Saturday 31 December 2011

2011, a Review of the Year in Books and Comics, 3: the 10 Best Books I Read This Year

And so we reach the grand finale of my not-as-drawn-out-as-last-year's effort-but-still-quite-long-enough-thank-you end-of-year round-up – not to mention also, not entirely coincidentally, my final post for the year; hang out the bunting, begin the ticker-tape parade, etc., etc. And having presented a Bloody Great List of all the books I read in 2011, to round the year off I'm going to choose my ten favourite books from that list. I bet you literally cannot contain your excitement.

As I did last year, I've once again opted for a top ten this time out, rather than a top twenty, a decision which has necessitated some hard choices. I could have easily filled getting on for half of the top ten with Anthony Price novels alone, but for the sake of variety I've limited myself instead to just one appearance per author in the chart. Mind you, there were still a number of authors who didn't quite make the cut but whose work I enjoyed immensely in 2011, and therefore honourable mentions must go to Jeremy Duns (Free Agent), Adam Hall (The Berlin Memorandum), Graham Greene (The Quiet American), Michael Dibdin (Ratking), Donald Hamilton (Death of a Citizen) and Elmore Leonard (Pronto).

This being Existential Ennui and not, I dunno, Shots or The Rap Sheet or Books and Writers or something, it almost goes without saying that the majority of the books in the final ten are, by definition, "old", i.e. first published at least thirty years ago in most cases. But there are a couple of more recent novels in there too, and as I've stated more than once before, although the remainder may be getting on a bit, to me they're as fresh and exciting and surprising as anything published in 2011 – more so in most cases.

So which of the forty-eight books I read in 2011 made the top ten? Let's find out, shall we, by way of a visual guide, counting 'em down in reverse order, with links to whatever nonsense I wrote about each book (if indeed I have written anything yet). Drum roll, please!


SS-GB (1978) by Len Deighton


The Cut (2011) by George Pelecanos


When Will There be Good News? (2008) by Kate Atkinson


A Hive of Glass (1965) by P. M. Hubbard


The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970) by Ross Thomas


Smiley's People (1979) by John le Carré


Butcher's Moon (1974) by Richard Stark


Undertow (1962) by Desmond Cory


The Alamut Ambush (1971) by Anthony Price


Operation Overkill (1962) by Dan J. Marlowe

Well, one or two surprises there, I feel, especially the books at numbers 3 and 1; suffice it to say that, although they haven't yet featured on Existential Ennui, Desmond Cory and Dan J. Marlowe will be making appearances on this blog very soon indeed. As for the rest, I don't have much to add to my original reviews, except in the cases of George Pelecanos's The Cut, where I haven't yet written a review – there'll be one in the new year – and Kate Atkinson's When Will There be Good News?, which I somehow neglected to review. So let me just quickly note that, while I love all four of Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels, I think this one is my favourite, packing, as it does, a real emotional punch and featuring a completely unexpected central disaster. Utterly sublime.

And that's yer lot for 2011. Have a terrific New Year's Eve, and do join me again early in 2012, when I'll be posting a preview of forthcoming delights here on Existential Ennui...

Thursday 29 December 2011

2011, a Review of the Year in Books and Comics, 2: a Bloody Great List

Welcome back. And with Christmas done and dusted – I do hope yours was bearable – it's back to the year-end round-up here on Existential Ennui. When last we met, I'd posted an introspective overview of Existential Ennui's highlights in 2011 – the word "highlights" there being an entirely subjective and debatable piece of nomenclature. But of course, all that books blogging couldn't really have taken place without my having read a book or two over the course of the year, and so, much as I did last year, today I'm presenting a Bloody Great List of all the books I read in 2011, in roughly the order I read them. Except this year there's a twist: in each instance I've also linked to whatever piffle I posted about that particular book – unless it's a book I haven't yet blogged about, in which case, I, er, haven't. Exciting stuff, and no mistake. Let's take a look, shall we?

Pronto by Elmore Leonard
Killing Floor by Lee Child
The Brass Go-Between by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas)
Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard
When the Women Come Out to Dance by Elmore Leonard
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Scaredy Cat by Mark Billingham
Free Agent by Jeremy Duns
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
The Only Girl in the Game by John D. MacDonald
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
The Wanderers by Richard Price
The Fools in Town are On Our Side by Ross Thomas
Anarchaos by Curt Clark (Donald E. Westlake)
The Labyrinth Makers by Anthony Price
A Hive of Glass by P. M. Hubbard
The Alamut Ambush by Anthony Price
Colonel Butler's Wolf by Anthony Price
When Will There be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Isle of 100,000 Graves by Jason / Fabien Vehlmann
The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
The Berlin Memorandum by Adam Hall
October Men by Anthony Price
Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark
Dexter is Delicious by Jeff Lindsay
Dead Skip by Joe Gores
Smiley's People by John le Carré
Blame the Dead by Gavin Lyall
Ratking by Michael Dibdin
The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas
SS-GB by Len Deighton
Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton
The Eliminator by Andrew York
The Cataclysm by R. C. Sherriff
Day of Misjudgment by Bernard Maclaren
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark
The Cold Dark Night by Sarah Gainham
Operation Overkill by Dan J. Marlowe
Slow Burner by William Haggard
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton
Undertow by Desmond Cory
The Mercenaries by Donald E. Westlake
The Cut by George Pelecanos

The first thing to note, I suppose, is the overall total: forty-eight books, which is significantly down on 2010's grand total of sixty-nine. I'm not entirely certain why that's turned out to be the case; I suspect it's due to the additional time and effort I've been putting into Existential Ennui (not so's you'd notice, mind), but it could equally be sheer bone idleness on my part. Whatever the reason, I guess I could have cheated and included the two books I'm currently still reading to bring the total up to the totemic fifty... but that would have meant my starting 2012 behind. So forty-eight it is.

The second thing to note is that I read even fewer "new" books this year than I did last: just two published in 2011 (Jason's The Isle of 100,000 Graves – also the only graphic novel I read this year – and George Pelecanos's The Cut), a pathetic number which rises to an equally pathetic four if we stretch "new" to include the previous year as well. So it seems clear I've become even more lodged in the past this year, although, since all the "old" books I've read are, in effect, "new" to me, designations such as "old" and "new" become essentially meaningless in this context – as indeed, in consequence, does this entire paragraph.

Therefore, let's move on to the third and final thing of note, which is that there was more of an even spread as regards the authors I read this year. Whereas in 2010 my reading was very heavily weighted towards Donald E. Westlake, 2011 has turned out to be rather more balanced, with a rough parity between Westlake, Anthony Price, Ross Thomas, Kate Atkinson, Elmore Leonard and one or two others. Quite what this signifies – if, in fact, it signifies anything – is, like many matters, beyond me, but it is a thing, and it has now, for better or worse, been noted (duly).

All of which pointless and ridiculous analysis (emphasis on the "anal") leaves us with just one more post in this end-of-year extravaganza – not to mention also, thankfully, my final post for the year – in which I'll be detailing which of the forty-eight books I read in 2011 were my favourites. Look out for that thrilling missive on New Year's Eve...

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.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Farewell to Science Fiction: Responses by Frederik Pohl, Westlake, and Others

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

This, I'm sure we'll all be relieved to hear, will be my final Violent World of Parker cross-post for the year. Fear not, however (or, possibly, fear greatly): there's plenty more to come from me on TVWoP in the new year, not just on Westlake but also on some other writers whose work intersects with the Great Man's. But let's round off this year's run of Westlake posts (on my part, anyway; I'm sure TVWoP proprietor Trent will be along over there before too long) by returning to Donald E. Westlake's science fiction stories one last time, and in particular to his controversial farewell to SF in Pat and Dick Lupoff's early-1960s fanzine Xero – reprinted in The Best of Xero"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You".

Last time out I detailed the content of that essay, but what's perhaps most striking about it is the effect it had on SF fandom and on Westlake's fellow professionals. The repercussions of "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" would reverberate through the remainder of Xero's run, with letter after letter either agreeing with or dissenting from Westlake's negative view of the SF field. One of the more notable responses came from one of the targets of Westlake's opprobrium, Frederik Pohl. Westlake had related the following story: 

...when Frederik Pohl took over Galaxy, my agent suggested that I aim a story at him... So I researched. I read the introductions to all the Pohl-edited Star Science Fiction series, and I reread the first and last sentence of every Frederik Pohl story I had around the house... and then I wrote a Frederik Pohl story. "The Spy in the Elevator." 

A Pohl title and a Pohl story, and a very silly inspid story it was, but by that time I was getting cynical. Pohl bought it.

Frederik Pohl, however, offers a contrasting take on this episode. According to Pohl, Westlake's agent, Scott Meredith, sent Pohl a different story, which Pohl wanted to buy for a different SF magazine. Meredith insisted that the tale should appear in Galaxy, so Pohl offered to, if he could, buy another story of Westlake's for Galaxy instead, "up to and including working with him on revisions if necessary (something I seldom do, on principle; I don't believe in editorially dictated revisions in most cases)." Shortly after, Meredith submitted "The Spy in the Elevator", which Pohl read, "discovered it was harmless confetti, shrugged over and bought. It wasn't particularly good, but it wouldn't actually stink up the magazine, and there certainly was little hope of making any great improvements in it through revision."

Remember that one of Westlake's major complaints in "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" was that the editorial policies of the SF magazines of the era – and consequent requested revisions – meant that, as he put it, "I cannot sell good science fiction" (although it was Analog's John W. Campbell who was the chief target of his ire, not Pohl). Pohl's version of the genesis of "The Spy in the Elevator" suggests that matters weren't so clear cut. Pohl pulls Westlake up on the notion that Pohl would automatically buy a Pohl-like story, and points out that "the story was all but sold before it was written, so if ever [Westlake] had a chance to write For Art, this was the chance". He adds, "If what turned out was a 'silly insipid story' – as Westlake puts it – this may reveal something about the author himself, then, but I assure you it says nothing about the editorial policy of Galaxy", before noting: "To write good science fiction requires a certain amount of gutsiness; those without it are probably better off in other fields, where the standards are lower anyway."

Straight after Pohl's rebuttal comes a note from L. Sprague de Camp. In "Don't Call Us...", Westlake had asserted that many writers had left the SF field out of frustration, de Camp among them, and that furthermore de Camp wasn't "doing much of anything". De Camp refutes this, and lists the various books and magazine articles he's working on. But more interesting is the next response, which comes from Avram Davidson. Davidson suggests that Westlake's issues with science fiction might have more to do with Westlake not being a science fiction writer in the first place, but rather "a mystery writer who wandered into sf by error" – Westlake having stated in his original article that he was now "a full time mystery writer".

Further rebuttals follow, including another from Frederik Pohl and a letter from Richard Kyle, reasoning that Westlake's storytelling in the Analog short "Look Before You Leap" – which Westlake had used as an example of John W. Campbell's egomaniacal interference – was already shonky and that Campbell's requested revision probably made it more readable.

Finally, Westlake himself wades back in to the fray. Addressing Frederik Pohl's points first, Westlake explains that he hadn't intended to suggest he was attempting to imitate anyone's style, merely that he was "aiming at the market and nothing more. In other words, the story I had written had no merits other than as an example of aiming at a particular market. And so, a lousy story." He then moves on to Avram Davidson's notion that he isn't actually a science fiction writer at all. "This idea had never occurred to me before," he writes, "but now that it has been suggested, I must admit it might be true." He reveals that he "gave up Perry Mason for science fiction when I was fourteen, and read science fiction voluminously for the next six years" (I'd always figured that Westlake must have been, at some stage, a fan of SF, so it's good to see that confirmed), and so when he decided to become a professional writer, SF was naturally what he turned to.

Here we reach a more personal admission as to why Westlake stopped writing SF. He states that the initial stories he sold in both the science fiction and mystery markets were "drab droll dreck", but that he eventually improved – at least in mysteries. His sense is that he never got past the "slanting for the market" stage of SF writing, and that therefore, even though he "was more interested in science fiction", henceforth it would be mysteries he'd concentrate on. And addressing Frederik Pohl's remark about standards being lower in other fields, Westlake calls the idea "balderdash" and lists the non-SF editors "so obtuse as to buy stories and/or books from me", such as Random House's Lee Wright, Pocket Books' Bucklin Moon, and Ed McBain.

There's plenty more to read in Westlake's follow-up letter, and indeed in the various responses to Westlake's original piece (not to mention the non-Westlake material in The Best of Xero; I'd strongly recommend getting a copy if you have an interest in SF), all of which paint a picture of a writer at a turning point in his creative life: moving on from science fiction, finding his feet in the mystery and crime field. But more than that, Westlake's two articles afford a glimpse into his motivations for writing in those early days; how he developed and grew as an author; and how willing he was to forcefully argue his corner when he cared passionately about something. And what he cared about most passionately was, quite simply, good writing.

And with that, my regular posts for this year are done. Next: the Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics...

Monday 19 December 2011

Len Deighton's London Dossier (Penguin Paperback, 1967)

Having blogged about Len Deighton's first two Secret File novels, The Ipcress File (1962) and Horse Under Water (1963) – and thanks are due for their assistance with those posts to Rob Mallows, Edward Milward-Oliver and everyone who left a comment – for this Deighton bonus post I have a splendid book of non-fiction, one which I was alerted to by the ubiquitous Jeremy Duns...

Len Deighton's London Dossier was first published in the UK in 1967 simultaneously by Jonathan Cape – in hardcover – and Penguin – in paperback, which is the edition you can see above. I say "first published", but in fact that should really be "first and only", because those two editions represent the only appearance of the book, which has been out of print for decades. Consequently, London Dossier is in very short supply in either edition: there are no copies at all on Amazon Marketplace at present, and only ten on AbeBooks, only one of those – a Cape hardback – from a UK-based seller. So any Brits wishing to get themselves a copy have a slight problem... although, if you're quick, you could always swoop in on this eBay auction for a Penguin paperback, which ends just before 6.30pm on Tuesday 20 December.

And it is worth getting hold of, not least for the terrific cover, which was designed by Len Deighton's friend, Raymond Hawkey. Hawkey designed the covers of both editions of the book, and while his concoction for the Cape hardback dustjacket, which replicates the notices you'd often find in a public telephone box, is inventive – you can see it on the book's dedicated page on Rob Mallows's Deighton Dossier website – the Penguin cover is, to my mind, equally alluring. It's actually a double-cover, comprising an outer front cover with a die-cut keyhole, and an inner cover bearing a photo of famed model Twiggy's face, whose left eye peeps through the keyhole. It's an innovative piece of design, and foreshadows Hawkey's slightly later "bullet hole" covers for Coronet's line of Richard Stark "Parker" novels.

As to the book itself, it's a collection of essays by Deighton and others on London – a kind of tourist guide, if you will. Deighton provides an opening general guide to London – with lots of helpful advice, such as this for umarried couples: "British hotels... (being primarily concerned with the proprieties), prefer you to [book in as] Mr and Mrs even if you are sinning" – and another dozen or so short pieces, sprinkled in amongst essays by the likes of journalist and noted Soho boozer Daniel Farson, photographer Adrian Flowers (who took the cover picture of Twiggy) and thriller author Eric Clark. For my part I was pleased to spot mentions of my old Soho haunt The Coach & Horses, as well as The Colony Room – Michael Andrews's evocative 1962 painting of which (part, I recently discovered, of the permanent collection at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester) can be seen below – both of which were frequented by one of my favourite writers, Jeffrey Bernard (I sat next to him at the bar of the Coach a few times, and saw Peter O'Toole play him in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell) – that's him in the white shirt on the left of Andrews's painting.

The essays are fascinating, idiosyncratic and often hugely entertaining, and last year the book as a whole acted as a springboard for a series of columns in The Londonist, taking each chapter in turn and looking at how London has changed since. It's tough to beat the original, though, which has obviously dated in some respects, but still contains plenty of information on the capital which will prove useful to the befuddled tourist. That's if they can find a copy...

And with that, I'm done with Mr. Deighton for now, and almost done with the regular posts for this year as well. But there should just be time to squeeze in a Violent World of Parker cross-post before I get to my long-dreaded – I mean, awaited – end-of-year-review posts, so look out for that soon...

Saturday 17 December 2011

Horse Under Water (Secret File No. 2) by Len Deighton: True First Edition (Crossword Endpapers), Jonathan Cape, 1963; a Lewes Bookshop Bargain

On to the second of my latest (brief) run of posts on Len Deighton's Secret File novels, which star the nameless spy more commonly known as Harry Palmer. And after reviewing the unnamed spy's first outing (not to mention Deighton's debut), The Ipcress File – with additional thoughts on the book from Kingsley Amis (and some great comments now, too) – today I'm taking a look at the author and his star's second espionage thriller: Horse Under Water.

Published by Jonathan Cape in 1963, Horse Under Water sees Deighton's unnamed agent taking a navy diving course so as to assist in the investigation of a sunken German U-boat, in which is discovered heroin (hence the "horse" in the title). Rob Mallows's excellent Deighton Dossier website has further information on the novel – one of two "unnamed spy" books not to have been turned into a film (the fifth novel, An Expensive Place to Die, wasn't filmed either) – and tons of other Deighton-related material as well – as does the spin-off Deighton Dossier blog (from which Rob kindly linked my Ipcress File post). The dustjacket was designed once again by Raymond Hawkey, and for me it's a toss-up as to which is better – the jackets for The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water or, indeed, for Secret File No. 3, Funeral in Berlin (1964), which to my mind is just as good as the first two.

As explored in the comments in the previous post, Deighton left his original publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, after he became dissatisfied with their conservative print run on The Ipcress File, moving instead to Jonathan Cape (to whom he'd originally shown The Ipcress File), where he would remain until the late-1970s. However, so successful was Deighton becoming that even Cape had to act fast to keep up with demand for Horse Under Water, despite its larger print run. A second printing was required a couple of months after the first... and here we encounter a certain amount of confusion in book collecting circles...

As with The Ipcress File, where many chapters are prefaced by astrological predictions for Aquarius, there's a playful theme weaving through Horse Under Water, too: crosswords. Each numbered chapter has a prefatory "clue", with a corresponding list of numbers and "solutions" at the start of the book:

Furthermore, the endpapers of the novel are designed as a crossword puzzle, with the grid on the left hand paper and the clues largely on the right (repeated on both front and back ends):

And here we reach the source of the confusion: the crossword endpapers seemingly only appeared in the first impression of the first edition; for later impressions the ends were simply printed plain black. But many sellers on sites like AbeBooks – and indeed in bricks-and-mortar bookshops – neglect to mention this, and so there are a lot of copies of Horse Under Water out there being sold as true first editions when they are, in fact, no such thing. Some sellers even go so far as to suggest that the plain black endpaper edition is the true first, not the crossword endpaper edition; and since black endpapered copies don't appear to bear the legend "second impression" on the copyright page, it could be argued those sellers have a point.

Except for one thing: the true first impression of Horse Under Water also came with a loosely inserted blank crossword puzzle. Readers were invited to fill in the puzzle and send it in to win a £50 book token prize (a considerable sum back then, as Rob Mallows points out on his dedicated Horse Under Water page). But the clues for the crossword were – you guessed it – on the endpapers. So it seems clear that the crossword endpaper printing must be the true first of Horse Under Water. (Thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Mallows for the pic of the crossword insert.)

Of course, the upshot of readers sending their inserted crosswords off is that very few copies now have the insert still inside, and those that do fetch a premium as a result (you'd be lucky to find one for much less than £200). Mine, you'll be unsurprised to learn, does not have the insert included, but it does at least, as you can see, have the crossword endpapers. I bought it fairly recently (for a very reasonable price) in Lewes' Bow Windows Bookshop; their stock of first editions doesn't change that much, but I just happened to pop in there and there it was, propped up on the table. Its dustjacket is a little grubby, but at least the endpaper crossword isn't filled in – something that had happened to another copy I saw at a book fair a while back. (At a more recent book fair I saw another copy of Horse Under Water, advertised as a true first, and including the insert, but actually with plain black endpapers. See what I mean about confusion?)

UPDATE 1: A further wrinkle has emerged as regards the first edition. Len Deighton's biographer, Edward Milward-Oliver, emailed me shortly after I posted the above, letting me know that 500 copies of Horse Under Water were sent out prior to publication to reviewers and trade buyers... with plain black endpapers. This was done, Edward reports, "so as not to pre-empt the crossword competition which ran from publication day Monday October 21 to Thursday October 31, 1963". Therefore, it seems that at least some of the black-endpapered copies actually preceded the first impression...

Anyway, so this post isn't entirely devoted to tedious matters to do with book collecting, let's turn in closing to our old friend Donald McCormick, and his 1977 survey, Who's Who in Spy Fiction. To assist in the writing of his book, McCormick communicated via letters with many of his subjects, Len Deighton among them. Consequently, there are some intriguing insights in Deighton's entry, and direct quotes from Deighton himself, such as: "Writers like me have quite a lot in common with spies. I like to be able to listen to conversations without people turning round to look at me." Horse Under Water gets a good few lines to itself, which are worth quoting, I think:

Here was an author who was fascinated by war and the gadgetry and hardware that go with modern warfare. He sought authentic background for his second story: "My hero has to dive to a sunken submarine. So that I could get background stuff the Admiralty gave me access to HMS Vernon, the frogman training establishment." Somebody must have thought he was too interested in these matters, because the Naval Security authorities asked to see the manuscript of Horse Under Water.

UPDATE 2: In his email to me, Edward Milward-Oliver also mentioned that the jacket of the first edition of Horse Under Water differs from the proof jacket, which was more cluttered and featured a photograph of Len Deighton at HMS Vernon on the front flap. Edward attached a scan of the proof jacket to his email, so with many thanks to Mr. Milward-Oliver, here it is, with photos of my first for comparison:

And that's all from Deighton's unnamed spy novels for the moment... but not all from Deighton. Because I have a Len Deighton bonus post lined up next, on a collection of travel writing boasting contributions from some of the 1960s' leading journalistic lights...

Thursday 15 December 2011

Book Review: The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (Secret File No. 1, Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, 1962); plus Kingsley Amis on Deighton

We're into the final furlong now as regards my series of posts on spy fiction series – at least, for this year; I'll be continuing the series in 2012 – before we reach whatever navel-gazing end-of-year posts I can be arsed to sling together to see 2011 off (plus one last Violent World of Parker cross-post, a sequel to this one on Donald E. Westlake's farewell to science fiction). And we're finishing (for now) with a flourish, with two novels by one of the biggest names in the spy fiction field: Len Deighton. I've blogged about Deighton a few times before, but it's to his best-known series that I'm returning this time, a series featuring an anonymous secret agent who is more widely known, thanks to his Michael Caine-starring film adaptations, as Harry Palmer. And we'll begin... at the beginning...

The Ipcress File was first published in hardback in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton in 1962, and is Deighton's debut novel as well as the first to star his nameless spy. The copy seen here, however, isn't the true first, i.e. a first impression. First impressions of the book – which had a relatively small initial print run of, I believe, 2,500 – go for anything from £600 to over £1,000. Mine is the second impression, published in the same year as the true first (which was published in November of 1962), but identifiable as a second printing by the copyright line and the fact that it carries a couple of reviews on the dustjacket front flap, which are absent on the first impression:

Even so, second impressions can still fetch over £300 – and even third or later impressions (the edition went through at least eight printings that I know of) can go for anywhere from £30 to £200 – so, considering I won my copy on eBay for a fiver, I'm not complaining. (My copy also included an aged newspaper clipping advertising, rather incongruously, college courses, which had left a brown stain on the pages it had been inserted between.) The iconic dustjacket was designed by Deighton's friend Raymond Hawkey – who I've also blogged about repeatedly – here establishing an instantly recognisable artfully-arranged-and-photographed-props approach which would serve him well over the coming decades.

As to the novel itself, it's an entertaining read... but I must admit I did struggle with it. I think the story's about defecting scientists... or possibly double agents... or perhaps nuclear weapons... and herein lies the problem (well, my problem): pretty much all the way through I literally had no idea what the hell was going on.

The story is narrated by our nameless spy in a seductively laidback, down-to-earth fashion, far removed from the more serious stylings of Deighton's contemporary, John le Carré, or Ian Fleming's more glamorous Bond novels. There's a playfulness to the text, signified by astrological predictions for Aquarius at the start of many chapters and an appendix at the back of the book. Deighton is good on atmosphere and location, especially London's Soho district (an area I know well myself), its gambling joints and coffee shops. There are some riveting action sequences and moments of high tension: the novel reaches fever pitch following a nuclear test, when our narrator is deported to the East and subjected to weeks of interrogation, brainwashing and torture, coming close to questioning his sanity.

But as enjoyable as all this is (even the torture), it doesn't counter the fact that The Ipcress File is terribly confusing. Part of my problem with the book, I'm sure, was my own innate denseness – even at the story's close I was still none the bloody wiser – but that doesn't, I don't think, account for all of it. Authors withholding information in spy or suspense novels is a given, but Deighton withholds virtually everything, so that even the shape of the mystery is difficult to discern.

I'm not the only reader to have professed bewilderment, either: in an addendum to his essay "A New James Bond" in What Became of Jane Austen?, Kingsley Amis – whose opinion I greatly respect – admits that he had "tough sledding with The Ipcress File... The endless twists and turns of the plot, the systematic withholding of clues and even of settings in time and place..."

Amis's overall assessment of The Ipcress File is fairly scathing, and I certainly don't agree with his entire judgment – I did, as I say, enjoy the novel, in spite of my bemusement. (And indeed even Amis did eventually come round to Deighton's charms, telling Philip Larkin in a letter dated June 18, 1985, "Actually Deighton's quite good if you stop worrying about what's going on"; thanks to Jeremy Duns for that additional insight.) But his sign-off to the addendum is amusingly caustic, and worth repeating. Amis writes: "The whole thing is supposedly told to the Minister of Defence, who at an early stage makes what I thought was a reasonable request for enlightenment over some detail. The hero answers with his usual humility [here Amis quotes the following passage]: 

'It's going to be very difficult for me if I have to answer questions as I go along,' I said. 'If it's all the same to you, Minister, I'd prefer you to make a note of the questions, and ask me afterwards.'

'My dear chap, not another word, I promise.'

And throughout the entire explanation he never again interrupted.

"I know why," reports Amis: "He was asleep."

One final note before we move on: while the narrator of The Ipcress File is never named, his eventual christening as Harry Palmer is presaged in the novel. Early on, for some reason someone hails him as "Harry", to which our narrator responds, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been". Maybe it had, maybe it hadn't; but one thing's for sure: for many people, it soon would be...

And with that, it's on to the second Deighton novel... which, surprisingly enough, is also Deighton's – and his nameless spy's – second outing: Horse Under Water.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You": Donald E. Westlake's Farewell to Science Fiction (from The Best of Xero)

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

Well, after all the excitement on Existential Ennui yesterday – not only a post on a scarce signed edition of an Adam Hall/Quiller spy novel, but also news of the return of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm spy novels (broken first on this very blog, I might add – and do read the comments on that post if you haven't already) – it's back down to earth with a bump. Or rather, out into space with a jolt, as I return to the science fiction stories penned by crime novelist – and perennial Existential Ennui preoccupation – Donald E. Westlake.

I actually have Violent World of Parker reader Sandra Bond to thank for this latest post – or, more accurately, couple of posts: there's a lot to cover here, so it'll be better if I split it into two missives. Sandra emailed me after I'd finished my second run of reviews of Westlake's SF stories to draw my attention to the book you can see above. Published by Tachyon Publications in 2004, The Best of Xero is a collection of essays, reviews and letters collated from the long-defunct American science fiction fanzine Xero, which ran for ten issues from 1960–1962. It's a fascinating document of a pre-internet era, when fans – and professionals – communicated via fanzines rather than through blogs or message boards, and features pieces by the likes of James Blish, Roger Ebert, Frederick Pohl and Harlan Ellison.

But what, you may be wondering, has all this to do with Westlake? Well, midway through Xero's run, Westlake wrote an incendiary essay for the fanzine, entitled "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You". In the piece, Westlake burns his bridges with science fiction in spectacular fashion, laying into what he perceives as the dreadful editing endemic in the SF story magazines of the time, the terrible taste of those magazines' editors – Analog's John W. Campbell ("an egomaniac"), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction's Robert P. Mills ("a journeyman incompetent"), etc. – and the pathetic state of the science fiction field in general.

But Westlake reserves his most scathing opprobrium for himself (kind of...). After noting that, "Today, I am a full-time mystery writer, working on my fifth mystery novel", and that the science fiction field "can't support" or even "interest" him, he writes: 

It's time for credentials, before going into this thing any deeper. If I'm going to talk as a professional writer who isn't doing anything in science fiction and who claims that he might have done something worthwhile if it were worth his while to do so, I ought to show my identity card. Therefore:

Science Fiction. I have sold thirteen stories, two of which have not yet been published and none of which are any damn good. I have sold to Universe, Original, Future, Super, Analog, Amazing, If, and Galaxy. A fourteenth story was sold to Fantastic Universe, which proceeded to drop dead before they could publish it. Both John Campbell and Cele Goldsmith have asked me to write sequels to novelettes of mine they had bought (I haven't written either, and won't). In a desk drawer I have twenty-odd thousand words of a science fiction novel, which is good, but which I'm not going to finish because it isn't worth my while.

I'm assuming the novel Westlake refers to is Anarchaos, which did eventually see print (albeit under a pseudonym), while some of the stories he talks about are ones I covered at length in my two runs of posts on Westlake's SF. I always had a question at the back of my mind whilst writing those posts: why did Westlake stop writing SF (or largely stop; years later he did pen some additional SF stories for Playboy)? Though none of Westlake's early SF stories – at least the ones I've read, which is roughly two-thirds of them – could be considered classics, either of the genre or compared to the best of his own work, it was always evident that the writer knew SF well and had, at some point, loved SF. Here, finally, in "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You", is the answer. After detailing his even-by-this-stage considerable achievements in the mystery field, Westlake continues:

I am not sitting around bragging. I'm simply trying to make something clear: I can write. I can write well. I am capable of first-class work. But the only thing I've ever written in science fiction that I am at all proud of is a novel I'll never finish because there is economically, stylistically, and philosophically no place for it.

Do you know what I'm talking about? I cannot sell good science fiction.

Westlake goes on to cite a specific example, whereby he and Randall Garrett – who was staying with Westlake for a while – were both writing stories aimed at John W. Campbell's Analog, and entertaining themselves by including private jokes for each other's benefit (something Westlake would continue to do with other writer friends). Westlake's wheeze in his story was to include an Air Force Colonel in the latter stages of the tale, "the spitting image of John Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it". Having taken delivery of the story, Campbell requested a revision: "He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character. I did it. Eighteen thousand words. Four hundred and fifty dollars."

Westlake doesn't name the story, but as Sandra Bond pointed out to me, it's clearly "Look Before You Leap", a tale I reviewed in September. I noted at the time that I found its militaristic leanings and upbeat ending curious, and here is the explanation for that: Westlake rewrote it, making Colonel Brice more prominent, at the request of John W. Campbell.

"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" is remarkably strong stuff, written out of sheer frustration at the state of the American science fiction publishing landscape in the early 1960s. But as fascinating as it is, perhaps of even greater interest are the responses to Westlake's article, from regular Xero readers and from some of the targets of Westlake's scorn. And in my next Violent World of Parker cross-post, I'll be delving into those responses, as well as looking at Westlake's final say on the controversy he caused.

Back here on Existential Ennui, however, it's back to the spy fiction series we go. And for my final run of posts on spy series – for this year; there's more to follow in the new year – I'll be turning (or even, returning) to one of the most iconoclastic series of spy novels ever created, starring an anonymous secret agent narrator who subsequently gained a very familiar name via his cinematic outings...