Thursday 18 August 2011

Signed Editions of Plugged by Eoin Colfer (Headline) and Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver (Hodder & Stoughton, Indies Only Edition)

After the dizzying heights of my interview with Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay and my latest – and longest, I believe – Parker Progress Report (also available on The Violent World of Parker, of course), it's back down to earth with a bump, as I return, finally, to those promised signed editions. And just for change on Existential Ennui, these next couple of signed books I'm showcasing – following last week's Anthony Price signed firsts – are relatively new, both having been published this year. Let's take a gander at this one first:

Eoin Colfer's Plugged was published in hardback in the UK by Headline in May of this year, with a dustjacket designed by James Edgar – who may well be this James Edgar, who runs the Letterpress workshop at London's Camberwell art college (around where I spent many a drunken evening in the 1990s, as I had friends who went there). Colfer is best-known for his Artemis Fowl children's novels, and Plugged was trumpeted as his first foray into more mature fiction, although that does slightly ignore his 2009 continuation of Douglas Adams's Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy novels, And Another Thing..., which I read and enjoyed at the time. I've yet to read Plugged, but my old mate Keith Walters reviewed it on his Books and Writers blog, so go read that to find out more about it. (Keith also recently reviewed Vampire Art Now, a book I oversaw as part of my day job at The Ilex Press.)

Signed editions of Plugged aren't terribly scarce or pricey at present – you can pick one up on Amazon for £12.99 – but I found a slightly cheaper copy, and since I wanted to read the book anyway, it's always nice to have a signed first edition/first printing.


Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche was also published in hardback in the UK in May, this time by Hodder & Stoughton. As I'm sure everyone's well aware, Carte Blanche is the latest officially-sanctioned-by-the-Fleming-estate James Bond novel, following Sebastian Faulks's 2008 outing Devil May Care. I'm an admirer of Ian Fleming's original Bond novels, but I've not got very far into Deaver's contemporary take on 007 yet, chiefly because I keep getting distracted by other books. The reviews have been generally positive, although Steven Poole's one in The Guardian was rather less so, calling the novel "one giant steaming curd". (There's another, more appreciate review of the novel on The Guardian website by Stephanie Merritt, which I could've sworn I saw at the time in The Guardian newsprint edition and was struck by the decision to publish a hasty follow-up to Poole's caustic verdict. But according to the site, Merritt's review seems to have been in The Guardian's Sunday sister paper, The Observer, so evidently I misremembered.)

The edition of Carte Blanche seen here is the signed, numbered "indies only" – as in only available through independent booksellers – edition, limited to 1500 copies of the first printing of the hardback (still available for around twenty quid), which sports a reversed-out black dustjacket as opposed to the regular hardback's white jacket:

Both, however, feature the same cover photograph by David Gill. There's no overall design credit for the book, but it's nicely thought-through, with a fetching red finish and debossed "007" on the case:

So then. What's next, boys and girls? Well it might just be another Westlake Score...

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Parker Progress Report: A Review of Dead Skip by Joe Gores and Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (Random House, 1972)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Well I hope we all enjoyed my pithy Q&A with the creator of the Dexter series of novels Jeff Lindsay on Monday; don't forget you can read more from Jeff this week on Blogomatic 3000, Another Cookie Crumbles and Shots. Back here on Existential Ennui, though, it's back to regular business, with a Parker Progress Report.

For the uninitiated, over the past year or so I've been making my way through Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels – and the spin-off Alan Grofield books – bunging up reviews as I go along. The last Parker Progress Report (as I term these Parker missives) I posted, back in January, was on the fifteenth Parker novel, Plunder Squad, and having reviewed the third Grofield novel, The Blackbird (a Grofield File, if you will), in November of last year, one might reasonably assume that my next review would either be of the sixteenth Parker novel, Butcher's Moon (1974), or the fourth and final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie (1971).

But there's a book that was published in the same year as Plunder Squad (1972), one which, although not actually written by Donald E. Westlake, one could still make a strong claim for it fitting into the Parkerverse. That book is the second novel by crime writer Joe Gores, Dead Skip, which begins Gores's six-novel series (plus assorted short stories) centring on the operatives of Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm of "skip tracers", or private investigators who specialise in car repossession. Dead Skip's story primarily focuses on three DKA investigators: Bart Heslip, who winds up in a coma following what appears to be a car accident; Larry Ballard, who suspects there's something fishy about Heslip's supposed accident; and the boss of DKA, Dan Kearny himself.

Quite apart from its Parker connections – which I'll return to shortly – Dead Skip is a fine novel in and of itself. Gores was a private investigator for twelve years, which lends the workings of the story an added plausibility, an authenticity, even. Much of the novel is taken up with Ballard's legwork, as he retraces Heslip's steps in order to try and work out which of his fellow P.I.'s open cases might be the one that led to Heslip laid up in hospital with a fifty-fifty chance of ever recovering. Trudging from door to door, driving back and forth across San Francisco, Ballard hits brick wall after blind alley, in the process encountering a colourful cast of hookers, barflies, errant wives and embezzlers, any one of whom could be behind what Ballard believes was actually an assault on Heslip.

It's only when the grizzled, shrewd, experienced Kearny himself hits the streets towards the end of the novel that the strands of the investigation begin to tie together – and it's here that Parker enters the fray. Following up one of Ballard's leads, Kearny finds himself in the Concord suburb of San Francisco, and at a nondescript single-storey house in that suburb. Parked outside this ordinary house, however, are five cars. Obviously Kearny knows a thing or two about cars, and quickly spots that three of them are rentals – from three different rental companies. His hackles raised, Kearny rings the doorbell, and is met by a "wide and blocky" man with "flat square shoulders, a good half a head taller than Kearny's five-nine. His hands were out of a foundry, his wrists roped with veins. His face was bony, as flat and hard as the shoulders, rough-hewn in the same foundry as the hands."

This, needless to say, is Parker. What Kearny has stumbled upon is a meeting to plan one of the – ultimately abortive – heists in Plunder Squad; the exact same scene plays out from Parker's perspective in that Stark novel (although slightly shorter: about four pages to Dead Skip's six). But what's interesting is the way Gores depicts Parker, and the back-story he builds into the encounter. At first Kearny doesn't recognise Parker, but as he's about to be turned away from the door, he suddenly recalls his name. Turns out the two have met before, "off stage", in the first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962), when Parker broke out of a prison farm and was on the lam. According to Kearny, Parker shacked up with a woman in Fresco, and that woman was Kearny's sister, with whom Kearny stayed one night, helping Parker to kill a bottle.

Now, for anyone familiar with the Parker novels, all this is of course new information, but Gores takes great care to ensure Kearny and Parker's relationship dovetails with the established Stark "facts". He also effectively conveys Parker's cold, taciturn, dangerous nature: Parker helps Kearny out in his investigation (mostly to get rid of Kearny, one suspects) by bringing to the door the wife of a member of the plunder squad, but when the address she furnishes for Kearny's suspect is identified by Kearny as being incorrect, we get this passage: 

Parker didn't move, but the atmosphere changed. To Kearny it was as though the other man were leaning over her like an oncoming storm. You could almost see the shadow crossing her face. "Once more," Parker said, and there wasn't anything in his voice at all.

Clearly this is the same man we know from the Stark novels, the Parker we all know and fear.

It's fascinating to read the entire encounter with Kearny in Plunder Squad. Last month Violent World of Parker supremo Trent posted a PDF download of a Donald E. Westlake interview from a 1988 issue of Armchair Detective, and the subject of Dead Skip and Plunder Squad crops up in that. For me, that interview shed new light on how the scene came about, as, according to Westlake, it was Gores who penned his side of the encounter first, and Westlake who had to make his novel fit around that. Which kind of helps to explain the curiously bent-out-of-shape nature of Plunder Squad, with its cul-de-sacs and plot non sequiturs – aspects which in fact make the novel more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

Bearing this in mind, it's possible to spot the odd sly dig at Gores in Westlake's take on the encounter. For one thing, Westlake opts to tackle the scene very early in Plunder Squad, perhaps evincing his mild frustration at having to derail his own story. But there's also a telling moment straight after Kearny reminds Parker of the drinking session the two had at Kearny's sister's place: 

Parker remembered. Kearny had a private detective's ticket, but his field was bad credit risks, not wanted convicts. Parker had allowed him to kill most of that bottle that night, and had left early the next morning.

Westlake reveals in that Armchair Detective interview that he and Gores had planned a follow-up, this time with Westlake writing the scene for Gores to fit his story around. "It never happened the second time," said Westlake, "which is unfortunate, because, see, it's easy for the first guy. Joe could just write, ' . . . and Parker opened the door.' Then, in my book, I had to explain why. I had to get him there. Then I was going to do a thing where somebody from Dan Kearny Associates would pass through my book, and leave it to Joe to figure out. Joe stopped doing novels for several years."

The crossover between Dead Skip and Plunder Squad is typical of the games Westlake played both with his fellow writers and within his own books in the '60s and '70s. For my money, Westlake was at his most formally audacious during this period: tinkering with the structure of the Parker novels, spinning a bit-part player off into his own series of books (Alan Grofield), even leaking elements of the Parkers into his newly instigated Dortmunder series. I wonder occasionally what readers at the time made of these games, these shared chapters and crossovers – in a pre-internet era, how many were able to make the connections between a Stark Parker, a Stark Grofield, a Westlake Dortmunder, a Gores DKA?

I'll be returning to this period of formal deconstruction down the tracks, but before we draw a line under this (mildly and unintentionally epic) post, I just wanted to bring to your attention one other, earlier, largely unremarked nod to Westlake/Stark in Dead Skip, one which comes across as oddly meta in the context of what's to come...

Twenty pages before the Parker scene, Larry Ballard is talking to the female manager of an apartment block, who mentions in passing, "I've never met a real detective before... but I love Agatha Christie . . ." Ballard doesn't respond verbally, but in his omniscient narration Gores wryly notes that Ballard "only read Richard Stark".

Monday 15 August 2011

A Short Q&A Interview with Dexter Author and Creator Jeff Lindsay, Beginning His UK Blog Tour!

Photo Copyright © Ed Miller
Please excuse the hyperbole in the title of this post, but as trailed on Friday with a review of Dexter is Delicious, today I've got a rather exciting Existential Ennui exclusive for you: a Q&A interview with author Jeff Lindsay, creator of the hugely successful series of crime novels starring serial killer Dexter Morgan (which, of course, begat the equally hugely successful TV show)! The interview was arranged by Jeff's British publisher, Orion, to mark the UK publication in paperback this week of the aforementioned fifth Dexter novel, Dexter is Delicious, and is the first stop on a short UK blog tour for Mr. Lindsay to promote the book. Jeff will next be popping up on Blogomatic 3000 on Tuesday with a guest post, then Another Cookie Crumbles will have an extract from Dexter is Delicious on Wednesday, and finally on Thursday Shots will be hosting a competition to win lots of splendid Dexter swag. So make sure you swing by those fine blogs later this week!

I mentioned in the previous post that one or two of the questions I sent to Jeff got a bit garbled somewhere along the line, so, contrary sod that I am, I'm reproducing the worst culprit exactly as Jeff received it, as both the question and Jeff's response make for amusing reading. The interview isn't particularly extensive (certainly not as lengthy as my recent interview with spy fiction author Anthony Price) as I was slightly restricted in the number of questions I could throw Jeff's way (which is why some of them are longer than Jeff's answers). But even so, the results are reasonably revealing on a number of issues to do with Dexter is Delicious. So, without further ado, let's get to it!

. . . . .

NICK JONES: Jeff, thank you for taking the time to answer my, as it turns out, somewhat prolix questions. Dexter, it seems to me, fits into a long and dishonourable line of especially villainous antiheroes, often sociopaths or without conscience, and yet still compelling or even sympathetic – the likes of Tom Ripley, Parker from the Richard Stark novels, Hannibal Lecter, even. Are these characters you're familiar with or think could be antecedents of Dexter? And what is it about such characters that readers find appealing? (And when I say "readers", I mostly mean me.)

JEFF LINDSAY: You're right, very prolix. People think I am being cute when I say this, but I don't know any of these characters, except Hannibal Lecter. Saw the movie, and then read the book. Everyone tells me there's a genre, but – I mean, really. Serial killer genre? What's wrong with people? I really don't know why Dexter is appealing – it surprised the hell out of me. 

Dexter is Delicious marks the return of Dexter's brother, Brian, last seen at the end of the first book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004), and it seems as if Brian's sticking around. Why did you decide to bring him back? Or was that always the plan. Or indeed, is there a plan with the novels?

There is no long term plan. There's usually not even a plan for the next chapter. I really admire P. G. Wodehouse, and he used to have incredibly detailed plots, all planned out. And I know other writers who can casually say, "Oh, yeah, eighteen books from now, when they get married . . ." I wish I could do that. But if you saw my office you'd understand. Sometimes I can't even find the desk. At the moment, I think Brian will be around for a while, unless a piano falls on his head. 

Obviously the novels and the TV show are different beasts, but there are parallels between the two, particularly in Dexter is Delicious, where, as in Season Four of the show, Dexter has a new baby, which in turn leads to him to question his impulses, his Dark Passenger. Do you think your novels and the television series still intersect or feed off each other? Do ideas flow back and forth between them?

I am not caught up on the show, so from my end, no. I can't imagine taking ideas from them. I do sometimes notice bits on the screen that are in the books, but maybe it's a coincidence. 

One of the themes of Dexter is Delicious is cannibalism, possibly drawing on the infamous 2003 court case in Germany where the victim volunteered to be eaten. Was that an inspiration, and why did you alight on cannibalism as a plot element?

I remember the case, but it wasn't consciously an inspiration. I don't know what got me thinking about cannibalism; maybe I was just hungry one day and there was nothing in the fridge. . . . Anyway, I got interested, did some research. And I found that a very large percentage of the Cannibal Community – yes, there really is one; worse than serial killer genre, huh? – a surprising number of people really want to be eaten. Desperately. They go to the chat rooms and beg. I was appalled and fascinated at the same time, and I just went with it. 

[Here's where the formatting on my questions started to go slightly awry – this one is the worst of the bunch, so I'm reproducing it exactly as Jeff received it.] There  a scene in the novel where a victim  father offers Deborah [Dexter's cop sister] half a million dollars if she l tip him off to the perpetrator when she catches him, and her fellow officers subsequently reveal they e been offered similar bribes in the past. That was quite a surprising moment for me, chiefly because it felt quite  eal  as if it was something actual cops had told you about. Was it? Do you get assistance from police officers in your research for your books?

Ooh, our grammar is really slipping here – is it happy hour where you are? I'll have a pint of Guinness, please. . . . .

Yeah, a lot of cops have similar stories. My favorite was from an undercover DEA guy I know. This guy is the most rigidly moral man I ever met, and I asked him if he was ever tempted by the huge piles of cash he saw every day. He stared at me really hard, and then he said, "I made up my mind Day One. If I ever find seven million dollars in cash. . . . I call the wife and say, meet me at the airport, we're outta here." He paused a long time and then said, "I found six once, had to think about it. . . ."

The city of Miami is almost a character itself in the Dexter books; I've been there a couple of times and the constant references to the heat and the traffic strike me as both accurate and intrinsic to the novels. What is it about Miami that works for you as a setting for Dexter's adventures? Could he work anywhere else?

Miami is where I grew up, and where I learned to drive. Home town. I don't know, where else would I put it? Pittsburgh? Isle of Wight? Dexter is my Homey, we ain't going nowhere. 

Thanks again for taking the time to respond, Jeff.

Cheers, Mate.

. . . . .

And there you have it. I don't know about you, but I definitely think there's legs in "Dexter Does the Isle of Wight". Don't forget to check in on Blogomatic 3000 tomorrow for Jeff's guest post, Another Cookie Crumbles on Wednesday for that Dexter is Delicious extract, and Shots on Thursday for the competition. (And look out for the next Dexter novel, Double Dexter, in October.) And I'll be back before too long with another Violent World of Parker cross-post (on Joe Gores's Dead Skip) and some more signed editions.