Friday 18 March 2011

UPDATED: When is the Punisher Not the Punisher? Frank Castle, The Violent Hours (Herbert Jenkins, 1966)

It's the final post in this short series on obscure thrillers I've bought over the past few months but am only just now getting round to blogging about. And today's book is a UK printing of an American crime thriller originally issued as a paperback by Gold Medal ten years prior to this edition:

Frank Castle's The Violent Hours was published in hardback in the UK by Herbert Jenkins in 1966. It's about... well, let's turn to the dustjacket flap blurb to determine that, where a no-doubt overworked and underpaid British copywriter makes a brave stab at a pseudo-noir description: 

It was half past murder by Webb Grayburn's watch—and time to see how much of a man he was. It began with the finding of the first body in the darkened balcony of a fourth-rate movie house, the body of a man with his head crushed in.

The second body was that of Suzie, the girl Webb loved.

Kellner had done this; and now Kellner, his mortal enemy, was somewhere in the streets of Los Angeles on a terrible new mission of his own. It was time for Webb Grayburn to get out there and find him...

Y'know, I've often thought it would be quite exciting to have a mortal enemy. Might liven up the odd dull Sunday afternoon. Also: half past murder? So... that would be after dietime, but before breakneck, right? And furthermore: a fourth rate movie house? Crikey, that must be a really bad cinema. Like a Cineworld or something.

You may, at this point, be wondering why on earth I bought this particular book (from the legendary Maurice at Zardoz Books, no less). After all, it's an incredibly obscure – and more than likely pretty terrible – novel by a writer who hardly anyone's ever heard of, plus it's a British edition published ten years after the American one. Well to answer that, we'll have to cast our minds back to this post on Peter Rabe's My Lovely Executioner, which was similarly published by Herbert Jenkins in the UK some years after the US Gold Medal paperback (1967 versus 1960 in that instance). On that book, the cover artist, a certain "Phillips" (I still haven't been able to turn up any further info about him), had basically knocked up a quick sketch of the original Gold Medal cover:

That got me wondering if the mysterious Mr. Phillips had done any other covers for Herbert Jenkins – who picked up the UK rights for many pulpy US paperbacks, issuing them in hardback instead – around the same period, and if he had, whether he'd adopted a similar copycat approach. So I nabbed The Violent Hours for a few quid from Zardoz Books, and sure enough the dustjacket is again by Phillips. And while on this one he didn't copy the 1956 Gold Medal cover – which was painted by Lu Kimmel – he did take one cue from it:

Namely the broad reclining on the bed, drawn from a different angle on the Jenkins cover. So that's why I bought the book – well, that and the fact it was written by Frank Castle, which tickled me, as that's also the civilian name of Marvel's ultra-violent vigilante the Punisher. I'm not, however, the first person to point that out: this Pulpetti post and this Mystery File one from over three years ago both mention it too, as well as rounding up as much as anyone seems to know about Mr. Castle, which is to say, not much at all.

All in all, then, and taking everything into consideration, this has to rank as one of my more absurd and pointless book purchases, one for which – as I've amply demonstrated, I feel – I can offer little in the way of justification or defence.

Still, at least I got a blog post out of it.

Right. What have I got for you next week? Well my friends, that all depends on an event on Saturday that's become a highlight of my book collecting calendar (not that I even have a book collecting calendar, physical or otherwise). Yes, tomorrow it's the Lewes Book Fair, and if that happens to offer up a decent selection of secondhand books, then I'll be blogging about those – as well as the fair itself – in short order. But if it doesn't, I'll probably have something of a Mark Billingham bonanza instead, with posts on the first two Tom Thorne novels and how they compare to the Thorne TV show, as well as some Lewes and Brighton Billingham Book Bargains. We'll see what the weekend brings...

UPDATE 20/3: As it turned out, the Lewes Book Fair was something of a disappointment. I picked up a couple of books and saw a few others that I managed to resist, including a signed US first of Richard Stark's Comeback, which I might have bought if I didn't already own a US first of it and had it not been twenty-five quid. But it wasn't one of the better fairs from my perspective: what there was in the way of fiction wasn't exactly keenly priced, and as a consequence almost all of it was still sitting on tables towards the end of the day. If the sellers had knocked a tenner or so off some of their wares I might have been more interested, but I saw little that couldn't be found cheaper online.

So, looks like next week will indeed be dedicated pretty much exclusively to Mark Billingham...

Thursday 17 March 2011

Brighton Bookshop Bargain: Decoy by Arthur Maling; Michael Joseph, 1971, Beverley le Barrow Cover

For the second in this short series of posts on obscure thrillers I've picked up over the past few months, we have this:

A UK hardback first edition of Arthur Maling's Decoy, published by Michael Joseph in 1971 (originally published in the States by Harper & Row in 1969) and bought in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton for a few quid. Maling published fifteen novels over a near-twenty year period, the last being 1988's Lover and Thief. Decoy was his debut; its protagonist/narrator is, according to the jacket flap blurb, a sciatica-suffering "home town boy" who agrees to deliver some papers for his half-brother to Mexico. On the plane he meets a girl with influential Mexican friends, and before too long the corpses start piling up and the US Treasury Department gets involved.

There's little info about Maling online; this link notes that he was for a short while a reporter on the San Diego Journal, and that 1979's The Rheingold Route won the Edgar that year for Best Mystery Novel. When Decoy was published Maling was still vice-president of family business Maling Bros. Inc, "a chain of forty-two shoe shops in the American Midwest," according to the author bio on the jacket back flap of the Michael Joseph edition. It continues: "He began writing Decoy while recovering from an attack of rheumatoid arthritis which gave him the idea for the narrator's problem at the beginning of the book. He continued with it early in the morning before going to work [er, just the one morning...?] and on two short holidays, one spent in Acapulco checking background for the climax of the book." Uh-huh, I see: "research", then, was it...?

The dustjacket sports a photo by a particular favourite of Existential Ennui's, Beverley le Barrow (spelt in this instance Beverly – no third "e" – le Barrow), a.k.a. Sun newspaper Page 3 girl snapper Beverley Goodway. I summarized everything I know about Beverley's parallel career moonlighting as a book cover photographer in this recent post on Oliver Bleeck's The Highbinders, so there's little to gain from going over all that again; pop along and read that post if you're interested. But I will say here that, compared to some of his, ah, cruder cover photos, his one for Decoy is actually quite stylish, and wouldn't look out of place on, say, a Suede album cover. It's also the earliest example of a dustjacket by him I've yet come across.

Anyway. Onwards. And next up I have for you a British edition of a very obscure American crime thriller, written by a man perhaps better known as the Punisher. Well, kind of...

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Cecil Court Score: Time is an Ambush by Francis Clifford; Hodder, 1962, Peter Probyn Cover Art

I'm playing catch-up for the rest of this week on three books wot I bought flippin' ages ago – all decidedly obscure thrillers – but for one reason or another haven't got round to blogging about. And the first of those is a novel I picked up during a visit earlier in the year to London's book-lovers' paradise, Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road:

A UK hardback first edition of British thriller author Francis Clifford's Time is an Ambush, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1962. I spied this copy malingering on a shelf outside one of the Cecil Court bookshops, in amongst the cheap and unloved tomes that a lot of the shops there have in dump bins by their front windows. I think I only paid a couple of quid for it, which, when you consider there are only two copies of this edition on AbeBooks, one in New Zealand and the other a signed copy from a UK seller for fifty quid, was a bit of a bargain.

Time is an Ambush was Clifford's seventh novel; I blogged about his debut, 1953's Honour the Shrine, here (in a 1957 Corgi paperback edition), and I reviewed one of his most famous books, 1966's The Naked Runner, here. Time is an Ambush is about an English novelist, Stephen Tyler, "living in the small Spanish seaside town of Bandaques, near Barcelona," according the the dustjacket flap blurb. It continues: "While there he meets a German tourist Eric Scheele, and his young wife Ilse, and a relationship develops between Ilse and Stephen. The sudden death of the husband, which could have brought Stephen and Ilse closer together, only creates a psychological barrier between them. And when police investigations reveal the facts about Scheele's past, Stephen is faced with an agonising choice. If Ilse ever learns the truth about her husband it will destroy her, yet if he does not tell her he will lose her."

Most of Clifford's novels are long out of print... but not Time is an Ambush. Because at the start of last year Ostara Publishing made it available as one of their print-on-demand Top Notch Thriller titles. Shots Magazine also ran a review of the novel, calling it "beautifully detailed, subtle (yet tense)", while in October last year Mike Ripley picked it as one of his favourite thrillers.

The dustjacket on the Hodder edition was designed by Peter Probyn, and it is a remarkable piece of work. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best wrappers I've yet come across. With its restricted palette and use of chiaroscuro it reminds me a little of one of Denis McLoughlin's covers, except more symbolic and allusive. Probyn was a cartoonist and illustrator who created a handful of book covers in the 1960s, among them the jacket for the 1964 Hodder first edition of Clifford's The Hunting Ground. He contributed cartoons to Punch, wrote and drew the Grandpa comic strip in Eagle in the 1950s, and also edited a number of instructional drawing manuals, notably The Complete Drawing Book, which went through multiple editions from 1970 on (it's out of print now).

But perhaps his most significant contribution to the field of art came when he was a schoolteacher during, I think, the 1940s. Among his pupils was a young Howard Hodgkin, who would of course go on to become a respected and revered abstract painter. Hodgkin wasn't terribly happy at school, but as this Guardian interview with the artist reveals, one of the few bright spots for him during that time was being taught by Probyn. So while these days Probyn is little-remembered, for Hodgkin, he was an important formative influence.

Right then. On to the next obscure thriller, with which we welcome back our dear old friend, Beverley le Barrow...

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

I reckon it's about time for another entry in my – now apparently monthly – mini-comix archaeology series Notes from the Small Press; links to previous Notes at the end of this post. And today I have for you, o discerning reader, a selection of comics by Mr. Merv Grist.

Grist's A5 photocopied wares could often be found on the Fast Fiction table at the London Westminster Comic Marts in the mid-1980s, and he also contributed a couple of stories to the Fast Fiction anthology; Fast Fiction's Ed Pinsent has a gallery of some of Merv's stuff on his website. As with many of the small press creators from that period, back then I knew little about Grist beyond whatever I could glean from his comics, but in researching him for this post I came across a number of links to the Merv Grist Players and the Cleverly Brothers, a musical/comedy troupe of which Merv is a member, so at least some of his time these days – although by no means all, as we'll see later – is taken up with more melodic matters. (He pops up in the comments on this post, too.)

Grist's comics share a sensibility with fellow small-presser John Bagnall's, namely a preoccupation with the idiosyncrasies of British working class life and the paraphernalia and detritus of postwar suburban England. Both of the Gristavision titles I own hail from 1986; Buss Pass Army details the efforts of a group of pensioners as they look for a little boy's missing kitten, and features irate shopkeepers, angry punks and a surplus-to-requirements page showing the items purchased by Mrs. Gerrish on a shopping trip (including a Status Quo LP), while Beach Bop Barnardos is about a seaside charity concert starring obscure toothsome pop pianist Russ Conway. Both comics are as bizarre and entertaining as that would suggest.

The stories are characterized by a crunchy slapstick humour and a willingness to deflate the preceding events with a puncturing punchline. Bus Pass Army ends with the senior citizens recovering the cat from a local canal only to discover that it is, of course, dead; after suggesting using the corpse as fertilizer for the garden, the deceased moggy is returned to the little boy's mum, who proclaims it "the loveliest kitten I've ever seen". "But mum it's dead," replies the distraught lad, only to be told, "Never mind, remember it's the thought that counts." Beach Bop Barnardos, meanwhile, closes with Russ Conway being bricked off stage before flying into the sky on his rocket-powered piano, heading "back to his own planet".

A couple of asides: Beach Bop Barnardos came with an insert A4 poster plugging an album of songs by Grist and Tim Webb – who Merv continues to collaborate with today in their Cleverly Brothers guise:

Note the price of the album – £3.25, including postage! – and the fact that it was available as a cassette tape. Those were the days... As for Buss Pass Army, seems Grist inadvisedly opted for a gloss coating on the cover – the same homemade plastic finish I recall applying to my exercise books as a kid (and indeed some of my own comics efforts). Nice idea, but unfortunately it resulted in the unintended consequence of the pages all sticking together and the photocopy ink transferring from one page to the next:

Whoops. Nerdy collector that I am, I keep some of my other comics in comic bags to protect them from wear and tear. But in the case of Bus Pass Army, the mucky pup, I actually keep it bagged in order to protect my other comics from it.

Grist's artwork in these comics is a beguiling mixture of the awkward and the expressive: clearly influenced by British kids' humour weeklies like The Beano and The Dandy, he was also evidently tapping into a modern art sensibility of distortion and exaggeration; there's a striking resemblance in the drawing to artists as diverse as George Grosz, Max Beckmann and, more contemporaneously, Scottish figurative painters like Steven Campbell and Jock McFadyen. That fine art aesthetic further manifests itself in the two stories Grist contributed to Fast Fiction. Both "Botts Common" in Fast Fiction #24 (1987) and "Great Moments in the Mongolian Film Musical" from Fast Fiction #27 (1989) make use of unusual page layouts, with text and pictures arranged more as tableau than as comics. 

Of course, those stylistic choices aren't quite so surprising when you take into account that Grist is a painter himself. As Mervyn Grist, he paints figurative and landscape pictures which owe a little to idiosyncratic English artists such as Stanley Spencer and Carel Weight, and is represented by the John Noott Galleries dotted across the Cotswolds, as well as having pieces in the Cavendish Art Library. But alongside the painting and the music and comedy, Grist also manages to fit in a day job as an Archives Conservator at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. I don't know if he's still making comics on top of all that – perhaps if he chances across this post he can let us know – but his paintings in particular are well worth a gander, and amply demonstrate that his quirky outlook on British life is as uniquely compelling as it ever was.

UPDATE 10/7/12: Quite out of the blue, Merv dropped me an email the other day with some additional info on his small press career and what he's been up to since. Merv writes: 

"Hi, a friend directed me to your site and can I say how much I enjoyed it. Thanks also for a nice piece about me! I had no interest in comics as a kid but began collecting early 20th cent. comics when I was at art college in London and you could pick them up very cheaply in the original Vintage Comic Mart (a tiny upstairs room off Shaftesbury Avenue) before it all went posters, pricey and pear-shaped in Soho. As for the Small Press, I sheltered from the rain one Saturday in a Zine Zone Comic Fayre in Bath and was inspired to have a go by all the stuff on offer and the enthusiasm of Terry Hooper and his gang. I produced about 12 titles altogether I think. (There is a guy in Italy who is compiling a small press directory, I suspect you know of him, Casterello? something like that, who knows more about them than I do!) About 20 copies of each title had the ‘infamous’ laminated cover which at the time I thought looked impressive. My most successful title was Les Bence-Manager’s Notes which, ironically, was virtually all text. It had a football theme and got an exceptional review in the fanzine When Saturday Comes. It sold an incredible 3000 copies, was taken up by Virgin, expanded and published in paperback as Life At The Tip in 1995. It was also serialised on the fledgling Radio 5 Live. Beach Bop Banardos became a rock and roll stage musical with a number of successful performances although it failed to revive Russ Conway's career. I have devoted most of my time since to painting and performing. None of the my paintings I have discovered on the web by the way are under 25 years old! More recent work, which I'm happy to say never gets as far as galleries, thanks to a healthy base of collectors, will be on the web soon. Although I didn’t continue with the Small Press format I have continued jotting down story lines and with so much interest around, I have the urge to take it up again."

Thanks for that, Merv! And if you'd like to enquire into his current work, you can contact Mr. Grist on this email:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch 

Monday 14 March 2011

A Tale of Two Greenes (Lewes Bookshop Bargains): The Quiet American by Graham Greene; Heinemann, 1955

Welcome back.

Now then. This post is one I originally intended to write as part of the recently ended Spy Fiction Fortnight. But as I was reading the novel in question, I came to appreciate that the espionage element in it isn't quite as significant as I thought it was. So rather than shoehorn it into a run of posts on spy novels, I thought I'd let it stand apart and discuss it on its own merits. There is, however, still a link to Spy Fiction Fortnight, specifically to the final post in that illustrious series. Because as with those two editions of Graham Greene's The Human Factor I wrote about on Friday, I've also ended up owning two editions of this book, too. Both were bought in Lewes (the East Sussex town in which I live and work), both within the last few weeks. And the first of them, is this:

A 1955 hardback edition of The Quiet American, published by Heinemann. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'That looks suspiciously like a British first edition unless I'm very much mistaken'. But looks, as we all know, can be deceiving, because in this instance, you are very much mistaken. It is, in fact, a Book Society edition, published, as the copyright line states, in December 1955 in association with Heinemann.

So while it was, as the copyright line also states, issued on first publication in December 1955, it's not, strictly speaking, a true first. I bought it in Lewes's Bow Windows Bookshop, mostly because I've always wanted to read the novel – I really like the 2002 Phillip Noyce film. And it was fairly cheap, and I was quite happy owning an edition that's effectively a first, even if it's not the original first printing, because it meant I could finally dive into the thing. Which I did.

It is, needless to say, a great book. There's little point my reviewing it in any depth – critiques and synopses litter the internet like spent casings on the battlefields of Vietnam, where the novel is set. (You can read Greene's own thoughts on the book on the Greeneland website, where he notes that there is more reportage in the book than in any other of his novels.) But it's an affecting story, an extended reflection on the old versus the new. The old is represented by Thomas Fowler, the opium-addicted, world-weary English journalist reporting on the conflict, and by the French rulers of Vietnam, the colonial power on the wane. The new is represented by Alden Pyle, the young, idealistic American ostensibly in country in an economic capacity, but in actuality there as an agent provocateur. And caught between Fowler and Pyle is Fowler's lover, Phuong.

For me, the most compelling section of the novel is the middle, where Fowler and Pyle enter a war zone; at one point they take refuge in a watchtower alongside two scared Vietnamese soldiers and engage in a philosophical discussion about Communism, colonialism, the rights and wrongs of the conflict, love, and death. But there are memorable moments and startling imagery throughout the novel – a canal full of bodies, like "an Irish stew containing too much meat"; the horrific explosion in the Place Garnier – and the evocation of a country at war with its oppressors and with itself is stunning.

Anyway, I was, as I say, quite content with the Book Society edition, and I read the novel and put it on the shelf with my other Graham Greene firsts. And then the other day I was in A & Y Cumming, up the road from Bow Windows, and I found this:

You can see the dustjacket there is rather battered, but crucially, this copy of the novel is the true first edition – and first printing:

Plus it was half the price of the other copy. Well, what could I do – what could any unhealthily obsessive, clearly deranged collector do – except buy this edition as well. And as the dustjackets on the two editions are identical – both bearing the "Heinemann" on the jacket spine, both with the "13s 6d" price on the jacket flap intact – I can simply swap them over, leaving me with a perfectly presentable true first... and a slightly less presentable Book Society copy.

I know what you're thinking now, too. And this time, you're quite correct: there really is no hope for me.