Saturday 26 February 2011

Jeremy Duns on Ian Fleming, Donald McCormick and Christine Granville / Spy Fiction Fortnight Preview

As promised on Friday, I thought I'd post a little preview of what you can expect from Existential Ennui's forthcoming Spy Fiction Fortnight, which I have to say I'm quite excited about (well, as excited as I get about anything, anyway). But before I get to that, and tangentially related to it, I just wanted to draw your attention to a terrific essay by espionage author and Ian Fleming expert Jeremy Duns.

As is often the case with contemporary writers, I wasn't really aware of Jeremy's work until very recently; so far as this blog and therefore my reading habits are concerned, it could be said that I'm somewhat stuck in the past, although in my defence it's not so much my own past but rather an unexplored (by me, anyway) history of 20th century genre fiction encompassing names like Lyall, Thomas, Highsmith, Westlake and Amis (K.). But earlier this year Jeremy left a comment on a guest post by Michael Barber about Dennis Wheatley, and in so doing positioned himself squarely in my sights (so he only has himself to blame there). Duns has had two novels published to date, with a third on the way; I've already devoured the first one – more on that in a moment – and I'll be cracking the spine on the second one pretty soon.

He also has a first-rate blog, and on Thursday posted a long but engrossing piece on a couple of writers I've blogged about a fair few times myself. One of those is Ian Fleming, who needs no introduction. The other is Donald McCormick, author and co-author of Who's Who in Spy Fiction and Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide. I've made reference to both those books in multiple posts, and I'd assumed that McCormick was a trusted authority on Fleming, McCormick having worked for Fleming after the war and indeed written a biography of him. But as Duns reveals in his post, McCormick was a hoaxer and a fabricator, and many of the things he wrote about Fleming over the years have turned out to be utterly unverifiable and almost certainly complete rubbish.

McCormick's lies about Fleming hit the headlines again last week when The Bookseller reported that Pan Macmillan had acquired the rights to a biography of WWII British secret agent Christine Granville, who was, according to the story, "the inspiration for Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale". Furthermore, as Guy Walters details in this Telegraph post, with its Bond-esque title of The Spy Who Loved, the biography promised to deliver sensational details of the supposed relationship between Granville and Fleming. But as Jeremy explains in his post (which Walters links to), once again, these claims can be traced back to Donald McCormick's fabrications. It's a fascinating story (and having read through those various links I'm starting to wonder whether a biography of McCormick might be a more interesting proposition than a biography of Granville), and I strongly urge you to go read Jeremy's piece.

Which brings me back to that promised preview of Spy Fiction Fortnight, because Mr. Duns will loom large over a number of posts in the coming couple of weeks. For a start, I'll have a review of his 2009 debut, Free Agent, which is a cracking espionage novel set at the end of the '60s. I'll also have two books that I was inspired to track down as a direct result of that comment Jeremy left at the beginning of the year. One of those is a first edition by a firm favourite of his, Joseph Hone, which will come accompanied by an intriguing piece of publishing paraphernalia, and the other is also a first edition, this time of a book featuring excerpts of other espionage novels, and compiled by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. There'll be more from Graham Greene too, in the shape of a review of one of his novels – not so much a spy novel as a novel with an espionage element – and a look at another of his books that's very definitely a Secret Service thriller.

Elsewhere in Spy Fiction Fortnight, with a new film adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy due later this year, featuring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, I'll be writing about the original novel, in particular how it stacks up against the 1979 Alec Guinness-starring BBC TV version. I'll be showcasing a signed edition of a spy novel by Alexander Cordell – an author rather better known as a chronicler of early industrial Wales – and I'll be reviewing Ross Thomas's Cast a Yellow Shadow and Gavin Lyall's The Most Dangerous Game – and yes, strictly speaking I know that second one is more of a suspense thriller than an espionage novel, but I recently nabbed a first edition of it, and it's a great book, and there is some spying stuff in it, and anyway it's my party, er, I mean, blog, and I'll cry – I'm sorry, review – if I want to.

Plus there'll hopefully be one or two other bits and bobs in the mix too, depending on how things pan out. So lots to look forward to. Back soon.

Friday 25 February 2011

Bleeck Week: No Questions Asked by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hamish Hamilton First Edition, Ken Reilly Cover

And so we reach the end of Bleeck Week, a week which, if you haven't worked out by now what it was all about, then there really is no hope for you. Just take yourself off to the previous posts on Ross Thomas/Oliver Bleeck's four prior Philip St. Ives novels here, here, here and here, and I'll see you back here when you're done.

All finished? Right then. Let's have a look at the final Bleeck book:

Which is the UK hardback first edition of No Questions Asked, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1976 – originally published in the same year in the States by William Morrow. And as you can see, for some reason, Hamilton elected not to use the singular services of their go-to cover photographer Beverley le Barrow for this one – unlike yesterday's copy of The Highbinders – which makes No Questions Asked quite unusual among that run of Hamilton editions of Ross Thomas's novels from 1974-79. The dustjacket is, however, different to the American cover (which you can see on the right there), and was designed by Ken Reilly, a well known illustrator and packaging designer still going strong today.

Shall we cast an eye over the jacket flap copy to get a sense of the story? Let's.

Philip St [sic] Ives, that most professional of professional go-betweens, has had some strange and dangerous cases to handle before, but his latest assignment is something out of the ordinary. A copy of Pliny's Historia Naturalis has been stolen and is now being ransomed for a quarter of a million dollars. At the same time, Jack Marsh, a well-known private detective supposed to be guarding the book in transit, has been kidnapped. So St Ives finds himself in snow-covered Washington involved in a deadly game of deception and murder, and attempting to survive long enough to recover the stolen book.

No Questions Asked is fast-moving and entertaining – as readers have come to expect from Oliver Bleeck novels.

Indeed we have. I had to get this Hamilton copy of No Questions Asked from New Zealand, as there weren't any for sale in the UK. This was before the recent appalling earthquake over there, mind, although Lotsabooks, the store I bought it from, is in Hamilton, some way from Christchurch, where the quake did its worst. Even so, I hope all over there are safe and well, and I can thoroughly recommend buying books from them, as this copy arrived in not much more than a week and in near-fine condition.

And that brings us to the end of Bleeck Week. Next week I had planned on doing a week's worth of espionage-themed posts as a sequel to last year's Espionage Week, but I've now decided against that. Instead, I'll be doing two weeks' worth of espionage posts, as I have so many books to cover I won't be able to fit them all into a single week. So look out for Spy Fiction Fortnight, coming your way very soon. And if you're really lucky, I might even post a preview of that over the weekend...

Thursday 24 February 2011

Bleeck Week: The Highbinders by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hamish Hamilton First Edition, Cover by Beverley le Barrow, a.k.a. Beverley Goodway

We're stumbling towards the end of Bleeck Week now, with just two more of the pseudonymous Philip St. Ives thrillers written by Ross Thomas to look at. And today it's the turn of the fourth St. Ives novel... not to mention the return of a cover photographer who's become a firm favourite in the palatial abode of Louis XIV (i.e., round my gaff):

Seen above is the UK hardback first edition of The Highbinders, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1974 – originally published by William Morrow in the States in 1973. And if we take a look at the US cover:

We can see that the approach on the UK one was a little... different... I'll come back to the design of the Hamilton edition dustjacket momentarily, but as is traditional by now, let's take a gander at its jacket flap copy to see what it's all about:

Professional go-between Philip St. Ives finds himself in a London jail even before he has accepted an offer from Ned and Norbert Nitry to recover the fabulous Sword of St. Louis which as (or has it?) been stolen from them and is being ransomed. When Philip does accept the offer, he becomes involved in a deadly game of deception and murder with a bizarre group of characters that includes two professional con men (highbinders). This is a top-flight novel of intrigue and fun from an acknowledged master of the suspense novel.

Good of Hamish Hamilton's copywriter to tell us what a highbinder is – I had no idea before reading that blurb – and also, the novel's set in London, from whence I hail (I didn't always live in Lewes, y'know). I've already spotted references to New Cavendish Street and Watney's the brewers, so it'll be interesting to spot other Lahndahn Taaahhhn locations...

As I mentioned in the previous post on the second St. Ives novel, Protocol for a Kidnapping (which really should have been the second post in Bleeck Week instead of the third – don't ask), after the third St. Ives book, 1971/72's The Procane Chronicle/The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, the UK rights for Oliver Bleeck's novels were picked up from Hodder & Stoughton by Hamish Hamilton. Indeed, from 1974 onwards, ALL of Ross Thomas's novels – pseudonymous or otherwise – were published by Hamilton in Britain. And for five glorious years from 1974–1979, the vast majority of those novels were graced by dustjackets 'designed' by Hamilton's go-to cover 'designer' – or rather, photographer – during that period, one Beverley le Barrow.

Beverley has featured on this blog numerous times now, both in conjunction with Ross Thomas books and with those by other authors, too. At first, in this post on The Money Harvest/Yellow-Dog Contract, then in this one on P. D. James's Cover Her Face, and subsequently in this post on the paperbacks of If You Can't Be Good and Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, and indeed this one on The Eighth Dwarf, I figured Beverley was a woman; with a name like that you would, wouldn't you? But by the time I got to Chinaman's Chance, I was starting to wonder whether Beverley le Barrow might in fact be a pseudonym. After all, in the Hamish Hamilton books with covers by Beverley, they were credited to "Beverly Lebarrow", while in other paperbacks, it was "Beverley le Barrow". Why the discrepancy?

And then in this post on the Panther paperback editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (followed by this post on the box set of those books) I started to make the connection between Beverley le Barrow and famed Sun newspaper Page 3 photographer Beverley Goodway, theorising that they might be one and the same. That theory was later pretty much confirmed by Francis from the Stanley Morgan Website, who left a couple of comments on that Eighth Dwarf post saying that he'd got in contact with an American photographer who'd worked as Beverley's assistant in the '70s and asked him if Le Barrow was a pseudonym. Said photographer confirmed it was, and he confirmed he was a man, and he reckoned that he thought Beverley's real surname was... Goodway.

All of which convoluted nonsense means that the photo on the jacket of The Highbinders you can see up top – credited on the front flap to Beverly Lebarrow – was almost certainly taken by saucy Page 3 snapper Beverley Goodway, who seemingly moonlighted as a book cover photographer all through the '70s and '80s. Mind you, it doesn't explain why the picture on the front of The Highbinders depicts a bloke stuffed into a piano in a graveyard. What's that all about? Beverley was known for his, ah, literal interpretations of a novel's story or title – see Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf – so presumably it's something to do with the plot of the book. Perhaps our resident Ross Thomas expert, Book Glutton – who in a comment on yesterday's post on Protocol for a Kidnapping revealed the meaning of that cover – can shed some light.

(UPDATE: And indeed Book Glutton has done just that – see comment on this post – and in the process pointed out that the piano is actually a tomb in Highgate Cemetery in North London (where Karl Marx is famously buried), known as the Thornton piano. It looks as if it's fallen into some disrepair these days, but if you google it you'll find lots of pictures of it through the years, including this one from 1977.)

Anyway, we'll be seeing more from Beverley le Barrow before too long. But next up, it's the final book in Bleeck Week: No Questions Asked.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Bleeck Week: Protocol for a Kidnapping by Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas); Hodder First Edition, Cover Design by Lawrence Ratzkin

And so this week's worth of posts on crime/espionage/thriller writer Ross Thomas's pseudonymous series of novels starring urbane go-between Philip St. Ives continues with a book which should really have been the second post this week, not the third:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971 – the same year, in fact, that the US William Morrow first edition saw publication. And as we established in yesterday's post on The Procane Chronicle/The Thief Who Painted Sunlight/St. Ives – a missive so tiresomely tortuous I suspect it would have tried the patience of a saint – Protocol for a Kidnapping is the second novel in Bleeck/Thomas's St. Ives series, not the third. That's also been confirmed by Ross Thomas aficionado Book Glutton, who, in a comment on Monday's post about The Brass Go-Between, revealed that "early in Protocol for a Kidnapping, St. Ives makes a direct reference to his recent African shield fiasco (which means the first book, The Brass Go-Between). That makes Protocol the clear number two." So really, as I say, I should've posted this yesterday.

Never mind, eh? Let's put it behind us, and take a look at the dustjacket flap copy on this edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping:

Philip St. Ives, the top professional go-between introduced last year in The Brass Go-Between, is back in action. In this new novel of intrigue, St. Ives is coerced by the Department of State into recovering the U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia. The diplomat has been kidnapped and is being held for a ransom of $1,000,000 and the release of a Nobel Prize-winning poet. It's a complicated assignment that becomes downright deadly as St. Ives finds himself involved with a Broadway actor, a 30-year-old millionaire, the poet's breathtakingly beautiful daughter, and a sexy CIA agent.

One million dollars, eh? How very Austin Powers. Intriguingly, the back flap copy states, "OLIVER BLEECK [their caps, not mine] is the pseudonym of Ross Thomas, one of the world's outstanding suspense novelists", and then goes on to list Thomas's non-pseudonymous hits. And yet, on the back flap of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight – which was published in the UK a year after Protocol – it merely states, "Oliver Bleeck is the pseudonym of a well-known writer". So did Hodder mistakenly 'out' Thomas on Protocol and then for Thief hope that readers either had a very short memory or hadn't read a Bleeck before?

The dustjacket design on Protocol is by Lawrence Ratzkin, who I covered fairly extensively in this post on Ross Thomas's The Backup Men, published in the same year as Protocol. So I don't have much to add about him here, except to mention that I did chance across this 2010 article in Glasgow's The Herald newspaper on the controversial "Ground Zero mosque" in New York, in which Ratzkin is quoted taking an anti-mosque protester to task. "This country has a document that guarantees freedom of religion," Ratzkin tells him. "If you believe in this country, whatever your feelings, you have to live by that." Go Lawrence. If nothing else, it proves that, as of 2010, Mr. Ratzkin was alive and well, something I wasn't sure about in that Backup Men post.

The dustjacket on the Hodder edition of Protocol for a Kidnapping seems to be identical to the Morrow edition, so there's little point in showing you the American one. But as we'll see in the next post, when Hamish Hamilton picked up the UK Bleeck rights from Hodder with The Highbinders, the cover designs for the novels took a turn for the... idiosyncratic...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Bleeck Week: The Thief Who Painted Sunlight (a.k.a. The Procane Chronicle) by Oliver Bleeck (a.k.a. Ross Thomas); Hodder & Stoughton First Edition

Now what the Dickens is this? Didn't I proclaim at the end of the previous post in Bleeck Week – a week of posts on espionage/crime/political thriller writer Ross Thomas's pseudonymous Oliver Bleeck novels – that the next book I'd be featuring would be The Procane Chronicle, the second – some say third; I'll come back to that – novel to feature urbane facilitator Philip St. Ives? Well then why am I showing this instead:

A UK hardback first edition of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1972? The answer, my friends, and as the more astute among you will already have discerned from one of the parenthetical asides in the title of this post, is that after its US William Morrow debut earlier that same year, The Procane Chronicle was subsequently published here in the UK under a different, rather more allusive name.

And it's not the first time a Ross Thomas novel has had an alternative title in the UK either. The first UK edition of his debut novel, The Cold War Swap, was retitled – again by Hodder – as Spy in the Vodka, copies of which are quite scarce and also quite pricey. Although not as scarce and pricey as The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, where, at time of writing, there are only four copies available on AbeBooks from sellers in South Africa, Australia and the US, the best of which would set you back as much as £140 for a fine copy. (Mine came from a UK dealer, The London Bookworm in Hastings, not far from the town where I live, Lewes. It was the only copy I could find for sale in this country; my friend Lynne in California convinced me to take the plunge on it, and the lovely couple who run the store did me a nice deal, bless 'em.)

But the retitling of The Procane Chronicle didn't stop with The Thief Who Painted Sunlight. Oh dear me no. Because this particular novel also formed the basis of the 1976 movie St. Ives, starring Charles Bronson as Raymond (sic) St. Ives. And that same year Pocket Books in the States reissued the novel under the title St. Ives. (The book reverted back to its original title thereafter.) That explains that one at least, but as to where the title The Thief Who Painted Sunlight springs from, well, let's let the dustjacket flap blurb on the UK Hodder edition clear that up:

Many people are successful. Abner Procane, for one, was remarkably so; he was a very successful thief. One of the reasons was that he took money only from people who didn't like to admit they had it in the first place, and were too shy to tell the police about it when it was gone. Abner Procane lived well, prospered, and had all the nice things you expect people with a certain amount of money and taste to have. On Sundays he painted, rural scenes and suchlike, and if you liked that sort of thing you could say that he caught the sunlight pretty well. His one conceit was to keep a diary that recorded, with picturesque precision, the details of the jobs that had made him rich. And his last ambition was to pull a million-dollar heist before he retired. That was when some smart villain stole the diary and offered to sell it back for 100,000 dollars, and that was when Philip St. Ives was called in to act as go-between.

What followed wasn't easy; it wasn't civilised. Mr. Procane wouldn't have used the word, but it was smelly. There were killings, a lot of them. There were hard-nosed cops. And there was heroin. St. Ives didn't like it one little bit but the way he was fixed he couldn't get out. Besides, who wanted to miss out on the crime of the decade?

Hmm. Little long-winded (much like this post is becoming...) – it's barely worth reading the novel after all that – but at least it kind of explains that title. One thing the dustjacket doesn't reveal, however, is who designed it, which is quite annoying, as finding that out was one of my reasons for buying it in the first place. I suspect it might be either Kaye Bellman, who designed the jacket for UK Hodder edition of The Brass Go-Between, or Lawrence Ratzkin, who designed the jacket for the 1971 St. Ives novel Protocol for a Kidnapping (as well as that of another Ross Thomas novel also published in 1971, The Backup Men). But the answer may well be on the jacket of the '72 US Morrow edition. Because as I discovered whilst researching (I use the word loosely) the US first, bar the title, the cover is identical to the UK edition:

So if anyone reading this post has a copy of the Morrow edition, perhaps they can enlighten me as to who designed the jacket. And something else the American first edition cover revealed once I'd tracked it down was the running order of the St. Ives novels. Right there under the title it clearly states "A novel by the author of PROTOCOL FOR A KIDNAPPING". So Procane/Thief is indeed the third St. Ives book, not the second – a publishing history that's since been confirmed by Book Glutton – who's read all the Bleecks – in a comment on the previous post. And actually, on the dustjacket back flap of The Thief Who Painted Sunlight, both The Brass Go-Between and Protocol for a Kidnapping are listed under "Other thrillers by Oliver Bleeck". So I probably could've worked it out just by looking at my own copy. Harumph. What was that about "research"...?   

All of which means that this list and this post are wrong, and that, for once, Wikipedia is correct. But more importantly it means that I've written these posts in the wrong bloody order. Buggeration. Ah well. No matter. Because coming up next in Bleeck Week it's the second Oliver Bleeck novel: Protocol for a Kidnapping...

Monday 21 February 2011

Bleeck Week Book Review: The Brass Go-Between by Oliver Bleeck, a.k.a. Ross Thomas

And so Bleeck Week begins. What is Bleeck Week, I hear you cry? Good question. I can tell you're the sharp, inquisitive type. Bleeck Week is, or rather will be, a run of posts on the series of novels written by Oliver Bleeck, otherwise known as political/spy/thriller author Ross Thomas. Thomas wrote five books as Bleeck, which were as follows: The Brass Go-Between (1969); The Procane Chronicle (1971); Protocol for a Kidnapping (also 1971; there's some debate as to which of those two came first); The Highbinders (1974); and No Questions Asked (1976). All are written in the first-person and star urbane facilitator Philip St. Ives – the "go-between" of the first novel's title – whose job it is to act as intermediary between thieves who've stolen certain property and owners who want that property returned.

I've blogged about Ross Thomas multiple times since Book Glutton tipped me off about him, most notably during the run of posts in November last year known rather prosaically as Ross Thomas Week; if you want to learn more about Thomas before embarking on Bleeck Week, go brush up on him here, here, here, and here. Suffice to say he was a master of sophisticated thrillers, usually with a political or espionage bent and peopled with quirky, memorable characters (often with off-piste monikers). And from what I've read thus far – I've only got The Brass Go-Between under my belt on the Bleeck side of the ledger (I'm doing rather better on the main Thomas backlist) – Philip St. Ives is up there with his best.

The Brass Go-Between sees St. Ives undertake to act as intermediary between the Coulter Museum in Washington, DC, and the thieves who've stolen a priceless brass shield from said institution. Of course, matters aren't that straightforward: the shield is claimed by two African nations, Jandola and Komporeen, the latter of whom have agents at large in America attempting to retrieve the shield themselves, led by one Conception Mbwato. And mixed in amongst all that are reclusive billionaire oilman and chairman of the Coulter Museum, Winfield Spencer; Coulter director Mrs. Frances Wingo; a corrupt cop acquaintance of St. Ives's, Lieutenant Kenneth Ogden; two more cops from Washington, Demeter and Fastnaught; and the thieves themselves, who turn out to be somewhat incompetent.

But it's St. Ives who's the real draw. A former newspaper columnist whose newspaper folded four years ago, St. Ives fell into the go-between racket at the behest of his lawyer, Myron Greene, and soon became trusted by all sides – the insurance companies, the police and the criminals. With nothing better to do and with alimony payments to keep up, St. Ives takes on five or six jobs a year and spends the rest of his time playing cards with his largely disreputable associates and lounging about his hotel apartment watching telly whilst eating cucumber sandwiches.

Of all the Thomas characters I've come across, I guess he's closest to Mac McCorkle from the Mac's Place Quartet. But whereas Mac is very much in the hardbitten, cynical, world-weary gumshoe mould (despite not actually being a gumshoe), St. Ives is rather more sophisticated and cultured. He seems quite happy pootling about in-between jobs doing not much of anything, and when he's working he is, as he mentions more than once, both cautious and careful. He's not by any stretch of the imagination a thrillseeker... and yet as the plot of The Brass Go-Between becomes ever more complex, in true Thomas fashion, with double-crosses and hidden agendas aplenty, St. Ives soon finds himself in real danger and forced to make a moral choice between doing his job and doing what's right.

Mind you, in a Ross Thomas novel, doing what's right is never that clear cut, and after a climactic shootout, St. Ives is left pondering whether he made the correct choice – or even if there was a correct choice to begin with. It's this moral ambiguity that makes Ross Thomas's characters so compelling, from the aforementioned Mac and his partner Mike Padillo, to affable grifters Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Philip St. Ives is another name to add to that agreeable list. It's just a shame The Brass Go-Between and the rest of the Bleeck novels have fallen out of print, although fairly cheap paperbacks can be found readily on the likes of Amazon Marketplace and AbeBooks.

But we're not concerned with cheap paperbacks here on Existential Ennui (well, not as a rule). Oh no. We're much more interested in ridiculously expensive hardback first editions – and that's exactly what we'll be looking at in the very next post in Bleeck Week, with a rather unusual British edition of the second (or is it the third...?) St. Ives novel, The Procane Chronicle...