Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Parker Progress Report: Butcher's Moon (Parker #16, 1974) by Richard Stark; Review

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Well I still haven't quite made up my mind as regards which spy fiction series I'll be blogging about next, but I have decided, you'll doubtless be delighted to learn, what my next few Violent World of Parker cross-posts will be on: Butcher's Moon. 

Butcher's Moon marks the end of both the first phase of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novel series, and the first phase of my reviewing trawl through the Parkers. I've actually got three posts planned on the book: this first one, which is, obviously, a review; a look at the Random House first edition of the novel, in particular an ex-library copy I found fairly recently, but also the book's design and collectibility; and a look at the first British edition as well.

But let's begin with the substantive issue, namely the novel itself. First published in 1974, Butcher's Moon is not only the capstone on Parker phase one – i.e. 1962–1974 – but also the culmination of everything Westlake had been doing in the series to this point. Westlake's been quoted as saying that he stopped writing Parker stories (for twenty-three years, that is, until he started again with Comeback in 1997) because those stories just stopped coming to him. On the evidence of Butcher's Moon, it's easy to see why. The novel reintroduces characters from almost all fifteen of its predecessors in a tale that is, in the first instance, a direct sequel to the previous Parker-but-one, Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), but also, and perhaps more audaciously, a continuation of, and completing of, a subplot introduced in the very first book in the series, The Hunter (1962).

Parker's run of bad luck – see the four novels from The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) to Plunder Squad (Parker #15, 1972) – persists as the story opens. A botched jewellery store job leaves him out of pocket and in dire need of cash, so he calls up Alan Grofield, the actor-turned-thief with whom he worked on the heist at the start of Slayground/The Blackbird (Grofield #3, 1969 – the two novels sharing an opening chapter, remember) – a heist that resulted in Grofield being hospitalized and Parker abandoning a stashed bag of dough in an amusement park in the Midwest city of Tyler. Grofield is similarly on his uppers, his summer stock theatre in Mead Grove, Indiana continuing to drain his resources and the events of his last solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (Grofield #4, 1971), leaving him without a pot to piss in. So when Parker suggests they head to Tyler to retrieve their loot, Grofield readily accepts.

Predictably, once they arrive in Tyler and search Fun Island, there's no trace of the money, so – much as Parker did in The Hunter – he and Grofield make a nuisance of themselves with the local Outfit (i.e. Mob) operation in an effort to track down the boodle. Adolf Lozini, the Mafia boss who led the hunt for Parker through Fun Island in Slayground, is still in charge – but only just. There's a coup d'état brewing, and the last thing the usurpers need is Parker and Grofield making things more difficult. But successfully and violently muddy the waters they do, until Grofield is shot (again; see also Parker #8, The Handle, 1966/Grofield #1, The Damsel, 1967) and then held hostage and Parker has to resort to calling in help from a Dirty Dozen (including himself) of former associates from previous books – among them Handy McKay from The Man with the Getaway Face (Parker #2, 1963), Stan Devers from The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, 1967) and Ed Mackey from Plunder Squad – to carry out a series of jobs on Outfit enterprises in and around Tyler before hitting the Outfit men themselves.

There's a school of thought which reasons that Butcher's Moon represents the strongest evidence yet of a softening, a humanizing of the initially emotionless, machine-like Parker, a development that can be traced back to his hooking up with Claire in The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967). Frankly, I don't buy it. Parker cheerfully – or, more accurately, dourly – murders his way through Butcher's Moon, gunning down one man on a sidewalk just to send a message and visiting an apocalyptic vengeance on the hapless mobsters at the close of the book. If that's a "softer" Parker, my name's Alan Marshall.

Those who present the case for Parker becoming more human – the estimable Max Allan Collins in this Mystery*File review, say, or more recently, by inference, the effervescent Tucker Stone in this Factual Opinion review – point to Parker gathering together his "friends" to take on the Outfit, and more specifically to a scene two-thirds into the novel once he's done so. Taking the question of the relationship between Parker and his associates first, I think it's a mistake to view the heisters Parker brings to Tyler as his pals. Sure, they're men he can trust – to an extent – but they're hardly friends; it's not as if Parker hangs out with any of them when he's not working (inviting the guys upstate, Parker in Bermuda shorts, the convivial host, slapping some steaks on the grill, passing round a six-pack... nah, can't see it), and for their part, they're essentially in Tyler to make some money. Parker is basically assembling a hit squad of co-workers, much as he did in The Outfit (Parker #3, 1963), with a definite aim in mind.

As to the specific scene, that hinges on why Parker is even bothering to get Grofield back – the argument being that, hitherto, Parker would have done the practical thing and left him behind. I suspect, however, that there's something more meta going on here. It's a question that Westlake himself addresses after Parker explains that the twelve of them will launch an assault on the Outfit to retrieve Grofield, after which we get this passage: 

His intensity had startled them a little. Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said, "That's not like you."

What kind of shit was this? Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions. He said, "What's not like me?"

"A couple things," Handy said. "For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else. Grofield, me, anybody. We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we're not the Travelers Aid Society. You, too. And the same with Grofield. What happens to him is up to him."

"Not when they send him to me piece by piece," Parker said. "If they kill him, that's one thing. If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that's his lookout. But these bastards rang me in on it."

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go. "The other thing," he said, "is revenge. I've never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt. Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead."

Parker got to his feet. He'd been patient a long time, he'd explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. "I don't care," he said. "I don't care if it's like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I'm going round in circles, I'm not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away? I'd like to burn this city to the ground, I'd like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don't want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it. You're in, Handy, or you're out. I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you'll get for it. Give me a yes or a no."

What Westlake is doing here is directly addressing us, the readers. Westlake doesn't care that it's slightly out of character for Parker to want to rescue Grofield: the author simply wishes to write a climactic assault on the Outfit compound, which he subsequently does, with nerve-jangling bravado. It could be argued that the transition is clumsily handled, that for a brief moment the gears and levers of the plot become visible; but Westlake understands this, admits that's the case, and dares us to either go along with him or give up on the story. Get on board, he's saying, or get gone.

Structurally, Butcher's Moon marks something of a departure from previous books in the series. Westlake dispenses with the traditional four parts in favour of a continuous, largely linear narrative. Again, that's in keeping with both the apogeic nature of the enterprise – there's little time for Stark Cutaways as we barrel towards the finish line – and the more experimental aspects of the late-1960s/early-1970s Parker novels. That Westlake arrived at what is in essence a standard novel approach having spent the previous four Parkers tinkering with structure is perhaps surprising, but by dint of its formal ordinariness and additional – but again more familiar in comparison to other, non-Stark novels – length (it's a lot longer than the Parkers' typical 160 pages), perversely, Butcher's Moon actually stands out from the crowd. 

Butcher's Moon isn't, I don't think, the best book in the initial run of the series; for my money that's still The Seventh/The Split (Parker #7, 1966), which has a terrific Parker-perplexing set-up, a blistering blood-soaked finale and a killer last line. But it's one of the best, certainly in the top five, and a fitting finale for the first phase of this brilliant, unique crime series.

As ever, you can read Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent's thoughts on Butcher's Moon on the book's dedicated page, but next up from me: the 1974 Random House first edition of the novel...

Friday, 25 November 2011

Matt Helm in Hardcover: The Menacers (Matt Helm #11) by Donald Hamilton (Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, 1968)

For this final post on the Matt Helm spy novels by Donald Hamilton – final for now, anyway; I should have a further Matt Helm post quite soon, and a very exciting one at that – I have an unusual edition of one of Hamilton's Helm novels, the atypical format of which makes it unique among the twenty-seven books in the series...

As I mentioned in the previous post, thus far all of the Matt Helm books I've been showcasing have been paperbacks – reason being, in the US and the UK pretty much every book in the series was published both first and exclusively in paperback. The paperback format was Hamilton's natural home, as it was for other softcover kings like Peter Rabe and Jim Thompson – which isn't to say that, also like Rabe and Thompson, Hamilton didn't make it into hardback on occasion. A number of Hamilton's pre-Matt Helm novels were initially published in hardback, among them Date with Darkness (Rinehart, US, 1947), The Steel Mirror (Rinehart, US, 1948), Rough Company (Wingate, UK, 1954) and The Big Country (Wingate, UK, 1958).

Out of all the Matt Helm novels, though, only one was ever published under hard covers:

This is the UK hardback first edition of The Menacers, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968 – also published in paperback in the States that same year by Gold Medal – under a dustjacket designed by Michael Dempsey, others of whose jackets adorn my firsts of Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery (one of may favourite novels of all time) and Richard Stark's Alan Grofield novel The Damsel. The eleventh Matt Helm novel, it sees Helm sent to Mexico (again) to investigate, of all things, a UFO sighting (see the Unofficial Matt Helm site for more).

I found this copy very recently, at the Paperback & Pulp Bookfair in London – which, I guess, is something of an oxymoron, since this edition of The Menacers clearly isn't a paperback (or a pulp). But there were a few hardbacks on sale at the fair (perhaps they were there just for me...), all of them pretty rare, and I came away with some real crackers, including this. There's only one other copy of this edition on AbeBooks from a UK-based seller at present, a tatty-sounding ex-library affair, and the remainder of the ten copies listed are dotted around the globe. My one set me back the princely sum of £4.50, which, considering I'd have to pay at least thirty quid including shipping for a comparable copy – and even though the jacket's a little edge-worn – was a bit of a bargain.

The front cover trumpets the fact that it's Matt Helm's first appearance in hardback (see – it's not just me who cares about these things)... but it was also to be his last. Presumably The Menacers didn't sell well enough for Hodder to persist with the series, although UK paperback publisher Coronet would continue to issue the Helms for years yet. Consequently, it's an intriguing curio for collectors.

I was going to sign off yesterday's Matt Helm post with a great quote I found from Donald Hamilton in my copy of Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher's Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide (1990), but unfortunately Blogger deleted the last part of that post, and I had to reconstitute it sans quote. So let's round off all three of my Matt Helm posts with it instead. Here's Hamilton's own admirable analysis of the philosophical principle behind his novels:

"Entertainment is what it's all about. Messages go by Western Union."

Looking ahead, and I haven't quite decided which spy fiction series I'll be featuring next in this series of posts on spy series, nor indeed what I'll be blogging about next over on The Violent World of Parker. I've all manner of options open to me, so when I eventually make my decision, it'll be a nice surprise for us all...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Spy Novels of Donald Hamilton: The Wrecking Crew (Matt Helm #2), The Removers (Matt Helm #3) and The Silencers (Matt Helm #4), and Collecting Hamilton and Helm

Having reviewed the debut novel in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series of spy thrillers, 1960's Death of a Citizen, in this second of three Helm-centric posts I thought I'd showcase some of the other Hamilton/Helm books I've acquired recently, in the process examining – in my traditionally tedious and prolix fashion – the publishing history of Hamilton's most famous creation. And let's begin with this:

Which is not, despite appearances to the contrary (for Hamilton/Helm aficionados, that is), the 1960 US Fawcett/Gold Medal paperback first edition/first printing of the second Matt Helm novel, The Wrecking Crew. No indeed. Because although it's virtually identical to the American version, it is, in fact, the 1961 UK paperback first edition, published by Frederick Muller in 1961. Muller frequently re-published Gold Medal paperbacks around this period – witness the Muller editions of Peter Rabe's Daniel Port crime thrillers in this post – their only changes being the replacement of the American price on the front cover with a British one, and a few lines on the copyright page:

So far as I've been able to establish, this was the first Matt Helm novel to be published in the UK. To my knowledge, the debut Helm, Death of a Citizen, didn't make it into print in Britain until Coronet/Hodder Fawcett published it in 1966, making The Wrecking Crew Helm's UK debut. (Muller, it seems, adopted a somewhat scattershot approach to the Gold Medal books they picked up for British publication, with no rhyme or reason as to which ones they chose.) Consequently, British readers must have been a bit perplexed in 1961 to be reading a sequel to a novel that hadn't actually appeared yet – there being a certain amount of continuity between the Matt Helm books. (Also consequently, all four Coronet printings of Death of a Citizen have become quite scarce in this country.)

(UPDATE 20/12/11: Existential Ennui reader Mark Martinez left a comment – see bottom of this post – letting me know that Muller did, in fact, publish Death of a Citizen, so the above is, in effect, nonsense. Mark has a great work-in-progress Donald Hamilton cover gallery, which can be found right here.) 

That's the 1966 and 1968 first and second printings of the Coronet edition of Death of a Citizen, there. Once Coronet started publishing the Helm novels, however, they issued all of them – including reissues of the scant few Muller had published – up to and including the seventeenth book in the series, 1976's The Retaliators (actually published in 1979 by Coronet in the UK – British publication commonly lagging behind American). Thereafter, though, no other British publisher picked up the rights, so while in the US, Fawcett/Gold Medal would go on to publish a further ten Matt Helm novels, in the UK, the series effectively ended with The Retaliators, making the latter books very hard to come by over here. Mind you, since all of the Helm novels are now out of print in the US as well (at least, for now...), those final ten books are in short supply on t'other side of the pond, too.

There's a small number of the various Coronet printings of The Wrecking Crew available from British sellers on the likes of AbeBooks at the moment, but this Muller edition is very scarce; I can't see any for sale online at present. The back cover reveals a little about the story – note also that blurb from Edward S. Aarons; that's a name that'll be cropping up again on Existential Ennui before too long – which sees a fully reactivated Helm sent to Sweden to off an enemy agent, but if you want to delve deeper into the tale I can heartily recommend the Unofficial Matt Helm website, which has dedicated pages for all twenty-seven novels, including this one, replete with fun facts about each instalment. Or, y'know, there's always Wikipedia.

One thing I can't do is tell you for certain who painted the cover of the Muller edition – which is the same as the original US edition, remember – although I suspect it might be the same artist as painted the cover of the third Matt Helm book I'll be showing in this already lengthy – and possibly destined to be gargantuan – post. (I'll also be exploring how the Gold Medal covers of the Helms changed when I get to that third book, so bear with me, cover art fans.) I do, however, know who painted the cover of this next book:

The 1962 Frederick Muller first British paperback edition (and first printing) of the third Matt Helm thriller, The Removers, originally published in paperback by Gold Medal in the States in 1961. As with The Wrecking Crew, the British cover is almost identical to the American one, and was painted (in both cases, obviously) by Barye Phillips (or possibly Philips, one "l"; opinions on the spelling of his surname differ, and he only ever signed his first name, so it's difficult to check), one of the more expressive and inventive artists in the Gold Medal stable. I blogged about Phil(l)ips in this post on Peter Rabe's The Box in January of this year, so go read that for more on the artist.

The story this time sees Helm – who's now been back working for Mac, his boss in the unnamed government counter-espionage unit, for a year – responding to a request for help from his ex-wife and in the process getting mixed up with – you guessed it – an enemy agent; head over to the Unofficial Matt Helm site for more details. The Muller edition of The Removers is slightly more readily available than The Wrecking Crew – but only slightly: there are currently just two copies on AbeBooks, one in the UK and the other in Australia.

Lastly, we have this:

Which, for a change, isn't the British first edition. Instead it's the American first edition/first printing of the fourth Matt Helm thriller, The Silencers, published by Gold Medal in paperback in February 1962. This particular – and particularly lovely – copy was originally owned A-Team writer and producer Frank Lupo, from whose impressive collection I also obtained – via Richard Thornton Books – US first editions of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels Drowned Hopes and What's the Worst That Could Happen? (the latter a signed first). Once again the Unofficial Matt Helm site has a good overview of The Silencers' story – which sees Helm attempting to extract an agent from Mexico – while the cover art on the Gold Medal first is by Bill Johnson, another Gold Medal mainstay who, as I say, I think painted The Wrecking Crew cover as well.

Coronet eventually issued The Silencers in the UK in 1966, but I don't believe Frederick Muller published this one in the UK at all – I can't see any trace of a Muller edition online. However, one thing you will notice if you search for US Gold Medal editions of The Silencers – or indeed of any of the first five Matt Helm novels – on Amazon or AbeBooks, is that most of the covers displayed by booksellers differ from the Bill Johnson one seen above. That's because having issued the initial five Matt Helm novels with covers that were typical of Gold Medals of the era but otherwise not identifiable as being part of a particular series, when the publisher reached the sixth book, 1963's The Ambushers, they finally settled on a style that would see them through the subsequent seven books, up to 1969's The Interlopers: a line drawing head shot of Helm in the top right-hand corner, and the book's title done as a kind of rubber-stamp. And once they'd adopted that style, Gold Medal then went back and reprinted the initial five Helms with covers in the same style, to bring them into line:

I gather the cover art on all of these is by John McDermott, about whom I know little other than he signed his work "MCD".

I'm just about ready to draw a line under this unintentionally mammoth post now (sighs of relief all round...), but a few points before we move on: if you'd like to learn more about Matt Helm, or indeed Donald Hamilton, you could do a lot worse than this Mystery*File essay by Doug Bassett on Helm (and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels); this Mystery*File essay by John Fraser on Hamilton; and this overview of Hamilton's life and career. As is often the case with spy fiction writers, it was actually thanks to spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns that I became aware of Donald Hamilton; Jeremy, who's a big fan of the Matt Helm books, had the opportunity to talk to Hamilton on the telephone a few years before the author's death in 2006, and you can read the results in this post on Jeremy's blog (which also details the "lost" twenty-eighth Helm novel, The Dominators).

You may have noticed that I've been showcasing paperback first editions in this post, rather than, as is the norm on Existential Ennui, hardback first editions. The reason for that is, during the thirty-plus years the twenty-seven Helm novels were being published, only one ever made it into hardback in the English language. So, for my third and final Hamilton/Helm post, I'll be revealing which one that was...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Death of a Citizen (Matt Helm #1) by Donald Hamilton: a Review (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1966)

After a Violent World of Parker cross-post review of Richard Stark's Lemons Never Lie, it's back to the spy fiction series. And this next espionage series I'll be looking at – in what will likely be three posts – stars an initially reluctant secret agent who's brought out of retirement when his old life impacts his new...

Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen was first published in paperback in the States by Gold Medal in 1960, although the edition seen above is the UK Coronet paperback from 1966, published, as was often the case with Coronet, to tie in to the novel's – also 1966 – movie adaptation. Death of a Citizen was far from Hamilton's first novel – he'd had around eight or so published prior to this one, a mixture of espionage, crime and suspense works, plus a handful Westerns, among them The Big Country (1958), which begat a famous film – but it was the first to feature the protagonist who would come to define him in most people's eyes: Matt Helm.

When we initially meet Helm in Death of a Citizen, he's bringing his wife, Beth, a Martini at a suburban Santa Fe cocktail party thrown by their friends Amos and Fran Darrel. A man and a woman enter the house; the man Helm doesn't know, but the woman is Tina, a fellow World War II veteran (and occasional lover) whom Helm hasn't seen since the end of the conflict. During the war he and Tina worked for Mac, the head of a shadowy government espionage agency, carrying out a succession of deadly assignments, many involving assassination (Helm's codename, rather incongruously, was "Eric"). Their meeting again all these years later could, Helm reasons, be a coincidence... until, that is, Tina brushes her hair back from her ear – a signal to Helm, meaning: "I'll get in touch with you later. Stand by."

All of this is narrated by Helm, who we learn has left his violent wartime past behind him and settled into a comfortable middle-class way of life with a nice house, three kids, a loving wife and a career writing Western novels (shades of Hamilton himself there). But when, after leaving the party, Helm finds a body in his studio bathroom out back of his house, his cosy existence is shattered, and he heads out on the road with Tina in order to draw fire from Amos Darrel, who, as a noted physicist, has seemingly become the target of red agents.

The juxtaposition of a standard American '60s suburbia with a savage form of counter-intelligence in Death of a Citizen is certainly jarring, and intentionally so. At the novel's outset, Matt Helm comes across as a fairly typical married white male; heading into middle-age – with attendant middle-aged spread – he glibly relates his passion for fishing and his postwar career as a photographer. But as Helm is drawn deeper into the kind of lethal game of espionage he thought he was finished with, his old instincts gradually re-emerge, along with an unexpected taste for danger. Helm begins to relish the excitement Tina's arrival has brought, and consequently does some highly questionable things.

That said, the shift from the lighter, more easygoing aspects of the story – especially at the start – to its much darker latter stages is creeping and steady rather than sudden and swift. Hamilton effectively conveys Helm's conflicted response to his situation – his loosening grip on his everyman, family-man status versus his awakening homicidal urges and appetite for peril. And of course, this being a spy thriller, nothing is quite what it seems. Two-thirds of the way into the novel there's a brilliant, jolting volte-face, leading to the kidnapping of Helm's two-year-old daughter; thereafter, Helm is set on a path of vengeance, from which there's no turning back.

Matt Helm would go on to star in a further twenty-six adventures over the next thirty or so years – not to mention a series of films and a TV show. In this post I've showcased two Coronet editions of the debut Helm outing – the aforementioned 1966 printing, and the 1968 second impression. But Coronet wasn't the first British publisher to issue the Helms, and in the next post, I'll be examining the first UK editions of the next two Matt Helm novels – and the first US edition of the fourth one – as well as ruminating on some other aspects of Hamilton's career and Helm's publishing history.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Grofield Files: Lemons Never Lie (1971) by Richard Stark; a Review

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

After a slightly-longer-than-anticipated gap following my re-posting on The Violent World of Parker the other week of my three previous reviews of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker spin-off Alan Grofield novels – The Damsel (1967), The Dame (1969) and The Blackbird (also 1969) – here, finally, are my thoughts on the fourth (and final) Grofield solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (an alternative view of which you can, of course, read on TVWoP supremo Trent's Lemons Never Lie dedicated page). And of all the Grofield books, this one is the closest in tone, structure and plot to the Parker novels – although whether that's a good or bad thing is, I think, open to debate.

Divided into five titled parts – "Las Vegas", "Mead Grove, Indiana", "St. Louis", "Moving" and "Monequois, New York" – as opposed to (most of) the Parker novels' untitled four-part structure, Lemons Never Lie opens with Grofield – actor, summer stock theatre owner and occasional thief – in Las Vegas to participate in a heist planned by an amateur named Andrew Myers. Unfortunately, the job looks to be potentially a disastrous massacre, so Grofield and another heister, Dan Leach, bow out. Leach, a seasoned gambler, nets a cool twelve grand on a craps table, but when Grofield returns to his motel room before leaving Las Vegas, he's ambushed by two shotgun-wielding masked men looking for Leach's winnings. Knocked unconscious, Grofield wakes to find Leach looming over him. Turns out the masked men subsequently tracked down Leach and took his cash, and it doesn't take much for Grofield and Leach to work out that their assailants were Myers and an associate of his.

From here on out, Grofield's, Leach's and Myers's lives become increasingly entangled, their fates inextricably intertwined; Grofield's involvement with Leach and especially Myers leads to him losing his takings from a later score, impacts on his home life in a horrific manner, and eventually sets him off on a manhunt, as the double-crosses come thick and fast and the bodies start to pile up.

Now, if all that sounds a bit like a late-1960s/early-1970s Parker thriller – The Sour Lemon Score maybe, or Plunder Squad – that's because, essentially, it is. Previously, Westlake/Stark seemed intent on trying Grofield out in other, non-crime roles in his solo outings – a reluctant adventurer in The Damsel; a locked-room murder mystery detective in The Dame; a recalcitrant secret agent in The Blackbird. That those personae largely proved an ill fit for Grofield is why each of those novels ultimately fell down, but they were at least intriguing attempts at shoehorning him into different genres. With Lemons Never Lie, both Westlake and Grofield are back on much more familiar territory. And that, for me, is why it's a less interesting effort than its predecessors.

Don't get me wrong: taken simply as crime novel, it's a damn fine piece of writing. It's violent, surprising, suitably twisty-turny, and populated by a cast of reprobates cut straight from the Parker template. But that's the problem: it is, at root, a Parker thriller in all but name, with Grofield standing in for his emotionless, taciturn associate. Noble failures the three previous Grofield solo outings may have been, but they did at least attempt to do something different with the character, rather than just plonking him in a Parker story – as is the case here.

Of course, Grofield is no Parker: while he does set out on a path of vengeance in the latter stages of the novel, murder on his mind, it doesn't come as a huge surprise that, come the final bloodbath, he's somewhat sidelined. Whereas one would expect to find Parker at the close of a novel such as this with his big, veiny hands around his nemesis's throat, it's tough to buy Grofield as a cold-blooded killing machine, even given the iniquities inflicted on his wife back in Indiana. Grofield doesn't "own" the story in the way that Parker does his. One feels Parker's presence on every page of a Parker novel, driving the story even when he's offstage. Grofield, by his affable nature, lacks that capacity, at least as regards this type of tale.

And that, ultimately, is what Lemons Never Lie shows clearest: that Grofield is a supporting player. He works best either as a semi-comedic foil for Parker's humourless countenance or as a solid back-up man, competent and reliable during a heist. It's perhaps telling that Lemons Never Lie would prove to be Grofield's final solo outing; possibly Westlake realised that, after trying Grofield out in a variety of roles before depositing him in a Parker-style thriller, Grofield really couldn't cut it as a leading man. And it's also worth noting that Grofield had become slightly superfluous by this point anyway; Westlake was already underway on another crime series, one featuring a lead not a million miles away from Grofield: John Dortmunder.

All that said, taken on its own merits, Lemons Never Lie is, I think, the best of the four Alan Grofield novels, although I do still harbour a fondness for the third one, The Blackbird. However, although Lemons Never Lie was Grofield's last solo stand, it wasn't his final appearance full stop. He had one more fairly major role to play, in the novel that would cap the initial run of Parkers: 1974's Butcher's Moon. And I'll be blogging about that book before too long...

Before that, though, it's back to the spy fiction series here on Existential Ennui, with a review of the first instalment in a long-running American series starring a man named Matt Helm...

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry (British First Edition, Hutchinson, 1974) and the Q. R. Markham Assassin of Secrets Plagiarism Controversy

Continuing this run of posts on various spy fiction series, here's a novel by an American author who, for reasons I suspect he's none too chuffed about, has been all over the news of late:

Charles McCarry's The Miernik Dossier was first published in hardback in Great Britain by Hutchinson in 1974, a year after the US Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton first edition. McCarry's debut novel following Citizen Nader, his 1972 biography of political activist Ralph Nader, it's also the first in what would become a ten-book series featuring CIA agent Paul Christopher (McCarry was a CIA operative himself before turning to writing), members of Christopher's family, and his ancestors.

Now, until very recently I'd never heard of Charles McCarry – I've only really become interested in spy fiction in the last couple of years and have a lot of catching up to do – but the author popped up on my radar as a result of the controversy surrounding Q. R. Markham's Assassin of Secrets, whereby Markham – or, to grant him his proper moniker, Quentin Rowan; given his transgressions he doesn't deserve Kingsley Amis's pseudonymous surname – lifted almost verbatim great chunks of other writers' spy novels and constructed his own piece of espionage fiction out of them. The story has been making headlines in newspapers and magazines over the past week or so, but it was via spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns's blog that I learned of it, as Jeremy had written a blurb for Assassin of Secrets before realising what Rowan had done. (Rowan has since explained his actions to Jeremy.)

Inveterate collector that I am, I have to admit I did toy with purchasing a copy of Rowan's pilfered concoction, the recalled-by-the-publisher paperback edition of which is currently fetching silly money on eBay. In the end, though, I decided that to do so would represent an affront to the authors Rowan had ripped off – not that they'll care a fig what I think, mind you, but it's the principle of the thing – and determined instead to investigate some of the original works Rowan had filched from. I was already aware of the post-Fleming Bond novels by John Gardner and Raymond Benson that Rowan had lifted passages from, and of course of Robert Ludlum's novels, from which he'd also stolen, but there was one author he'd ransacked extensively who I'd not come across before: Charles McCarry.

I don't believe The Miernik Dossier was one of the McCarry novels Rowan plundered, but he did plagiarise a number of later books in the Paul Christopher series, notably the second, third, fourth and seventh ones. However, it's always best to start at the beginning, which is why I plumped for a first edition of The Miernik Dossier. And I must say it's an intriguing piece of fiction. Ironically, given the bolted-together-from-multiple-sources nature of Rowan's book, The Miernik Dossier is something of a patchwork quilt itself. It's written in the form of, variously, reports by Christopher, letters, telephone conversation transcripts, diary entries and so forth, all of which go towards building up a picture of a possible defection by a Polish United Nations employee named Tadeusz Miernik.

It looks fascinating, and I'm glad McCarry came to my attention; in a way, from my – admittedly incidental and trifling – perspective, I guess one could make a case for at least some good coming of the Rowan affair. There's a thorough overview of McCarry's spy novels by P. J. O'Rourke here, and a lengthy interview with McCarry here (link via Sarah Weinman). As to The Miernik Dossier, British firsts of the novel will set you back anything from £20 to £100 (and possibly a bit more for a US first), but if you live in the UK, and you're quick (and lucky), there's a copy currently on eBay with a starting price of £7.00, auction finishing 27 November (tell 'em I sent ya). And if old editions aren't your thing, the novel is readily available from the usual outlets.

Moving on, and next I'll hopefully have that Richard Stark review I keep promising, after which it's on with the spy fiction series...

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Anthony Price's David Audley Spy Novel Series: Gollancz First Editions, 1970–1976; Price Guide

I promised in Tuesday's post on the first edition of October Men – spy novelist Anthony Price's 1973 fourth entry in his David Audley / Ministry of Defence Research and Development Section series of espionage works – that I'd be following up with a gallery of the initial seven of Price's Audley novels, as (a) with my recent acquisition of October Men, I now have all of them in first edition, and (b) they all boast those iconic yellow dustjackets British publisher Victor Gollancz were famous for. Here then, dear reader, is that gallery.

The yellow-jacket Gollanczes didn't carry cover design credits, but the house style was established by Stanley Morison, a noted typographer and director at Gollancz. As of the eighth novel in Price's series, 1978's The '44 Vintage, the jackets on his books became photographic in nature; I'll be showcasing some of those down the line sometime, although whether that will be as part of this just-begun series of posts on various spy fiction series remains to be seen.

But I can tell you that the next couple of spy series I'll be looking at will both be American rather than British. In the first instance I'll have a post on the debut novel in an espionage series which, for reasons to do with plagiarism, has been making the news of late; and then after that I'll have a run of posts on a spy fiction series starring a secret agent who is forced out of a middle-class retirement writing Western novels and back into a life of violence and treachery. And away from the spy fiction, I'll also have that review I mentioned of Richard Stark's fourth Alan Grofield novel, Lemons Never Lie, before too long (I've been re-posting my reviews of the previous Grofield books on The Violent World of Parker ahead of the new review).

Anyway: on with the Anthony Price first edition gallery. I've linked to my reviews of the first four novels – if anyone knows of useful reviews of the other three, let me know and I'll link to those, too – and included each first edition's current value (depending on condition/scarcity).

The Labyrinth Makers (David Audley #1), Victor Gollancz, 1970 (review here). Current value in first: £150–£300.

The Alamut Ambush (David Audley #2), Victor Gollancz, 1971 (review here). Current value in first: £75–£200.

Colonel Butler's Wolf (David Audley #3), Victor Gollancz, 1972 (review here). Current value in first: £20–£80

October Men (David Audley #4), Victor Gollancz, 1973 (review here). Current value in first: £60–£150.

Other Paths to Glory (David Audley #5), Victor Gollancz, 1974. Current value in first: £40–£100.

Our Man in Camelot (David Audley #6), Victor Gollancz, 1975. Current value in first: £30–£90.

War Game (David Audley #7), Victor Gollancz, 1976. Current value in first: £60–£120.