Friday 2 December 2011

Westlake Score: Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark; 1977 UK Coronet Paperback

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

Time for my third and final post on Butcher's Moon, the sixteenth Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake "Parker" thriller. And having eulogised the novel in an enervating fashion and examined the 1974 Random House first edition at laborious length, for this terminal missive I want to take a look at the first – and indeed only – British edition of the book. Fear not, weary reader: I promise this post will be mercifully shorter than its predecessors.

Published in paperback in the UK by Coronet/Hodder & Stoughton (formerly Hodder Fawcett) in 1977, the edition of Butcher's Moon seen above is, as I say, the only edition of the novel ever to make it into print in Britain. And not only that: it's the only printing, too; most of the other Parker novels Coronet published from 1967 onwards went through two or three printings (or impressions), often with different cover treatments, but Butcher's Moon warranted just this one 1977 outing. Ah, but surely, I hear you cry, you're overlooking the fact that the University of Chicago Press issued a new edition of Butcher's Moon this very year, you blithering idiot. And yes, it's true, they did. But not in the UK. Sure, the UCP edition is available over here via the likes of Amazon, but it wasn't actually published here. (Nor indeed were any of the other UCP editions of the Parker novels.)

Consequently, the 1977 Coronet edition remains the only British appearance of Butcher's Moon, and is therefore decidedly uncommon; AbeBooks has just two copies listed at present, both from the kind of bulk-warehouse-style secondhand booksellers it's usually best to avoid. Mine came from a rather more human seller, and is in terrific condition, but unfortunately it doesn't reveal who was responsible for the cover design, which was sort of my reason for getting it. It might have been Raymond Hawkey, the legendary British designer who instigated the famed "bullet hole" covers of the Coronet editions of the Parkers in the early 1970s, like so:

Hawkey was best known for the more photographic approach he deployed on British dustjackets in the 1960s and '70s, notably those wrapping the novels of his friend Len Deighton – see this Existential Ennui post for more on Hawkey and Deighton, and this one and this one for some similar examples to Butcher's Moon – so it could well have been he who created the Coronet cover. As ever, if anyone can shed any light on the true identity of the cover designer, do leave a comment.

And that, you'll be overjoyed to learn, is that for Butcher's Moon. Next from me on The Violent World of Parker blog, I'll probably be returning to Donald E. Westlake's science fiction short stories, with a couple of posts which will afford an insight as to why Westlake wrote SF... and perhaps more intriguingly, why he stopped... Here on Existential Ennui, however, it's back to the spy fiction series, with an extremely stiff-upper-lipped series of books by a writer who these days is virtually forgotten...

Thursday 1 December 2011

Collecting Parker: Richard Stark's Butcher's Moon – How to Identify a True First Edition

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

Having expounded at length – and how – on the meat (groan...) of Butcher's Moon – i.e. reviewing the novel itself – I thought I'd ruminate for a while on the American first edition of the book: its collectibility and current value, and how to identify a true first. Those whose interest in tedious matters to do with book collecting is negligible should look away now.

For many years, Butcher's Moon (Parker #16) was the holy grail of Parker novels. Like its predecessor, Plunder Squad (Parker #15, 1972), until this year (when it was reissued by University of Chicago Press) it had only ever been published three times in the English language: by Random House in the US in 1974; by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in the UK in 1977; and by Avon in the US in 1985. All of the preceding Parker novels to these two had appeared in at least a couple more editions, usually from Berkley in the States and Allison & Busby in Britain. (Arguably, Plunder Squad was just as scarce as Butcher's Moon, but there seems to have been more of a mystique surrounding the latter, probably due to its end-of-an-era status and length.)

Consequently, Butcher's Moon was for a long time bloody difficult to get hold of, and for many Parker enthusiasts and collectors, their journey through the Parker novels came to an abrupt halt with the fourteenth book, Slayground (1971). (Comics writer and Parker fan Ed Brubaker mentions how hard it was to find copies of both Butcher's Moon and Plunder Squad towards the end of this Tom Spurgeon interview with Darwyn Cooke.) With the advent of the internet, eBay and aggregate bookseller sites like AbeBooks, Butcher's Moon became slightly more readily available, but copies of the book still remained out of reach for most folk unless they were prepared to part with a substantial sum, even for a tatty Avon paperback. 

Of course, all that's changed now that the University of Chicago Press edition is out there. And the arrival of a new edition of the novel does appear to have affected prices of older editions – at least the Avon softcover: you can currently find copies of the Avon paperback on AbeBooks for around $20, although there are still some on the site for upwards of $75. The Random House first edition, however, has pretty much held its value: there are a few copies on AbeBooks for under $100, but those will probably be ex-library; you'd still be looking at at least $200 for a very good-to-near fine copy of the first.

I'd already managed to find a lovely example of the Random first of Butcher's Moon – you can see it at the top of this post and in the previous post – but for reasons that still aren't entirely clear to even me (but possibly because it was cheap), I picked up another copy of that edition fairly recently. It's an ex-library copy hailing from the Seattle Public Library:

Generally speaking, ex-library copies are a bit of a no-no in book collecting circles – especially when they've had the front flyleaf (or endpaper) torn out – but for me they hold a strange fascination. I've written about this on Existential Ennui once or twice; there's a provenance to ex-library books that you just don't get with most secondhand books. With an ex-library book, you know exactly where it's been all these years (in a public library, basically). Being a Brit, American ex-library books are of particular interest to me (something to do with my view of the States as an exotic, far-off place, I think), and this one, aside from being in very good condition considering its history (evidently there weren't many Richard Stark fans in Seattle), hasn't been butchered (groan, again) for a change – it still has the library docket attached to the flyleaf:

There's a certain amount of confusion surrounding how to identify a true first – i.e. a first printing (or impression) – of the Random House edition of Butcher's Moon. Identifying true firsts can be a minefield at the best of times, but with Butcher's Moon, matters aren't helped by the way Random House denoted first editions around this period. In many books you'll find what's known as a strike-off line, or number line, on the copyright page. If that line has a "1" in it, that usually means it's a first printing. But in the 1970s, Random House instituted an atypical form of strike-off line, one where, instead of ending on "1", first printings ended on "2" instead. To make things worse, a post-1970 Random House book with a strike-off line that ends in "2" still isn't necessarily a true first; true Random House firsts will also have the words "First Edition" next to the number line, whereas second printings won't, although they will still end with "2". So if you're ever thinking of buying a first of Butcher's Moon, make sure it has the words "First Edition" on the copyright page, like so:

Mind you, I'm not entirely convinced Butcher's Moon ever went into a second printing, so this may all be academic. Oh, and, should you be interested, the dustjacket of the Random edition was designed by Ira Teichberg, other examples of whose work can be found in the AIGA Design Archives.

Anyway, all of that leaves me with just one further Butcher's Moon post (thank the Lord), which will be on the first – and, to date, only – British edition of the novel...

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Parker Progress Report: Butcher's Moon (Parker #16, 1974) by Richard Stark; Review

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

Well I still haven't quite made up my mind as regards which spy fiction series I'll be blogging about next, but I have decided, you'll doubtless be delighted to learn, what my next few Violent World of Parker cross-posts will be on: Butcher's Moon. 

Butcher's Moon marks the end of both the first phase of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novel series, and the first phase of my reviewing trawl through the Parkers. I've actually got three posts planned on the book: this first one, which is, obviously, a review; a look at the Random House first edition of the novel, in particular an ex-library copy I found fairly recently, but also the book's design and collectibility; and a look at the first British edition as well.

But let's begin with the substantive issue, namely the novel itself. First published in 1974, Butcher's Moon is not only the capstone on Parker phase one – i.e. 1962–1974 – but also the culmination of everything Westlake had been doing in the series to this point. Westlake's been quoted as saying that he stopped writing Parker stories (for twenty-three years, that is, until he started again with Comeback in 1997) because those stories just stopped coming to him. On the evidence of Butcher's Moon, it's easy to see why. The novel reintroduces characters from almost all fifteen of its predecessors in a tale that is, in the first instance, a direct sequel to the previous Parker-but-one, Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), but also, and perhaps more audaciously, a continuation of, and completing of, a subplot introduced in the very first book in the series, The Hunter (1962).

Parker's run of bad luck – see the four novels from The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) to Plunder Squad (Parker #15, 1972) – persists as the story opens. A botched jewellery store job leaves him out of pocket and in dire need of cash, so he calls up Alan Grofield, the actor-turned-thief with whom he worked on the heist at the start of Slayground/The Blackbird (Grofield #3, 1969 – the two novels sharing an opening chapter, remember) – a heist that resulted in Grofield being hospitalized and Parker abandoning a stashed bag of dough in an amusement park in the Midwest city of Tyler. Grofield is similarly on his uppers, his summer stock theatre in Mead Grove, Indiana continuing to drain his resources and the events of his last solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (Grofield #4, 1971), leaving him without a pot to piss in. So when Parker suggests they head to Tyler to retrieve their loot, Grofield readily accepts.

Predictably, once they arrive in Tyler and search Fun Island, there's no trace of the money, so – much as Parker did in The Hunter – he and Grofield make a nuisance of themselves with the local Outfit (i.e. Mob) operation in an effort to track down the boodle. Adolf Lozini, the Mafia boss who led the hunt for Parker through Fun Island in Slayground, is still in charge – but only just. There's a coup d'état brewing, and the last thing the usurpers need is Parker and Grofield making things more difficult. But successfully and violently muddy the waters they do, until Grofield is shot (again; see also Parker #8, The Handle, 1966/Grofield #1, The Damsel, 1967) and then held hostage and Parker has to resort to calling in help from a Dirty Dozen (including himself) of former associates from previous books – among them Handy McKay from The Man with the Getaway Face (Parker #2, 1963), Stan Devers from The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, 1967) and Ed Mackey from Plunder Squad – to carry out a series of jobs on Outfit enterprises in and around Tyler before hitting the Outfit men themselves.

There's a school of thought which reasons that Butcher's Moon represents the strongest evidence yet of a softening, a humanizing of the initially emotionless, machine-like Parker, a development that can be traced back to his hooking up with Claire in The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967). Frankly, I don't buy it. Parker cheerfully – or, more accurately, dourly – murders his way through Butcher's Moon, gunning down one man on a sidewalk just to send a message and visiting an apocalyptic vengeance on the hapless mobsters at the close of the book. If that's a "softer" Parker, my name's Alan Marshall.

Those who present the case for Parker becoming more human – the estimable Max Allan Collins in this Mystery*File review, say, or more recently, by inference, the effervescent Tucker Stone in this Factual Opinion review – point to Parker gathering together his "friends" to take on the Outfit, and more specifically to a scene two-thirds into the novel once he's done so. Taking the question of the relationship between Parker and his associates first, I think it's a mistake to view the heisters Parker brings to Tyler as his pals. Sure, they're men he can trust – to an extent – but they're hardly friends; it's not as if Parker hangs out with any of them when he's not working (inviting the guys upstate, Parker in Bermuda shorts, the convivial host, slapping some steaks on the grill, passing round a six-pack... nah, can't see it), and for their part, they're essentially in Tyler to make some money. Parker is basically assembling a hit squad of co-workers, much as he did in The Outfit (Parker #3, 1963), with a definite aim in mind.

As to the specific scene, that hinges on why Parker is even bothering to get Grofield back – the argument being that, hitherto, Parker would have done the practical thing and left him behind. I suspect, however, that there's something more meta going on here. It's a question that Westlake himself addresses after Parker explains that the twelve of them will launch an assault on the Outfit to retrieve Grofield, after which we get this passage: 

His intensity had startled them a little. Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said, "That's not like you."

What kind of shit was this? Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions. He said, "What's not like me?"

"A couple things," Handy said. "For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else. Grofield, me, anybody. We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we're not the Travelers Aid Society. You, too. And the same with Grofield. What happens to him is up to him."

"Not when they send him to me piece by piece," Parker said. "If they kill him, that's one thing. If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that's his lookout. But these bastards rang me in on it."

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go. "The other thing," he said, "is revenge. I've never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt. Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead."

Parker got to his feet. He'd been patient a long time, he'd explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. "I don't care," he said. "I don't care if it's like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I'm going round in circles, I'm not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away? I'd like to burn this city to the ground, I'd like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don't want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it. You're in, Handy, or you're out. I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you'll get for it. Give me a yes or a no."

What Westlake is doing here is directly addressing us, the readers. Westlake doesn't care that it's slightly out of character for Parker to want to rescue Grofield: the author simply wishes to write a climactic assault on the Outfit compound, which he subsequently does, with nerve-jangling bravado. It could be argued that the transition is clumsily handled, that for a brief moment the gears and levers of the plot become visible; but Westlake understands this, admits that's the case, and dares us to either go along with him or give up on the story. Get on board, he's saying, or get gone.

Structurally, Butcher's Moon marks something of a departure from previous books in the series. Westlake dispenses with the traditional four parts in favour of a continuous, largely linear narrative. Again, that's in keeping with both the apogeic nature of the enterprise – there's little time for Stark Cutaways as we barrel towards the finish line – and the more experimental aspects of the late-1960s/early-1970s Parker novels. That Westlake arrived at what is in essence a standard novel approach having spent the previous four Parkers tinkering with structure is perhaps surprising, but by dint of its formal ordinariness and additional – but again more familiar in comparison to other, non-Stark novels – length (it's a lot longer than the Parkers' typical 160 pages), perversely, Butcher's Moon actually stands out from the crowd. 

Butcher's Moon isn't, I don't think, the best book in the initial run of the series; for my money that's still The Seventh/The Split (Parker #7, 1966), which has a terrific Parker-perplexing set-up, a blistering blood-soaked finale and a killer last line. But it's one of the best, certainly in the top five, and a fitting finale for the first phase of this brilliant, unique crime series.

As ever, you can read Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent's thoughts on Butcher's Moon on the book's dedicated page, but next up from me: the 1974 Random House first edition of the novel...