amis, one would conclude that he turned from a fervent Trot into a foaming True Blue Tory, but to read "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" is to confront a more prosaic truth: he'd simply realised that Britain, the country in which he lived, was, despite all its faults, a nicer place to reside than many other countries. "I am not a Tory," he states, "nor pro-Tory... nor Right-wing, nor of the Right, but of the Centre, equally opposed to all forms of authoritarianism."

Indeed, much of what he wrote over forty years ago is pertinent today. It's still common for Lefties – and I do consider myself of the Left, even though I disagree with much of what Lefties spout – to do down the country in which they live whilst happily continuing to live there. Sometimes it seems as though any dreadful regime or fascistic organisation – Iraq under Saddam, Iran, Hamas – can be allowed to continue so long as it stands up to that perennial oppressor and root cause of all evil, the West. Amis may have been writing largely about Communism all those years ago, but the sentiment remains eminently applicable even in this day and age – perhaps moreso. Here he is on why prominent Lefties oppose the British system:

"The system exists, so to hell with the system. Damn you, England! Damn you for not listening to me! But, of course, plenty of people are listening, the rank-and-file Lefties with no rhetorical skills, no individual viewpoint, only a readiness to demonstrate and march against the system, to grasp at that wonderful and unique and paradoxical satisfaction which the Left offers: of swimming with and against the stream at the same time, of being both rebel and conformist, of joining in the massed choir of half a million voices crying in the wilderness. On either or any level, emotion is calling the tune. Some pretty powerful set of emotions, clearly, is at work when, after being revealed as unworthy of even the most cynical kind of support, Nasser and the Arab/Russian cause go on being supported, as vociferously as ever and without even a decent delay, in our correspondence columns."

Substitute "Hamas" or "Castro" or "Chavez" for "Nasser and the Arab/Russian cause" and that could have been written yesterday. As Amis proclaims in "A New James Bond", and bringing us full circle, "It is, of course, true that Bond, like me, is pro-Western, pro-British, even, by and large, pro-American, and this is on first principles anathema to a great many people." Ultimately, though, Amis's closing sentences in "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" are as effective a demonstration of his point of view as anything beforehand, and again strike me as an entirely sensible philosophy, particularly in the face of so much criticism of the Western way of life:

"All you can reasonably work for is keeping things going, plus as much improvement as they will stand: an injustice righted here, an opportunity extended there. This is not a very romantic-sounding programme. In fact it is not a programme at all. I like that."

And so do I.

Friday 3 December 2010

A Lee Child Jack Reacher Omnibus: Killing Floor and Die Trying (BCA, 1998)

What's that in brackets up there in the post title? BCA? BCA? A book club edition?! After everything I've written about book clubs? What in the name of Christ is going on?

Well now...

This here is the 1998 BCA hardback omnibus edition of Lee Child's first two novels, Killing Floor (1997) and Die Trying (1998), and unlike the majority of book club editions, which are seldom of interest to book collectors and litter Amazon Marketplace and AbeBooks like scrounging single mothers apparently litter Britain (at least, according to the Daily Mail and its mean-spirited NIMBY readership), this particular BCA edition is fantastically scarce and consequently rather valuable. There are currently no copies for sale on AbeBooks, one copy for sale on Amazon Marketplace UK for over a hundred quid (UPDATE: er, at least it was a hundred quid; it's now £3.99. Go figure) and one copy for sale on Amazon Marketplace US for nearly $400. (UPDATE: er, make that just over $100. Still, pretty expensive, even so.) Crikey.

Did I pay that much for it? Did I fu-- no, I didn't. I got lucky and scored a cheap copy, from a seller who possibly didn't know how scarce it is. I was originally going to try and find first editions of the individual novels, but first editions of Killing Floor – which was recently selected as one of one million novels to be given away on World Book Night – go for around thirty quid and firsts of Die Trying go for upwards of sixty. Luckily, I spied this omnibus – the only omnibus there's been of Child's Jack Reacher novels, which I wanted to try after hearing good things about them – and killed two birds with one stone.

As to why it's so scarce... I have no idea. Did BCA only print a small quantity? Was the bulk of the run pulped for some reason? Or is there a mountain of copies sitting forgotten in a warehouse somewhere? Inquiring minds need to know...

Lewes and Brighton Book Bargains: The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener by John le Carre, plus Le Carre on James Bond

In a slight change to our regular programming, this latest Lewes Book Bargain post features not only a book bought in a charity shop in Lewes – the obscure and slightly contrary East Sussex town in which I live and work – but also a special guest appearance from a book bought in a charity shop in Brighton – the rather more famous but equally bolshy East Sussex coastal town about eight miles down the road. Let's have a look at that one first:

It's the UK hardback first edition/first printing of John le Carre's The Constant Gardener, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2001. It's the story of a British diplomat in Nairobi whose wife is killed and who subsequently discovers her death may be linked to pharamaceutical big business. Starring, as it does, a "socially awkward comedy Englishman", it falls firmly within the bracket of my friend Roly's eight point assessment of later Le Carre, but it did beget a rather good 2005 movie adaptation, one of the best to spring from a Le Carre novel. And perhaps more importantly from my perspective, it did only cost two pounds from the Brighton branch of Oxfam Books. Wahey.

But that's not all from Le Carre. Oh no. There's this too:

A UK hardback first edition of The Night Manager, also published by Hodder & Stoughton, this time in 1993, and with a truly horrible nineties dustjacket designed by someone who was wise enough to keep their credit off the thing. I bought this in the funny new charity shop across the way from the Lewes branch of Waitrose, the name of which I can't recall but which looks remarkably like a furniture outlet that used to squat on Penge High Street circa 1978. But they do also have books on sale there too (well, obviously, otherwise how would I have bought this one in there?), at the most knock-down prices in all of Lewes: this copy of The Night Manager cost me a quid. As for the story, it seems to be about weapons dealing and stars another socially awkward comedy Englishman. Hey, you want an informative and helpful precis, go to another website. We're all about the veneer round here.

Aha, but hold your horses: I've overlooked something. I forgot that I can, of course, refer to my recently acquired copy of Donald McCormick's Who's Who in Spy Fiction, which might be able to shed further light on both these Le Carre novels... if it hadn't been published in 1977, sixteen years before The Night Manager and twenty-four years before The Constant Gardener. Hurm. Fat lot of good that turned out to be, then. Although I have just spotted a catty quote from Le Carre in it, on the antithesis of Le Carre's realpolitik spies, James Bond, so let's have that instead:

"The really interesting thing about Bond is that he would be what I call the ideal defector. Because if the money was better, the booze freer and women easier over there in Moscow, he'd be off like a shot. Bond, you see, is the ultimate prostitute."

Mee-ow! And also: bollocks. The James Bond I'm most familiar with – i.e. the one from Ian Fleming's novels – would do no such thing. As anyone who's actually read any of the Bond books would know, 007 is motivated by duty; the rest – the (not as numerous as you'd think) women, the fine living – is merely window dressing. If we were to be generous to Le Carre, it could be that he's conflating the movie Bond with the literary Bond, which is something I've blogged about before. But if we were to be less generous, one could accuse him of simply not having read the novels, or perhaps not having read them in a while. I'll be returning to this in a post about that stalwart defender of Fleming, Kingsley Amis, over the weekend, but for now, I'll leave you with a typically elegant and barbed sentence from Amis from a 1968 essay about Bond which could easily apply here:

"The curious momentary suspicion one feels from time to time, that the critics have somehow got hold of a completely different version of the work one has been reading, has never invaded my mind more powerfully than in the case of Ian Fleming and his critics."

Thursday 2 December 2010

Parker Progress Report: A Review of Slayground by Richard Stark

Sometimes, the weight of expectation can be too much for a book to bear.

I don't think it's an accident that the Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake novels starring career thief Parker I've enjoyed most thus far have been the less celebrated ones. While I've liked The Outfit (Parker #3, 1963), The Score (Parker #5, 1964) and The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) just fine, the standouts for me have been The Man with the Getaway Face (Parker #2, 1963), with its meticulously planned heist and kick-in-the-teeth ending; The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, 1967), where we meet a parallel younger version of Parker; and perhaps my favourite so far, The Seventh (Parker #7, 1966), with its post-heist frustrations and eventual bloodbath. I think that's partly because everything I'd read about them beforehand suggested they weren't quite up there with the agreed classics of the series – which just goes to show you should never believe everything you read – but it's also their more reflective nature, the way they each show Parker in a different light: as the master planner, as he might have been as a novice, and as a man completely at fate's mercy.

The flipside to that is, of course, that my enjoyment of the likes of The Outfit and The Score may have been soured slightly by expecting too much from them, although I don't know how true that is. I did like 'em, as I say; I just think there's more going on in some of the other books. But I suspect that's almost certainly the case with Slayground. First published in 1971, the fourteenth Parker novel may well be the most venerated of all the Parkers. Something about it obviously chimes with Stark's fans – probably the way it confines Parker, traps him in a snowbound closed-for-the-winter amusement park following a disastrous getaway from a heist, beset on all sides by corrupt cops and gangsters all after his loot. But for me, while I liked it, and there were moments I really dug, on the whole, it lacked something.

Perversely, I think that plot was precisely what my problem with the book was. On first inspection, Parker alone, back to the wall, living on his wits, fighting to escape a closed down funfair sounds brilliant. In practice, I found it a bit too simplistic, and therefore a bit too predictable. Because you know Parker will get out of this. I mean, you know Parker will always get out of whatever situation he's in somehow, as there's always a next book in the series (until you get to 2008's Dirty Money, that is). But usually it's more about how he'll come out the other side with some kind of reward, not whether he'll come out the other side at all. In Slayground, the money quickly becomes a secondary concern. Parker's fighting for his life. And given that, you just know, one way or another, he's going to exit through the gate he entered. That took some of the suspense out of it for me.

Another consequence of the plot is that Parker's on his own for most of the novel, and again, that didn't quite work for me. The whole point of Parker is he's a criminal automaton: there's little to him beyond stealing stuff. So if you spend any great amount of time alone with him in his head – as we do in Slayground – you'll quickly discover it's not a terribly interesting place to be. Despite the fact he can barely be bothered to speak to most people, Parker works best when he's interacting with other characters. I live for those moments where Parker has to deal with a horrific human situation like, y'know, actually having to speak to someone, which he generally handles by not speaking at all, because for him there's nothing to say. How he deals with, say, Alan Grofield, or Handy McKay, or Claire, helps to define him, by contrasting his utter weirdness – that taciturn blankness – with characters that are comparatively normal.

All that said, there is much to enjoy in Slayground. The opening chapter – which Slayground famously shares with the Alan Grofield novel The Blackbird – is blistering. (Here's a thing though: I actually ended up enjoying Grofield's subsequent adventures as a reluctant spy more than Parker's parallel adventure. Now there's a first.) There's some memorable, wonderfully absurd business in Part One, where Parker familiarizes himself with the amusement park, testing out the rides and setting traps; stuff like this:

"Quarter after five. Parker rode a rocket with wooden seats past suns and satellites to the end of the black-light Voyage Through the Galaxy."

Or this:

"Five minutes to six. Parker climbed to the bridge of the pirate ship."

There's a splendid silliness to the idea of a hulking brute like Parker folded into an amusement park ride, or clambering over a pirate ship.

On top of that, we get an appealing Stark Stooge in the shape of level-headed local mobster Caliato, who takes charge of the manhunt for Parker. Unfortunately he doesn't really stick around long enough, but he does provide the book's most surprisingly affecting moment. (As for the Stark Cutaway, that comes in Part Two instead of Part Three – while at only four chapters, Part Three is possibly the shortest 'Part' in all the Parkers.) And there are some great action sequences, not to mention, as Book Glutton pointed out on his blog, some interesting similarities to some other novels I've read this year, in particular J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island.

So there are good things here. But more than anything, what Slayground feels like is a prelude: an opening chapter to some longer work. Which, in a way, is exactly what it is: a curtain opener for the main event, Butcher's Moon (1974), the next Parker but one, and the longest Parker of all. Parker's major nemesis in Slayground, local mob boss Lozini, is left alive at the end of the novel, so it's a pretty safe bet we'll see him again in Butcher's Moon, which details Parker's attempt to retrieve his loot. Before that though, there's Plunder Squad (1972), which is a less-celebrated Parker novel, so it'll be interesting to see how that pans out. And I'll also be reading the Joe Gores novel Dead Skip (1972), which ties into Plunder Squad, and possibly the final Alan Grofield book, Lemons Never Lie (1971), before I get to Butcher's Moon. Verily, my Stark cup runneth over.

(For the previous Parker Progress Report, on Deadly Edge, go here.)

Wednesday 1 December 2010

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

Thus far in these Notes from the Small Press posts (links to the previous instalments can be found at the end of this one), the comics I've spotlighted have largely been personal and autobiographical works (as in, personal to the creators, not personal to me, although some have been that too). But even though those are generally the kinds of comics that small press and mini-comix cartoonists tend to produce and naturally gravitate towards – self-publishing being such an innately and intensely personal endeavour – you'll often find those very same creators harbour a secret (and not-so-secret) fondness for what are widely regarded as the antithesis of the small press ideal: superhero comics.

Truth is, whatever the kinds of comics we read and create today, most of us grew up immersed in the superhero comics published by either DC Comics or Marvel Comics. So it's perfectly understandable that, though they may have largely sloughed off their influence, some small press creators can't help but pay homage to/take the piss out of superheroes. In the States, one of the best known examples is the 1997 Coober Skeeber Marvel Benefit Issue, which Marvel responded to with a Cease and Desist notice, but since then alternative comics creators have been practically welcomed with open arms by the major comics publishers: witness DC's Bizarro Comics, Marvel's Strange Tales, and Bongo's Kramers Ergot issue of Treehouse of Horror.

In my collection I've got a fair few examples of small press comics creators having a crack at some of the better known superheroes, but in this post I want to concentrate on two artists – one British, one American – and how they each took on an archetypal hero – one DC-owned, one Marvel-owned – and in the process managed to come up with two idiosyncratic comics, separated by a period of fifteen years, both of which effortlessly transcend each character's much more pedestrian official fare.

Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman appeared in 1989, an A4, 22 single-sheet-page photocopied comic charmingly stapled on the side instead of at the spine (my copy, as you can see from the cover up top there, got covered in coffee at some point). I've touched on Pinsent before in these posts, notably in the first Notes on Fast Fiction, but I've never really discussed his comics, which are mysterious and poetic, tapping into a personal mythology where storytelling, religious symbolism and folk memory magically intertwine. (There are previews of some of his books – including his best known creations, Windy Wilberforce and Primitif – on his website.)

Despite featuring Ed's version – vision, even – of perhaps the most famous and iconic superhero ever, Illegal Batman is as much a Pinsent comic as anything else he's done. There's an elusive, elliptical feel to the thing, as Illegal Batman – or rather an illegal Batman – goes about his business of trying to solve crimes – very, very slowly. The mystery of why he's 'illegal' is never addressed, and indeed is unimportant: he is an illegal Batman, and that is all you need to know. Equally, the fact that he can send himself through the air via a remarkable projection device remains unexplained: it simply is.

As the comic progresses, it takes an increasingly spiritual turn. This illegal Batman is seemingly ineffectual, but at least he's empathetic; he appears incapable of actually finding a mother's missing children, but he can offer her words of woolly wisdom that salve her somehow, because he knows that mother and children will eventually be reunited, one way or another, whether on this plane or another. By the close of the comic, he has evolved, like the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey, watching over the world. It's a deeply strange but oddly moving ending to a deeply strange but oddly moving comic. In other words, pure Ed Pinsent.

Jeffrey Brown's 2004 A5 22-page mini-comic Wolverine: Dying Time is, on the face of it, a more prosaic tribute. Brown is best known for his highly personal autobiographical graphic novels, such as Clumsy (2002) and Unlikely (2003). I got Dying Time from Brown himself at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con. He had a stash of them under his table, which he was furtively handing out to the occasional customer. Dedicated to X-Men artists Art Adams, it's a short, sharp tale of a zombie attack that has horrible consequences.

To an extent, Dying Time relies on the reader being familiar with the world of the X-Men, and with Wolverine and Kitty Pryde in particular. Its emotional impact – and for such a slight affair it does pack quite a punch – will depend on how au fait you are with those characters. But even without that familiarity, the comic works because there's a depth to it. The feelings of loss and helplessness it evokes are very real, and all the more surprising for having been prompted by a superhero comic – and a superhero comic featuring zombies at that. I can think of few superhero comics that have had a comparable effect on me, that have presented a character like Wolverine with such a stark, inescapable choice, and that have ultimately left such a bitter taste in the mouth.

Wolverine: Dying Time and Illegal Batman are quite different comics in many ways, but they do share a certain off-kilter sensibility, along with an instinctively emotional approach to their respective archetypal subjects. Marvel and DC may have begun to accept indie comics creators, but they effectively ghettoise them, lumping them together in anthologies neatly labelled as suitably 'alternative'. Truly edgy or new approaches to the companies' sacred cows are thus neutered. Roll on the day when the Big Two publish comics like Illegal Batman and Wolverine: Dying Time as a matter of course; on that day, I'll get a lot more interested in superhero comics again.

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 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

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

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 Grist

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

Tuesday 30 November 2010

File Under Reference: Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick

Here's a book that – as I mentioned in the previous post – I was partly inspired to buy by (buy by? Bye bye! Ahem. Sorry) my friend Roly, who noticed it in one of the second hand bookshops in Cecil Court when we were up in London for the day. I think I'd flicked through it myself when I'd been in that shop before, but if Roly hadn't picked it up and pored over it, I doubt I'd have got round to buying a copy (a cheaper copy, bought online; the one in the shop was overpriced). Therefore, I think I can safely blame this one on him. So what is it? This:

The UK hardback first edition of Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick, published by Elm Tree Books in 1977, with a dustjacket designed by Lawrence Edwards. And it is essentially what the title suggests it is: potted biographies on the then-leading lights in espionage fiction, although as ever with these things it's far from comprehensive: there's no sign of, for instance, Ross Thomas, who by this point had written a number of spy novels. That said, McCormick does admit in his introduction that there are omissions, some due to particular authors not wishing to be identified merely as spy novelists. And even with that proviso, there are still enough intriguing authors included to keep you reading. Speaking of which, can you name all eight writers featured on the cover? (You might need to click on it to see properly; answers at the end of the post.*)

Who's Who in Spy Fiction was part of a series of books published by Elm Tree, each one focusing on a different genre. Brian Ash's Who's Who in Science Fiction preceded Spy Fiction by a year, while Mike Ashley's Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction also appeared in 1977. Sadly I haven't been able to find a trace of perhaps the most interesting of the companion titles listed on the Spy Fiction jacket back flap, Nigel Morland's Who's Who in Crime Fiction, so presumably it never materialised.

Donald McCormick wrote a variety of non fiction books, among them works on the British Secret Service, the Israeli Secret Service, and Ian Fleming, alongside whom he worked at The Sunday Times in the late '50s/early '60s, where McCormick was Assistant Foreign Manager. His relationship with Fleming stretched further back than that though, to the Second World War, during which McCormick served in the British navy and undertook field work for Fleming, who was Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. So McCormick certainly knew his stuff vis a vis espionage, and was better placed than most to pen potted appreciations of the authors toiling in the at-the-time massive spy fiction market. (Tellingly, his piece on Fleming closes with the prediction that "It is as an extraordinarily good Assistant to the DNI that he will ultimately be remembered". Er, or not.)

Anyhoo, Who's Who in Spy Fiction should come in handy for a number of forthcoming espionage-related posts on Existential Ennui...

* Those cover stars are, top row: Somerset Maugham, John Buchan and John le Carre; middle row: Ian Fleming, Helen MacInnes and Eric Ambler; bottom row: Len Deighton and John D. MacDonald. Collect 'em all!

A Present from a Pal: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Here's a book given to me by my good friend and colleague Roly that, as Roly himself noted when he gave it to me, is neither scarce, nor valuable, nor indeed any edition or printing of note:

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, published in paperback by Penguin in the UK in 1981, although this is the reprint from the same year. The story behind it is, Roly and I were up in London following a meeting, and I was dragging him round the second hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road. In one of those, Roly spied this book, and mentioned it was brilliant and that I should read it. I, however, had the scent of first editions in my nostrils, so I pretty much ignored him and headed down to the basement to browse the shelves down there instead (I know, I'm a charmer aren't I?). When I came back up again, he was at the till, buying the book. He then turned around and handed it to me. Which was really rather sweet of him, and for which I've wanted to thank him properly ever since. So Roly, consider this post your (slightly public, possibly permanent) thank you.

True to form I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning on doing so very soon. I was actually vaguely aware of it before Roly gave it to me, as it cropped up in a book I worked on recently in my Ilex Press managing editor capacity – 500 Essential Cult Books. Turns out it was down to Roly that A Confederacy of Dunces made it into 500 Essential Cult Books in the first place – and that the entry on it was written by him. Cheeky blighter. Anyway, famously Toole committed suicide in 1969, despairing that he couldn't find a publisher for his only novel. A carbon copy of the manuscript was later discovered by his mother, who harangued author Walker Percy into reading it. Percy eventually did, and realised that it was a work of comic genius. He managed to get it published, and it subsequently won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and went on to sell in the millions.

The front cover illustration on this paperback is by Ed Lindlof, an art alumnus of the University of Texas who provided illustrations for a 1994 edition of Thomas Wolfe's The Lost Boy and a 2004 edition of Horacio Quiroga's The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. As for Roly, well he was also partly responsible for my buying the next book I'll be blogging about (probably later today), a book which should prove useful for a number of forthcoming posts...

Monday 29 November 2010

Donald E. Westlake T.V. Boardman First Edition Book Cover Gallery (Featuring Denis McLoughlin)

Here in Britain, the initial eight novels Donald E. Westlake wrote under his own name, from 1960's The Mercenaries to 1966's The Spy in the Ointment, were all first published, in hardback, by T.V. Boardman, largely as part of that publisher's American Bloodhound Mystery series. All but one of those were graced by dustjackets designed by prolific comics artist and illustrator Denis McLoughlin, at the time effectively Boardman's art director (he produced something like 600 crime novel covers alone for them).

With the arrival of the Westlake Score I blogged about in the previous post, I now have half of those Boardman editions of Westlake's novels (UPDATE: make that a clean sweep – follow The Mercenaries361 and Pity Him Afterwards links), and I've managed to purloin pictures of the ones I'm missing. I'll update this post as and when (or even if) I track down the books I'm missing, but for now, here's an essentially complete gallery of the Donald E. Westlake T.V. Boardman first editions.

The Mercenaries, 1961 (1960 in the US), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughin. Note the use of a photograph of a hand; McLoughlin would deploy this photo-collage technique again on a later Westlake novel, The Busy Body.

Killing Time, 1962 (1961), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. This is the most traditionally illustrative of McLoughlin's Westlake jackets, but even here, the unusual placement of the title, with its bright red 'Killing' contrasting against the black and white illustration, and the resultant energy created across the cover, marks the design out.

361, 1962 (ditto), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. Again, the treatment of the title – that huge blue '361' – transforms what might have otherwise been a pedestrian design. In fact, the cover owes more to advertising of the period than it does to contemporaneous covers.

Killy, 1964 (1963), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. Here we can see McLoughlin's signature chiaroscuro/negative space/spot colour style in full effect, with Killy defined purely by his head, glimpses of his shirt, his hand, and that scarlet, stylized heart.

Pity Him Afterwards, 1965 (1964), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin. A bold, bloody book cover, particularly for its time.

The Fugitive Pigeon, 1966 (1965), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin.

The Busy Body, 1966 (ditto), dustjacket design by Denis McLoughlin, here mixing up photography with illustration and typography, as on The Mercenaries. Neither this book nor the next (and final) Westlake novel Boardman published were assigned an American Bloodhound Mystery number, so presumably they're not a part of that series. Perhaps the comic turn Westlake's novels had taken didn't quite fit with the imprint's modus operandi.

The Spy in the Ointment, 1967 (1966). This was the last Westlake novel published by Boardman, and for once the dustjacket wasn't designed by Denis McLoughlin, most likely because by this point Boardman had been taken over and McLoughlin had begun drawing stories for IPC's boys' comics Lion, Thunder and Tiger. Instead, Boardman took the same jacket as was used for Random House's 1966 edition, which was designed by Martin Pickwick, about whom I've been able to discover precisely nothing; searching for his work online mostly turns up references to Charles Dickens, who wrote two novels that together successfully frustrate all Googling efforts: Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers. Damn you, Dickens!