Monday, 28 February 2011

Spy Fiction Fortnight: Free Agent by Jeremy Duns – a Review (Simon & Schuster)

Let's begin Spy Fiction Fortnight with a review of a novel set largely in the late-1960s – which, considering a fair percentage of the books I blog about hail from that same period (or thereabouts), probably won't come as too much of a surprise. Except, in this instance, the book in question was only written a few years ago...

Jeremy Duns's Free Agent was first published in hardback in the UK by Simon & Schuster in 2009, with a stylish, angular, kinetic (hints of vintage Soviet posters there) dustjacket illustration by Tavis Coburn. It's the first person account of Paul Dark, a British secret agent who, one Sunday evening in March 1969, is summoned by the Chief of the security service to his country house to discuss some disturbing news. A cultural attache at the Soviet Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria has announced his intention to defect... and furthermore, he's also promising to reveal information about a British agent who is, in fact, a double-agent, and has been spying for the Russians since 1945.

So far, so familiar, especially if you're au fait with writers like Geoffrey Household, John le Carré, Len Deighton and Gavin Lyall. Indeed, the first chapter of Duns's novel is so akin to reading an espionage thriller from that postwar golden age that it's like slipping on a much-loved, battered, too-big sweatshirt – or, perhaps more accurately, a well-worn smoking jacket (and cravat, obv). There's much talk of "traitor country" and "high stakes" and, inevitably – and purposely – "the Cambridge gang", i.e. Philby, Burgess, Blunt et al. I found myself settling in for a no-doubt enjoyable but ultimately comfortable read.

And then right at the end of that first chapter Duns yanks the rug out from under your feet, upending a table in the process and sending whiskey carafe, crystal tumblers and cut glass ash tray crashing to the floor. All of a sudden up is down, black is white, and there's no way of predicting where the story's going to go. I shan't ruin the surprise for you, but from here on out, Dark enters a twisting labyrinth of deceit, double-crosses and danger, as he makes his way to Nigeria to track down both the Soviet attache and a Rusian nurse with a wartime connection to the Chief, as well as to Dark, to Dark's MIA father and to Dark's colleague and rival in the Secret Service, head of Africa Section Henry Pritchard. And snaking through it all is a possible plot to assassinate British Prime Minister Harold Wilson...

As a contemporary take on the classic espionage thriller, there's a harder edge to Free Agent than you'd perhaps find in a story from that '60s period, at least in the characterization of our lead. Because if you thought James Bond was a bit of a cold bastard (however unfair that belief), wait till you get a load of Paul Dark. Dark is, at root, a total shit. His sense of self-preservation far outweighs anything he feels for friends, lovers or allies. The body count he's directly responsible for is relatively low, but as a result of some of his actions the corpses really start piling up. The analogy isn't terribly accurate, but essentially, if you prefer your Parkers or Ripleys to your Jacks Ryan or Reacher, then Paul Dark is the man for you. Needless to say, I absolutely loved him.

Duns cleverly weaves historical events into the narrative, including the Nigerian civil war and consequent visit to the country of Harold Wilson. In an Author's Note at the back of the book Duns points out that while there's no record of an attempt on Wilson's life, there were numerous plots and conspiracies against him. (Duns also mentions Cambridge traitor Kim Philby's autobiography My Silent War, which is a book I'd very much like to read myself.) This positioning of the tale in a real past lends it an urgency and a velocity that a totally fictionalised historical setting might not possess; the sequences where Dark gets mixed up in the Nigerian war are particularly vivid, shining a light on a dark and little-known period of history that Duns identifies as "a superpower conflict by proxy".

Free Agent is the first in a trilogy of Paul Dark novels; I've got a copy of the second one, 2010's Free Country, winging its way to me, while the final volume, Free World, is currently scheduled for February next year. I for one am in for the long haul. And the next post in Spy Fiction Fortnight also has a link to Mr. Duns, in that it's on a book I was inspired to track down as a result of a comment he made on a post earlier in the year. But more than that, it comes with a handwritten letter by the author of said novel, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between writer and editor...

NB: Click here for an exclusive interview with Jeremy Duns.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Jeremy Duns on Ian Fleming, Donald McCormick and Christine Granville / Spy Fiction Fortnight Preview

As promised on Friday, I thought I'd post a little preview of what you can expect from Existential Ennui's forthcoming Spy Fiction Fortnight, which I have to say I'm quite excited about (well, as excited as I get about anything, anyway). But before I get to that, and tangentially related to it, I just wanted to draw your attention to a terrific essay by espionage author and Ian Fleming expert Jeremy Duns.

As is often the case with contemporary writers, I wasn't really aware of Jeremy's work until very recently; so far as this blog and therefore my reading habits are concerned, it could be said that I'm somewhat stuck in the past, although in my defence it's not so much my own past but rather an unexplored (by me, anyway) history of 20th century genre fiction encompassing names like Lyall, Thomas, Highsmith, Westlake and Amis (K.). But earlier this year Jeremy left a comment on a guest post by Michael Barber about Dennis Wheatley, and in so doing positioned himself squarely in my sights (so he only has himself to blame there). Duns has had two novels published to date, with a third on the way; I've already devoured the first one – more on that in a moment – and I'll be cracking the spine on the second one pretty soon.

He also has a first-rate blog, and on Thursday posted a long but engrossing piece on a couple of writers I've blogged about a fair few times myself. One of those is Ian Fleming, who needs no introduction. The other is Donald McCormick, author and co-author of Who's Who in Spy Fiction and Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide. I've made reference to both those books in multiple posts, and I'd assumed that McCormick was a trusted authority on Fleming, McCormick having worked for Fleming after the war and indeed written a biography of him. But as Duns reveals in his post, McCormick was a hoaxer and a fabricator, and many of the things he wrote about Fleming over the years have turned out to be utterly unverifiable and almost certainly complete rubbish.

McCormick's lies about Fleming hit the headlines again last week when The Bookseller reported that Pan Macmillan had acquired the rights to a biography of WWII British secret agent Christine Granville, who was, according to the story, "the inspiration for Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale". Furthermore, as Guy Walters details in this Telegraph post, with its Bond-esque title of The Spy Who Loved, the biography promised to deliver sensational details of the supposed relationship between Granville and Fleming. But as Jeremy explains in his post (which Walters links to), once again, these claims can be traced back to Donald McCormick's fabrications. It's a fascinating story (and having read through those various links I'm starting to wonder whether a biography of McCormick might be a more interesting proposition than a biography of Granville), and I strongly urge you to go read Jeremy's piece.

Which brings me back to that promised preview of Spy Fiction Fortnight, because Mr. Duns will loom large over a number of posts in the coming couple of weeks. For a start, I'll have a review of his 2009 debut, Free Agent, which is a cracking espionage novel set at the end of the '60s. I'll also have two books that I was inspired to track down as a direct result of that comment Jeremy left at the beginning of the year. One of those is a first edition by a firm favourite of his, Joseph Hone, which will come accompanied by an intriguing piece of publishing paraphernalia, and the other is also a first edition, this time of a book featuring excerpts of other espionage novels, and compiled by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. There'll be more from Graham Greene too, in the shape of a review of one of his novels – not so much a spy novel as a novel with an espionage element – and a look at another of his books that's very definitely a Secret Service thriller.

Elsewhere in Spy Fiction Fortnight, with a new film adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy due later this year, featuring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, I'll be writing about the original novel, in particular how it stacks up against the 1979 Alec Guinness-starring BBC TV version. I'll be showcasing a signed edition of a spy novel by Alexander Cordell – an author rather better known as a chronicler of early industrial Wales – and I'll be reviewing Ross Thomas's Cast a Yellow Shadow and Gavin Lyall's The Most Dangerous Game – and yes, strictly speaking I know that second one is more of a suspense thriller than an espionage novel, but I recently nabbed a first edition of it, and it's a great book, and there is some spying stuff in it, and anyway it's my party, er, I mean, blog, and I'll cry – I'm sorry, review – if I want to.

Plus there'll hopefully be one or two other bits and bobs in the mix too, depending on how things pan out. So lots to look forward to. Back soon.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Bleeck Week: No Questions Asked by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hamish Hamilton First Edition, Ken Reilly Cover

And so we reach the end of Bleeck Week, a week which, if you haven't worked out by now what it was all about, then there really is no hope for you. Just take yourself off to the previous posts on Ross Thomas/Oliver Bleeck's four prior Philip St. Ives novels here, here, here and here, and I'll see you back here when you're done.

All finished? Right then. Let's have a look at the final Bleeck book:

Which is the UK hardback first edition of No Questions Asked, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1976 – originally published in the same year in the States by William Morrow. And as you can see, for some reason, Hamilton elected not to use the singular services of their go-to cover photographer Beverley le Barrow for this one – unlike yesterday's copy of The Highbinders – which makes No Questions Asked quite unusual among that run of Hamilton editions of Ross Thomas's novels from 1974-79. The dustjacket is, however, different to the American cover (which you can see on the right there), and was designed by Ken Reilly, a well known illustrator and packaging designer still going strong today.

Shall we cast an eye over the jacket flap copy to get a sense of the story? Let's.

Philip St [sic] Ives, that most professional of professional go-betweens, has had some strange and dangerous cases to handle before, but his latest assignment is something out of the ordinary. A copy of Pliny's Historia Naturalis has been stolen and is now being ransomed for a quarter of a million dollars. At the same time, Jack Marsh, a well-known private detective supposed to be guarding the book in transit, has been kidnapped. So St Ives finds himself in snow-covered Washington involved in a deadly game of deception and murder, and attempting to survive long enough to recover the stolen book.

No Questions Asked is fast-moving and entertaining – as readers have come to expect from Oliver Bleeck novels.

Indeed we have. I had to get this Hamilton copy of No Questions Asked from New Zealand, as there weren't any for sale in the UK. This was before the recent appalling earthquake over there, mind, although Lotsabooks, the store I bought it from, is in Hamilton, some way from Christchurch, where the quake did its worst. Even so, I hope all over there are safe and well, and I can thoroughly recommend buying books from them, as this copy arrived in not much more than a week and in near-fine condition.

And that brings us to the end of Bleeck Week. Next week I had planned on doing a week's worth of espionage-themed posts as a sequel to last year's Espionage Week, but I've now decided against that. Instead, I'll be doing two weeks' worth of espionage posts, as I have so many books to cover I won't be able to fit them all into a single week. So look out for Spy Fiction Fortnight, coming your way very soon. And if you're really lucky, I might even post a preview of that over the weekend...

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Bleeck Week: The Highbinders by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hamish Hamilton First Edition, Cover by Beverley le Barrow, a.k.a. Beverley Goodway

We're stumbling towards the end of Bleeck Week now, with just two more of the pseudonymous Philip St. Ives thrillers written by Ross Thomas to look at. And today it's the turn of the fourth St. Ives novel... not to mention the return of a cover photographer who's become a firm favourite in the palatial abode of Louis XIV (i.e., round my gaff):

Seen above is the UK hardback first edition of The Highbinders, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1974 – originally published by William Morrow in the States in 1973. And if we take a look at the US cover:

We can see that the approach on the UK one was a little... different... I'll come back to the design of the Hamilton edition dustjacket momentarily, but as is traditional by now, let's take a gander at its jacket flap copy to see what it's all about:

Professional go-between Philip St. Ives finds himself in a London jail even before he has accepted an offer from Ned and Norbert Nitry to recover the fabulous Sword of St. Louis which as (or has it?) been stolen from them and is being ransomed. When Philip does accept the offer, he becomes involved in a deadly game of deception and murder with a bizarre group of characters that includes two professional con men (highbinders). This is a top-flight novel of intrigue and fun from an acknowledged master of the suspense novel.

Good of Hamish Hamilton's copywriter to tell us what a highbinder is – I had no idea before reading that blurb – and also, the novel's set in London, from whence I hail (I didn't always live in Lewes, y'know). I've already spotted references to New Cavendish Street and Watney's the brewers, so it'll be interesting to spot other Lahndahn Taaahhhn locations...

As I mentioned in the previous post on the second St. Ives novel, Protocol for a Kidnapping (which really should have been the second post in Bleeck Week instead of the third – don't ask), after the third St. Ives book, 1971/72's The Procane Chronicle/The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, the UK rights for Oliver Bleeck's novels were picked up from Hodder & Stoughton by Hamish Hamilton. Indeed, from 1974 onwards, ALL of Ross Thomas's novels – pseudonymous or otherwise – were published by Hamilton in Britain. And for five glorious years from 1974–1979, the vast majority of those novels were graced by dustjackets 'designed' by Hamilton's go-to cover 'designer' – or rather, photographer – during that period, one Beverley le Barrow.

Beverley has featured on this blog numerous times now, both in conjunction with Ross Thomas books and with those by other authors, too. At first, in this post on The Money Harvest/Yellow-Dog Contract, then in this one on P. D. James's Cover Her Face, and subsequently in this post on the paperbacks of If You Can't Be Good and Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, and indeed this one on The Eighth Dwarf, I figured Beverley was a woman; with a name like that you would, wouldn't you? But by the time I got to Chinaman's Chance, I was starting to wonder whether Beverley le Barrow might in fact be a pseudonym. After all, in the Hamish Hamilton books with covers by Beverley, they were credited to "Beverly Lebarrow", while in other paperbacks, it was "Beverley le Barrow". Why the discrepancy?

And then in this post on the Panther paperback editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (followed by this post on the box set of those books) I started to make the connection between Beverley le Barrow and famed Sun newspaper Page 3 photographer Beverley Goodway, theorising that they might be one and the same. That theory was later pretty much confirmed by Francis from the Stanley Morgan Website, who left a couple of comments on that Eighth Dwarf post saying that he'd got in contact with an American photographer who'd worked as Beverley's assistant in the '70s and asked him if Le Barrow was a pseudonym. Said photographer confirmed it was, and he confirmed he was a man, and he reckoned that he thought Beverley's real surname was... Goodway.

All of which convoluted nonsense means that the photo on the jacket of The Highbinders you can see up top – credited on the front flap to Beverly Lebarrow – was almost certainly taken by saucy Page 3 snapper Beverley Goodway, who seemingly moonlighted as a book cover photographer all through the '70s and '80s. Mind you, it doesn't explain why the picture on the front of The Highbinders depicts a bloke stuffed into a piano in a graveyard. What's that all about? Beverley was known for his, ah, literal interpretations of a novel's story or title – see Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf – so presumably it's something to do with the plot of the book. Perhaps our resident Ross Thomas expert, Book Glutton – who in a comment on yesterday's post on Protocol for a Kidnapping revealed the meaning of that cover – can shed some light.

(UPDATE: And indeed Book Glutton has done just that – see comment on this post – and in the process pointed out that the piano is actually a tomb in Highgate Cemetery in North London (where Karl Marx is famously buried), known as the Thornton piano. It looks as if it's fallen into some disrepair these days, but if you google it you'll find lots of pictures of it through the years, including this one from 1977.)

Anyway, we'll be seeing more from Beverley le Barrow before too long. But next up, it's the final book in Bleeck Week: No Questions Asked.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Bleeck Week: Protocol for a Kidnapping by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hodder First Edition, Cover Design by Lawrence Ratzkin

And so this week's worth of posts on crime/espionage/thriller writer Ross Thomas's pseudonymous series of novels starring urbane go-between Philip St. Ives continues with a book which should really have been the second post this week, not the third:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971 – the same year, in fact, that the US William Morrow first edition saw publication. And as we established in yesterday's post on The Procane Chronicle/The Thief Who Painted Sunlight/St. Ives – a missive so tiresomely tortuous I suspect it would have tried the patience of a saint – Protocol for a Kidnapping is the second novel in Bleeck/Thomas's St. Ives series, not the third. That's also been confirmed by Ross Thomas aficionado Book Glutton, who, in a comment on Monday's post about The Brass Go-Between, revealed that "early in Protocol for a Kidnapping, St. Ives makes a direct reference to his recent African shield fiasco (which means the first book, The Brass Go-Between). That makes Protocol the clear number two." So really, as I say, I should've posted this yesterday.

Never mind, eh? Let's put it behind us, and take a look at the dustjacket flap copy on this edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping:

Philip St. Ives, the top professional go-between introduced last year in The Brass Go-Between, is back in action. In this new novel of intrigue, St. Ives is coerced by the Department of State into recovering the U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia. The diplomat has been kidnapped and is being held for a ransom of $1,000,000 and the release of a Nobel Prize-winning poet. It's a complicated assignment that becomes downright deadly as St. Ives finds himself involved with a Broadway actor, a 30-year-old millionaire, the poet's breathtakingly beautiful daughter, and a sexy CIA agent.

One million dollars, eh? How very Austin Powers. Intriguingly, the back flap copy states, "OLIVER BLEECK [their caps, not mine] is the pseudonym of Ross Thomas, one of the world's outstanding suspense novelists", and then goes on to list Thomas's non-pseudonymous hits. And yet, on the back flap of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight – which was published in the UK a year after Protocol – it merely states, "Oliver Bleeck is the pseudonym of a well-known writer". So did Hodder mistakenly 'out' Thomas on Protocol and then for Thief hope that readers either had a very short memory or hadn't read a Bleeck before?

The dustjacket design on Protocol is by Lawrence Ratzkin, who I covered fairly extensively in this post on Ross Thomas's The Backup Men, published in the same year as Protocol. So I don't have much to add about him here, except to mention that I did chance across this 2010 article in Glasgow's The Herald newspaper on the controversial "Ground Zero mosque" in New York, in which Ratzkin is quoted taking an anti-mosque protester to task. "This country has a document that guarantees freedom of religion," Ratzkin tells him. "If you believe in this country, whatever your feelings, you have to live by that." Go Lawrence. If nothing else, it proves that, as of 2010, Mr. Ratzkin was alive and well, something I wasn't sure about in that Backup Men post.

The dustjacket on the Hodder edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping seems to be identical to the Morrow edition, so there's little point in showing you the American one. But as we'll see in the next post, when Hamish Hamilton picked up the UK Bleeck rights from Hodder with The Highbinders, the cover designs for the novels took a turn for the... idiosyncratic...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Bleeck Week: The Thief Who Painted Sunlight (a.k.a. The Procane Chronicle) by Oliver Bleeck (a.k.a. Ross Thomas); Hodder & Stoughton First Edition

Now what the Dickens is this? Didn't I proclaim at the end of the previous post in Bleeck Week – a week of posts on espionage/crime/political thriller writer Ross Thomas's pseudonymous Oliver Bleeck novels – that the next book I'd be featuring would be The Procane Chronicle, the second – some say third; I'll come back to that – novel to feature urbane facilitator Philip St. Ives? Well then why am I showing this instead:

A UK hardback first edition of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1972? The answer, my friends, and as the more astute among you will already have discerned from one of the parenthetical asides in the title of this post, is that after its US William Morrow debut earlier that same year, The Procane Chronicle was subsequently published here in the UK under a different, rather more allusive name.

And it's not the first time a Ross Thomas novel has had an alternative title in the UK either. The first UK edition of his debut novel, The Cold War Swap, was retitled – again by Hodder – as Spy in the Vodka, copies of which are quite scarce and also quite pricey. Although not as scarce and pricey as The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, where, at time of writing, there are only four copies available on AbeBooks from sellers in South Africa, Australia and the US, the best of which would set you back as much as £140 for a fine copy. (Mine came from a UK dealer, The London Bookworm in Hastings, not far from the town where I live, Lewes. It was the only copy I could find for sale in this country; my friend Lynne in California convinced me to take the plunge on it, and the lovely couple who run the store did me a nice deal, bless 'em.)

But the retitling of The Procane Chronicle didn't stop with The Thief Who Painted Sunlight. Oh dear me no. Because this particular novel also formed the basis of the 1976 movie St. Ives, starring Charles Bronson as Raymond (sic) St. Ives. And that same year Pocket Books in the States reissued the novel under the title St. Ives. (The book reverted back to its original title thereafter.) That explains that one at least, but as to where the title The Thief Who Painted Sunlight springs from, well, let's let the dustjacket flap blurb on the UK Hodder edition clear that up:

Many people are successful. Abner Procane, for one, was remarkably so; he was a very successful thief. One of the reasons was that he took money only from people who didn't like to admit they had it in the first place, and were too shy to tell the police about it when it was gone. Abner Procane lived well, prospered, and had all the nice things you expect people with a certain amount of money and taste to have. On Sundays he painted, rural scenes and suchlike, and if you liked that sort of thing you could say that he caught the sunlight pretty well. His one conceit was to keep a diary that recorded, with picturesque precision, the details of the jobs that had made him rich. And his last ambition was to pull a million-dollar heist before he retired. That was when some smart villain stole the diary and offered to sell it back for 100,000 dollars, and that was when Philip St. Ives was called in to act as go-between.

What followed wasn't easy; it wasn't civilised. Mr. Procane wouldn't have used the word, but it was smelly. There were killings, a lot of them. There were hard-nosed cops. And there was heroin. St. Ives didn't like it one little bit but the way he was fixed he couldn't get out. Besides, who wanted to miss out on the crime of the decade?

Hmm. Little long-winded (much like this post is becoming...) – it's barely worth reading the novel after all that – but at least it kind of explains that title. One thing the dustjacket doesn't reveal, however, is who designed it, which is quite annoying, as finding that out was one of my reasons for buying it in the first place. I suspect it might be either Kaye Bellman, who designed the jacket for UK Hodder edition of The Brass Go-Between, or Lawrence Ratzkin, who designed the jacket for the 1971 St. Ives novel Protocol for a Kidnapping (as well as that of another Ross Thomas novel also published in 1971, The Backup Men). But the answer may well be on the jacket of the '72 US Morrow edition. Because as I discovered whilst researching (I use the word loosely) the US first, bar the title, the cover is identical to the UK edition:

So if anyone reading this post has a copy of the Morrow edition, perhaps they can enlighten me as to who designed the jacket. And something else the American first edition cover revealed once I'd tracked it down was the running order of the St. Ives novels. Right there under the title it clearly states "A novel by the author of PROTOCOL FOR A KIDNAPPING". So Procane/Thief is indeed the third St. Ives book, not the second – a publishing history that's since been confirmed by Book Glutton – who's read all the Bleecks – in a comment on the previous post. And actually, on the dustjacket back flap of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, both The Brass Go-Between and Protocol for a Kidnapping are listed under "Other thrillers by Oliver Bleeck". So I probably could've worked it out just by looking at my own copy. Harumph. What was that about "research"...?   

All of which means that this list and this post are wrong, and that, for once, Wikipedia is correct. But more importantly it means that I've written these posts in the wrong bloody order. Buggeration. Ah well. No matter. Because coming up next in Bleeck Week it's the second Oliver Bleeck novel: Protocol for a Kidnapping...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Bleeck Week Book Review: The Brass Go-Between by Oliver Bleeck, a.k.a. Ross Thomas

And so Bleeck Week begins. What is Bleeck Week, I hear you cry? Good question. I can tell you're the sharp, inquisitive type. Bleeck Week is, or rather will be, a run of posts on the series of novels written by Oliver Bleeck, otherwise known as political/spy/thriller author Ross Thomas. Thomas wrote five books as Bleeck, which were as follows: The Brass Go-Between (1969); The Procane Chronicle (1971); Protocol for a Kidnapping (also 1971; there's some debate as to which of those two came first); The Highbinders (1974); and No Questions Asked (1976). All are written in the first-person and star urbane facilitator Philip St. Ives – the "go-between" of the first novel's title – whose job it is to act as intermediary between thieves who've stolen certain property and owners who want that property returned.

I've blogged about Ross Thomas multiple times since Book Glutton tipped me off about him, most notably during the run of posts in November last year known rather prosaically as Ross Thomas Week; if you want to learn more about Thomas before embarking on Bleeck Week, go brush up on him here, here, here, and here. Suffice to say he was a master of sophisticated thrillers, usually with a political or espionage bent and peopled with quirky, memorable characters (often with off-piste monikers). And from what I've read thus far – I've only got The Brass Go-Between under my belt on the Bleeck side of the ledger (I'm doing rather better on the main Thomas backlist) – Philip St. Ives is up there with his best.

The Brass Go-Between sees St. Ives undertake to act as intermediary between the Coulter Museum in Washington, DC, and the thieves who've stolen a priceless brass shield from said institution. Of course, matters aren't that straightforward: the shield is claimed by two African nations, Jandola and Komporeen, the latter of whom have agents at large in America attempting to retrieve the shield themselves, led by one Conception Mbwato. And mixed in amongst all that are reclusive billionaire oilman and chairman of the Coulter Museum, Winfield Spencer; Coulter director Mrs. Frances Wingo; a corrupt cop acquaintance of St. Ives's, Lieutenant Kenneth Ogden; two more cops from Washington, Demeter and Fastnaught; and the thieves themselves, who turn out to be somewhat incompetent.

But it's St. Ives who's the real draw. A former newspaper columnist whose newspaper folded four years ago, St. Ives fell into the go-between racket at the behest of his lawyer, Myron Greene, and soon became trusted by all sides – the insurance companies, the police and the criminals. With nothing better to do and with alimony payments to keep up, St. Ives takes on five or six jobs a year and spends the rest of his time playing cards with his largely disreputable associates and lounging about his hotel apartment watching telly whilst eating cucumber sandwiches.

Of all the Thomas characters I've come across, I guess he's closest to Mac McCorkle from the Mac's Place Quartet. But whereas Mac is very much in the hardbitten, cynical, world-weary gumshoe mould (despite not actually being a gumshoe), St. Ives is rather more sophisticated and cultured. He seems quite happy pootling about in-between jobs doing not much of anything, and when he's working he is, as he mentions more than once, both cautious and careful. He's not by any stretch of the imagination a thrillseeker... and yet as the plot of The Brass Go-Between becomes ever more complex, in true Thomas fashion, with double-crosses and hidden agendas aplenty, St. Ives soon finds himself in real danger and forced to make a moral choice between doing his job and doing what's right.

Mind you, in a Ross Thomas novel, doing what's right is never that clear cut, and after a climactic shootout, St. Ives is left pondering whether he made the correct choice – or even if there was a correct choice to begin with. It's this moral ambiguity that makes Ross Thomas's characters so compelling, from the aforementioned Mac and his partner Mike Padillo, to affable grifters Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Philip St. Ives is another name to add to that agreeable list. It's just a shame The Brass Go-Between and the rest of the Bleeck novels have fallen out of print, although fairly cheap paperbacks can be found readily on the likes of Amazon Marketplace and AbeBooks.

But we're not concerned with cheap paperbacks here on Existential Ennui (well, not as a rule). Oh no. We're much more interested in ridiculously expensive hardback first editions – and that's exactly what we'll be looking at in the very next post in Bleeck Week, with a rather unusual British edition of the second (or is it the third...?) St. Ives novel, The Procane Chronicle...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Martin Amis, Children's Fiction, and We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (Reinhardt First Edition, 1991)

True to form, waiting for me at home when I got back last night was the book I originally intended to blog about when I wrote that post on Martin Amis's London Fields and the kerfuffle caused by Amis's comments about children's fiction, and which I was complaining still hadn't turned up by yesterday lunchtime, whining ingrate that I am. And it's this:

A UK hardback first edition of We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis, published by Reinhardt Books in 1991, with a front cover illustration by Derek Brazell. It's Amis Senior's one and only novel – or rather, novella; it's around 90 pages – aimed at younger readers – and as you've no doubt guessed by now, the half-arsed point I was going to make originally was that while Amis M. may never write a children's book, Amis K. most definitely did.  

We Are All Guilty is the story of seventeen-year-old London lad Clive Rayner, who breaks into a warehouse with his mate for a laugh and then has to deal with the consequences of a night watchman getting badly injured during the episode. It was written towards the end of Amis's life – he died in 1995 – and in Clive revisits a character Amis originally created for a 1970s television play (I don't know which one).

Trouble is, if I wanted to hold up a children's story as a refutation of Martin Amis's remarks, We Are All Guilty probably wouldn't be the best example. Indeed, as James Wolcott notes in this recent Vanity Fair post on the novella, it may even be the root of Amis Junior's problem (if he even has one) with kid lit. As an experiment it's intriguing, but it's not a great piece of fiction. The dialogue is clunky and outdated – Amis's take on how 1990s teenagers spoke is rather tin-eared – and the overall tone is more akin to a well-meaning 1970s TV drama – which, considering that's where it originated, shouldn't be so surprising. It's certainly conceivable, as Wolcott suggests, that Martin wasn't terribly impressed by it and that that reaction consequently coloured his view of children's fiction.

And yet... there's something about the story that's oddly compelling. Clive is beset on all sides by people trying to forgive him: his parents, the police, the local vicar, even the man whose life he nearly ended. But Clive isn't seeking forgiveness. He knows he done wrong, and he wants to pay for his crime, to be punished. Wolcott identifies this as evidence of Amis's indignation at what he perceived as Britain's liberal nanny state, noting the story's "satirical" nature. It's an interesting notion, and it hews to the received wisdom of Amis's right-leaning politics by this juncture, but I think he's barking up the wrong tree, chiefly because it conveniently ignores the fact that the book must have been written not long after Section 28 was enacted and around the time of the Poll Tax Riots, when Britain felt anything but liberal.

But Wolcott is also overlooking who the book was aimed at. Kids always prefer to read about characters who are older than they themselves are, so We Are All Guilty was – still is, for all I know – read by children younger than Clive, I guess from ages twelve to fifteen. As such, it possibly provided some food for thought. Clive may be a bit hackneyed as a character and sometimes speak as if written by an essentially middle class pensioner, but his confusion and unfocused anger come across quite well. I can see how a younger reader could connect with Clive. And there are no easy answers in the novel either, making it a good topic of discussion for students.

Which is exactly what it has become for one university professor, although perhaps not in the way Amis envisaged. In January this year, We Are All Guilty was published in a translated Persian edition in Iran. The translator of the novella, Professor Ali Arabani Dan of Islamic Azad University, was quoted as saying: "We Are All Guilty is the story of a young man who undergoes decadence due to his economical and family problems, but finally find a new hopeful world in the light of religious instructions... I have been teaching this book for years in original English in my classes, but then I decided to translate it into Persian to make its universally religious content available for the use of our youth."

Which, considering Amis was a confirmed atheist who wrote a number of times about his antipathy towards God – see the essay "On Christ's Nature" in What Became of Jane Austen?, or the novels The Anti-Death League and The Green Man, both of which take issue with the Almighty – is rather ironic. Although, to return to my original point, I suppose it is proof that even a not particularly great piece of children's fiction can still possess a certain power.

Anyway. Onwards. And coming next, as I promised yesterday, it's Bleeck Week...

Friday, 18 February 2011

Coming Soon on Existential Ennui...

Well, that book I mentioned yesterday still hasn't turned up – if it makes an appearance over the weekend perhaps I'll blog about it then – so instead, I thought I'd post a preview of forthcoming stuff on Existential Ennui, accompanied by a selection of teaser images. Quite how much interest any of this will be to those unfortunate enough to still be following this blog is anyone's guess, but I think I can cautiously state that next week's posts in particular will find favour with at least a couple of regular readers...

So, coming soon on Existential Ennui, there'll be a handful of posts on crime writer Mark Billingham, featuring a decidedly tardy review of his debut, Sleephead; I'll have reviews and spotlights on the likes of Kate Atkinson, Francis Clifford and Gavin Lyall; there'll be a run of SF- and fantasy-themed posts on James Blish and Michael Moorcock (the Lewes branch of Oxfam came up trumps there); and we'll see the return to Existential Ennui of an author much admired round these parts: political/espionage/thriller writer Ross Thomas, with a number of very scarce UK first editions.

On top of all that, we'll also have another week dedicated to spy fiction, this time featuring a signed edition of an unusual espionage novel; a piece of publishing paraphernalia accompanying another novel; a little-seen book about spy fiction from the 1950s; hopefully a review of a fairly recent (which, on this blog, can mean anything from the last ten years) espionage thriller; and possibly one or two other things too. And names to watch out for in that week include: Alexander Cordell, Jeremy Duns, Mark Gatiss, Graham Greene and Joseph Hone.

But before all that, next week Existential Ennui will be focusing exclusively on an author who I've already mentioned – except in this instance, the focus will be on his alter ego. Yes, next week is Bleeck Week, with a run of posts on the five Philip St. Ives novels written by Ross Thomas under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck. I'll have a review of the debut Bleeck, The Brass Go-Between; I'll have some extremely rare UK firsts of the books, including one very surprising edition; and we'll see the return of a cover photographer who continues to confound and intrigue me in equal measures – and who I reckon we've now established had a rather more famous parallel career as a Page Three snapper: Beverley le Barrow.

See you then.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: London Fields by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape First Edition), and That Brain Injury Remark

You might have noticed there was a bit of a kerfuffle last week over remarks made by Martin Amis during the first episode of Sebastian Faulks's BBC2 programme Faulks on Fiction. In an aside, Amis said, "When people ask me if I've ever thought of writing a children's book, I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book, but otherwise...' The idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom, and any restraints on that are intolerable." He then added, back on the subject of his character John Self from Money: "I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write at."

Almost a week later – presumably the time it takes these days for reporters to catch up on telly programmes on BBC iPlayer and rouse themselves enough to go and canvas opinion and hopefully whip up a bit of controv, the idle bastards – The Guardian ran a story about the "anger and offence" Amis's remarks had caused, featuring rebuttals from a number of dissenting children's authors. Predictably, shortly after that the twittersphere and blogosphere threw a collective hissy fit and began loudly condemning Amis and all his works, and permutations of the 'story', such as it is, have been running ever since (google "Martin Amis brain injury" – stop sniggering at the back – and you'll see what I mean).

I mention all this not to add my own voice to the hysterical din – I actually watched the programme in question and the slight smile that plays around Amis's lips and eyes as he formulates the sentence tells you much of what you need to know; plus I can see what he was getting at (it's his opinion on his own writing, after all), and parts of the quote have been taken out of context anyway – but with the intention of showing a book today that could be seen as something of a riposte to his statement. Unfortunately, that book hasn't turned up in the post yet, which has scuppered my plan somewhat. So instead, here's a Lewes Book Bargain, a novel by Amis which I bought in the Lewes Oxfam shop recently:

A UK hardback first edition/first impression of London Fields, published by Jonathan Cape in 1989. It's in nice condition, and as you can see from the £2.99 price sticker on the back, it cost rather less than you'd ordinarily have to pay for a true first. The only problem is... I can't remember if I've read the bloody thing or not. I have read Amis's early novels – The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, Other People, Money – and flicking through London Fields, parts of it do seem familiar to me. But if I have read it, I can't for the life of me recall a damn thing about it. What's more, upon further reflection, I can't recall anything about any of the other Amis M. books I've read either, with the possible exception of Money, and even there it's only a vague and lingering impression of John Self.

I'm not sure what conclusions I should draw from this. Is it a case of failing memory? I don't think so, because I can vividly recall many of the other books I read around the same late-'80s/early-'90s period. Is it something to do with the relative strength of Amis's storytelling? Or maybe I merely imagined I read those Amis novels when in fact I did no such thing, a sort of retroactive literary-fying of my admittedly genre-centric reading past (a literary retcon, if you will)? Who the hell knows. I suppose I'll just have to start reading London Fields again and see if anything jogs my memory. And if the book I originally intended to write about today turns up, perhaps in the next post I can make the point I was originally intending to make. Although I'm uncertain now I had much of a point to begin with. Hurm.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Brighton Bookshop Bargain: The Sleeper by Eric Clark (Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

It's the third and final post in this short series on books wot I have bought recently wot have covers on them designed by that there Raymond Hawkey. And today it's the turn of a novel I bought for three quid in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton, one of that seaside city's best bookshops (despite it having, according to The Book Guide, a storeroom and an annexe that I've never even got a sniff of):

That's a UK hardback first edition of The Sleeper, an espionage novel by Eric Clark, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1979. The photograph on the front of the dustjacket was taken by Peter Williams, directed of course by the aforementioned Mr. Hawkey; the same team also created the jacket for the 1980 first edition of Gavin Lyall's The Secret Servant, which I reviewed a while back. (The back cover author photo, by the way, is by Jerry Bauer.) But take a look at that Colt revolver on the front. Could that be the same gun (lit differently) as seen on the jacket for the 1976 first edition of Len Deighton's Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, which I blogged about yesterday? And could it even be the same pistol that graces the cover of the 1972 Coronet paperback of Richard Stark's Deadly Edge, which kicked off this run of Raymond Hawkey posts? Is it possible that Raymond Hawkey wheeled out the same props for different book cover studio sessions?

What do we reckon?

Hawkey also designed the jacket for the 1978 Hodder first edition of Clark's debut, Black Gambit, a novel about a Russian dissident scientist and an American prisoner inside for murder and the connection between them, which Jack Higgins reckoned "can only be compared to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold". At least, that is, according to my ever-handy copy of Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide (not to mention Mr. Clark's own website). Clark is also an investigative journalist, a parallel career which informs his fiction, as he told Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide's authors, Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher, noting there was "material I'd collected as a journalist about spies and spying which I couldn't use except as fiction." He's written ten books to date, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, his latest being an expose of the toy industry.

The Sleeper is about a dormant spy named James Fenn, a "one-time hero of the Hungarian uprising of '56," according to the jacket flap blurb, "ex-Fleet Street journalist, now comfortably ensconced on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, his enlistment to the Soviet cause almost forgotten. As one spy-master looking looking at his file, looking at his file, was to remark: 'Inactive? This sleeper's not just dormant. He's dead.' Not truly dead, of course: only who remembered him now? Who cared? And the awkward answer was that some people cared very much. For Fenn's careful cover had been blown. And when that happens who is to tell when a sleeper is activated by the wrong side." Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Sydenham Score: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy by Len Deighton (Jonathan Cape First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

For this second of three posts on books with covers designed by Raymond Hawkey, we turn to a novel I picked up on a recent sojourn to Sydenham in South London, near where my folks live:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy was first published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1976. I bought this rather nice copy in the Kirkdale Bookshop, over the road from Sydenham Station; should you ever find yourself in those insalubrious parts, it's well worth popping in (to the bookshop, not to Sydenham Station – unless of course you're intending on getting the hell out of Sydenham, in which case, you would have both my sympathy and my understanding). New books are displayed in the front half of the shop, and then towards the back and down in the basement is a sizable selection of second hand fare, with a couple of bookcases-worth of modern firsts and an impressive stock of books on cricket, gardening, history, cinema, theatre, and so forth. The prices are very reasonable too.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy may or may not be an entry in Len Deighton's first-person series starring the unnamed British spy subsequently monikered Harry Palmer in the films adapted from the novels. Even the main Len Deighton website can't make up its mind whether it is or not, which only goes to highlight the problem of not naming your lead character. Apparently if you've read the previous books in the series – from 1962's The Ipcress File to 1967's An Expensive Place to Die, although there's also some doubt over whether it's the same unnamed spy in that last one – you'll be able to draw your own conclusions as to whether Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is part of that run. But since I haven't, it's not a poser I need to trouble myself with particularly.

Raymond Hawkey designed the jackets for many of Deighton's novels, working with different photographers to achieve his vision. Props such as a gun or a skull would be placed in intriguing and suggestive arrangements, and then type incorporated with the finished photo. The photographer on Twinkle, Twinkle was Adrian Flowers, who was a key figure at influential illustration agency Artist Partners; aside from photographing book covers he also took pictures for this article on "A Day in the Life of Len Deighton", which was penned by Deighton himself.

Deighton and Hawkey were contemporaries at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s; Hawkey was employed to design the jacket for Deighton's debut, The Ipcress File, at Deighton's request, and Deighton was a designer himself before he found success as a writer, creating covers for UK editions of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1956) and a 1960 Penguin cover for Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, among others. For his part Hawkey also wrote, producing four well-received thrillers: Wild Card (1974), Side-Effect (1979), It (1983) and End Stage (1988). And as we'll see in the third and final post on him, he also created covers for spy novels by other writers – seemingly reusing props in the process...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Westlake Score: Deadly Edge by Richard Stark (UK Coronet Paperback First Edition, Raymond Hawkey Cover Design)

Remarkably, it's been two months since I last had a Westlake Score to show you, so let's start the working week with a book which, on this most lovey-dovey of days (it's Valentine's Day, in case you hadn't noticed), could not only be classed as perhaps the most romantic of all of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels, but also kicks off a short run of posts on legendary cover designer Raymond Hawkey:

Seen here is the UK first edition of Deadly Edge, the thirteenth Parker novel, published by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in paperback in 1972 (originally published in the US in hardcover by Random House in 1971). The reason it's romantic – or at least as romantic as any Parker gets, which is to say, not at all – is because it details an assault by a couple of psychos on Parker's squeeze, Claire, and Parker's subsequent reckoning with them. So it's kind of a 'Parker defends his woman' deal, as I outlined in this review.

The cover is one of Hawkey's 'bullet hole' designs, with a silver card outer cover and a paper inner cover:

Almost all of the original run of Parker novels (the exception being Butcher's Moon) had Hawkey bullet hole covers at one time or another on the Coronet printings of the books – sometimes on the second or even third printing, as on Point Blank and The Rare Coin Score, and sometimes on the first printing, as with Deadly Edge. I picked this copy up on eBay for a fiver, because once again it hadn't been listed as the UK first edition of the novel, which it is.

Steve Holland has a gallery of almost all the Hawkey bullet hole covers on his blog, along with an obituary for the designer, who died last year. But Hawkey's cover for Deadly Edge is a little different to the rest of the bullet hole designs:

All of the other Hawkey Parker covers show the title of the book through the bullet hole, whereas Deadly Edge shows a photograph of a hand holding a pistol, with the title printed on the silver outer cover. No idea why this is so, but it's an interesting anomaly.

Any road up, for the next post in this short Raymond Hawkey series, I'll have one of his designs for a Len Deighton novel, the dustjackets for whose books are what originally made Hawkey's name...

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

For this latest instalment in mini-comix archaeology series Notes from the Small Press (scroll down to the bottom for links to previous posts) we head back to the mid-1980s/early 1990s for a look at some of the comics produced by Chester collective Help! Shark.

Help! Shark were a group of cartoonists based in the North-West England city of Chester, comprising Chris Flewitt, Gavin Butler and Steven Martin. As ever with that 1980s period of frenetic small press action, I became aware of their work via Ed Pinsent et al's Fast Fiction table at the London Westminster Comic Mart – and as ever, Ed himself has a biography of the Help! Shark crew on his website, as well as a cover gallery of their comics. What made Help! Shark's stuff stand out in the first instance was their design: they had the most stylish covers in the entire small press scene, with intriguing typographical arrangements, striking two-colour layouts and often additional quirks, like the cover being slightly shorter width-wise than the rest of the comic, or the comic opening from the back:

Or even, in the case of Steven Martin's 1987's comic Splendid, requiring the reader to undo a vertical strap which folded round from the back cover, like unfastening a belt buckle:

These distinctive design choices extended to the interior of the comics too. Ed Pinsent recalls Help! Shark had access to a litho printer at a community centre, which meant that in terms of production values, their A5-sized publications were a cut above the standard photocopied small press fare. Comics would come with spot-colour endpapers, or perhaps be printed on pastel paper in purple ink:

But despite all this high end design, and as Chris Flewitt's June 1987 four-page pamphlet above demonstrates, the subject matter of the various comics was often determinedly everyday. Stylistically the three artists were quite different: Flewitt's art was scratchy and naturalistic; Martin's had a hint of Gabrielle Bell about it (although obviously he preceded her by some way); and Gavin Butler had much in common with early John Bagnall or Glenn Dakin. But their stories – or at least Flewitt and Martin's; Butler's tended more toward the madcap – were concerned with ordinary people living ordinary lives – albeit with the odd surrealistic touch; Martin's 1987 slice-of-life comic Life & Times, which is essentially about two lads chatting and then failing to get into a club, ends with the introduction of a talking cat called Frank.

That's spreads from Life & Times, Splendid and Domain above. In 1991 the three cartoonists produced an anthology, Great Nation. The first issue featured two stories by Martin and one each by Flewitt and Butler, and it's interesting to see how their approaches had changed. Martin in particular adopted more of a classic British comics style for his largely 'silent' World War I tale "War Story", but Flewitt had also altered his technique, simplifying his linework, while Butler reined in his chaotic artwork for an adaptation of a William Faulkner story.

For the second issue, Martin was replaced by Ten Bears, whose slapstick cartoons sat uneasily next to Butler and Hewitt's more considered work. But there is an intriguing experiment in the comic featuring all three artists plus Rich Holden, "State the Problem", which was produced using Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies technique. It's a real non-sequitur of a strip, as you'd expect, but quite engaging nevertheless:

What happened to the Help! Shark crew after Great Nation I've no idea. Like a lot of British small press cartoonists active in the pre-internet era, there's very little information about them online. But their contribution to the Fast Fiction scene was sizable, and their output was always thoughtful, unusual and occasionally quite special (Life & Times is one of my most treasured small press comics). If they were around today producing the kind of work they did back then, I suspect they'd be rather more feted.

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 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist 

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