Thursday 23 December 2010

2010: A Review of the Year in Books and Comics; 4. The Best or Most Noteworthy Posts Wot I Writ This Year

So apparently there's some weird pagan festival thing happening over the next few days, which I'm told involves the giving and receiving of gifts that are neither wanted nor indeed much of a surprise and the eating of copious amounts of farm-reared fowl. Christ knows what that's all about (ba-dum, tish!), but it does mean that Existential Ennui will be going on hiatus until sometime next week. However, I wouldn't want to leave you with naff-all to read over the 'festive' period, so I thought I'd collate my pick of what I reckon are the best posts – or at least the more interesting ones, whether in content or for what they represent for the wider blog – wot I wrote on 'ere this year. Some of you will probably have already read many of them, but you never know: the odd one might even bear re-reading. And anyway, there could be passing trade over Christmas who may not have had the pleasure – to whom I can only apologise and declare that it all made sense in my addled mind at the time.

Merry Christmas, and try not to throttle each other.

Your pal,


Looking for the Perfect James Bond (and Ripley too)
Kind of does what it says on the tin.

A brief note on Richard Stark's Point Blank, and another on The Man with the Getaway Face

The very first Parker Progress Report
An early entry in my unhinged Richard Stark collecting quest. Ah, so young (well, still a shade under 40 anyway), so innocent...

A Bookshop Tour of Lewes
Quite silly, but also reasonably useful if you should ever find yourself in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which blah blah snore...

Thoughts on the Stark Cutaways in the Parker novels
That rarest of things on Existential Ennui: a little critical insight. Just a little, mind. There's also a follow-up post on the Stark Stooges.

A Parker Progress Report on the Allison & Busby editions
Their value (at least as perceived by me back in April) and how many I'd managed to collect by this point. Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.

Short reviews of The Score and The Jugger
I think we're beginning to see clearly the Stark-centric nature of Existential Ennui this year... By the way, I've since replaced the Allison & Busby paperback of The Sour Lemon Score seen in this post with a nicer copy. That's how weird and obsessive I am. There is a hint of method to my madness, though, as I'm planning a post soon on the later A&B Parker editions. That's my excuse, anyway.

The first of a number of posts on the UK Coronet paperback editions of the Parker novel
These bored readers of this blog to tears throughout the year. There's another one here, another here, and another here.

A snapshot of my comics habit in April

Do you really want to read a report of a trip to a bookshop in Arundel?
Well here's one anyway.

A post about Garth Ennis's Punisher Max which I retrieved from an earlier version of Existential Ennui because I was quite pleased with it. And I still am, so here it is again. I'm gonna get me a bumper sticker proclaiming my recycling credentials. Except a bumper sticker proclaiming recycling credentials would be slightly counterintuitive. Also, I don't have a car. Also, I can't drive.

Two cover galleries of Patricia Highsmith first editions: one and two. Unfortunately the formatting's a bit buggered in these and I can't seem to fix them now. Oh well.

Another round-up of Richard Stark 'Parker' novels
Now there's a shock. There are further reviews of the Parkers here, here, here, here, and here. Knock yourselves off. I mean out.

Reviews of three of the Richard Stark 'Alan Grofield' novels, here, here, and here.

An intriguing inscribed edition of Joe Gores's Dead Skip

Comparisons twixt The Hunter and The Hot Rock: the novels and the graphic novels

A little bit on Peter Rabe and his influence on Richard Stark

A couple of posts on Kingsley Amis, the first of which isn't bad, the second of which is a marked improvement, and one of the few things I've written this year that I'm relatively satisfied with.

A review of Paul Cornell's Action Comics

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island, and William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms
I was quite pleased with this post at the time, but on reflection – and as Olman rightly notes in the comments – it's a little woolly. Still, you may find some worth in it.

I'm just showing off here

This post is a bit pointless, but there's a half decent quip or two in it.

I quite like this post on science fiction author Michael Vyse because his son Owen commented on it.

A lengthy missive on cover artist Robert McGinnis and his covers for the Parker novels. It's not bad, but it's not as thorough as this post on the guy who created the initial Parker covers, Harry Bennett, which has the benefit of added comments from Harry's son and daughter.

A review of Gavin Lyall's The Secret Servant

The day I nearly died

And the day I won an award (kind of)

I'm not sure if this post on Donald Westlake signed editions is at all useful, but there are some pretty pictures of the books at least.

A review of Belinda Bauer's excellent crime novel Blacklands

Inexplicably, this post on the Jeff Lindsay Dexter novels versus the TV show is, believe it or not, the most popular post ever on Existential Ennui. At time of writing it's had over 700 hits (UPDATE 24/3/11: it's over 1600 now...), which may not sound a lot in the grand scheme of things, but isn't bad for a single post in under five months. I'm still not sure why, though. Something about it makes it pop up in Google searches for Dexter, especially image searches. Go on: try it. Type "Dexter" into an image search, and there that book cover will be, usually on the first or second page of images. I mean, that's the case with a lot of my posts – Westlake's Jimmy the Kid, for instance, or any number of the Parkers – but I've written about Westlake so much now and been linked to by Trent that that's not so surprising. But the Dexter thing? I'm stumped.

Next: a demonstration of hubris. I was soooo terribly chuffed with myself when I posted these two efforts on first editions versus book club editions, but actually I think I just come across as a complete twat. I mean, I may well be a complete twat, but calling attention to it on a blog is just stupid. And in any case, I suspect my assumption about dustjackets without prices on the front flaps signifying book club editions may in fact be complete balls: they could simply be export editions. And now I've gone and linked to the posts all over again. Sigh.

A review of the crime comic Stumptown
And a moan about comics in general. A recurring theme this year.

Ah, now these are quite good, if I do say so myself: these Notes from the Small Press posts have proved pretty popular, and are a good example of Existential Ennui being useful for a change. If you're at all interested in indie comics, go have a read of these posts on Fast Fiction, Chris Reynolds (which reprints perhaps my favourite comics story of all time), mid-2000s small pressers, Mardou, John Bagnall, and Ed Pinsent and Jeffrey Brown. And there'll be more of this sort of thing next year, fer sure.

This post on a couple of Max Allan Collins novels influenced by Richard Stark is worth a look for the comments on it from Max himself.

A pretty decent and pretty popular review of Darwyn Cooke's The Outfit

This one on John le Carre's worth reading for Roly's assessment of the novelist's later work.

A meditation on James Bond's perceived misogyny that's probably a bit flip, but might have some merit.

Another show-off post about books I bought
In this case a couple of John le Carre early editions, neither of which are as sought-after or as valuable as I believed at the time. Hubris, thy name is Louis XIV. Again.

Thanks to Book Glutton I ended up writing quite a few posts on Ross Thomas towards the back end of the year, the best of which are, I think, this one, this one, this one, and this one. That last one sheds a little light on publishing practices.

This post and this post turned into fairly lengthy meditations on book design, should you be interested in that sort of thing.

Dennis Lehane Week in November wasn't a roaring success creatively, but the first post does at least review one of the booksA Drink Before the War – and so it has slightly more substance than the others. This later post on the UK publishing plans for Moonlight Mile is also mildly interesting.

A review of Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library #20: Lint
This post is another very popular one. I don't know if I managed to get my review of Ware's magnificent graphic novella up early or something, but it's had over 450 hits since I published it in mid-November, and that total rises daily.

Ah, Beverley le Barrow
You did bring such pleasure this year. And you still are.

A handy cover gallery of early Donald Westlake UK first editions

A rant about genre fiction

There's nothing particularly extraordinary about this post on Alan Williams's Kim Philby novel Gentleman Traitor, but it does now have an absolutely first class comment on it from noted literary critic Michael Barber, who knew Williams and whose detailed and lengthy reply puts the post itself to shame. Go read it.

And last and by all means least, there are my various year-end round-ups. Including this very one. Whoah, temporal causality loop!

Always end on a Star Trek reference, I say.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

The Liquidator by John Gardner (Frederick Muller), Boysie Oakes, James Bond, Gordon Goode and the Stratford Shakespeare Connection

It surely can't have escaped the attention of regular readers (usual caveats about veracity of purported regularity – and indeed of readership full stop – apply) that I've been banging on about Donald McCormick's Who's Who in Spy Fiction – and latterly Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide – for a while now. That's because they have, as I suspected they would, proved useful references for a fair few posts. But they're also starting to provide inspiration for book purchases too. Such is the case with this latest eBay buy:

A UK hardback first edition of John Gardner's debut novel, The Liquidator, published by Frederick Muller in 1964. I've been aware of Gardner for a long time, but I've never got round to reading anything by him. But his entry in Who's Who in Spy Fiction intrigued me enough to track down a copy of The Liquidator, the first in a series of eight novels starring cowardly, bungling secret agent Boysie Oakes (it was turned into a film in 1965, directed by Jack Cardiff, of slightly later Girl on a Motorcycle fame).

"The idea came to me in a train," Gardner told McCormick in Who's Who. "Boysie Oakes was based on the idea of a government employing people to murder. The book was written as a joke, but behind it were some of the things I had always wanted to say about this kind of life." In Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, Gardner added that The Liquidator "was written as a kind of placebo against the excesses of those who tried to hang onto the coat tails of Ian Fleming. Oakes, a cowardly, inept and lecherous idiot is recruited to intelligence by mistake, and appointed hired killer – a job he is forced to sub-contract, sometimes with disastrous results."

But it wasn't just the Fleming hangers-on who Gardner objected to: Boysie Oakes was intended as an antidote to James Bond himself. In Who's Who in Spy Fiction – published, it's worth noting, in 1977 – McCormick states that, like John le Carre, Gardner "despised" the character of 007. But in a surprising turn of events, just two years after Who's Who appeared, Gardner signed a contract with Ian Fleming's publishing estate Glidrose to write a new, updated series of Bond novels, beginning with License Renewed in 1981. He ended up writing fourteen original Bond novels and two movie novelizations between 1981 and 1996. In Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide – published in 1990 – Gardner himself notes, "There is some irony in the fact that, later, having moved on from the comedy of B Oakes to serious espionage fiction, I became the one chosen – in 1979 – to continue the work of Ian Fleming, which I combine with more serious novels of espionage."

The dustjacket of this first edition of The Liquidator was designed by Derrick Holmes, whose photo-based cover designs graced a good number of novels published by Muller, Andre Deutsch and Heinemann in the 1960s. The best-known of those – aside from The Liquidator – was Anthony Burgess' Inside Mr. Enderby, for which Holmes designed the jacket of the 1963 Heinemann first edition – originally published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell.

The author photo on the back of The Liquidator's jacket, meanwhile, was taken by Gordon Goode, a Stratford-upon-Avon-based photographer who died in 2008. Aside from freelance commissions, such as this photo of Gardner, Goode was a regular official photographer for the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking hundreds of pictures of actors on and off stage, among them Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Ian Holm. His widow, Margaret, recently unveiled an archive of the photographs, some of which can be seen in this BBC Coventry slideshow. John Gardner lived just outside Stratford, in Tiddington: from 1958 to 1965 Gardner worked as a drama critic for the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, and naturally would cover the RSC – hence the connection with Goode; Peter Hall, founder and director of the RSC from 1960–1968, would often give Gardner a lift to work. Small world, Stratford. And according to McCormick in Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Gardner "became such an authority on Shakespeare that he was asked to lecture on the Bard in the United States and Russia".

For more on John Gardner, a pretty thorough website dedicated to him can be found right here.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

The Brass Go-Between by Oliver Bleeck (Hodder & Stoughton), plus Author Ross Thomas on Spy Fiction

Here's a book I picked up for a song online, the first in a short series of pseudonymous novels by Ross Thomas:

It's the UK first edition hardback of The Brass Go-Between, written by Thomas under the pen name Oliver Bleeck, and published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1970 (originally published in the States by William Morrow in 1969). The striking dustjacket is by Kaye Bellman, who also designed covers for J. J. Marric (a.k.a. John Creasey; Gideon's Fog, Hodder, 1975) and Nicholas Mosley (Impossible Object, Hodder, 1968). The back flap of the jacket tells us that "Oliver Bleeck is a pseudonym of an established and award-winning American suspense novelist. The Brass Go-Between is the first of several novels that will be published under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck."

Thomas in fact wrote five books as Bleeck: The Brass Go-Between, The Procane Chronicle (1971), Protocol for a Kidnapping (also 1971), The Highbinders (1974), and No Questions Asked (1976). All of them are (I think) first person affairs starring Philip St. Ives, an urbane, jet-setting go-between who mediates between the owners of stolen goods and the thieves responsible for stealing them in the first place. The third book in the series, The Procane Chronicle, was made into a movie – St. Ives (1976), helmed by Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear director J. Lee Thompson and starring Charles Bronson as the eponymous character (actually Raymond St. Ives in the film). As for The Brass Go-Between's plot, it centres on efforts to recover a tenth century brass shield stolen from a Washington, D.C. museum. There's a review of it over at the ever-handy Mystery File blog. (UPDATE: and indeed a review on Existential Ennui itself now.)

I mentioned in yesterday's post on Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher's Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide that, unlike McCormick's previous spy fiction survey, 1977's Who's Who in Spy Fiction, the Connoissuer's Guide does have an entry on Ross Thomas. Information-wise there's nothing in it that isn't available elsewhere, but there is a lengthy quote from Thomas on espionage fiction that's worth republishing in full, I think:

"Spy fiction offers adventure, romance, intrigue and suspense, which are the essentials of most fiction. I write it because I enjoy reading it. I also write novels about crime, politics and scallawags, which also provide adventure, romance, intrigue, suspense and even mystery. Most spy novels provide neither an accurate nor realistic picture of the intelligence world because they are not written by espionage agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not good novels. I have never wittingly had any formal association with any intelligence agency. But I have known some agents. Knowing them did not hinder my career as a novelist. Nor did it help any."

Monday 20 December 2010

Lewes Bookshop Bargain: Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide by Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher (Facts on File)

This one's possibly slightly surplus to requirements, but when I plucked it from the shelves of second hand bookshop A & Y Cumming on Lewes (the currently snowbound East Sussex town in which I live and work) High Street and saw how cheap it was, I couldn't resist:

Published in 1990 by Facts on File, it's the hardback first edition of Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher's Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, with a dustjacket designed by Richard Garratt and a front cover illustration by Colin Robson. And if you're a regular (or more likely semi-regular, or even more likely, irregular) reader of Existential Ennui, you might recognise McCormick's name. That's because at the end of last month I blogged about another, somewhat similar survey of the spy fiction field I'd purchased, written by... you guessed it: Donald McCormick. Hence the "surplus to requirements" comment up top.

Ah, but Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide isn't merely an update of McCormick's earlier Who's Who in Spy Fiction. It's an entirely new, completely different book. For one thing, it's co-authored with an American lecturer on the subject (Fletcher), and consequently has more of an American bias. For another, although the approach is similar to Who's Who – alphabetical entries on espionage fiction authors – here each entry is broken down into a list of titles, a brief biography, and a critical analysis. And although McCormick clearly draws on the research he did for the earlier book, there are authors included in the Connoisseur's Guide who weren't in Who's WhoRoss Thomas, to name but one.

And if this post is beginning to read as if I'm attempting to justify the purchase of a book about spy fiction written (in part) by Donald McCormick when I only recently purchased a very similar book about spy fiction written (in toto) by Donald McCormick (...), let me just point out that there are also eight essays at the back of the Connoisseur's Guide which aren't in Who's Who, ranging from a history of American spy fiction to movie adaptations of spy novels. So, y'know. There's that.

But the major difference between Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide and Who's Who in Spy Fiction is the former is only twenty years out of date instead of thirty-three (Who's Who was published in 1977). So it might prove slightly more useful when blogging about slightly more recent spy novels. Although obviously still not for any novels published after 1990. Hmm. I wonder if Donald McCormick has written any more up-to-date spy fiction surveys...?

Sunday 19 December 2010

The James Bond Triad Panther Granada Box Set: From Russia, with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy

Let's take a breather from the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics – fret not; there's plenty more to come yet – to catch up on a recent acquisition or two. And today I've got something rather fab which also acts as a coda to that post on the 1970s Triad/Panther/Granada paperback editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. You remember those: the ones with the terribly glamorous – or perhaps glamorously terrible – Beverley le Barrow covers. Well feast your eyes upon this obscure object of desire:

This magnificent box contains six Panther paperback Bond novels: From Russia, with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy. It was published, I'm guessing by the dates in the books – which are all either 1978 first prints or 1979 reprints – in 1979. That's at odds with the information on Amazon, though, which reckons the box set was published in 1978. However, the box design on Amazon is different too: the Amazon box has the Beverley le Barrow photo from You Only Live Twice on its front (or possibly its back; depends on your perspective really), along with the titles of the books:

While mine has the photo from The Man with the Golden Gun cover on the front (and the one from Goldfinger on the back), and no mention of the books, although they are the same six novels listed as being inside the Amazon version:

Curious. Presumably there was more than one version of the box. And it's an odd selection of books inside, too; why no Casino Royale, or Dr. No? Mind you, I think the Panther editions were published out of sequence anyway, so perhaps the books in the box were the initial six that Panther issued.

I went into the creative process behind those glorious Beverley le Barrow photos in the previous Bond/Panther post, but I can add a tiny detail about the Goldfinger cover (duplicated on the box itself): the gold goblet the model is holding and the champagne bucket at her feet were supplied by luxury goods emporium Aspreys of Bond Street, London. So, what with the Terry de Havilland shoes and Hooper Bolton jewellery, this was one classy photo shoot.

I have no idea how sought-after or collectable this box set is, or how much it's worth. There aren't any for sale on Amazon or AbeBooks; I got this one for £4.50 from a seller on eBay who had simply called it "bond box set" or something, which wouldn't make it easy to find for any 007 collector (I just happened to stumble upon it). But it's a fun thing to own, nevertheless.