Friday 17 December 2010

2010: A Review of the Year in Books and Comics; 3. How I Didn't Really Understand Grant Morrison's Batman Comics But Still Thought They Were the Best Comics of the Year

And so we continue the 2010 Existential Ennui Navel-Gazing Review of the Year, except that this segment will have rather more relevance to 2010 than parts one and two did. Because alongside all the second hand books I was reading throughout 2010, I was also reading a fair number of new comics. And I don't just mean the graphic novels nestling in amongst the foxed and musty first editions in yesterday's Bloody Great List (in which I forgot to include one – Jason's rather good Werewolves of Montpellier, now added), among them Chris Ware's Lint and Darwyn Cooke's The Outfit. I mean yer proper pamphlet-like comic books, like wot they used to 'ave in the olden days, guv. Astonishing to think that actual, real comic books are still being published in this whizz bang digital delivery age, but they are, and it's a beautiful thing.

Unfortunately, while the floppy format of comic books was still a thing of wonder in 2010 (to me, anyway), the content left a lot to be desired, something that was reflected in declining sales of monthly American comic books. Increases in price played a part, but the bald truth is that the material was for the most part subpar. The big Marvel event kicking off 2010, Siege, was a damp squib, and the relaunched Avengers titles spinning out of it have been disappointing, only the main Brian Michael Bendis/John Romita Jr. Avengers showing a spark of life. Ed Brubaker's previously reliable Captain America lost the spring in its step, Matt Fraction's Iron Man went through the mechanical motions, and his Thor was noticeably under the weather. DC Comics became obsessed with the inherently dumb Green Lantern mythos, with the Blackest Night/Rainbow Lanterns farrago culminating in the fortnightly snoozefest known as Brightest Day. Meanwhile both Superman and Wonder Woman got J. Michael Straczynski-shaped relaunches, neither of which managed to hold anybody's attention.

There was some good stuff around. Ex Machina reached a satisfying if dark conclusion; The Walking Dead kept on keepin' on, enjoying a TV show-inspired sales boost; Rucka and Southworth's Stumptown was that rarest of things, a good crime comic; Mike Carey and Peter Gross' The Unwritten was worth sticking with; Paul Cornell's Action Comics got off to a promising start, though more recently it's faltered slightly; and although I lost track of it a year or two back, by all accounts John Arcudi and Guy Davis' B.P.R.D. continues to be a damn fine series. But despite these glimmers of hope, the number of comics series I'd stopped reading only increased as the year ran its course.

There was, however, one series of comic books – or rather, a series, a miniseries, a one-shot, a couple of issues of another series, and eventually a brand new ongoing series – which bucked the downward trend, but which, perversely, but not entirely coincidentally, were also the most confusing and perplexing comics of the year. The Batman comics written by Grant Morrison in 2010 – Batman and Robin, a few issues of the main Batman title, the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, the Batman: The Return special, and latterly Batman Incorporated; an appropriately convoluted publishing strategy – were, for me, the year's most consistently enjoyable mainstream comics. That I had next to no idea what the hell was going on in them most of the time didn't really matter. In fact, it only added to their allure.

The overarching storyline that had been running across Morrison's Batcomics since he started writing them four years ago reached a climax with Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 and Batman and Robin #16, but I was still none the bloody wiser. I wasn't sure who Dr. Hurt really was, or how Bruce actually ended up in the past, or how he managed to find his way back again, or what those weird symbols were all about, or who the guy in the cave was, or how all of those things connected up, as I'm sure they do, at least in the minds of Morrison himself and those annoying smartarse comics fans on the internet who pedantically spell things out for us knuckledragging imbeciles as if it's all the easiest thing in the world to understand. You know the ones: those tiresome hairy boys who congregate on the fringes of Valiant Trooper drink-ups and haunt certain messageboards.

Anyway, as confounding as Morrison's Batman comics were, they were also never less than enthralling, stuffed with so many memorable moments and compelling characters that other superhero comics appeared positively pedestrian by comparison. Batman being shot in the head. The Joker disguising himself as a British masked detective. A confrontation with the Justice League of America at the end of time. Damian, the snottiest, most brilliant Robin ever. Gonzo villains aplenty. That every issue seemed to have a different artist – some good, some not so – only added to the unexpected nature of the enterprise. There was no telling what was coming next.

And that's exactly what American comic books lacked in 2010 – have lacked for a good many years: the notion that anything is possible. Where the majority of Marvel and DC's output was so overplanned it felt like you'd already read a comic before you'd even opened it, Morrison's Batstuff, even though it was no doubt meticulously charted, felt freewheeling. The difference being, Morrison's work is the work of one man's fevered mind, not the work of a committee, of an editorial conference or a writers' retreat. There are lessons to be learned in Morrison's Batman comics, but I doubt they will be. And frankly, I don't really care either. So long as Grant Morrison keeps writing Batman comics for a while yet – and with the launch of Batman Incorporated last month, it looks like he will – I'll be happy.

I've gone back over the MorriBatBooks (© 2010 Existential Ennui) a couple of times already trying to make sense of them, to little avail. I expect I'll have another go soon. But that they continue to bemuse and bewilder is both beside the point and also precisely the point: they're pretty much the only comics I have returned to and re-read this year, or last year, or the year before that. All the other comics I buy get boxed away and basically forgotten. Not these ones, though; not these beautiful, barmy Batbooks, these crazy caped crusades, these dizzy, deranged Dark Knight delights. I reckon I'll be digging these daft buggers out of the longbox for a long time to come.

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 1

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Book and Comics, Part 2

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 4
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 5

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 6

Wednesday 15 December 2010

2010: A Review of the Year in Books and Comics; 2. A Bloody Great List

Lists. Everybody loves lists. Checklists, playlists, shopping lists. A life without lists is a life without order. Or something. And around this time of year, magazines and websites and telly shows and radio shows are heaving with lists: lists of books, lists of albums, lists of singles, lists of hair, lists of mice... you name it. So why should Existential Ennui's weirdly outdated, hermetically sealed 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics be any different? Answer: it shouldn't. Here, then, is a bloody great list – as in a long list, but also, as it happens, a fairly great one, too – of the books wot I done read this year, in the order wot I done read them. I posted the first half of it back in July, by which point I was halfway through Justin Cronin's The Passage (as recommended to me by Book Glutton). But I'd actually forgotten to include the graphic novels I'd read too, an oversight I've now corrected. Let's have a look at the thing, and then reconvene afterwards for a chat, shall we?

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming
The Hacienda: or How Not to Run a Club by Peter Hook
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
The Way Home by George Pelecanos
The Wrong Side of the Sky by Gavin Lyall
Point Blank by Richard Stark
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Hellblazer: Pandemonium by Jamie Delano and Jock
The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark
Moonraker by Ian Fleming
Killy by Donald Westlake
The Outfit by Richard Stark
The Mourner by Richard Stark
The Score by Richard Stark
The Jugger by Richard Stark
The Split by Richard Stark
The Handle by Richard Stark
The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
Weathercraft by Jim Woodring
The Most Dangerous Game by Gavin Lyall
The Damsel by Richard Stark
A God Somewhere by John Arcudi, Peter Snejbjerg and Bjarne Hansen
The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
The Hot Rock by LAX
Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe
Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell
Wilson by Dan Clowes
The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark
The Glass Cell by Patricia Highsmith
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard
Bank Shot by Donald Westlake
Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay
The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
The Secret Servant by Gavin Lyall
Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason
The Dame by Richard Stark
Deadly Edge by Richard Stark
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke
Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
The Honourable Scoolboy by John le Carre
Spy in the Vodka/The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane
The Blackbird by Richard Stark
The ACME Novelty Library #20: Lint by Chris Ware
The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas
Chinaman’s Chance by Ross Thomas
Slayground by Richard Stark
The Playwright by Eddie Campbell and Darren Whitte
Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas
What Became of Jane Austen? by Kingsley Amis
The Naked Runner by Francis Clifford
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (still reading)
The Out is Death by Peter Rabe (still reading)
Colonel Sun by Robert Markham (still reading)
Adventures on the High Teas by Stuart Maconie (still reading)

I make that sixty-five done, dusted, read and shelved books and graphic novels, with a further four books still in progress. Hopefully I'll have a couple of those finished by the end of the year, and maybe a couple more besides. I suspect Olman – currently on his seventieth book of the year – will still beat me, but even so: not a bad effort.

Breaking the list down a bit, out of all those books, just sixteen could be classed as relatively 'new' – i.e. published in the last year or two – and out of those, nine are graphic novels, and three are non-fiction. Which means, if my maths is correct, I read just four relatively new novels this year – and indeed one of those I'm still reading. The remaining fifty-three books on the list – all but one of them novels – were all first published between five and seventy years ago. And out of those, over a third were written by Donald E. Westlake. I guess that shouldn't really come as a surprise, given the overwhelmingly Westlake-centric nature of Existential Ennui throughout the year, but even so: that's still an impressive percentage. No other author even approaches Westlake's mighty total of twenty books; I think Ross Thomas comes closest with four. It really was the Year of Westlake.

All being well I'll be revisiting this list in a subsequent 2010 Review of the Year post to see if I can work out which, in my estimation, was the best book I read all year. In fact, I wonder if another list might be appropriate... a top twenty, perhaps? One to ponder there. Either way, I'll update it before the year's out to see what the final tally is. Because I ain't done yet. Not by a long chalk. Watch out, Olman. I'm coming up fast from behind. Er, so to speak.

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 1

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 3

2010: A Review of the Year in Books and Comics; 1. Sweeping Generalizations

Right then. A day or two later than planned, but it's time to begin the Existential Ennui Review of the Year! I cannot tell you how excited I am about this – note the exclamation mark ending the previous sentence – largely because I'm not in the slightest bit excited. But I can at least summon a smidgen of enthusiasm for what lies ahead in this series of festive posts looking back on the year that was.

A word of caution, however: while this will be, as the title of this post suggests, a review of the year in books and comics, they almost certainly won't be the same books and comics reviewed elsewhere – y'know, on those other, immensely more popular websites and in those immeasurably more widely read magazines. In those places you'll get lists of and commentary on the new books and comics – and movies and music and so on – that made an impact this year, which is always terribly useful if you've overlooked or missed anything (a service the year-end issue of Artrocker magazine is providing for me right now). Here, however, in what will no doubt prove to be an intermittent series of posts, I'll be writing about the books and comics I read this year. Which, considering most of them were published at least thirty years ago, will be a fat lot of use to all concerned.

Never mind. Perhaps I'll be able to offer some wit or insight to make up for the dated nature of my annual audit. On past evidence, probably not, but we live in hope. Over the next week or two you can look forward to (if that's the right phrase) a number of thrilling posts on the books and comics I bought and read in 2010. Admittedly, as of right now I'm not entirely certain what many of these posts will consist of – I know there'll be a list in there somewhere, and there might be a review or two – but they'll definitely be thrilling. Definitely.

As is traditional with these year-endy things, though, let's begin with some Sweeping Generalizations, wherein the trends and movements and themes of the year are identified and contextualized. And for me, the main trend this year, so far as my reading habits went, was the move away from comics and towards novels. This was prompted partly by a burgeoning – or rather re-burgeoning – interest in books (which actually began last year) and partly by comics being a bit, well... shit.

I've had many a lengthy discussion about the dearth of decent comics this year with famed Spandex creator Martin Eden, and the entirely scientific conclusion we've reached is: it's not us, it's them. As in, it's not so much been mine and Mart's lack of enthusiasm for comics – although I suspect that played a part – as it has been Marvel and DC's lacklustre output. The Big Two comics companies – who, let's be honest, together produce the vast majority of the comics we weekly (or, in my case, fortnightly these days) comic shop-goers buy – have had a pretty poor showing this year, so much so that, with the exception of Grant Morrison's Batman stuff, I've effectively stopped reading DC comics. Over at Marvel, meanwhile, Bendis and Brubaker have gone off the boil, and the younger crop of writers have proved to be not quite as good as their forebears.

In fact, things got so bad, and I got so bored, that I stopped doing my weekly Must Be Thursday blog posts. So at least some good came of a crap year for comics.

But while comics may have been a bit rubbish, there were plenty of musty old novels to take their place, in particular those written by one Donald E. Westlake. Yes, for me, 2010 was the Year of Stark, as a long-held ambition to read one or two of the Parker novels written by Westlake under his Richard Stark nom de plume turned into a frankly ridiculous hunt for first editions of not only the Parker books but the Alan Grofield ones too – not to mention other Westlake novels besides. It wasn't all about Westlake, though. It was also the Year of Ross Thomas, and of Dennis Lehane, and of Gavin Lyall, and of many more besides. Some of these minor obsessions were inspired by the writings of Book Glutton and Olman and Trent, as we all egged each other on; some were pure happenstance. But all have led to a revelatory year of reading pleasure.

It was also, it should be mentioned, the Year of Unwellness, as a festering ulcer deep inside me finally decided to burst, leading to the events of That Night and its aftermath. I'd like to report that the whole episode has enlightened me somehow, but I'm not sure it has, beyond eating a little better and not smoking or drinking (not that I did much of either anyway). It's just possible, however, that it resulted in a renewed intent as regards my final Generalization.

Because perhaps more pertinently than any of the above, 2010 was the year I got my blogging shit together. I've been blogging on and off now for about five years – not just here, but on a couple of predecessors too, one of which still survives – for the most part never with much point or purpose. But I started to gain some blogging momentum from January, and by April I was getting into a good groove, as I focused more on books and book collecting and began to realise that Existential Ennui might become a minor internet destination of sorts – or at least an entertaining sideshow. Over the rest of 2010 I think it really came into its own, so, in a hideously self-referential navel-gazing exercise (which will be different from everything else on this blog how, you might ask?), as part of the Review of the Year in Books and Comics, I'll be reviewing Existential Ennui itself, picking my favourite posts from throughout the year. Oh how very meta it will be. I bet you can't wait.

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Book and Comics, Part 2

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 3 

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 4

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 5

Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 6 

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Westlake Score: Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake (T.V. Boardman First Edition)

So then, after yesterday's slight detour, back to the usual rubbish:

That there is the UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Killing Time, published by T. V. Boardman in 1962 – originally published in the US by Random House in 1961. I've actually teased this cover before, when I posted that gallery of Westlake Boardman editions; I stole the original, slightly ropey, image of the cover for that post – which I've updated now – off an eBay listing... and then went and won the listed book anyway. So now here's a better quality version, photographed by my own fair hand. The dustjacket is, as you can see, in a dreadful old state, while the book is a bit grubby on the page edges, and there are a couple of stamps inside identifying it as belonging to "G. Welch & Son, Newsagents, Librarians, Tobacconists, Wellington St., Luton, Beds". But copies of this edition are very thin on the ground, and I paid a pittance for it, so it'll do till I find a nicer one.

Killing Time is Westlake's second novel under his own name, following The Mercenaries. I haven't read Killing Time yet, but there's a guy working his way through Westlake's oeuvre that Trent at Violent World of Parker sometimes links to; his review of the novel is right here. He also has an honest assessment of The Mercenaries on his blog, the press blurbs for which on the back flap of Killing Time's jacket are a little... reserved: the Times Literary Supplement called it a "competent New York Gangster thriller", while John o' London's Weekly (the whatnow?) reckoned it was "lively and amusing". Julian Symons in the Sunday Times was a bit more effusive, but then judging by the countless quotes from his reviews I've seen on the back covers of thrillers from the '50s to the '70s, he usually was, the tart.

The dustjacket of this edition of Killing Time was, of course, designed by Denis McLoughlin, who I covered extensively in that Boardman post (and others before it). It's perhaps the most comic book-y cover he created for the Westlake books published by Boardman – not surprising really, as he was a comics artist too – but there's an energy to the thing that I like, and a hint of McLoughlin's chiaroscuro style in that spotlit garage door and dark foreground. Good stuff.

Click here for a review of Killing Time.

Monday 13 December 2010

A Response to the Observer Article by Edward Docx, "Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a Match for Literary Fiction?"

I had intended to start the week either with a Westlake Score or to begin my no doubt eagerly awaited Review of the Year. But yesterday there was an article on genre fiction in the Observer newspaper that, while it doesn't deserve a response as such – it was too wrong-headed to deserve anything other than perhaps a derisory snort – it does at least warrant one, even if it is from a little-read blog like this.

When I write posts like this one on Kingsley Amis' appreciation of the thriller, or this one on James Bond (or, um, this other one on Amis again), the point that I'm usually getting at – that genre fiction is often unfairly sneered at by critics – sometimes strikes me as... well... pointless. Outdated. After all, we have for a long time lived in a world where Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith are feted, and for a shorter time in one where Stephen King is at last getting his due. Surely, then, the war is won. And then an article such as the one in Sunday's Observer New Review comes along and reminds me that not only do the old battles still need fighting, but a new generation of literary snobs have willingly donned the blinkers of their forebears and adopted even more intransigent positions.

Written by novelist Edward Docx (no, me either), the article is called "Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a Match Literary Fiction?" Which, for a start, is a daft question. For one thing, it's a little unfair to pit Larsson and Brown alone against the massed legions of literary fiction – whichever spurious parameters Docx uses to define that elite gathering. For another, it leads to a fairly short answer: no, and don't be so bloody silly. Not even Larsson and Brown's most fervent fans would claim much for their idols beyond an ability to tell an exciting story (with perhaps some added political significance in Larsson's case). Neither are known as great stylists or mould-breaking originators; to hold them up as any kind of vanguard of genre fiction is just stupid.

And anyway, I'm not interested in defending Larsson or Brown – and I doubt either would care at this point, since the former's dead and the latter's so ridiculously rich he's probably moved to an alternate newspaperless reality – nor in extolling the virtues (or otherwise) of their books. What I take issue with is the tone of Docx's article, the blanket dismissal of all genre works, the sneery attitude towards genre, and the fundamental misunderstanding of not only what genre is, and more importantly, why it is, but, seemingly, of fiction in general.

The thrust of Docx's argument is essentially this:

"Even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made."

Now there's a man sure of his own brilliance. I think my favourite part of that statement is the bit where Docx claims people who don't write novels don't comprehend the constrained nature of genre fiction. Which would be an incredibly supercilious and self-regarding thing to suggest – how can we mere mortals comprehend the inner workings of the novel? – if it weren't that Docx himself doesn't seem to "get" that all fiction is constrained. Writing is about choices, and beyond that, it's about the road not taken. Every decision a writer makes about their story closes off a multitude of other possibilities. All fiction, genre or otherwise, entails curtailment.

But let's accept for the moment that there are genre tropes that dictate how, say, a crime novel will develop. Docx's ludicrously simplistic view of crime fiction aside – not every crime novel has "a body on the first page" – the inclusion of a detective as a main protagonist (not my favourite type of crime novel, but anyway) probably does move the narrative in a particular direction – but no more so than the inclusion of a poverty-stricken Russian in an otherwise achingly middle class situation moves the narrative there in a certain direction. In both cases there is curtailment; in both cases decisions are already made.

Docx goes on to grudgingly admit that "None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier." Again, there may be some truth in this. An experienced thriller writer might well find it easier to write a thriller than, say, a novelist with two books under his belt and a name to make for himself might find writing 'literary' fiction. But an experienced literary novelist might find writing easier than a novice thriller writer. Writing is different for everyone: difficult, easy, hard work, a breeze, and sometimes all of those things in the course of a single page. It's a specious argument.

Skipping over Docx's facile comparison of genre writing to McDonald's (Really? Is that the best you can do? And this from a novelist), we reach a more familiar critique of genre: that genre writers are basically in it for the money. Docx doesn't so much claim this as sneakily insinuate it when he states, "They can take the money and the sales and all that goes with that. And we can sincerely admire them for doing so. But they should not be allowed to get away with suggesting that these things tell us anything about the intrinsic value or scope of their work." Quite right. "They" shouldn't. And the best never have, whether Docx "sincerely" admires them for their sales or not. As Kingsley Amis wrote in his 1968 essay "A New James Bond", "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."

Here we approach the crux of the matter. Docx's argument only stands if you accept his largely unspoken assumption – a supposition that all his ilk take for granted – that there is a truth to literary fiction that isn't there in genre fiction, and that therefore literary fiction is better than genre fiction. In support of this, Docx trots out the word "relativism". Now, relativism pisses me off in any shape or form, from politics to criticism. Relativism is a consequence of post-modernism, and any thinking person knows by now what a load of balls post-modernism was. The merits or otherwise of genre fiction is not a question of relativism. It's insulting to suggest it is. It's a question, as it is in non-genre fiction, of good writing – a critical judgement which is anathema to post-modernism and relativism.

The best genre writers – I mean the very best; the Stephen Kings, the Richard Starks, the John le Carres, the writers I take Docx to mean when he talks of "good genre (not Larsson or Brown)" – don't choose to be genre writers, as Docx appears to believe. They simply choose to write, as best they can. Genre is merely something they're labelled by other people. Patricia Highsmith is only a crime novelist to those who haven't read her books; to those who have, she's a meditator on the psychology of twentieth century urban America. It just so happens that occasionally entails the not-so-accidental death of a protagonist – much as it did in actual twentieth century urban America, and indeed still does in twenty-first century urban America.

The mistake Docx makes, I think, is to believe in literary fiction as something it's patently not: truth. Fundamentally, all fiction is dishonest. As wonderful as the best novels are, they're still a pack of lies. There may be some truth in the writing, some effort to understand the human condition, to comprehend universal truths; but the creating of characters, the placing of them in scenarios and situations, the moving of them around: this is make-believe. No matter how honestly conceived, no matter how much effort a writer puts into making a novel realistic, real life is always so much more unanticipated. And that's fine: that's the pact we make with fiction so that we can have stories that appeal, confound, befuddle, enrage, but that ultimately take us out of ourselves and carry us along and deposit us at the other end. But it's all a lie; a story; a fiction. I mean, the clue's kind of there in the name.

Good thrillers, good crime novels, good science fiction, are as unexpected and surprising as good non-genre novels. The only difference is, they involve a murder, or a robbery, or are set in the future. To return to Kingsley Amis and his 1968 essay, "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?"

Anyway, that's my two-penneth. Go and read the article yourself, make your own mind up, and maybe write your own post on the matter. It looks as though we still need all the help we can get...

Sunday 12 December 2010

Lewes Book Bargain: Not After Midnight feat. Don't Look Now (Gollancz First Edition)

Our second Lewes Book Bargain this weekend was once again purchased at the funny charity shop across the way from Waitrose, and again cost a quid:

A UK hardback first edition of Not After Midnight by Daphne du Maurier, published by Victor Gollancz in 1971. The cover painting is by the exotically named Flavia Tower, who also painted the rather lovely picture adorning the jacket of Gollancz's 1969 first edition of Du Maurier's The House on the Strand. The photo on the back, meanwhile, is by Christian "Kits" Browning, Du Maurier's son; I like the way it makes it look as though Daphne's just had a fall and slightly injured her ankle.

Not After Midnight is a collection of, as the cover has it, "five long stories"; the reason I bought it – apart from I've never read any Du Maurier, and it was a pound – is that the first of those stories is "Don't Look Now", upon which is based Nicolas Roeg's eponymous 1973 film, easily one of the greatest ever made, and a firm favourite of mine. It'll be interesting to see how the source material stacks up.

There's a bookplate affixed to the front endpaper of this copy of Not After Midnight, identifying it as belonging to Dove Cottage, which is a residential care home in Kingston, a village on the outskirts of Lewes. So, as with many of the books I buy in charity shops, I'm sure, and without wishing to sound too ghoulish, probably somebody died in order for me to get my hands on the book. Which, in this particular instance, bearing in mind the nature of Don't Look Now, strikes me as strangely appropriate.