Friday 2 September 2011

Gavin Lyall, Author... and Cover Artist (The Wrong Side of the Sky, Hodder & Stoughton, 1961)

Veering away from the signed editions momentarily, I mentioned at the end of yesterday's post on a signed edition of Gavin Lyall's Blame the Dead that, during the course of what I laughingly call my research into Lyall's inscription inside the book, I turned up a nugget of info about an earlier Lyall novel, which answered a question that had been bothering me for a while. (Let's not get into why such things prey on my mind; that way lies madness.)

To recap: the dedication in that copy of Blame the Dead is to a "Frank", who, I reasoned, might well be Frank Hardman, with whom Lyall and an old schoolfriend named Martin Davison worked on the story for a 1969 Hammer film titled Moon Zero Two. Intrigued by Lyall's involvement with the movie, I dug a little deeper and turned up this interview with Martin Davison on David Sisson's sci-fi model website. In the interview Davison reveals all manner of titbits about the making of Moon Zero Two in general and Lyall's role in particular, as well as one or two extraneous bits of Lyall info, such as the fact that he was a keen model-maker (as was Davison). But the quote that really caught my eye concerned this book:

The Wrong Side of the Sky was Gavin Lyall's debut, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1961. It's an excellent thriller, starring Jack Clay, the first of a series of pilot protagonists in Lyall's novels (Lyall was an RAF pilot himself, as evidenced by the back cover photo), who embarks on a quest for lost treasure around the islands of the Middle East, which entails, as you'd expect, a number of gripping flying sequences. P. G. Wodehouse said of the book, "Terrific! When better novels of suspense than this are written, lead me to them." (Hopefully someone led Mr. Wodehouse to Lyall's later novels, some of which are indeed better than The Wrong Side of the Sky.)

Ever since I bought this first edition of The Wrong Side of the Sky, at the – now sadly defunct – Rye Book Fair back in 2009, I've been wondering who the artist responsible for the painting on the front of the dustjacket was. There's no credit on either jacket flap, and no signature on the painting itself. So imagine my delight (go on: just imagine it) when David Sisson's interview with Martin Davison finally provided the answer. Here's the relevant quote: 

"[Lyall] was a very successful thriller writer and continued as such for many years... I attach a scan of an extremely beaten up book cover of his first thriller The Wrong Side of the Sky from 1961. The artwork on the cover was actually done by Gavin himself, because he thought the cover provided by Hodder and Stoughton was inadequate for the job."

There you have it. The cover artist on the first edition of The Wrong Side of the Sky by Gavin Lyall was... Gavin Lyall. And a creditable job he did, too. Mystery solved!

Anyway, next week I'll be rounding off my series on signed editions with a final handful of books; I've been saving the best to last and there are some real doozies in this lot, among them novels by authors who are favourites both old and new on Existential Ennui. I'm keen to get through them by the end of next week because the week after that I'll be dedicating Existential Ennui to a spy fiction author who's also made a fair few appearances on this blog, to mark the occasion of the release of a new film based on one of his most famous books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That's John le Carré Week – or, perhaps more accurately, George Smiley Week – in just over seven days' time.

Next up, though, as promised, I'll likely have another Donald E. Westlake science fiction story...

Thursday 1 September 2011

Book Review: Signed Association First Edition of Blame the Dead by Gavin Lyall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972)

After a brief intermission in the form of a Donald E. Westlake science fiction post (also available on The Violent World of Parker), it's back to British thriller writer Gavin Lyall, with the second of two signed association copies of his novels. And this one is from earlier in his career, actually towards the end of its first phase, when, you'll doubtless recall, Lyall was penning first-person adventures largely starring grizzled aviators. Except, this particular novel doesn't feature a pilot; instead, its protagonist is a freelance security consultant and occasional bodyguard who gets mixed up in a convoluted plot involving Lloyds insurance of ships.

Blame the Dead was first published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1972 (not 1973, as Wikipedia states), under an intriguing dustjacket designed by Colin Andrews (I'll reveal what that jacket's all about in a moment). Now, I have to hold my hand up here and admit that I already own a copy of this first edition, bought at Camilla's in Eastbourne in May of last year; but when I spotted the one seen above on eBay recently and realised it had been signed and dedicated by Gavin Lyall himself – which, as I outlined in the previous Lyall post, is a real rarity – I couldn't resist nabbing it.

I'll return to Lyall's inscription shortly, but first, the book. Blame the Dead was Lyall's sixth novel, and the penultimate one to be written in the first person. Our narrator is ex-British Army intelligence man James Card, who, whilst acting as bodyguard for Lloyd's underwriter Martin Fenwick on a murky mission to Arras in northern France, comes under fire from unknown assailants. Cue one dead underwriter and the beginnings of a Byzantine mystery, as, experiencing guilt at his inability to protect Fenwick, Card takes it upon himself to find out why the Lloyd's man was killed, and why the hell he was taking what appears to be a copy of the Bertie Bear Colouring Book to France. (Now you see the significance of the dustjacket.)

The best thing about Blame the Dead is Card himself. He's what you might call a rough diamond: possessed of jagged edges that both his friends and adversaries find occasionally piercing, but essentially decent. Lyall's characterization of Card is surefooted throughout: his narration is wry and blokey, befitting his military background, and while in some respects he's quite the hard man – he exhibits a particular fondness for guns, for example – he's also pragmatic, loyal and warm (his relationship with Fenwick's son, David, who ends up hiring Card to find out why his dad was killed, is rather touching). But Card is no invincible hero, and he's certainly not much of a detective (something that more than one character remarks upon); he's slow on the uptake, never ahead of the game, and it's only his pig-headed refusal to quit that sees him through to the finish.

Lyall's also good on the intricacies of shipping insurance, which topic underpins the plot. The novel is actually quite instructive on how a big insurer like Lloyd's works; in a way these aspects are more interesting than the occasional bursts of action, which range across London and back and forth to Norway, as Card goes on the run from the authorities and the villains. And though Card is a largely agreeable creation, he's also something of a neanderthal in his attitude towards both women – at one point he muses, "Do you want to know why women will never rule the world? Because they can't be bothered to read a newspaper to find out if they've taken over the world" – and homosexuals. That latter flaw makes for some uncomfortable reading towards the end of the novel; a sign of the times, perhaps, but still a little quease-inducing.

Blame the Dead probably doesn't rank among the best in Lyall's canon, but it's a solid effort, well worth spending a few hours with. But of course, while the book might not be the most special of beasts, the copy I now own most certainly is, because of this:

That "skol" is a reference to the novel's partly Norwegian setting, but unlike the other Lyall-inscribed edition I showcased on Monday, in this instance I have an inkling of who the book might have been dedicated to. In 1966 Lyall came up with the idea for a movie, which was eventually produced by Hammer and released in 1969 as Moon Zero Two. Lyall approached two old friends of his, Martin Davison and Frank Hardman, to help out on the writing of the storyline, and it's the latter of these that I suspect was the recipient of this copy of Blame the Dead. Obviously this is little more than conjecture on my part, but so far as I'm aware, Lyall only really signed copies of his books for friends – note that, as with that copy of Spy's Honour, he uses just his first name – so I reckon the "Frank" in the inscription has as good a chance of being Mr. Hardman as not.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in the course of researching the inscription I turned up a fascinating little nugget of information about a much earlier Lyall novel, an insight courtesy of Martin Davison which answered a question about the cover of the first edition of that novel I'd been pondering for some time. So before I move on to a signed edition from a different author, I should have a Gavin Lyall bonus post for you next – although, as is swiftly becoming the norm, there may well be a Donald E. Westlake post before we get to that...

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "They Also Serve", Analog, Vol. 68, No. 1, September 1961/January 1962

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

As promised, both on here and on The Violent World of Parker (and while I'm linking to that TVWoP post, let me just point out that Lawrence Block – yes, Lawrence Block – took the time to leave a comment on it, a turn of events as pleasantly surprising as it is humbling), this week I'm returning to the short stories Donald E. Westlake wrote for science fiction magazines in the 1950s and 1960s – which I first blogged about back in May of this year on Existential Ennui – with another series of reviews, this time of a clutch of tales from the early '60s. And it's a mixed bag indeed, with the stories ranging in length from four pages to well over thirty, and the subjects encompassing everything from bizarre military experiments, to philosophical musings on the nature of reality, to – as is the case with this first tale – a commentary on the then-prevalent Cold War paranoia.

"They Also Serve" appeared in the Volume 68, #1 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction (cover art by H. R. Van Dongen), published in the States by Street & Smith in September 1961 – although the edition you can see here is the British one, published by Morrison & Gibb in January 1962 (UK editions of US science fiction magazines tended to lag behind the American ones by three or four months). The story centres on Ebor, the alien captain of a launch bringing mail and supplies to a remote colony on a small, rocky, airless moon – a moon orbiting a blue and green planet colloquially known as Earth. Ebor is met by his friend and colleague, Commander Darquelnoy, who fills Ebor in as to what the inhabitants of Earth have been up to – namely building an unmanned spaceship which has circled the Moon and taken pictures. This is the source of much consternation for the xenomorphic Moon colonists, who, it transpires, are waiting for humanity to destroy itself so that they can add Earth to their galactic empire.

Needless to say, the anticipated method of mankind's demise provides the twist in this short tale, and considering Ebor and Darquelnoy spend the majority of "They Also Serve" discussing humanity's secretive, argumentative, warlike nature, you can probably work out what that twist is for yourself. (I guessed it fairly early on, and I'm no rocket scientist – hey!) It's a nice idea, but as is often the case with his brief SF stories, Westlake doesn't really develop it beyond a punchline. There's some noticeable papering-over of plot cracks, such as when Ebor and Darquelnoy debate why their alien society doesn't simply wipe humanity off the face of the planet rather than waiting for us to do it ourselves – their answer being, rather than fighting himself, man would instead turn his firepower on the aliens. Which sort of begs the question, if the aliens are powerful enough to travel across vast expanses of space, surely humanity's ire wouldn't trouble them unduly. (And destroying mankind themselves would, in any case, provide the end result the aliens are hoping for.)

But perhaps I'm overthinking things. (Now there's a surprise...) That "They Also Serve" doesn't stand up to close scrutiny is perfectly understandable in the context of it being a short story from early in Westlake's career – a time when he was writing whatever he could for whoever would buy – based on what was probably a passing notion. If you don't examine it in too much detail, it's an agreeable enough piece of whimsy. With their flapping tentacles and officious natures, the aliens are amusingly whiny, wearily resigned to humanity's unpredictable nature, and overall there's an attractive affability to the tale, offsetting the lurking Cold War unease that underpins events. Indeed, the obvious inference of a story like this would be that its author nurses a somewhat pessimistic outlook on mankind's ultimate fate, but this is Westlake we're talking about here, and so there's more than a hint of optimism to the ending, with the extraterrestrials hamstrung by bureaucracy and consequently forced to passively await a doomsday that may never arrive. Which, come to think of it, is a very Westlakean predicament.

To my knowledge "They Also Serve" has never been reprinted – although it is available on Project Gutenberg – and neither has the next Westlake SF story I'll be reviewing: a much longer and more serious effort from a 1962 issue of Analog, concerning US military psi-ops. But ahead of that on Existential Ennui, I'll have another signed association edition of a Gavin Lyall thriller...

Monday 29 August 2011

A Signed Association First Edition of Spy's Honour by Gavin Lyall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)

Continuing my series of posts on signed first editions, this week I've got two books by the same author – a British thriller writer who's made multiple appearances on Existential Ennui over the years: Gavin Lyall. And my research for one of those books has turned up an interesting nugget of info about another of Lyall's novels, so there'll also be a bonus post on him. Plus there'll be some Donald E. Westlake business as well, as I return to the short stories Westlake wrote for various science fiction magazines in the early 1960s (which I'll be cross-posting on The Violent World of Parker, of course).

The unusual thing about both of the signed Gavin Lyall books I'm showcasing this week is that, so far as I've been able to establish, Lyall didn't appear to sign that many books. AbeBooks, for example, currently lists a grand total of just three signed Lyall books, which, considering he wrote fifteen novels and two non-fiction works over nearly forty years, and that many of those were bestsellers, is a remarkably small number. Those he did sign tend to be association copies, that is, books inscribed for friends; both of the signed Lyall novels I own bear self-evidently personal inscriptions – Lyall uses just his first name in each case – and I'd be willing to bet those scant few lurking on AbeBooks are association copies too. Which makes me wonder whether, gifts for friends aside, he simply didn't sign his books.

If that is the case, that makes the few that do bear his signature rather special. Like this one, which I picked up in the splendid Dim and Distant secondhand bookshop in Heathfield, East Sussex:

Spy's Honour was published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK in hardback in 1993, with a front cover illustration by Bill Gregory. Now, it's worth noting here that Gavin Lyall's writing career can be divided up into three quite distinct phases. The first phase, from 1961's The Wrong Side of the Sky to 1975's Judas Country, consists of first-person aviation and Euro thrillers, largely – but not exclusively – starring hard-bitten freelance pilots; you can read my review of one of them, The Most Dangerous Game, here. The second phase, from 1980's The Secret Servant to 1988's Uncle Target, comprises a four-book espionage series starring 10 Downing Street troubleshooter Harry Maxim; you can read my review of the first novel in that series here.

Spy's Honour marks the beginning of the third phase of Lyall's career, and of the three, this is the one era I've yet to explore properly. The four books Lyall had published from Spy's Honour to 1999's Honourable Intentions are all set in the run-up to the First World War, and deal with Britain's nascent intelligence service. If they were published today I suspect they'd do rather well, what with the ongoing vogue for historical fiction and interest in that period in particular in the wake of Keith Jeffrey's 2010 tome MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service; but at the time I don't believe they were as successful as Lyall's earlier works, and consequently all four have fallen out of print and become quite scarce in non-ex-library first.

But this copy of Spy's Honour is even more special than most, because of what's on the front endpaper:

A "thank you" note from Gavin Lyall to a John and Marian. Bizarrely, there's also what looks to be an ownership signature opposite Lyall's inscription, which is a very odd thing to do when the book you own has been written in by its author. Perhaps the owner didn't realise it was Lyall's own hand, but I can be rather more confident in its authenticity because of the other signed edition I've managed to secure – a novel from towards the end of the first phase of his career. And that'll be coming right up after a Donald E. Westlake science fiction story...