Friday 26 August 2011

Donald E. Westlake Non-Fiction: "Break-Out", in Ed McBain's Mystery Book No. 3, 1961 (Pocket Books)

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

Back in May of this year, I posted a series of reviews on Existential Ennui of some of the short stories Donald E. Westlake wrote for American science fiction magazines in the 1950s and '60s (along with a bibliography of those tales). Some of those stories were later collected in book form – notably in 1989's Tomorrow's Crimes – but many have never been seen since. Now that I'm blogging over on The Violent World of Parker, I'll be returning to Westlake's SF stories in another series of posts starting next week – in amongst the still-ongoing Existential Ennui posts on signed editions, that is – with a handful of further futuristic tales dating from around 1962.

But in the midst of my feverish online quest for old science fiction magazines, I turned up something by Westlake that wasn't science fiction, or crime fiction – or even fiction for that matter: an obscure essay in a short-lived crime story magazine; an essay which, while not an essential piece of the Westlake puzzle, is still interesting for how it represents a little-examined aspect of the great man's writing career.

Westlake didn't write a hell of a lot of non-fiction, at least not compared to the reams of fiction he bashed out over the years. There's his 1972 book-length account of the 1969 British invasion of the Caribbean island of Aguilla, of course (Under an English Heaven), and his earlier pseudonymous biography of Elizabeth Taylor (which Trent blogged about on TVWoP just the other day). Alongside those, the "official" bibliography on his website lists just six other non-fiction articles, two of those being forewords or introductions to books. But in fact, Westlake did pen a number of other non-fiction pieces besides, certainly more than that abbreviated biblio suggests. There was a 1971 feature on Aguilla for The New York Times (perhaps the inspiration for Under an English Heaven); a piece titled "Love Stuff, Cops-and-Robbers Style" that same year in The Los Angeles Times; an article titled "Discovering Belize" in 1984, again for The New York Times (and possibly an earlier one in 1982, comparing the situation in Belize at the time to that of the Falkland Islands); and a handful of other essays as well. Including, in 1961, this:

"Break-Out" appeared in the third and, as it turned out, final issue of Ed McBain's Mystery Book, published by Pocket Books in 1961. A digest-sized newsstand collection of mostly short stories and novelettes, this particular issue featured fiction from, among others, Frederic Brown, Irving Shulman, and an early short by Lawrence Block:

Halfway through the magazine, however, comes "Break-Out". Essentially it's an overview of factual prison escapes, some well-known, others more obscure, from twentieth-century Alcatraz escapee Ted Cole to eighteenth-century English highwayman and repeat prison-buster Jack Sheppard. Jailbreak by jailbreak, Westlake details each escape and then examines how successful each escapee was in staying out of jail. Indeed, it's the aftermath of the breakouts which become the article's focus as it develops. As Westlake observes, few planned for what they'd do once they were free, and consequently swiftly ended up back inside.

But Westlake makes the larger point that there seems to be a correlation between how hard jails make it for inmates to escape, and how determined certain inmates become to meet that challenge. As he writes in the article:

Here is the core of the problem. The tougher the prison officials made their prison—the more they challenged Sheppard and told him that this time he couldn't escape—the more determined and daring and ingenious Sheppard become.

It's a fascinating little piece, and though I don't think one could draw any direct parallels with Westlake's fiction – the later Richard Stark Parker novel Breakout, for example (title and general theme aside) – it's evident that prison breaks were a subject Westlake was genuinely interested in himself, rather than something he wrote about simply for a paycheck. In fact, looking at his relatively small body of non-fiction overall, I reckon you could say the same about all of it: when he chose to wrote factual pieces, it was first and foremost because those subjects interested him. In that way, they perhaps reflect more of the man behind the words than many of his stories do.

Thursday 25 August 2011

A Signed First Edition of And Then You Die by Michael Dibdin (Aurelio Zen #8); Faber, 2002

From a supposed – but in point of fact highly suspect – Benjamin Black/John Banville signature, to a rather more genuine Michael Dibdin one...

This is the UK hardback first edition/first printing of And Then You Die, published by Faber & Faber in 2002, with a dustjacket designed by Pentagram. It's the eighth in the late Mr. Dibdin's eleven-novel series starring Commissioner Aurelio Zen, a detective in the Italian police service, attached to the Ministry of the Interior. Now, I have to admit, I wasn't really aware of Dibdin or Zen until the start of this year, when the Beeb broadcast Zen, three feature-length adaptations of the first three books in the series (in a mixed-up order). It was perfect Sunday night viewing: witty, stylish, and with a charismatic central performance by Rufus Sewell as the Venetian-born, Rome-based Zen. Mystifyingly, the BBC elected not to renew the series, BBC One controller Danny Cohen reasoning that there were already too many male detectives and crime shows airing. Which is true in as much as there are a lot of TV 'tec shows, but rather ignores the fact that the majority of them are rubbish – whereas Zen was not. Pillock.

Anyway, suitably inspired, I decided to investigate Dibdin's work, and set about tracking down first editions of the Zen books (as well as a first of one of his non-Zen novels, Dirty Tricks, having read Olman's glowing review of it). I'll be detailing that collecting quest in future posts, but it was made much easier by a big score in Henry Pordes secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road, where I hoovered up four fine condition firsts in one fell swoop. Three of those books were only a fiver each, but the fourth – the copy of And Then You Die seen above – bore no pencilled price on the front endpaper. What it did have, however, was this:

Michael Dibdin's signature. I took the stack of books to the counter in the hope that the man at the till wouldn't spot the signature and would sell me the book at the same price as the others. Unfortunately, however, he did notice it. But after a moment's thought, he proposed a price of £15, which sounded to me at the time very reasonable indeed. And I've since learned it was even more reasonable than I figured: there's a Faber first on eBay at the moment for £40, and only two others on AbeBooks, priced at £65 and £85. As to the veracity of the signature, I've checked it against other examples of Dibdin's autograph, and can confidently state that it's the genuine article.

Matter of fact, one of the signatures I compared it to was one in another Dibdin first edition I scored, this time at the most recent Lewes Book Fair, back at the beginning of August. I'll be blogging about that book at the climax of this series on signed editions, but next I'll be turning to an author who's a firm favourite of mine, a British thriller writer who I don't believe signed many books in his lifetime, and yet who I've managed to secure two first editions bearing inscriptions by him.

Ahead of that, though, there's that Violent World of Parker post I mentioned...

Wednesday 24 August 2011

A Signed (er, by Someone...) First Edition of The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (John Banville), Plus Christine Falls and a Bit of Richard Stark Parker Business

On with the signed editions we go, and here's a book I picked up just last weekend on an inaugural visit to Dim and Distant, a terrific secondhand bookshop in the small town of Heathfield, East Sussex:

The Silver Swan was published in hardback by Picador in 2007. Benjamin Black is, of course, the crime-writing alias of literary giant John Banville, and while I wasn't terribly keen on the single Black novel I've read – 2008's The Lemur – the critical weight of opinion on his expanding criminal oeuvre convinced me to put down four quid for The Silver Swan – his second B. Black offering – when I saw it in amongst the extensive selection of hardbacks on offer at Dim and Distant. Well, that, and this:

Which I figured was Mr. Banville's abbreviated signature. But having looked online, it doesn't appear to bear any resemblance to other examples of Banville's John Hancock, either his own or his alter ego's. If it's not his signature, though, I'm curious as to why whoever scrawled on it chose to do so on the book's title page, as owner inscriptions usually appear on endpapers. Strange. Anyway, even if it is some random sod's signature rather than the author's, £4 is still a fair price for a first printing, especially as I also found this next to it:

A hardback first edition/first printing of his debut Black novel, Christine Falls, published by Picador in 2006. So I can at least read the first two books in Banville/Black's series centring on Dublin pathologist Quirke in the correct order.

Banville is a fan of a writer who's an abiding obsession of mine, Donald E. Westlake, in particular Westlake's pseudonymous Richard Stark Parker novels. He provided the foreword to The University of Chicago Press' 2009 reprint of The Score (Parker #5), but his appreciation was underlined more recently when The Guardian ran a feature in their Saturday review section in July titled "Partners in Crime Fiction", wherein a variety of contemporary novelists chose their favourite crime writers (to tie in with the Harrogate Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival; my old mucker Keith Walters was one of two "bloggers in residence" at the event and has a series of posts on it on his Books and Writers blog). In his Benjamin Black guise Banville led the article, and his pithy Stark testimonial is well worth a read if you haven't chanced across it yet.

What's next then? Well, if you click on the back cover of The Silver Swan, that might provide a clue as to the identity of the author of the next signed novel I'll be showcasing – and I reckon I'm on much firmer ground regarding the authenticity of that signature. But there could well be another Violent World of Parker post ahead of that, so you'll just have to wait and see which one appears first. Oh the excitement...

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Lewes Book Bargains: Signed First Editions of Robert Rankin's The Witches of Chiswick, Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood, and Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station

After yesterday's Westlake Score – also available on The Violent World of Parker, of course – it's back to the signed first editions again. And I've got a clutch of Rankins and a Wambaugh for this latest post, all of which I picked up dead cheap in charity shops in Lewes, the picturesque East Sussex town in which I live and work. Let's deal with the Rankins first:

Robert Rankin's The Witches of Chiswick was published in the UK in hardback by Gollancz in 2003, with a front cover designed by Rankin himself and produced by Sally Hurst. I believe – and I could be wrong; I've not read the book yet, so I'm only going by what I've found online – that having ranged over science fiction, fantasy and the occult in his career, The Witches of Chiswick marked Rankin's first foray into steampunk (a genre I've touched upon briefly before in this post on The Difference Engine). Rankin lives down the road from me, in Brighton, where steampunk has gripped certain sections of the populace for a while now – club nights, readings and what have you; he was made the first Fellow of the Victorian Steampunk Society in 2009.

He also has a suitably elaborate John Hancock:

Next, another Rankin – or rather, two Rankins:

Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood was also first published in hardback in 2003, this time by Orion. The photo on the front of the dustjacket is by Ross Gillespie and Tricia Malley, but the author pic on the back is by Rankin – as in, the photographer Rankin, not Ian himself. Although I suppose he could've been holding a remote shutter trigger in his other hand. Anyway, as with Robert Rankin, I've never read any of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels – of which A Question of Blood is the fourteenth... but my mum has, and she loves 'em. (She's also met Mr. Rankin, I believe, when she attended a signing.) And what with my interest in crime fiction, it's about time I gave one of them a go.

So what does an Ian Rankin signature look like? It looks like this:

Splendid. And finally:

This one's a little different: it's the American hardback first edition/first printing of Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station, published by Little, Brown in 2006. Now, attentive readers of Existential Ennui might at this point hear distant bells ringing in their heads. That's because I blogged about this very book at the end of last year, in a UK first edition which I also picked up in a Lewes charity shop. Needless to say, that edition has now returned to the charity shop from whence it came, and this edition has taken its place on my increasingly crowded shelves.

The signature on the title page also includes a dedication:

Who Stuart is/was and how this US first ended up in Lewes will probably remain a mystery, but there was also a little piece of paraphernalia inside the book:

An official Joseph Wambaugh bookmark. Quite a nice additional extra there. The jacket on this American edition was designed by Mario J. Pulice, who is creative director at Little, Brown... and who also harbours (hey!) an unusual passion for a particular 1930s ship. According to this 2010 New York Times piece, Mr. Pulice turned his NY apartment into a shrine to the Art Deco luxury ocean liner the Normandie. So accurate was the recreation – featuring original fixtures and fittings from the ship – that the South Street Seaport Museum borrowed a good chunk of it for a 2010 exhibition, DecoDence. Well I never. The things people do to their flats, eh?

Next up, another signed edition, this time from John Banville (although it might not actually be his signature...), along with a bit of Richard Stark/Parker business. And thereafter we'll be getting into the really good signed books...

Monday 22 August 2011

Westlake Score: The Split by Richard Stark; UK Movie Tie-in First Edition (Coronet Paperback, 1969)

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

This latest Westlake Score was inspired by my learned friend Olman, who almost secured a copy of the book in question during a recent holiday ramble around a number bookshops in the Canadian Maritimes (not as unusual as that sounds; I did a similar thing on my holiday this year). Olman spied this book – the 1969 UK Hodder-Coronet movie tie-in paperback edition of The Split – in one store, but it was priced at $30, which he reasoned (correctly) was a bit too much. Inveterate collector that I am, and especially of the British editions of Richard Stark's Parker novels, I was suitably moved to have a look online and see if any copies were floating about over here in the UK, undetected. Turns out there was one, and I nabbed it for a tenner.

Why would I wish to purchase a forty-plus-year-old British copy of Stark's seventh Parker novel when I already own it in its original 1966 US Pocket Books softcover edition and its 1985 UK Allison & Busby hardback incarnation, I hear you cry? The reasons are manifold. For one thing, The Split – or The Seventh, to give it its US title; it was retitled in some markets as a result of Gordon Flemyng's 1969 Jim Brown-starring movie – is among my favourite Parkers, a blisteringly mean tale of a heist that turns into a spectacular bloodbath, with possibly the best ending in the entire series. For another, the cover of this UK edition is kinda cool: that's a great and unusual still from the film. Then there's the fact that it's pretty scarce in this edition; there are only two copies of the '69 Coronet softcover that I can see on AbeBooks, both in the States, both for around £20–£25.

But mostly it's because I am, as I say, a hopelessly obsessive collector, particularly of first editions. And that's what this edition of The Split is: the UK first edition, much as the 1967 Coronet movie tie-in paperback of Point Blank! is the first UK edition of Westlake's debut novel as Richard Stark (it's never been published in the UK under its original 1962 title, The Hunter). Why any of that should matter to a sane person is beyond me, but in my defence, one thing the Coronet paperbacks do have going for them are the different types of covers they sported over the years – even from printing to printing. Allow me to demonstrate. Illustrate. Whichever.

We begin, in 1967, with this:

The UK first edition of The Hunter, published, as I mentioned, as Point Blank! to tie in with John Boorman's movie adaptation of that year. Next, we get these:

The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, original US pub date 1967) and The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, also 1967), both published in paperback by Coronet in 1968. This style of cover (illustrator unknown, I'm afraid, although I speculated here that it might be John M. Burns) also cropped up in the two Parker novels Coronet published in 1969 alongside the movie tie-in paperback of The Split:

The Black Ice Score (Parker #11, US 1968 – and don't you just love that surprisingly witty and apposite front-cover strapline?) and The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, US 1969). At least, I think the Coronet paperback of The Sour Lemon Score came out in 1969; I don't own a copy of that one to check. Anyway, the next two Parker novels Coronet issued, in 1970, were these:

Reprints of the first two they'd published back in 1967 and 1968 respectively: Point Blank! and The Rare Coin Score. What's interesting about this short-lived iteration of cover design is how it seems to ape that of The Split, with lots of negative space. And then from 1971 we get this more familiar look:

The famed "bullet hole" double-cover design, as originated by Raymond Hawkey (although the books you can see above – the third printings of Point Blank! and The Rare Coin Score – date from 1972), under which wrapping almost all of the Parkers were either published or reissued – right up to the 1977 Coronet edition of Butcher's Moon (Parker #16, originally 1974), which boasts an entirely different cover design altogether. But that's a tale for another time...