Friday 23 December 2011

2011, a Review of the Year in Books and Comics, 1: Insufferable Navel-Gazing

Well, it's that time of the year again, when we all down tools, decamp to whichever godforsaken corner of the world we hail from (suburban south London in my case, via Surrey and Essex), and get set to munch our way through an overcooked bone-dry bird of some description, hand out gifts we ordered off Amazon, receive IOUs denoting the Amazon-ordered gifts we would have received if the bloody things had turned up on time, and fall asleep in front of whatever tripe is on telly this Christmas.

But wait! The advent of the festive season means it's also time for Existential Ennui's Review of the Year in Books and Comics! And in a frankly welcome change of programming from last year's overlong extravaganza, this year I'll be foisting just three end-of-year posts on you, instead of the previous six. T'other side of Christmas I'll have 2011's version of the Bloody Great List of books I read this year, and after that I'll be choosing my favourite books from that list.

Before all that, though, and as is traditional on Existential Ennui, I'm going to completely ignore the momentous events which have shaken the wider world – Arab spring, tsunami, radioactive emergency, a referendum, riots, recession and a royal wedding – and instead cast a critical eye over a topic which is very dear to my heart: me. Or rather, me, as filtered through Existential Ennui. Last year I posted two EE-centric missives in amongst my end-of-year round-ups, one an overview of EE in 2010 and the other a guide to what I reckoned were my best posts last year. I shan't be attempting the latter this time for the simple reason that I think my posting this year was pretty consistent, at least in terms of depth and breadth, if not quality (only you can determine that); my advice, if you fancy sampling 2011's posts, is to click on whichever subjects in the "Abiding Preoccupations" tag cloud down there in the right-hand column pique your curiosity.

Instead, let's take a more general look at Existential Ennui in 2011. And if 2010 was the year of Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, then 2011 was the year of the espionage novel. Spy fiction loomed large over Existential Ennui this year, from February/March's Spy Fiction Fortnight right through to my still-ongoing series on spy series, with a number of other author-focused runs of posts in-between, featuring Len Deighton, Anthony Price, Adam Hall, John le Carré, Sarah Gainham, Donald Hamilton and William Haggard.

And indeed runs of posts on various subjects came to increasingly characterize Existential Ennui this year. Aside from the spy fiction authors mentioned above, there were series on Peter Rabe, Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens stories, Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas), Mark Billingham, Ross Thomas (him again), Michael Moorcock, P. M. Hubbard (two runs on him), Donald Westlake's science fiction short stories (two runs of those as well), Patricia Highsmith, political diaries, signed editions and post-apocalyptic fiction.

One thing there was rather less of on Existential Ennui this year was comics coverage. I managed a handful of Notes from the Small Press posts, and a post on the DC Comics New 52 relaunch, but while I continue to buy comics on an almost-weekly basis, I find I have little of substance to say about them. At this point my comics habit really is just that: a habit, rather than a passion. And given how disappointing that DC initiative proved, plus my faltering interest in Marvel's wares, it's a habit I intend to wean myself off of in the new year. (Perhaps after the Avengers vs. X-Men event...)

There were, I think, three blogging-related moments which really stood out for me in 2011. The first of those arrived in April, when the British Library contacted me asking if they could archive Existential Ennui. Coming, as it did, completely out of the blue, the request represented, to my mind, the tiniest vindication of all the effort I'd been putting into Existential Ennui; if an institution as esteemed as the British Library could see some worth – however small – in my ill-informed ramblings, then I must be doing something right. Existential Ennui's dedicated page on the Library's UK Web Archive can be found here (it's already been updated once).

The second stand-out moment came in July, when I got to meet and interview spy novelist Anthony Price. I'd discovered Price's work early in 2011, and thoroughly enjoyed his books, so when I realised he was still with us, and that there were no interviews with him online, I decided to do something about it. My two-part interview with him can be found here and here, and both parts continue to receive hits daily.

The third memorable moment actually had more to do with another blog rather than this one – i.e., the one on The Violent World of Parker website. As of August I became the official co-blogger on Violent World, posting alongside proprietor Trent on all things Westlake, Stark and Parker. I've received a very warm welcome over there, and I don't believe Existential Ennui has suffered as a result, not only because I've been re-posting my Violent World pieces on here too, but also because having to come up with regular(ish) content for TVWoP has meant that I've kept up 2010's level of Westlake-related posting in 2011.

Taking all of that into account, plus other stuff like excellent guest posts from Michael Barber and Paul Simpson, a short Q&A with Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay, and my breaking the news of the return to print of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, it's been a pretty good year on Existential Ennui. Certainly EE is seeing increasing levels of links and comments coming in and currently attracting well over double the volume of traffic it did this time last year – around 3,500 hits per week at the moment. A percentage of that is obviously spam, and a further percentage repeat visits, and in the grand scheme of things it's still pretty small beer... but for a books blog – and an esoteric, idiosyncratic and frequently unreadable one at that – it's not too bad at all.

Mind you, some things remain unchanged: I still write in the same infuriatingly prolix and pompous fashion I always have. But since it's me who is the driving "creative" (using the term loosely) force behind this blog, there's not a whole lot can be done about that. And if you can stand my abstruse "style" (again, using the term very loosely), there is at least some occasionally useful information on Existential Ennui these days, on authors, cover artists, publishing, and more besides, all of it searchable from the little box just below right of my glorious masthead. Pop in a search term and give it a go, why don't you.

Merry Christmas, and I'll see you all again after the festivities.


  1. Thanks, Sun King

    I've really enjoyed Existential Ennui over the past year, and it's given me all sorts of new ideas for my own book collecting disease. Are you going to stick with Spy Fiction, or branch off into other literary areas in 2012?

    Regards, Luke aka The Greasy Spoon

  2. Thanks Luke. I'll be staying with the spy fiction for a while yet; I've still got a good number of authors to get through in my series on spy fiction series, and I'm turning up new (to me) authors all the time. But I've got loads of other books waiting to be blogged about: crime fiction, non-fiction, literary fiction – you name it. And I've even got a competition lined up for early next year; more details on that soon...

    I've been checking in on The Greasy Spoon, and enjoying your posts (your one on The Ivy earlier this month was intriguing). Looking forward to more culinary delights in the new year!

  3. Hi Nick

    I'm genuinely delighted that you've been reading The Greasy Spoon- you know what it's like as a blogger; it's a great feeling when you get positive feedback.

    Carry on with the good work. Incidentally, have you come across all those 60's Len Deighton Cookery Books?- a nice crossover into your area. "The Action Cook Book", I'm thinking of in particular. Harry Palmer was a bit of an old smoothie in the kitchen...

    Happy Christmas



  4. He was indeed. I've heard of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book; might have to get myself a copy and have a look.

    And yep, I know exactly how thankless blogging can feel sometimes; I do occasionally wonder if I should knock it on the head and go do something more worthwhile instead. But it keeps me writing at least, and I do love sharing whatever daft passion is occupying my mind at a given time, so I'll stick with it – and I hope you do too. The Greasy Spoon is a fine blog.

    Happy Christmas to you, too!

  5. Have a good Christmas - I've enjoyed your blog a lot.

  6. Thanks, Rob. And I've enjoyed yours, and found it and your website very useful indeed! Merry Christmas.

  7. My Dear Royal Highness,

    A Marry Christmas to you!

    Your fine work at EE is a constant source of pleasure and amusement. And it provided the answer of a question that kept bugging me for the better part of the last three decades, the origin of the most unusual Collins&Broecke 9mm gun that featured prominently on the 70's GRANADA/TRIAD/PANTHER run of the James Bond novels. Many thanks for that! Keep up the good work!

    All the best


  8. Why thank you, Harry. That's precisely what I'm here for: to provide the answers to unbelievably obscure books-related trivia head-scratchers. (Belated) merry Christmas to you, too!

  9. Dear Excellency,

    may I suggest the topic of the life and times and work of one gentleman calling himself 'Peter Cheyney' for EE's future scrutiny?

    Cheyney is interesting insofar as he himself lead a rather colourful life and must be considered Britain's leading writer of hard-boiled crime mysteries, always according to The Thrilling Detective Website ( In his day Cheyney was one of the most popular names in that genre and between 1936 and 1951 he published a vast number of novels and stories, most notably about his private eye Slim Callghan and FBI G-man Lemmy Caution. The latter character became so popular that a series of French films with Eddie Constantine in the lead adapted the novels in the 50's and 60's. The French auteur director Jean-Luc Godard even used the character in two of his art house films, ALPHAVILLE and the lesser known GERMANY YEAR 90 NINE ZERO.

    Today Cheyney is all but forgotten, an obscure footnote of the thriller genre. But in his day he was a prolific writer who - together with Jonathan Latimer - introduced early on humour into his work and is in part responsible for the genre's development in that direction.

    Particularly Caution is a wanderer between two worlds, hard-boiled P.I. and Spy. The basic premise is that of the secret agent, the FBI special agent Lemuel H. Caution getting some assignment via telegram to prevent or investigate a crime undercover. The narrative then is classic P.I.: first person, crammed to the brim with funny comparisons and observations, action aplenty, most of it the over-chilled variety that allows for a hearty laugh, a stiff whisky and a cancer stick afterwards. Or inbetween. Or whenever Caution feels it's called for. Women are women. Dangerous and true and faithful and wicked and all shades of whatever flavour they come in. As long as it's fatal. In the end our man Caution gets the girl (the true and faithful one; still as deadly as the other one that got lost on the way) and the hard-earned holiday. And the start of the next adventure sees him alone again and every bit as interested in the females as ever. In this regard Caution predates the template of the Bond books and films 15 years or so.

    Peter Cheyney himself apparently lead a wild life that saw him - amongst other occupations - in the role of solicitor, lieutenant in WW I, leading member of the British fascist party prior to WW II, writer and indeed private investigator. There is an official Peter Cheyney website
    that provides further information about his books, his characters and the films they featured in.


    Harry Millar

  10. Thanks for the Cheyney Cliff's Notes, Harry. I'm not sure what I could add after that round-up, but rest assured Cheyney is on my radar, although not any of the works you mention; I think I might try something... well... dark, first...

  11. Splendid! (in a dark way)