Friday 7 January 2011

Boozing with Kingsley Amis: On Drink (Jonathan Cape First Edition)

Having begun the year with Kingsley Amis – and, come to think of it, ended the previous year with him as well – I thought I'd round off the first week of this new decade with him too (unless of course tomorrow's Lewes Book Fair turns up a tome so knee-tremblingly exciting that I'm compelled to blog about it straight after), not least because it gives me another chance to plug Michael Barber's excellent essay on Amis. Mind you, given the subject matter of this particular book, it might have been more fitting to post this on New Year's Eve...

This is the UK hardback first edition of On Drink, published by Jonathan Cape in 1972. It's a collection of essays on all manner of booze-related matters, from alcoholic literature to drinks recipes, home bar advice to thoughts on wine, imbibing abroad to hangover cures, and more besides. It is, as you'd expect, caustic, witty, wry and amusing: the introduction, for example, deals with reasons for drinking  – "A team of American investigators," Amis writes, "concluded recently that, without the underpinning provided by alcohol and the relaxation it affords, Western society would have collapsed irretrievably at about the time of the First World War" – and the ruination of English pubs; "With some shining exceptions," he notes, "of which my own local is one, the pub is fast becoming uninhabitable." Plus ça change...

Elsewhere in its 112 pages, the chapter on 'Actual Drinks' offers both traditional and highly individual recipes. As a fan of Mad Men, I found the recipe for Don Draper's tipple of choice, The Old-Fashioned, instructive, while the one for 'Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Receiver' is a priceless piece of dry brevity:

1 hefty shot gin
1 (1/2-pint) bottle Guinness
Ginger beer

Put the gin and the Guinness into a pint silver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.

I love the "or something" there.

The photograph on the front cover is by John Goldblatt, who Amis worked with on journalistic assignments. According to The Economist's review of Amis's Zachary Leader-edited Letters (2000), "When a photographer called John Goldblatt is sent to work with [Amis] on a magazine assignment, Amis writes to [Philip] Larkin that Goldblatt 'ate a couple of pork chops unhesitatingly enough,' and thereafter refers to him as 'the pork-chop chap'." (The Economist piece identifies this as an example of Amis's "sniggering anti-Semitism".) Meanwhile, inside the book, scattered in amongst the prose pieces are illustrations – more cartoons, really – by Nicolas Bentley. Bentley was a very well known cartoonist in his day, and is fondly remembered even now. There's a brief biography of him here.

Amis actually had three books on alcohol published in his lifetime. After On Drink, in 1983 a collection of his essays for the Daily Express, Every Day Drinking, was published by Hutchinson, and the following year Weidenfeld & Nicolson issued a drinking quiz book, How's Your Glass? All three books were compiled into a single volume, Everyday Drinking, by Bloomsbury in 2008 – and quite by coincidence, Olman has just posted a review of it. Great minds think alike...

Let's sign off with a couple of relevant passages from Michael Barber's essay (go and read it if you haven't already):

For Amis, drink was inseparable from conversation and hilarity, without which life was not worth living; and these he found in the company of men. One of the reasons Jenny Bunn, the heroine of Take a Girl Like You, gets such high marks is that she doesn’t begrudge a man his sessions at the pub with his mates. Shy with strangers, Amis also found drink an invaluable social lubricant when he found himself among people he didn’t know well. Professionally it had its uses too, for while he couldn’t write when drunk, he did find a glass or two of Scotch helped when nerving himself to begin a novel. Above all, drink agreed with Amis. Like his character Maurice Allington he drank to experience “that semi-mystical elevation of spirit which, every time, seems destined to last for ever.”

[Amis] died on October 22 1995. Almost his last coherent words were, "For God’s sake, you bloody fool, give me a drink."

Thursday 6 January 2011

Parker Progress Report: A Review of Plunder Squad by Richard Stark

For the Parker completist, there's a lot to love about Plunder Squad. First published in 1972, the fifteenth novel to star Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's cold-hearted NFN heister sees not only the return of a couple of supporting characters from previous books in the series and the tying up of a loose end from The Sour Lemon Score (1969, Parker #12), but also a crossover with another book published in the same year – one not written by Westlake.

The possible downside of all these entertaining diversions and revisiting of unfinished business, however, is that Plunder Squad ends up being slightly staccato as a result, the plot advancing in fits and starts and branching off into dead ends – although for me that made the book more unusual and consequently more compelling. I liked some of the cul-de-sacs the story saunters down, and I liked the way Parker is persistently foiled throughout the novel, as his run of bad luck over the past few books continues.

By this stage in the series, it's almost as if Westlake is pretty much pleasing himself, doing whatever he feels like doing in order to keep himself interested, safe, perhaps, in the knowledge that it's a Parker, so it'll sell. For a crime thriller to start with a planned robbery that doesn't happen, move on to another planned robbery that also ultimately doesn't happen, take a detour for an encounter with a character from someone else's book, take another detour for a standoff with a different character from a previous book in the series... that's quite a lot to ask of a regular follower, let alone an uninitiated reader.

Divided up into the Parker novels' traditional four parts, most of the above actually takes place in Part One – which will give you some idea of how eventful Plunder Squad is. The first of those two abortive heists is waylaid by George Uhl, who gave Parker the runaround in The Sour Lemon Score and who Parker unwisely left alive at the end of that story. The second is interrupted by a certain Dan Kearny, a P.I. who comes knocking at the door of the house where Parker and crew are planning the score investigating a murder. Kearny has wandered in from a novel by Westlake's friend Joe Gores, Dead Skip, which, as with Westlake's own Slayground/The Blackbird crossover, shares the scene in Plunder Squad in which Kearny appears. I'll be reading Dead Skip for the next Parker Progress Report (what was that about being a Parker completist...?), so it'll be fascinating to see how that scene plays out in Gores's novel.

(There's actually more that the two books share. I own US first editions of the two novels, which were both published by Random House, using the same typeface, the same interior design – from the title pages to the chapter headers – and with a very similar extent, too: Plunder Squad is 182 pages long, while Dead Skip is 184.)

In Part Two, Parker finally catches up to Uhl, and the two find time to work through their issues (well, in a way...), so it's not until Part Three that we see the makings of a prospective third heist, one which does finally come off this time – a takedown of a truck carrying valuable paintings. Part Three is also the Stark Cutaway, and so we get to meet some of the other members of the string for this particular score, among them Stan Devers, last seen in The Green Eagle Score. In that novel, Devers was a neophyte thief, embarking on his first serious heist: he was very much a proto-Parker, a glimpse at how Parker might have been when he was starting out. In Plunder Squad, Devers is a bit more seasoned (if a little down on his luck), his criminal senses beginning to sharpen. I liked Devers in Green Eagle, and I was pleased to see him return in Plunder Squad.

But the fact that I was so willing to welcome back Devers gave me pause at this point in the novel. Something I've become fleetingly aware of before as I've progressed through the Parker series – although not to this degree – is that I've been so immersed in Parker's amoral world that I've found myself unconsciously complicit in his and his compatriots' actions. It's all too easy to forget that these are stories about bad men doing bad things – and that, I think, is part of Westlake's genius with these books, which is to make the stealing of money and goods and the violence that that entails seem everyday – mundane, even. Time and again in Plunder Squad – and in all the Parker novels – Westlake has us so wrapped up in events – Parker's hunt for Uhl, the assault on the convoy transporting the paintings – that we barely question the amoral nature of them. I suspect what he's doing is crediting the reader with enough intelligence to stop and reflect every now and then, which is kind of cool when you think about it.

Mind you, Westlake doesn't help matters by making a fair number of the cast of Plunder Squad damnably likable, in particular Ed Mackey, the ringleader of the third heist. But then, you could also make a case for Ed (and am I right in thinking 'Ed Mackey' is too close to 'Earl Macklin' from the 1973 movie of The Outfit for it to be a coincidence? Ed and Earl certainly share some characteristics...) being the Stark Stooge of the piece, particularly in light of events post-heist. In fact, thinking about it, Parker and thus far Grofield and Handy McKay aside, few of the occasional guest stars in the series have escaped unscathed. So maybe there's a morality at work in the novels after all. Whatever the case, for its awkward but beguiling structure, for its bursts of jolting violence, and for its convincing and charismatic characters, Plunder Squad is a real treat – both for hardcore Parker fans and the more casual enthusiast.

(NB: I discuss Plunder Squad again in this post, from the perspective of how events play out in Joe Gores's Dead Skip.)

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: Dead Spy Running by Jon Stock (Blue Door)

I've got a few Lewes Book Bargains – which, for any latecomers, are relatively cheap books wot I have bought in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live – still hanging around from last year, so better get on and write 'em up, eh? Although this first one I've sort of purposely avoided, as I wasn't sure I'd be able to find anything interesting to say about it. See, a lot of the time with these Book Bargains, I've yet to read the books I'm blogging about. These posts are more of a 'look what I found' deal than a 'look what I read' affair; that comes later. But if the book in question isn't particularly old or particularly scarce, what's there to add to what has already been written elsewhere online?

Now, I could, of course, simply decline to blog about those books that I buy that don't especially lend themselves to being blogged about. But that would, in a way – a weird, inexplicable way – be an abdication of responsibility. I feel I'd somehow be letting you down, dear reader (singular, obv). So instead, I generally do what I tend to do elsewhere in my life when faced with a problem or issue which requires some thought, which is to procrastinate for as long as I possibly can before eventually relenting and addressing it, whatever it may be – which in the case of Lewes Book Bargains, is whether the book in question might hold any blogging merit or whether I should simply hide it at the bottom of a pile or on a shelf behind some other books (out of sight, etc.).

With this latest Bargain, however, I've elected to view it as a challenge, to see if during the course of writing this post I can come up with anything interesting about the book without having actually read it. Let's see how we get on.

That there is the first edition/first impression hardback of Jon Stock's Dead Spy Running, published by Blue Door/HarperCollins in 2009, bought in the Lewes Cancer Research charity shop at the bottom of the bafflingly named School Hill. It's a high concept thriller (the book, not the charity shop; the shop's a pleasant enough place but there's nothing terribly high concept or thrilling about it) about a suspended MI6 officer who, whilst running the London Marathon, spots a fellow competitor who's been strapped with explosives which will detonate if he drops his pace, killing all around him, including the US Ambassador to the UK. Kind of Speed on foot, then. Unsurprisingly, the rights have been snapped up by Hollywood and there are a couple of sequels in the works. As for Jon Stock, he's a journalist with three novels under his belt – Dead Spy Running being the third. He's been compared to John le Carre, but not having read Stock yet, I can't comment on that.

Hmm. Well I have to say, none of that was noticeably interesting, so let's turn to the dustjacket, which was designed by Henry Steadman. And here things get a bit more intriguing, because Steadman is quite a big name in contemporary book cover design, having created covers for editions of all of Dan Brown's novels, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Nicholas Evans's The Horse Whisperer, books by Karen Rose, Joanna Trollope, Bill Bryson, Gerald Seymour... it's an impressive client list. His covers are very 'now', very much in the school of design discussed here, but he's a photographer too, so he's a one-stop shop for publishers.

Perhaps more pertinently to Existential Ennui and my preoccupations, though, he also seems to have been behind the distinctive look of Orion's Crime Masterworks series:

And he designed a lot of covers for BBC Books' Doctor Who range of tie-in novels in the mid-2000s, both for the ninth and tenth Doctors (or Christopher Ecclestone and David Tenant to you, chief). I don't know to what extent he was responsible for the overall styling of the line, but I'd guess to a large one:

So there you have it. How did we do on the level of interest?

Monday 3 January 2011

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: The Allison & Busby Editions of Point Blank

It may be a new year – in fact, it is a new year; there's no 'maybe' about it, you blithering idiot – but so far as me 'n' this blog are concerned, 2011 will be much like 2010 in at least one respect: there'll be plenty of Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark posts over the next twelve months. I've got about ten Parker Progress Reports to get through – there'll be one on Plunder Squad along soon enough – plus around the same number of Dortmunder Dazes, and around the same number again of random Westlake novels. With all the other non-Westlake reading I plan on doing this year, that lot alone would see me well into 2012, and that's not even taking into account a Grofield File (on Lemons Never Lie), whatever cover galleries I can conjure up, and any further Westlake Scores over the course of the year.

That's right: brand new year, same old rubbish on Existential Ennui.

So, to begin what looks set to be as Westlakey a year as last year was, I thought I'd do something similar to that post on the development of the UK Coronet '60s/'70s paperback editions of the Parkers, except with the UK Allison & Busby editions instead. And with the aid of a cheeky cheapo Westlake Score or two (you see the lengths I go to for you? Buying editions of books I already own simply so I can write posts like this? I hope you appreciate it, you ungrateful wretches), one of them little-seen online:

I can demonstrate how Allison & Busby's various editions of the debut Parker novel, Point Blank (originally, of course, The Hunter) developed over twenty-plus years. Exciting stuff and no mistake.

To recap: here in the UK, just four publishers have issued Richard Stark's Parker novels in the nearly fifty years since the series began. Coronet/Hodder-Fawcett were the first of those, publishing all of the initial fourteen-book series beginning in 1967 and ending in 1977. And then in 1984 Allison & Busby picked up the series again, bringing many of the Parkers into hardback for the first time and issuing them in slightly larger trade paperback too. (The third and fourth publishers were Robert Hale and Quercus, who issued the later Parkers throughout the 2000s.) And as with the Coronet editions, the A&B editions went through a number of different styles of cover design, beginning with this design:

That's the 1984 hardback edition of Point Blank. As I showed in this post, Allison & Busby published eight of the Parker novels in hardback in this style in 1984/85, all with dustjackets designed by Mick Keates. Keates designed a good many covers for Allison & Busby in the 1980s, for novels including A&B's editions of Ross Macdonald's The Barbarous Coast and The Blue Hammer and Chester Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem. He's still designing books today: his design for French Porcelain for English Palaces was commended in the 2009 British Book Design and Production Awards.

Keates also created the second iteration of Allison & Busby's cover designs for the Parker novels, which began in 1986. These books comprised both new-to-A&B hardbacks and paperbacks of Parkers A&B had already published in hardback. But whether hardback or paperback, the styling was the same:

That's the 1986 paperback edition of Point Blank. Some of these second wave of cover designs incorporated movie stills, as on this edition, which uses a still from the John Boorman movie of Point Blank, acquired from image library The Kobal Collection. Only one of the covers from this period, for the 1987 edition of The Green Eagle Score, isn't credited to Keates; that one is credited instead to Aubrey Warner, even though the styling is almost identical to the other Keates-designed covers from the same era. Bit of a mystery that.

Anyway, almost all of the Allison & Busby editions of the Parkers fell out of print in the 1990s. (There was one final short-lived style of cover design, or rather cover illustration, around 1990/1991, which I'll be dealing with in a separate post.) I think Allison & Busby itself went under and was swallowed up by another publisher, although it still exists in some form today, as evidenced by our third and fourth styles of cover design for Point Blank. Because, while all the other Parker novels were abandoned by A&B, in 2001 they once again brought Point Blank back into print in the UK:

This 2001 Allison & Busby paperback uses the same still from Boorman's 1967 movie (again from The Kobal Collection), but the cover this time was designed by boxharry, who, bizarrely, seem to be a Brighton-based web consultancy. Annoyingly, the copyright and title pages were removed from this copy, so the only way I can determine the publication year is by gleaning the information from Amazon and AbeBooks, neither of which are always the most accurate of sources. I think I only paid about £2 for it though, including postage, so it's not worth complaining about. I'll be donating it to a Lewes charity shop shortly, so at least someone will get some use out of it. Keep an eye out for it if you live or work in Lewes.

Which leaves one last Allison & Busby edition of Point Blank, which is this one 'ere:

This paperback edition was published by A&B in 2008. I can't tell you who designed the cover of this most recent version, because even I'm not deranged enough to buy yet another edition of the same bloody book to find out. So if anyone has a copy and can fill in the blanks, feel free to leave a comment.