Wednesday 16 March 2011

Cecil Court Score: Time is an Ambush by Francis Clifford; Hodder, 1962, Peter Probyn Cover Art

I'm playing catch-up for the rest of this week on three books wot I bought flippin' ages ago – all decidedly obscure thrillers – but for one reason or another haven't got round to blogging about. And the first of those is a novel I picked up during a visit earlier in the year to London's book-lovers' paradise, Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road:

A UK hardback first edition of British thriller author Francis Clifford's Time is an Ambush, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1962. I spied this copy malingering on a shelf outside one of the Cecil Court bookshops, in amongst the cheap and unloved tomes that a lot of the shops there have in dump bins by their front windows. I think I only paid a couple of quid for it, which, when you consider there are only two copies of this edition on AbeBooks, one in New Zealand and the other a signed copy from a UK seller for fifty quid, was a bit of a bargain.

Time is an Ambush was Clifford's seventh novel; I blogged about his debut, 1953's Honour the Shrine, here (in a 1957 Corgi paperback edition), and I reviewed one of his most famous books, 1966's The Naked Runner, here. Time is an Ambush is about an English novelist, Stephen Tyler, "living in the small Spanish seaside town of Bandaques, near Barcelona," according the the dustjacket flap blurb. It continues: "While there he meets a German tourist Eric Scheele, and his young wife Ilse, and a relationship develops between Ilse and Stephen. The sudden death of the husband, which could have brought Stephen and Ilse closer together, only creates a psychological barrier between them. And when police investigations reveal the facts about Scheele's past, Stephen is faced with an agonising choice. If Ilse ever learns the truth about her husband it will destroy her, yet if he does not tell her he will lose her."

Most of Clifford's novels are long out of print... but not Time is an Ambush. Because at the start of last year Ostara Publishing made it available as one of their print-on-demand Top Notch Thriller titles. Shots Magazine also ran a review of the novel, calling it "beautifully detailed, subtle (yet tense)", while in October last year Mike Ripley picked it as one of his favourite thrillers.

The dustjacket on the Hodder edition was designed by Peter Probyn, and it is a remarkable piece of work. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best wrappers I've yet come across. With its restricted palette and use of chiaroscuro it reminds me a little of one of Denis McLoughlin's covers, except more symbolic and allusive. Probyn was a cartoonist and illustrator who created a handful of book covers in the 1960s, among them the jacket for the 1964 Hodder first edition of Clifford's The Hunting Ground. He contributed cartoons to Punch, wrote and drew the Grandpa comic strip in Eagle in the 1950s, and also edited a number of instructional drawing manuals, notably The Complete Drawing Book, which went through multiple editions from 1970 on (it's out of print now).

But perhaps his most significant contribution to the field of art came when he was a schoolteacher during, I think, the 1940s. Among his pupils was a young Howard Hodgkin, who would of course go on to become a respected and revered abstract painter. Hodgkin wasn't terribly happy at school, but as this Guardian interview with the artist reveals, one of the few bright spots for him during that time was being taught by Probyn. So while these days Probyn is little-remembered, for Hodgkin, he was an important formative influence.

Right then. On to the next obscure thriller, with which we welcome back our dear old friend, Beverley le Barrow...

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