Saturday 22 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: War of the Dons by Peter Rabe (Fawcett/Gold Medal)

As trailed on Friday, over the course of the coming week Existential Ennui will be featuring a Run of Rabes: a series of posts on various books by cult American crime author Peter Rabe, to mark the publication this month of two previously unseen novels by him.

For many, Rabe is the ultimate pulp paperback scribe. From the mid-1950s until the early '70s he wrote a string of novels, the vast majority of them for Gold Medal, almost all of them published straight to paperback. Much like Donald Westlake, upon whom Rabe was a major influence, Rabe's stories deal with the dark underbelly of America and yet are surprisingly lithe and loose, nimble even. These aren't plodding detective novels or methodical whodunnits: his antiheroes are usually criminals, up against fellow criminals.

Rabe's prose style is slippery and agile, his intent sometimes opaque; the direction of his stories is rarely obvious. What motivates his characters isn't always readily apparent either, and that makes them unpredictable and therefore compelling. Horrible things are done to them and by them, but these events are often alluded to rather than described in detail: violent moments sketched out in a single line; assaults or rapes skirted round or left dangling, and all the more effective and shocking for it, with not a hint of titillation.

Until quite recently there wasn't an awful lot online about Rabe; he didn't even have much of a Wikipedia entry, although that's since been rectified, and now contains a good biography of him and a full bibliography. There's also a useful interview with Rabe here, conducted shortly before he died in 1990. I've written about Rabe before too, beginning with the first book of his I bagged, Blood on the Desert, back in May of last year, and then continuing with subsequent scores Journey into Terror, Dig My Grave Deep (the first in Rabe's loose series starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port), The Out is Death and Bring Me Another Corpse, The Cut of the Whip, and My Lovely Executioner. I also wrote a bit on how Daniel Port stacks up against Donald Westlake's character Parker (and I'll be returning to Port throughout the week). But we'll begin this latest Run of Rabes with one of his final novels:

This is the US paperback first edition of War of the Dons, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in August 1972. It's Rabe's penultimate novel under his own name; he only had one further book published as Peter Rabe after this, 1974's Black Mafia, although he did have a couple of tie-in novels to the TV show Mannix published in 1975. Clearly intended to capitalize on the success of Puzo's The Godfather (at least by Gold Medal), War of the Dons is a mafia tale which arose out of Rabe's interest in a particular New York gangland family, and features a trio of ruthless brothers. I got this from the same eBay seller as the next couple of books I'll be showing, all snapped up because here in the UK first editions of Rabes don't turn up too often on eBay. And if you're wondering who was responsible for the cover illustration, I'm afraid you'll have to carry on wondering: there's no credit, and no clue online. Darn. Hopefully I'll do better with the next book...

Friday 21 January 2011

Lewes Bookshop Bargain: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate First Edition)

(UPDATE, 22/11/11: Welcome, perplexed Salon readers. Click on the Existential Ennui logo at the top of the blog or the Blog Archive down the right-hand side for more recent books blogging...)

It's been a bit of a varied week this week on Existential Ennui, with posts on a diverse (to say the least) selection of authors including Richard Stark, Dennis Wheatley and Hugh Trevor-Roper. But over the next few weeks there'll be more of a theme to my blogging (with, no doubt, some random stuff mixed in). I'll be previewing some of that at the end of this post, but first, here's a recent Lewes Bookshop Bargain:

Which is a UK hardback first edition/first printing of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, published by Fourth Estate in 2002 (originally published in the US in 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The illustration on the front of the jacket is by Sarah White, while the dustjacket design is by Julian Humphries, who, at the time, was Fourth Estate's art director. He's since gone on to a wider role at HarperCollins, Fourth Estate's parent publisher, although this 2010 Guardian article about cover design, in which Humphries is quoted, has him down as Fourth Estate's head cover designer. But I guess the two things aren't mutually exclusive.

Franzen hit the headlines in the UK last year when the first edition of his follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, was recalled after it was discovered the version of the novel that had made it into print was an earlier draft, containing hundreds of errors. Most of those would only have been identifiable by Franzen himself, but even so: oops. Weird collector that I am, I toyed with getting hold of a copy of the 'wrong' edition, but then I came across this copy of The Corrections instead, and actually I'd rather read the novel that made Franzen's name first anyway, so I bought it, for, I think, a fiver or so, which, considering first editions/first printings go for anything from twenty quid to well over a hundred, was indeed something of a bargain – even with a slightly grubby jacket.

As to where I bought it, it was in the Secret Bookshop, a.k.a. the Bookshop with No Name, otherwise known as the bit downstairs from where local listings and features magazine (and damn fine read) Viva Lewes is based, in Pipe Passage. It's easy to forget about the Secret Bookshop – it is, after all, secret – but it's always worth popping in there if you're passing, as this book demonstrates.

And that's about yer lot for this week. Next week – indeed possibly even starting this weekend – I'll be devoting Existential Ennui to cult crime writer and major Donald Westlake influence Peter Rabe. I've covered Rabe before, but I nabbed a bunch of paperbacks by him towards the end of 2010, so I'll have those to show, plus a review of one of his Daniel Port novels, and more besides. I've been holding off on posting it all as I was waiting for a couple of other books by him to turn up, but I fear they may be lost forever. However Stark House Press are due to issue two of his unpublished manuscripts any day, so now's as good a time as any to do some serious Rabe blogging.

And looking slightly further ahead, I'll have a run of posts on an author who's become a firm favourite round these parts, Ross Thomas, and a series of posts on Elmore Leonard and his Raylan Givens stories and how they relate to the Givens-starring Justified, one of the best TV shows of the past few years. So lots to look forward to.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Lewes Book Bargain (Hunt): The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Macmillan, 1947)

Generally speaking the self-imposed remit of this blog is to cover obscure genre fiction and comics, but I do – always have – read quite a bit of non-fiction too. It's not unheard of (as if anyone other than me is paying any attention to my habits and urges) for me to pick up a non-fiction title if it takes my fancy, so when I spied this cut-price volume in one of Lewes's multitudinous antique shops on Cliffe High Street (whilst becoming periodically trapped in various nooks and crannies by two teams of ferreting competitors plus attendant camera crews from the BBC show Bargain Hunt), I thought, well, why not:

It's a 1947 hardback first edition of H. R. Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler, published by Macmillan in the UK. H. R. Trevor-Roper is of course better known as Hugh Trevor-Roper; to most people he'll be familiar – notorious, even – as the man who authenticated the faked Hitler diaries bought and trumpeted by the Sunday Times in 1983, although as last year's biography of Trevor-Roper by Adam Sisman relates, the truth is less straightforward: Trevor-Roper always had doubts about the veracity of the diaries, but the Sunday Times splashed them anyway.

Trevor-Roper's reputation never really recovered, but Sisman's biography was a timely reminder of the historian's brilliance. Trevor-Roper worked in intelligence during the war, and at the end of the conflict was appointed to determine the fate of Hitler, scotching rumours of his survival. During the course of his investigation he uncovered a wealth of evidence about the dictator's final days, and the result was The Last Days of Hitler, the book that made Trevor-Roper's name. It's still widely regarded as one of the best accounts of the Third Reich, and includes a plan of Hitler's bunker, a reproduction of the last page of Hitler's will, bearing the signatures of four witnesses – among them Dr. Joesph Goebbels and Martin Boorman – and a fold-out map of escape routes out of Berlin.

There's something about the fact that it was published so soon after the end of the war – and therefore so near to the events it details – that, for me – and particularly in this first edition – makes it both an interesting artefact (holding an old book to my mind sometimes feels like holding a piece of history) and potentially a more interesting read than later accounts like Joachim Fest's 2002 book Inside Hitler's Bunker (the basis for the film Downfall). We shall see.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Guest Post: Dennis Wheatley – Devils, Dossiers, Deception, by Michael Barber

As a follow-up to this Lewes Book Fair post on Dennis Wheatley's The Prisoner in the Mask, I'm once again turning Existential Ennui over to critic Michael Barber. Michael, you'll recall, left a long comment on this post about Alan Williams last year, adding all manner of fascinating titbits, and then, having noted my interest in Kingsley Amis, kindly suggested I might like to post a review he'd written for The Hudson Review of Zachary Leader's Life of Amis. So when Michael, having read my missive on the author of The Devil Rides Out, offered to write something on Wheatley, with whom he'd conducted an interview shortly before Wheatley died, I readily agreed. The results, I think you'll find, are engrossing. The terrible title of this post, I should point out, is mine, not Michael's, so blame me for that. Anyway, over to Michael.

. . . . . . . . . .

Dennis Wheatley, by Michael Barber

In his pithy Journals Anthony Powell described Dennis Wheatley as ‘a relatively intelligent man who wrote more or less conscious drivel’. But like George VI and Goering he regarded himself as a ‘fan’, enlisting Wheatley’s help in the plotting of his Music of Time sequence and admitting that he’d ‘trespassed on your own territory’ in the final volume, which described orgiastic rites like those performed by Wheatley’s Satanists. Powell also revealed that Wheatley was to some extent the inspiration for Valentine Beals, a writer of steamy historical sagas, in his last novel, The Fisher King. 

Wheatley was safely dead by the time Powell’s Journals were published, but I doubt he’d have taken much offense. ‘Cliches are there to be used’, he would say. ‘For me, the story is the thing.’ In fact he was a born storyteller who but for the Slump might never have profited by his gift. After serving as a Gunner Officer in the Great War he joined his father in the family drinks business and in a few years transformed it from a nondescript Mayfair off-licence into a pukka wine-merchants patronised by the gratin. But although a superb salesman Wheatley was an improvident businessman who took no thought for the morrow. So when the years of plenty ended he had no fat to live off and by 1932 had lost the business and was heavily in debt.

It was now that he began to write. In the space of a few months he dashed off several short stories and two novels. The second of these, an adventure story set in Soviet Russia called The Forbidden Territory, put Wheatley firmly and for ever on the map. As he told me when I interviewed him a few months before his death, ‘Luckily for me its publication coincided with the arrest on a spying charge of several British engineers working in Russia. I couldn’t have had a better launch. The book was reprinted seven times in as many weeks.’ More important, it convinced Walter Hutchinson, the most enterprising publisher of his day, that in Dennis Wheatley he had a winner.

Although not given to false modesty Wheatley did acknowledge a heavy debt to Alexandre Dumas the elder. ‘Four of my most famous characters[1], whom I introduced in The Forbidden Territory, are closely based on Dumas’ Musketeers. In fact all my characters owe something to Dumas. They’re none of them goody-goodies. They have their faults, but they’re also very loyal, courageous and patriotic in an old-fashioned, romantic sort of way.’

A short, dapper figure, clad in a silk dressing gown and with the sort of complexion that advertised a lifelong devotion to fine wines, particularly hock, Wheatley was unashamedly nostalgic for Europe before the Fall. By chance, he was present at the last night of the Covent Garden Opera season in July 1914. ‘The cream of Society was there. Wherever you looked there were diamonds and pearls and ribbons and crosses. When the curtain came down it was not just the end of the performance but the end of an era as well.’

But in one respect at least Wheatley was ahead of his time. Not only did he write bestsellers, he devoted enormous energy to promoting them, throwing lavish lunches for gossip columnists and cultivating key members of the bookselling trade like the buyers for circulating libraries and the managers of large station bookstalls. One of the gossip-columnists he schmoozed was Tom Driberg, alias William Hickey, who proved invaluable when Wheatley hit on a new topic. ‘It suddenly struck me that nobody was writing ghost stories or anything like that any more. They seemed to have died out with the Victorians. So I thought, “Well, here’s a new pitch.” And Tom, who’d dabbled in black magic while at Oxford, was able to put me in touch with occultists like Aleister Crowley and Montague Summers, who advised me which books to read and so on.’ Wheatley’s research paid off in spades because with The Devil Rides Out (1935) he established a hold on his readers’ throats that would last for years to come.

Even more original in conception were the four Crime Dossiers that Wheatley concocted with his pal Joe Links[2], elaborate solve-it-yourself mysteries that were hailed fifty years later in the TLS as ‘one of the peaks of intellectual, imaginative and typographical achievement by which …. our civilisation may be judged.’ At the time Walter Hutchinson was distinctly unimpressed, but Wheatley told him that unless he published Murder off Miami, the first dossier[3], he would publish no more Wheatleys. In the event it sold 250,000 copies, was translated into eight languages, and inspired a Fourth leader in the Times. Not only was Wheatley vindicated, but thanks to all the publicity he had become a household name.

Wheatley always said that there were two people who had shaped his life. One was Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe, the model for his character Gregory Sallust, a raffish, cultivated and amoral crook who came to a bad end – but not before he had tutored callow young Dennis in the way of the world. The other was Wheatley’s second wife, Joan, a well-connected widow who married him when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb and remained his prop and stay till the end. It was she who forged the first link in the chain of events that led to Wheatley’s joining the Joint Planning Staff, the only civilian to be so honoured.

Thanks to her connections Joan got a job in 1940 driving for MI5. Just prior to Dunkirk one of her passengers complained that he had been ordered to think up measures that would galvanise the country against invasion, which wasn’t his thing at all. Joan ‘volunteered’ Dennis for the job, and that very evening he produced a 7000-word paper called Resistance to Invasion. So impressed were the brass-hats by Wheatley’s stimulating and unorthodox suggestions that a few weeks later he was invited to put himself in the German High Command’s shoes and draw up plans for an invasion. Sustained by 200 cigarettes and three magnums of champagne he produced, in 48 hours, a 15,000-word paper that was later found to be uncannily similar to Operation Sea-Lion, the actual German plan.

Wheatley now had the bit between his teeth and in little more than a year wrote half a million words on aspects of the war for a very select audience that included Winston Churchill and the King. In December 1941 he was invited to join a small team responsible for Deception Planning and was attached to the Joint Planning Staff. He was commissioned into the RAFVR and rapidly promoted to Wing Commander. In the next three years he was involved in such well-known deceptions as ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and the ‘Bodyguard of Lies’ fabricated to conceal the time and place of D-Day.

Wheatley left Whitehall in 1944. Because he was ‘stuffed full of secrets’ he had to be very careful what he wrote next. Contemporary spy stories were off-limits lest he unwittingly infringe the Official Secrets Act. He solved the problem by going back 150 years to the Napoleonic Wars, the backdrop for his immensely successful Roger Brook series, which ran to twelve volumes.

Wheatley worked hard and played hard. He sometimes wrote for thirteen hours a day, yet away from his desk he was the most convivial of men who made free of his ample table and cellar. Largely self-educated – his library was as refined as his cellar – he thought that the reason he was so popular was that people got two books for the price of one. ‘A damn good plot, plus plenty of information. So as well as being entertained, they learn something too.’ All this and more is revealed in Phil Baker’s affectionate and encyclopaedic biography, The Devil is a Gentleman. But one mystery remains. Why, despite his meritorious war service, was Wheatley neither honoured nor decorated – except, bizarrely, by the Americans, who gave him their Bronze Star? True, he was an admirer of Mussolini and Franco; but so too were many members of the pre-war Establishment, including Churchill. Perhaps somewhere in the Public Record Office is a minute that reveals why ‘the Prince of Storytellers’ missed out.

[1] The Duke de Richleau, Richard Eaton, Simon Aron and Rex Van Ryn
[2] A furrier who was also an expert on Canaletto.
[3] Wheatley advised buyers of the First Edition to cherish it because it would eventually be worth a lot of money – a somewhat optimistic prediction.

Lewes (British) Bookshops Bargains: Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles by Michael Moorcock, Darkside by Belinda Bauer, Worth Dying For by Lee Child

As I believe I've mentioned before (ahem), Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live, is blessed with bookshops. An unhealthily obsessed book collector would be hard pressed to find a more suitable town in which to live, the major metropolitan areas and Hay-on-Wye aside. But most of the bookshops in Lewes, excellent though they are in their own ways, are of the second hand variety. When it comes to new books, we're slightly less spoilt for choice. There's Skylark in the Needlemakers, which offers quite a good selection of books but a very limited range – leaning towards the literary end of the scale – of new fiction; there's WHSmiths, which is fine for celebrity memoirs but not much else; and there's British Bookshops/Sussex Stationers.

British Bookshops/Sussex Stationers, for those who don't know, are a chain of bookshops/stationers based in South East England, selling, as the name suggests, new books, greetings cards, pens, paper, and so forth. As bookshops go, they don't have the depth of stock of, say, Waterstones, but they are quite good on new fiction, both hardback and paperback. And not only that, but their prices compare very favourably with Amazon. If you know when a novel's being published – which, dullard that I am, I usually don't – you can nip in and pick it up pretty cheaply. The one in Lewes is good for new hardback fiction, but being out in the sticks, it doesn't always get first printings of hardbacks. Or rather, if it does, I'm too slow to bag the buggers. But even so, when there's a new book I want to get my filthy mitts on, I head for the Lewes British Bookshops first.

Sadly, I may not be able to for much longer, because at the end of last week it was reported that the chain has gone into administration. A buyer is being sought apparently, but if one can't be found, it'll be game over, with the loss of up to 300 jobs across the region. That's bad enough, but it'll also mean that the best place to buy new books in Lewes will be gone. And by way of example, here are three books I bought there recently:

This is the UK first edition hardback of Michael Moorcock's Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, published at the tail end of 2010 by BBC Books. I bought this in the Lewes British Bookshops just before Christmas for £8.99, which is about what you'd pay on Amazon. Moorcock is of course a huge name in fantasy and SF circles, a major influence on Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and many more besides; it was big news when it was announced he'd be writing a Who novel. Coincidentally I'll have some news on Mr. Moorcock – in a tangential way – very soon, but in the meantime, if you're after a review of Terraphiles, there's a good one over at SFX. As for the dustjacket, that was designed by Lee Binding at teaLady.


A UK hardback first edition/printing of Darkside by Belinda Bauer, published just this month by Bantam and bought just this month by me in British Bookshops, Lewes. Again, I paid round about what Amazon are charging online. I read Bauer's debut, Blacklands, last year, and really liked it, as did many others: it ended up winning the CWA Gold Dagger. This follow-up is set in the same fictional Exmoor village; Keith at Books and Writers has a review up here, and WriterMel at High Heels and Book Deals has a review here and an interview with Bauer here (and you can read my review of Blacklands here). The dustjacket was designed by Claire Ward, creative director at Transworld (Bantam's parent publisher), who also designed the jacket for Blacklands and the rather lovely cover for Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, while the front cover photo is by Mark Owen (no, not that one) of Arcangel.

Lastly, we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of Worth Dying For by Lee Child, with a dustjacket designed by Transworld's assistant art director Stephen Mulcahey – who, oddly enough, was also responsible for the back cover photo of Darkside (I think). Child's most recent Jack Reacher novel (I'm currently reading the first one, Killing Floor), it was published by Bantam in September 2010, but I only bought this copy the other day in British Bookshops. Reason being, the hardback's already been through multiple printings, and I'd missed out on a first printing – if British Bookshops even had any in the first place. But I was in there last week and happened to find this copy, which is a first printing (i.e. it has the full strike-off line on the copyright page). And not only that, but it was even cheaper than the Amazon edition.

So there you go. Those are some books I bought recently in the Lewes branch of British Bookshops. To any Lewesians reading this, should British Bookshops make it out of administration, next time you need to buy a new book, spare a thought for a local book-obsessed nutter and perhaps buy it in the Lewes outlet. Because I'll be most upset if it closes for good.

UPDATE 1: I got terribly excited just now because I thought British Bookshops had been sold today. Sadly, it hasn't – the news piece I found was from 2009. But I can report that the shops will carry on trading for a few weeks while a buyer is sought. Fingers crossed...

UPDATE 2: Forty people have been laid off at British Bookshops' head office and in their warehouse. Obviously that isn't great for those who've lost their jobs, but there are no redundancies at the shop level yet, and there's a possibility of a management buyout, so the Lewes British Bookshops may yet survive.

Monday 17 January 2011

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: The Allison & Busby Paperbacks of Deadly Edge, The Sour Lemon Score and Slayground, and the Hunt for Cover Artist Stephen Hall

My friends, let us begin the week with a tale of abject failure.

A couple of weeks ago I demonstrated how UK publisher Allison & Busby's editions of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels developed over twenty-five-plus years, using Point Blank as a guide. In that post I mentioned that in the early 1990s Allison & Busby introduced one other short-lived style of cover design – or rather, illustration – one that was never deployed for Point Blank, and that I'd be returning to that design in a separate post. This is that post.

So far as I've been able to establish, only three of the Allison & Busby Parkers ever had this type of cover (four if you count the 1997 Omnibus volume 1, but that just reuses one of the three other covers, so we won't), which took the Mick Keates 'torn logo' design of the second wave of A&B editions and incorporated new paintings/illustrations. And it's those illustrations that I want to concentrate on here.

The three novels in question are the A&B paperback editions of Deadly Edge (1990):

The Sour Lemon Score (1991):

and Slayground (also 1991):

Those last two are recent-ish Westlake Scores, which I nabbed on eBay pretty much so I could write this post. Again I say to you, dear reader: the sacrifices I make... Anyway, all three covers sport illustrations by Stephen Hall, and while I wasn't terribly keen on them when I first saw them online many moons ago, I've since grown to appreciate them – or two of them anyway. The one for The Sour Lemon Score I'm still not sold on – it looks dashed-off compared to the others – but the ones for Deadly Edge and Slayground are intriguing mixed media efforts. Slayground in particular seems to incorporate elements of collage, lending the picture a nice clashing energy.

So I thought I'd do some digging, see what I could find out about the artist. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that identifying the correct Stephen Hall wouldn't be as straightforward as I'd hoped. There were lots of links for artists named Stephen – and Steve – Hall, but none seemed quite right, and certainly none of them made any mention of creating covers for either Allison & Busby or Richard Stark novels.

Eventually, after a hell of a lot of googling, I narrowed the field down to two possibilities – both rather remote, but worth exploring. One – Stephen Hall – was a New York-based painter who'd moved to the US from Scotland in 1978, and whose work had featured on a number of books, including many crime novels. The other – Stephen Hall, or Randall Stephen Hall – was a children's book illustrator and storyteller from Northern Ireland. Neither quite fit the bill, but artists' styles do change, so either one could conceivably be the right man.

There was, however, no way of finding out without contacting them directly. So that's what I did. I emailed the NY-based Stephen Hall first, explaining the nature of my quest, and not really expecting to hear back. But I did get a reply, that same day. Stephen confirmed that he had illustrated many book covers during that period of the early 1990s, among them crime and mystery works. He didn't think that he'd worked on these particular Stark novels, but he said to send along cover scans and he'd be able to say definitively yes or no. Which I duly did... and received a definitive 'no'.


Disappointed but undeterred, I moved on to the Northern Ireland-based Stephen Hall, and emailed him. Once again I received a swift reply... and once again it was in the negative. Drat. Stephen did, however, note that it was an interesting quest I was on, and suggested I try another Stephen Hall, an artist with an illustration background, originally from Scotland, now living and working in New York... Yeah, you know where this is going. I replied that unfortunately I'd already tried that Stephen Hall... and that's where my quest ended. None of the other Stephen Halls I turned up in my search looked to be likely candidates. The only other hint I have to go on is a distant notion that a very similar illustrator worked for music weekly NME in the early 1990s, but there I might just be projecting (there's an NME press blurb on the cover of Deadly Edge).

My only recourse now is to post this tale of woe and hope that somehow the correct Stephen Hall stumbles across it. So if you're out there, Stephen, make yourself known. Be great to get some background on both you and the creation of these covers...