Saturday 29 January 2011

A Peter Rabe Postscript: Time Enough to Die and My Lovely Executioner Finally Arrive

Would you Adam and Eve it. No sooner had I dotted the 'i's, crossed the 't's and drawn a line under my week of posts dedicated to Peter Rabe, but the two Rabe books which I had a moan about going missing in the post finally turned up, three months after I ordered them. And here they are:

On the left is the UK 1961 printing of the 1959 US Gold Medal paperback of Time Enough to Die, the final Daniel Port novel, and on the right is the 1967 UK Herbert Jenkins hardback edition of My Lovely Executioner. I'll be posting something about that second one – which is one of only two Rabe novels to be published in hardback in his lifetime – soon enough, but in the meantime, I've now updated this Daniel Port cover gallery with the back cover for Time Enough to Die. Thrilling stuff, eh? As to why I ordered these books from New Zealand of all places, well, it was the only seller who had copies of both. There are no copies of Time Enough to Die available from UK sellers online, and as for the hardback of My Lovely Executioner, there are only three other copies for sale anywhere on the web. One of those I know has a soiled, rather poor dustjacket, and the other two are forty and fifty quid. So that's why.

Friday 28 January 2011

Last of the Lewes British Bookshops? Plus Nigel Williams, Cecil Court Bookseller RIP

Couple of sad stories to end the working week. I blogged last week about the book and stationery chain British Bookshops and how it went into administration a couple of weeks back. Well I've just popped up the road to the Lewes branch and there are posters in the windows advertising a closing down sale, with a fair old scrum at the tills of queues of people grabbing discounted cards and books. Now, this may not be the end of the story – the Worthing branch has identical posters in its windows, and yet the administrator is still insisting the chain will continue to trade, and that they're only "using existing signage to ensure there is greater footfall". So it could simply be a case of misleading advertising. But you have to admit, having "closing down" signs in yer windows doesn't exactly engender faith in the future of a company – and it can't be pleasant for the poor buggers who work in the shops, either. I'll keep an eye on how this one develops.

UPDATE 1: Just got a report from a friend that the Burgess Hill branch of British Bookshops is practically stripping the walls bare as the stock goes. Not a promising sign...

UPDATE 2, 8/2/11: Well, it looks as if the Lewes branch of British Bookshops – and a further twenty-one stores – are safe: WH Smith have acquired a big chunk of the chain. The Bookseller story I linked to there has a list of all the other shops that WH Smith have bought, most of which will continue to trade under the British Bookshops name, and it reports that 200 jobs will be saved. So some good news at last, although it's tempered by the fact that there are still twenty-nine British Bookshops branches whose fate is undecided.

On an unrelated note, earlier this week I learned about the death of second hand bookseller Nigel Williams, who passed away on Christmas Eve at the terribly young age of forty-eight. I didn't know Nigel at all, but his shop in London's Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road, is one of my favourite places to go and browse and occasionally buy first editions (I wrote about it here). I was up there just the other weekend and was surprised to find it closed. Now I know why. I've spent many a happy half hour in the basement of Nigel Williams Rare Books, gazing at the impressive collection of modern firsts – among them a splendid selection of crime and genre titles – so it was sad to hear of his passing. Hopefully his shop will live on, because it really is a wonderful place to visit. In any case, and for what it's worth, my condolences to his family and friends.

UPDATE 3, 1/4/11: Sadly, I believe Nigel Williams Rare Books did, in the end, close for good; the link above no longer works, and the shop is no longer listed either on the The Book Guide or on Cecil Court's website. A shame, but understandable. I'll miss the place.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Rabe in Hardback: Anatomy of a Killer by Peter Rabe (Abelard-Schuman, John Sewell Cover), and its Influence on Richard Stark / Parker

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker.

Back at the start of this series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, I mentioned that Rabe is the uncrowned king of the pulpy paperback novel. Like John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson, the paperback was both Rabe's natural home and a format that sidelined him unfairly. Because, also like MacDonald and Thompson and a select few others, while the paperback format seemed to suit his stories of gangsters and bad men and lowlifes, Rabe's writing was a cut above that of his fellow softback hacks.

MacDonald and Thompson both had novels published in hardback in their lifetimes, however. Only a handful in Thompson's case, mostly at the beginning of his career, but that's still more than Rabe. Peter Rabe only made it into hardback three times in his lifetime (and, I think, only once after he died, thus far anyway). The first time was in 1955, when Vanguard in the US and Frederick Muller in the UK published his little-remarked-upon non-fiction title From Here to Maternity, a humorous look at the birth of his first son, complete with line drawings by the author. The last time was in 1967, when Herbert Jenkins in the UK issued a hardback of his earlier Gold Medal paperback My Lovely Executioner; I was hoping to be able to show the Herbert Jenkins edition, but like the paperback of Time Enough to Die I mentioned yesterday, the copy I ordered has vanished in the post.

I can, however, show you the book published in-between those two, the only novel of Rabe's to be issued straight to hardback in his lifetime:

Anatomy of a Killer was published by Abelard-Schuman simultaneously in the US, the UK and Canada in 1960. According to George Tuttle's interview with Peter Rabe, the story was, like The Cut of the Whip, rejected by Gold Medal, Rabe's usual publisher, so Abelard-Schuman, who were a British publisher, picked it up instead. The plot concerns Sam Jordan, a professional killer who, as the dustjacket flap blurb has it...

...[had] honed his nerves down to a fine, taut edge and turned himself into a ruthless precision machine for killing—a cold-blooded automaton who dealt out controlled violence. He had this trick on a job of splitting himself in two—head over here, guts over there in a box—and that way everything went off smoothly and efficiently. That way there were no feelings, because Jordan couldn't afford them.

Hmm... "A ruthless precision machine... a cold-blooded automaton... no feelings..." Now who does that remind you of? Could it be Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's character Parker? I've written about the similarities between Rabe's work and Westlake's before, and how Rabe's writing – and in particular his Daniel Port novels – influenced Westlake enormously. But it's possible that Anatomy of a Killer exerted the biggest influence of all. It was published just a couple of years before Parker debuted in The Hunter, and Westlake himself said of the novel, "Anatomy of a Killer is as cold and clean as a knife... a terrific book." But I think the strongest evidence comes from the opening scene in the book, which begins exactly like a Parker novel, even down to starting with a "when":

When he was done in the room he stepped away quickly because the other man was falling his way. He moved fast and well and when he was out in the corridor he pulled the door shut behind him. Sam Jordan's speed had nothing to do with haste but came from perfection.

The door went so far and then held back with a slight give. It did not close. On the floor, between the door and the frame, was the arm.

He relaxed immediately but his motion was interrupted because he had to turn towards the end of the hall. The old woman had not stepped all the way out of her room. She was stretching her neck past the door jamb and looking at him. "Did you hear a noise just now?"

"Yes." He walked toward her, which was natural, because the stair well was that way. "on the street," he said. "One of those hotrods."

"Did you just come from Mister Vendo's room?"


"Was he in? I mean, I wonder if he heard it."

"Yes. He's in, and he heard it."

Jordan walked by the old woman and started down the stairs. She shook her head and said, "That racket. They're just like wild animals, the way they're driving," and went back into her room.

He turned when her door shut and walked back down the hallway. This was necessary and therefore automatic. He did not feel like a wild animal. He did his job with all the job habits smooth. When he was back at the door he looked down at the arm, but then did nothing else. He stood there with his hand on the door knob and did nothing.

The terse dialogue, the short, plain, sentences: that's a Parker in all but name. Stark House Press brought Anatomy of a Killer back into print in 2008 as a double-novel with A Shroud for Jesso, so should you wish to make your own Parker comparisons, you don't have to go to the trouble of getting an expensive (anything from thirty to a hundred quid for a nice copy) first edition to do so.

The dustjacket on the Abelard-Schuman edition was designed by the late John Sewell, who was rather an interesting man in his own right. He created quite a lot of covers for Penguin, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon. He also made short films. In 1954 he became the first graphic designer to be recruited by the BBC, and headed up a whole department creating screen graphics in the 1950s, although little of his work survives. There's an appreciation of his book cover work on this blog. His jacket for Anatomy of a Killer is typical of his scratchy illustration and cut-up design style; it certainly makes a change from the more lurid efforts on the Gold Medal paperbacks of Rabe's novels.

And that's about it for this series of posts on Peter Rabe – at least until the two books I ordered that have gone AWOL turn up, anyway.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

A Peter Rabe Daniel Port Gold Medal / Ace Paperback Cover Gallery

Following on from yesterday's post on cult crime author Peter Rabe's novel The Out is Death, which, as we all know (if we've been paying attention, that is), stars Rabe's occasional antihero Daniel Port, today I'm posting a Daniel Port cover gallery, featuring the original American covers (or in some cases the British printings) for all six books in the loose series. But as is often the way with best laid plans – and I have been planning this gallery for quite a while – there's a slight drawback: I don't have all six books. I figured I would by now, but unfortunately the final book in the series, Time Enough to Die, is either lost somewhere in the various postal systems between New Zealand – from where it was ordered – and Lewes – where it was supposed to arrive well over a month ago – or in the hands of an evil wayward postal worker, who has purloined it for their own reading pleasure, the git. So basically, I'm a Port short.

UPDATE: At least, I was a Port short when I originally posted this. But as trumpeted here, that missing book arrived a couple of days later. So now we really can sally forth and get this show on the road, beginning with:

Dig My Grave Deep, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1956, although seen here is the UK printing from 1957, published by Frederick Muller. Muller picked up countless Gold Medal titles for publication in Britain from the mid-'50s through to the mid-'60s, usually issuing them a year or two after their US debut with only minor changes to the covers – a British price instead of an American one – and the copyright page. Essentially, though, they're the same as the US editions. The cover artist is Lu Kimmell, whose painterly, naturalistic work graced many a Gold Medal, not to mention a good number of Signet editions of Mickey Spillane novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, etc.). I've got a wee bit more about Dig My Grave Deep here, and there's a 1001 Midnights/Mystery File review here. Next:

The Out is Death, as featured yesterday, although I've just noticed that the estimable Wallace Stroby has a few words on it too. This second Port story was published in the US by Gold Medal in 1957, but again, the edition seen above is the Muller one from 1959. Mitchell Hooks is the cover artist here, and there's an excellent appreciation of his work on the Today's Inspiration blog. And also published in the US in '57 and the UK in '59 was this:

It's My Funeral, the third Port novel. This one's a fairly recent acquisition, so plot-wise all I've got to go on is the back cover copy and a page one excerpt which details Port's efforts to unhook a bra. You can see the audience the publisher was aiming at... The cover also sets its sights firmly on the sleazier end of the paperback market, but it's a striking piece, the naked blonde almost forming a cut-out negative shape on the abstract red and black floor. It's by Jack Floherty, Jr. sometimes credited as John Floherty, Jr., and bizarrely – and presumably mistakenly – credited as Jack Floberty, Jr. inside the book itself. There's a short bio for him here. I think this is my favourite of the Port covers. It's certainly snazzier than this next one:

The Cut of the Whip was published in the States not by Gold Medal but by Ace in 1958. As you can see it was published as one of Ace's Double Novels, with Robert H. Kelston's Kill One, Kill Two on the flipside – I wrote a bit about Ace doubles, and about The Cut of the Whip, here. The cover art on the Rabe side is by Bernard Barton, who's a bugger to Google as there's a well known poet with the same name. But even given that, there doesn't seem to be much online about him, although he did do a number of other covers for Ace, including this Sam Dakkers tale. He may also have had a thing for really massive women. The Cut of the Whip was published by Ace because Gold Medal rejected it, but Daniel Port returned to Gold Medal for his next outing:

Bring Me Another Corpse, the fifth Port novel, published in the US in 1959 (1960 UK Muller printing seen above). The plot places Port front and centre as the target of a killer, but I can't tell you who the cover art is by, possibly because it's a photo, not an illustration. It does look kind of photographic, but not as photographic as the cover for Port's final appearance:

Time Enough to Die was once again published by Gold Medal in 1959 (1961 in the UK by Muller), with a cover that reminds me of a Soho peep show (not that I've ever frequented such a place). It's set in Mexico, and Peter Rabe intended it as a new beginning for Port. As it turned out, it was quite the opposite, and the series ended here, leaving Port south of the border, perhaps living out the rest of his life drinking cold coffee and whistling Mexican ditties to himself.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Book Review: The Out is Death by Peter Rabe (A Daniel Port Novel)

Continuing this week-long series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, I thought I'd cast a reasonably critical eye over the second in Rabe's loose series of novels starring one-time hood Daniel Port, partly because reviews of Rabe's books seem to be few and far between online, and partly because, well, I read it quite recently. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason as any.

Daniel Port debuted in 1956's Dig My Grave Deep, which detailed his efforts to extricate himself from the clutches of a New York district racket, and ended with him heading off to start a new mob-free life. The Out is Death – published in the US in 1957 by Gold Medal, although the edition seen here is the 1959 UK Frederick Muller printing – doesn't so much pick up Port's story as drop him into someone else's, that of ailing heister Abe Dalton. Fresh out of jail, Dalton is being squeezed by gangster Dicky Corday into undertaking one more job. But Dalton is ill, and doesn't want to die in jail. Enter Dalton's old friend Port, who takes on the task of getting Dalton out from under Corday's boot heel.

Whereas Dig My Grave Deep was all about Port's efforts to leave the criminal life behind, here he's trying to do the same for a friend, a quest that involves intermittent negotiation, bursts of brutality and eventually blackmail. Port is a pragmatist, reluctant to resort to violence but willing to do so to further his aims. He's also an operator who can still call on contacts and favours in his efforts to aid Dalton. But how much more there is to Port beyond that is open to debate. Even after two books I'm still not sure I've got a handle on him. Rabe gives him a couple of quirks – a penchant for cold coffee; a tendency to whistle when nervous – both of which are holdovers from Dig My Grave Deep. But other than those and an abiding competence and confidence, he's an enigma. Mind you, that's no bad thing: Richard Stark managed to sustain an entire series despite revealing even less about his character, Parker.

Another similarity with Stark, who clearly learned a trick or two from Rabe, is the way Port's co-stars are much more colourful than he: the doomed, weary Dalton; the leering, infantile Dicky; Dicky's unfortunate girlfriend, Letty, who has a fairly awful time of it in this book; and in particular one minor yet crucial character, a woman who could provide the alibi for Dalton that would negate Dicky's hold over him – if only it wouldn't destroy her marriage in the process. Her name is Eve Simmon, and her story, recounted to Port after he attempts to get her to help Dalton, is heartbreaking and very real. The four pages where she details her poverty-stricken, increasingly nightmarish upbringing and the brief role Dalton played in lifting her out of a horrendous situation are the emotional core of the novel.

This is where Rabe excels: in his depiction of desperate people faced either with dreadful choices or no choice at all. And that, on reflection, offers a further clue as to Port's make-up: his appearance in the lives of these characters does not, for the most part, improve them in any way. He's no hero: he's just a fallible man who thinks he can do some good, but only ends up making things worse. In other words, and if you'll pardon the terrible pun, he's one Port you wouldn't turn to in a storm.

Monday 24 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: Benny Muscles In by Peter Rabe (Five Star Paperback)

For the third in this Run of Rabes – basically three Peter Rabe books I bought on eBay, which I'm posting as part of a week's worth of Peter Rabe blogging – we have this:

Benny Muscles In was Peter Rabe's second novel, originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1955. It's the story of Benny Tapkow, a hoodlum running rackets in a New York territory, and how he claws his way to the top of the pile before being brought low by a woman and her habit. This edition, however, isn't the Gold Medal one; it's a later UK Five Star edition from 1973, with a different (uncredited) cover.

Five Star published a handful of Rabe novels around 1972/'73, including The Out is Death and Agreement to Kill. They also published gothic romances, thrillers and science fiction, most of them picked up from other publishers, with few notable names among their authors – there's a work-in-progress list here. It was a short-lived enterprise – possibly just those two years stated above – run by PBS Ltd. of Manchester, who in turn were a subsidiary of World Distributors. World Distributors was owned by three brothers, Sidney, John and Alfred Pemberton, and started life after World War II as a market stall selling second hand books. The brothers then moved into publishing, and became well known for the hardback TV tie-in annuals they produced, including twenty years'-worth of Doctor Who Annuals, not to mention such lesser delights as CHiPs and Black Beauty. In 1981 the company was renamed World International Publishing, pumping out further annuals for Dempsey and Makepeace, The A-Team and others before disappearing at the end of the decade.

Anyway, next up in this week of Rabes, a review of the second Daniel Port novel, The Out is Death.

Sunday 23 January 2011

A Run of Rabes: The Box by Peter Rabe (Fawcett/Gold Medal), Barye Phillips Cover Art

For the second in this series of posts on cult crime writer Peter Rabe, we have another of the three Rabe books I bagged on eBay before Christmas, this one published ten years prior to the novel featured yesterday (which, for those who've either just joined us or have really rubbish memories, was 1972's War of the Dons):

A US paperback first edition/printing of The Box, published by Fawcett/Gold Medal in December 1962. The premise of this one is a cracker: a cargo ship docked at the (fictional) North African coastal town of Okar disgorges a crate the size of two telephone booths. There's an awful smell emanating from it, so the captain of the ship and the port clerk open it up... and find inside a filthy and deranged man. His name is Quinn, a mob lawyer who was nailed up in the box as punishment and sent on a round-the-world trip with enough provisions and water to keep him barely alive. What happens to him in Okar forms the basis of the rest of the story...

There's an instructive review of The Box on Amazon – instructive in that in demonstrates how baffling Rabe's work can appear on first inspection. Our perplexed critic notes that "The narrative contains a great deal of detailed description yet at the same time much is left to the reader's imagination", before declaring that "the overall narrative flow is neither smooth nor logic driven. One gets the impression that this story is an allegorical one... I'm sorry to say that any such deeper meaning was woefully lost on me."

I can see how The Box – indeed how many of Rabe's novels – might bemuse. The Box is littered with examples of Rabe's elliptical, allusive prose style (which I outlined yesterday). Here's a passage from early on in the book, a flashback to the aftermath of a confrontation between Quinn and an overweight mob boss:

After that, on the street, Quinn just walked. But it wasn't enough moving for all the holding still he had done. He concentrated on a dream that came out ugly and strong, red, with blue edges—and then I go over, cool as cool, I don't listen any more, I am cool as cool, fire inside though, fire in fist now, and suddenly ram that into the executive pouch—poof! plate jumps out, face collapses, fat lips hanging down, and I step on the plate, a crunch of pure pleasure—

Rabe is showing us those familiar thought processes we all run through in the aftermath of an argument or stand-off, fantasizing scenarios of how we should have handled it or how we might handle it in a similar situation (but probably never will). He uses plain language, but in unexpected ways, deploying colours for feelings, switching the narration to first person, finishing with that image of the false teeth popping out of the mob boss's mouth and then being crunched by Quinn. It's certainly not the kind of writing you expect to find in a pulpy paperback.

The cover painting for The Box is by Barye Phillips – or possibly Philips, with one 'l'; I've seen it spelled both ways online. Barye was a Gold Medal stalwart who began painting paperback covers around 1943, prior to which he worked for Columbia Pictures' advertising department; later in his life he was President of the Society of Illustrators from 1965-67 (the Society's website has the single 'l' spelling of his surname). There's a great cover gallery of his work on this blog, including a 1958 Signet paperback of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He was possessed of a loose, sometimes expressive, painterly style, one that reminds me a little of Harry Bennett in the way it occasionally mixes line art with splashes of colour.

I like the logo for The Box too, which, appropriately, has been boxed. And it's interesting that, even back in 1962, it was recognised that Rabe was something special – witness that tagline about him being "one of the great stylists in suspense". Indeed he was.