Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Book Collector's Guide to Moving House, or, Bloody Hell I Don't 'Arf Own a Lot of Books

And we're in. The move to the new house – still in Lewes, for those who've asked – was successfully accomplished on Friday, and the new place is currently littered with boxes and bags and in the living room a pile of chipboard flooring waiting to be hefted up to the loft (we're currently using the chipboard as a huge coffee table). All in all the move went pretty smoothly, but I'm afraid, what with one thing and another, normal blogging service won't be resumed just yet; there are various visits by various sets of parents and relatives to deal with first, not to mention Rachel's impending birthday, plus I've yet to finish unpacking and shelving all of my books.

Speaking of which, I thought it might be instructive to give you a sense of what moving house is like for someone who, to be frank, owns a fuck of a lot of books (and comics, and records, and CDs). Indeed, it was those books which prompted the removal firm we hired – the excellent Martins Removals of Newhaven – to mark the job down as a three-man endeavour rather than the usual two. And once the books were all boxed, I began to see their point...

You can just glimpse a comic box peeking out behind the amusingly named ("Weener"... uh huh huh huh), specially provided books boxes in that second pic; there were around a dozen of those as well (and there are still more in my mum and dad's loft in south London). Handily, Rachel came up with a simple yet effective system for keeping track of what was in each books box:

She scrawled the names of the authors on the top of each one. This innovation became crucial once the boxes were removed...

...and deposited in the new house:

Pick the bones out of that little lot. Which was precisely what I proceeded to do, and which in the event proved oddly enjoyable, as it afforded me the opportunity to shelve the books in a different order. To wit:

A work-in-progress bookcase, with some of Rachel's books on the top shelf (it seemed only fair to allow her a little space...); Anthony Price and Kingsley Amis next shelf down; then Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor), P. M. Hubbard and Geoffrey Household on shelf number three; and Len Deighton and John le Carré on the fourth shelf down (and a Stieg Larsson box set and a couple of strays underneath). And over on the other bookcase...

We have Patricia Highsmith, Gregory Mcdonald and Donald Hamilton on the top shelf; Ross Thomas and Graham Greene next shelf down; Andrew York, Dan J. Marlowe, Richard Price, Charles McCarry, Joe Gores and Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels underneath those; and more Westlake/Richard Stark and Dan J. Marlowe, plus Peter Rabe, on the fourth shelf down. Once again, the lower two shelves are TBC, but I'm making headway on those on both bookcases:

Things are bound to change around a bit, but I'm reasonably pleased with the results thus far. Of course, there is yet another bookcase in a separate room, into which some of my non-fiction will be going, along with a selection of graphic novels, the remainder of those heading up to the loft (once it's floored) with the comics. However, I can't show you that bookcase, because it's currently housing books which I've yet to blog about, and I don't want to spoil any surprises. Mind you, if you take a close look at the above photos, you might be able to spot one or two other novels which I'll shortly be blogging about – some of which will also be making it into my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery...

Be seeing you.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Brief Hiatus, a Word About Commenting, and More Beautiful British Book Jackets

Well I hope we all enjoyed my exclusive Q&A with spy novelist Jeremy Duns – and indeed the preceding posts on his Paul Dark thrillers and on one of his favourite spy novels, Adam Hall's The Ninth Directive. After that flurry of Duns-shaped blogging, however, I'm afraid that Existential Ennui will be going on a short hiatus, because I'm moving house – an undertaking that can be difficult and time-consuming for most people at the best of times, but one that, given the number of bloody books (and records, and CDs... and let's not even mention the comics) I own, is even more of a pain in the arse for me. So I hope you'll understand why things will be going kind of quiet round here (that and the fact that I'll probably have no internet for a bit).

But the move should be done and dusted by the end of this week, which means, all being well, I'll be back, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, with more blogging next week. Ahead of that, though, a quick word about commenting: as anyone who's read this irritable post will know, I've been having problems for a while now with spam comments – problems which I thought had been resolved by the introduction of an additional word recognition (captcha) step in the commenting process, but which, apparently, have not: spam comments still seem to be making it through onto Existential Ennui itself. Therefore, I've also now enabled comment moderation. Thus far it doesn't appear to have put anyone off commenting, but if you haven't left a comment since I enabled moderation, please don't let that deter you: I welcome any and all (genuine) comments, and I'll be receiving notification of new comments by email, so I'll publish them as soon as I possibly can.

But of course, I couldn't very well leave you in the lurch with nothing to look at while I'm otherwise occupied, and so I'm pleased to announce that I've updated my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – which, by the way, has now sailed past the 3,000 hits mark – with ten new covers. Two of those new additions – both of them by Peter Rudland, whose spectacular jacket for Anne Chamberlain's The Tall Dark Man you can see up top – are very recent acquisitions, one of them bought from Jamie Sturgeon, who brought a fine selection of wares along to Sunday's Midhurst Book, Postcard & Ephemera Fair (and who also gave me permission to reproduce these Richard Stark Gold Lion hardback covers last year); as a little taster of things to come, here's the pile of books I took off Jamie's hands:

Of the other wrappers, four were provided by crime writer and critic Mike Ripley, who, having seen my gallery, decided to dig out some suitable examples from his own collection and scan them for me (many thanks to Mike for that); two, both by illustrator Charles Mozley, come from the collection of my other half, Rachel (one being the cover to an early Iris Murdoch first edition; thank you also to Rachel); and two are from my own collection, and are both by Val Biro (the full-front-and-back wrapper for Nevil Shute's Requiem for a Wren is especially lovely). That brings the total number of dustjackets up to forty, which should give you plenty to gaze at while I'm gone. Oh, and a huge thank you to Margaret Atwood, who, as before, once again kindly retweeted my link to the gallery.

See you shortly.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

A Q&A Interview with Jeremy Duns, Author of the Paul Dark Spy Novels

For the grand finale of this series of posts on spy novelist Jeremy Duns – whose third spy thriller starring British double-agent Paul Dark, The Moscow Option, was published in the UK on Thursday (it'll be out in the States on 29 May in an omnibus edition alongside the first two Paul Dark novels) – something rather special: an exclusive Q&A with Mr. Duns. The interview was conducted over email earlier this week, and those familiar with Existential Ennui will doubtless be unsurprised to learn that the questions are very much books-orientated – partly because books – reading, collecting, publishing – are indeed the focus of this blog – and Jeremy is, after all, an author – but also because I believe that what we read as a child and what we read as adults can offer insights into who we are as people. In that respect, then, I feel Jeremy's answers are quite revealing, as he discusses the books he read as a kid, his schooldays, and where and how he discovered spy fiction.

But we also examine the Paul Dark novels, along with where Jeremy writes, how he writes, the music he listens to whilst writing, and his research for his books – and not only that, but Jeremy kindly provided some specially photographed shots of his book collection, which you'll see dotted about the interview. So, without further ado – except to say thank you to Jeremy for being so forthcoming and generous with his time – on with the interview...

NICK JONES: What is your earliest reading memory? Either being read to, or reading for yourself?

JEREMY DUNS: My earliest reading memory is of my mother reading me I See Sam and Dr, Seuss books. She was an English teacher so she was keen to teach me to read early. My earliest memory of reading for myself is discovering a cupboard at home that had boxes of spare books from my mother's class. One box was filled with pristine copies of a book called Emil and the Detectives, and I took it out and sat on the carpet and read through the whole thing, entranced. I don't remember much about the book except for that feeling of being swept away in a story, and wanting to read more as a result. 

Can you recall the first book you bought yourself? Or at least the earliest one you can remember – what it was, where you bought it, why you bought it?

I feel I should remember this, but I don't. It might have been Curtain by Agatha Christie. When I was eleven or twelve I started reading Christie's novels because my parents had a few, and I quickly became addicted to them and began seeking them out. I've never been a book collector, but at that age I was determined to read all of Christie's work, and she had written dozens of books. I didn't read all of them, but I read all of the Marples and Poirots, and Curtain was the last Poirot to read. I loved Christie's twists, and Curtain didn't disappoint. 

I did a lot of my reading as a kid at the local public library. I know you grew up in Nigeria and Malaysia and so forth, but I believe you went to boarding school in England. Did you have access to a library? Were you an avid reader?

I was a total bookworm as a boy – I had enormous round glasses and looked like Harry Potter. I went to prep school at eight, a place called Horris Hill in Berkshire, and one of its alumni is Richard Adams. I remember being told that the seeds of Watership Down had been sown at the school when he told other boys stories about the rabbits on the nearby down after lights out in his dormitory. I didn't tell stories after lights out, but I did read long into the night with my torch under my blanket, usually things like Jennings and Darbishire and Just William, then Agatha Christie when I got a little older. At thirteen I went to Winchester – after I'd talked at great length in my interview about Hercule Poirot – and there was a library in the boarding house that seemed to have stepped out of Tom Brown's Schooldays. It had a copy of that book, which I read, as well as P. G. Wodehouse, John Buchan and dozens of comic legal thrillers by Henry Cecil, which I chomped through. It also had several paperbacks with distinctive yellow spines and the name of the writer in thick black lettering: Dennis Wheatley. I was too young for his occult stuff, and have never really been interested in horror anyway, but I loved his Gregory Sallust spy thrillers, despite their rather dubious politics. I reread them a few years ago and it was like travelling back in time to my fifteeen-year-old self.

Incidentally, I thought it was interesting that Song of Treason, your second Paul Dark thriller, hinges in part on a past, painful humiliation at boarding school. Was that informed by personal experience?

I don't have much in common with Paul Dark – I can't kill someone with my bare hands, even if they're guilty of plagiarism. But I realized when writing Free Agent that his background would most likely mean he went to a public school. As I went to one, I thought it made sense to capitalize on that and use what I knew about its peculiar ways and customs to bring him more to life. I enjoyed my schooldays, but I was fascinated by aspects of it, such as the power prefects held – I remember there was a rumour that under the previous housemaster the prefects had occasionally run amok and destroyed people's possessions overnight. I watched Another Country at school, and felt that the basic dynamics of life in such a place hadn't changed for decades. I didn't realize until years later that Julian Mitchell had gone to Winchester, so there were probably reasons it seemed so familiar.

When it came to Song of Treason, I thought it wouldn't be too difficult to insert some of my knowledge into an earlier era without it seeming anachronistic – it had already seemed anachronistic when I experienced it. My own Notions test was unremarkable, but it had quite a build-up, which I suppose is vital with any initiation ceremony. You heard, and imagined, all sorts of things. The parts about waiting in the library in his dressing-gown and being disoriented as he is led around the house are from my own memories. Much of the rest is imagined, and some is from hearing others' experiences. There was an incident with someone getting Deep Heat in his eyes, and although it wasn't damaging in the long term, at the time it seemed monumental. I tried to take these experiences and make them real for Paul Dark and the other characters in an earlier time, in a more dramatic way. The idea of someone carrying over humiliation at school into adult life is not uncommon in thrillers (or perhaps life), but I thought the 'local knowledge' I had would make it more vivid and interesting. Although it might not get me invited back for Sports' Day. 

While we're on the subject of Song of Treason: you also put Paul Dark through a torture sequence, in the grand tradition of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, Len Deighton's The Ipcress File, Adam Hall's (alias Elleston Trevor) The Berlin Memorandum and others. Bit of a weird question, but were you keen to have your own torture sequence in one of your novels? And how do you think your one stacks up?

There's a great conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming that was broadcast by the BBC in 1958, in which a rather sozzled Chandler asked Fleming why his novels always included a torture scene. Fleming replied that he grew up reading Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Sapper's Bulldog Drummond, and that in those stories it was traditional for the villain to capture the hero and drug him or make him suffer in one way or another. My first exposure to this sort of scene was in Dennis Wheatley's Sallust novels, where there's a recurring villain, a senior Gestapo officer called Grauber, and the torture scenes were often horrific. I had written an interrogation of sorts towards the end of Free Agent, but I thought it was time I had a proper spy thriller torture scene. It fitted into some of my research about the political situation in Italy at the time, but I also felt that a torture sequence that played with public school initiation ceremonies would make sense for the novel. I'm proud of the scene, but I don't think it compares to the ones in those three books, of course – they're classics of the genre. 

Back to books and reading. What were you reading as you entered your teens? For me, books took a bit of a back seat for a while as I got more into music. Was it a similar thing for you? I know we like some of the same bands...

I did get into music a lot more, but I carried on reading. As well as Agatha Christie and Henry Cecil, I remember reading John Christopher's Sword of the Spirits trilogy, which I loved. This was in the library, I suppose because it was set around Winchester, which made it more interesting, of course. But it also had a fantastic twist, which I'll spoil now so be warned: it seems like it's set in the past, in some Arthurian England, but partway through you discover that it is in fact set in a post-apocalyptic future, where the priests are secretly controlling technology. I guess I like twists. As well as Dennis Wheatley, I read a lot of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Frederick Forsyth and Jack Higgins. Jeffrey Archer, of course: copies of Kane and Abel were handed round like samizdat (and always seemed to open on the same page). There were a lot of thrillers from the Sixties and Seventies floating around: Hammond Innes, Geoffrey Jenkins, Duncan Kyle, that sort of thing. In my late teens, I read a lot of Julian Barnes and Iain Banks, and became more interested in literary fiction. 

I read in an interview that you didn't really discover spy fiction until you were in your twenties, when you chanced upon some spy novels in an Antwerp bookshop on a journalistic assignment. Were they paperbacks? Can you remember what they were?

I did read spy novels when I was younger – my parents had a rather obscure novel, The Left-Handed Sleeper by Ted Willis, which I enjoyed, and after that I discovered Len Deighton and John le Carré. But I did a degree in English literature and read very few thrillers at university. So when I walked into that bookshop in Antwerp I hadn't read any spy novels for a few years, and wasn't especially interested in them. But there was a whole bookcase of second-hand thrillers in English, and a lot of them were spy novels. I picked up The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall. The title was vaguely familiar and I saw it had been made into a film. It cost next to nothing. I picked out three or four other books – I don't remember what they were – bought them, and went to do an interview with a fashion designer. I was impressed by The Quiller Memorandum, but it didn't blow me away. But I found another secondhand bookshop in Brussels that had several more books in the series, and The Tango Briefing had me hooked. I'd never read anything like it. I'd never imagined a spy novel could be so exciting but so beautifully written. So then I started reading a lot of spy fiction. 

I can usually recall where I bought the books that are most important to me. Is it the same for you? Where are some of the places you've bought books?

I lived in Brussels for several years, and there's a wonderful second-hand bookshop there called Pêle-Mêle – anyone who knows me has heard me rhapsodize about it. It used to have an extraordinary collection of secondhand thrillers in English, but I suspect it doesn't anymore as several hundred of them are now in my bookshelves: sorry! I just cleaned the place out over the course of a few years. I mainly buy from second-hand bookshops. I always visit the Charing Cross Road area when I'm in London, although the pickings are a lot slimmer now. I'll stop at any flea market, in any country, and check their selection. There are a few good places in Stockholm, where I live now, but these days I do most of my book shopping online, which is less interesting but means I get what I'm looking for. Physical bookshops are for the discoveries. I've got a silly amount of guidebooks I've bought 'just in case': if I ever want to write a thriller set in Mauritius in 1976, I'm prepared. There are a couple of fantastic second-hand bookshops in Rome, which I mention in the author's note for Song of Treason: I remember being in the back room of one over a decade ago and finding a copy of Encounter from 1965. It had an article in it by John le Carré in which he wrote about James Bond being a capitalist hyena and ended by suggesting that the Russian Bond was on his way. That was an important find for me, and I still read the article every now and again to remember the effect it had on me. 

I'm reading Adam Hall's The Ninth Directive at the moment, which I believe is your favourite Quiller. Why is that, do you think? And when did you first read it?

The Ninth Directive probably ties with The Tango Briefing for my favourite spy novel full stop. I read both in 2000, I think, one after the other. I love The Ninth Directive because it's both very pulpy in terms of plot – assassinate the assassin – but simultaneously seems extremely authentic. While reading the novel, you really believe that this is how a secret agent would think and act. It predates The Day of the Jackal by five years, but has much of that feeling of peeking inside a hidden world. I loved the way the target is never named, making it almost an elemental struggle to survive. Beyond that, I don't know... Sometimes you just connect with a book, or the voice of an author. I've connected with many, but with Adam Hall it was like a jolt of lightning through me. 

One thing that occurs to me as a possible reason for why you like The Ninth Directive is the setting: Thailand. You grew up partly in Asia – do you think that might be why the novel had such an impact on you? I've never been to Thailand but Hall's vivid description of the place strikes me as authentic.

I guess part of my love of The Ninth Directive is due to the location, although I've never visited Thailand. Then again, I don't think Hall/Trevor had, either! I was surprised to read an interview with him in which he revealed that he very rarely wrote about locations he had visited, because he found he lost the magic when he did that. Quite an astonishing thing to do, really. For the most part I think it's impossible to tell, and he makes locations come alive. Hall was an expatriate for much of his life, so even in the Seventies some of his characters are from an England he had long left behind – as I've spent most of my life as an expatriate, perhaps I identified with that feeling in his writing as well. 

Which of the books you own are you most fond of? I'm guessing there might be a battered paperback or two you prize, so do please tell me about those. But are there any first editions you;re pleased to own? Am I right in thinking you own perhaps the scarcest Adam Hall book, the final Quiller, Quiller Balalaika?

I own two copies of Quiller Balalaika, but they're less rare than when I bought them. I have a couple of first edition Quillers which are dear to me because they were gifts, but although I love books, and often love the designs of them and the feel of them, I'm not usually that sentimental about them as physical objects. I cherish books that have been given to me, and am lucky enough to have a few from other writers: The Bright Adventure by Geoffrey Rose, Lights in The Sky by Philip Purser, Silver by my friend Steven Savile... I sometimes pinch myself that I own these.

All the books I got in that Antwerp shop were paperbacks, incidentally, as are both my editions of Balalaika (the same one, with the jacket art featuring Quiller holding, clanger of clangers, a gun). Most of my books are paperbacks, in fact. Something I just remembered is that I managed to persuade the editor of the magazine I worked for in Belgium to let me do a feature article on Pêle-Mêle, so I toddled off to interview the owner. And after we had chatted away for a bit he led me through locked doors down to the basement, where there was a whole room stacked floor to ceiling with second-hand English paperback thrillers – their overflow room. It was like Ali Baba's cave. So I didn't just clear out the shop of every last Household, Hall, Hone and so on, I also raided their secret stash. It was geektastic. 

Where do you usually write? Do you have a study at home in Stockholm?

Yes, I have a small study that is basically a computer, a leather chair, a sofa-bed and several bookshelves. I have a few small objects about. Adam Hall's son sent me a Soviet militia badge a couple of years ago, and I quite often pick that up and fiddle with it. It's my executive toy! 

I'm assuming you write on a computer. Have you always done so? I actually wrote on a typewriter when I started out as a music journalist twenty years ago, and when I switched to a computer I found it changed the way I wrote – instead of writing from beginning to end, I'd write bits of an article and then sort of stitch it together. I guess what I'm asking here is, how do you write your novels? Plot them out? Write from start to finish and make it up as you go along? Or write bits from across the novel and put them together?

I mainly write on a computer, and always have done, although I also carry a notebook with me to jot ideas down. I don't have a set method, but I do tend to write a short synopsis and that gives me a basic structure. I try to figure out what sort of mood I want the book to have, what kind of book I want it to be. With The Moscow Option, I knew going in that I wanted it to be set in the Soviet Union and the Åland archipelago, that it would take place in winter, and that it would involve the threat of nuclear war. I wanted the mood to be bleak, but frantic. I also had some ideas of set scenes, so I started writing them in basic form first and then worked from there – I wrote part of the ending first. My structure tends to change as I go along, as I discover that ideas I liked don't work or think of something better. I find if I've worked everything out too much in advance it starts to feel stale. I like to surprise myself, and that involves some tricks to keep myself on my toes. So it's a mix between planning in advance and improvising. 

Do you listen to music whilst writing? What, if so?

Yes, I almost always write to music, as I find silence too imposing. I put a lot of thought and time into what music I write to, in fact. Some writers obsess about Moleskine notebooks or where they place their pencil sharpener, and I guess this is my little obsession. I find it difficult to write to music with lyrics, so I mainly listen to instrumental music, or music in which the lyrics are fairly minimal and so are less likely to distract me from my work. I love Leonard Cohen, for instance, but I wouldn't try to write while listening to him. I've got several playlists that are 200-400 songs long so I don't feel like I'm listening to a loop and I also refresh them quite frequently for that reason. The basis for most of them is electronica, often taken from compilation albums with 'Ibiza' or 'Chill' in the title. Particular favourites are Waiwan, The Flashbulb, Bliss, Snooze, and two collections called The Jazz House Sessions and Chill House Sensation, both of which sound absurd but which work very well for me. I find I'm enjoying the music, but can also stay sharply focussed. I also throw in some oddities, especially stuff from the Sixties that will help me feel like I've stumbled into the score of the book I'm writing: a few Emotions songs, some Persuaders, that sort of thing. Then I have some jazz – Grant Green and John Scofield – and this all helps make what, in my fevered mind, is an endless soundtrack. I'm imagining I'm the spy novel equivalent of David Holmes.

I started this approach with my first novel, but have varied it since, trying out new music and adding quirks depending on the book. With Free Agent, I listened to a lot of afrobeat, some of which goes on for a long time and is quite meditative. In particular, Fela Kuti's early band Koola Lobitos helped me get into the mood of Nigeria in the late Sixties. I wore out a haunting Marvin Gaye song, Dark Side of the World, which was recorded at around the time the book is set but not released until fairly recently. Alice Russell's song Hurry On Now was an important song for me: it sounded like it was from the Sixties but gave a fresh twist to it, and I was trying to do something similar. I also listened to a lot of early Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter and Play With Fire in particular: I wanted the book to feel like those songs. I found it interesting when I read an early draft of a screenplay for the BBC that the script began with Sympathy for the Devil playing over a Lagos traffic scene. It's such a simple idea, but of course that song is perfect for Paul Dark, and for the series as a whole in fact.

For Song of Treason, I downloaded several albums of soundtrack music from Sixties Italian spy films, and mixed them in with my other music – a lot of Ennio Morricone and his contemporaries. I also listened to Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire several hundred times – that was the key song for the book, an alternative title for it, and briefly features in it.

For The Moscow Option, I listened to a lot of SibeliusFinlandia comes up in the first two books and this one's the pay-off for that, as Dark is in Finland – as well as a lot of more recent spy scores. I love John Barry's work but can't write to him as I start imagining Sean Connery or Michael Caine or George Segal instead of Paul Dark. Ditto John Powell's work on the Bourne films. I realized that that sort of sound helped my writing, but I associated it too much with Jason Bourne. So I spent a few hours on iTunes, using the preview feature, buying individual songs from spy thriller scores. I picked a lot of films I haven't seen, so I know I have stuff on my playlists from The International, Shooter, Spy Game (which I've seen, but years ago) and several other films from the last couple of decades. But I don't look at the stereo when they play, and I have enough of them, on a long enough random-order playlist, that none of them ever push themselves to the forefront enough to stand out. So instead of being Track 4 from The International, Track 6 from Shooter and so on, they became part of the soundtrack to The Moscow Option. Just the other day I found a great album to fit in to my playlists for my current book: Themes for an Imaginary Film by Symmetry. It fits my purposes perfectly, and I've written a lot to it already.

I realize that all makes me sound slightly mad, but when you want to write a book I think it's worth making yourself comfortable to do it. I spend some time setting up music so I don't have to think about what to listen to on a daily basis. 

Do you write on the move at all? Do you have a laptop?

I don't have a laptop, though I sometimes use my wife's if we're travelling, and I also use a notebook. But most of my writing is done in my study at home. 

Do you have to stay away from the likes of Twitter and Facebook when you write, or are you able to dip into them as you write?

It varies. I've gone off Facebook in the last year or so and don't use it all that much anymore, but I am an avid Tweeter. Sometimes I find that when I'm writing a lot I also tweet a lot, because I become almost hyperactive with ideas, and very flighty. But sometimes the opposite happens, and I just hunker down without any need to go online at all. On the other hand, I also find I can get overly distracted by the net, and to get work done I have to switch it off with Freedom – sometimes willpower isn't enough. It's something I wrestle with quite a bit, as I imagine many writers do now. Radio silence can recharge your creative energy, and can be vital. But interacting with people, reading articles and so on can also reinvigorate and inspire you. It's a balancing act. The most important thing is getting the work done. You do whatever it takes. 

All three of your Paul Dark novels draw on real historical events, but in The Moscow Option, not only do Brezhnev and other well-known Soviet officials make cameos, but Donald Maclean plays a fairly crucial role, too. Why did you choose to bring Maclean in? Paul's reasoning for seeking out Maclean rather than, say, Kim Philby, is logical, but from your point of view, it must have been very tempting to have Philby play a part as well...

You're right – it was tempting, and Philby was my first idea. I wrote several scenes featuring him, but abandoned them. The scene with Brezhnev near the start of the novel originally had Dark and Philby around the table. I also wrote a long scene with Dark in Philby's flat, and did a lot of research for it. There were several reasons I decided not to go with that idea. Some of them are to do with that logic – if I were in Dark's shoes, knowing what I knew of Philby and his career in Moscow, I wouldn't have risked appealing to him. I also found it very hard to do because although I feel like I can imagine Philby quite well, there are a lot of traps there. Philby has appeared in a lot of spy thrillers, either under his own name or loosely disguised. So now it's almost too obvious, and it kept ringing false to me. If I had the stutter it was cliched and almost parodic, but without it he didn't quite feel like Philby, and so on.

I thought about it for several weeks, trying different things and doing some research, and eventually decided that Maclean was not just more likely, but more intriguing. I thought it was interesting that he had associated with dissidents in the way he did, and the small incident that forms the basis of Dark's appeal to him really happened. Most literature about the Cambridge spies centres on Philby and Burgess, but I found Maclean equally fascinating, partly because he's harder to read. He was a handsome man – you can imagine Rupert Everett playing him, I think – but towards the end of his life he became rather ghoulish looking. He also had a very screwed up relationship with his father, as of course Dark does. Philby did, too, but I thought it would be interesting to encounter someone who had done what Dark had done, a real historical figure who had lived with the consequences but who would also condemn Dark for his actions. I thought this would confuse our feelings about Dark more, in that you'd both see Maclean's point but also be on Dark's side – after all, we've come to know him while Maclean is a stranger, and one seen through Dark's eyes. But if we forgive Dark, why don't we forgive Maclean? Dark has done more damage. My motives weren't quite as clear-cut as that, perhaps, but this is the general area I was circling. 

As with the two prior Paul Dark novels, the Author's Note at the back of The Moscow Option is most illuminating as regards the research you do for your novels and how you weave real events into them. But I have to say, The Moscow Option note is rather alarming, in particular what it reveals about President Nixon's "Madman Theory". And the novel as a whole often sees Paul ruminating on the nuclear nightmare he's trying to prevent. I vividly recall being terrified of nuclear war in the 1980s; did you have similar fears growing up?

I'm glad you found that note alarming, because that's why I decided to use it. I remember the idea of nuclear war scaring me as a teenager, and of course that fear has faded with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new threats, although the risk is perhaps greater today than it has ever been. Despite that, to most people nuclear war now seems an abstract idea: in thriller terms, we know the secret agent will defuse the warhead, but it means very little to us. But it meant something to me when I was fifteen or sixteen. So I wanted to bring back a thriller with those stakes, but I also wanted to remind or perhaps introduce people to what they really meant, and how fragile the situation was. I was lucky to come across a guy called Mike Kenner, who is a campaigner for freedom of information, and he very kindly shared with me thousands of documents he has managed to have declassified from the National Archives. A lot of these are from the British government's contingency plans for nuclear war during the Sixties, and they're chilling. So I used some of that information and the events of October 1969 to try to craft a thriller that recaptured some of the feel of the books I read growing up, by Frederick Forsyth and Desmond Bagley and others, but which I hoped would also hit home now because of the reality behind it.

Last question: something you find with many writers of fiction is that they don't seem to read much fiction – when asked what they're reading, it's usually non-fiction. (This isn't always the case, of course; Kingsley Amis read a lot of fiction, especially genre fiction.) I guess that's partly down to not wishing to be influenced by other people's novels when writing your own, but I also suspect it's that 'busman's holiday' thing: when your 'job' is to write novels, reading them as well can seem a bit much. What do you think? I know you read a fair bit of non-fiction, but do you still read much fiction besides? What are you reading at the moment?

Unfortunately, I fall into this camp – I hardly read any fiction these days. I'm reading Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd at the moment, but it's one of the very few novels I've read recently. I'm always looking for new information to use in my books, and I find that much as I enjoy fiction it mainly contains lots of ideas I can't use. At the moment I'm writing my first non-fiction book, about Oleg Penkovsky and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as a result I've read around a hundred non-fiction books for research in the last year – if you think my music selection sounds obsessive it doesn't even compare. I guess the busman's holiday comparison is right – for some reason, I often find it very difficult to read fiction now, and get antsy after a few pages. I happily listen to music and watch films, but when I'm reading a novel I become very conscious that I'm taking time away from creating my own books. 

For previous Existential Ennui interviews, click here for a Q&A with Christopher Nicole, alias Andrew York, author of the Jonas Wilde spy novels; here for short Q&A with Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter crime novels; and here and here for a two-part interview with Anthony Price, author of the David Audley spy novels.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall (1966, Quiller #2): Book Review, Guest-Starring Jeremy Duns

Continuing this run of posts centring on spy novelist Jeremy Duns – whose latest Paul Dark thriller, The Moscow Option, was published in the UK yesterday – next I'm reviewing a book that isn't, in fact, by Jeremy at all, but instead is by one of his favourite authors – and, indeed, is one of his favourite spy novels – as Jeremy himself will shortly elucidate...

The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall was first published in 1966 by Heinemann in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US (and is now available as an ebook and paperback from Top Notch Thrillers, which is the cover you can see above). Now, I have blogged about this book before, when I showcased a signed edition in September of last year. I've also blogged about Adam Hall – alias Elleston Trevor – previously, notably in this run of posts on his nineteen-book espionage series starring secret agent Quiller, of which The Ninth Directive is the second instalment (following 1965's The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller, for the uninitiated, is an operative of The Bureau, an ultra-secret British intelligence outfit which doesn't, officially, exist. The Quiller novels are all written in the first-person, Quiller's unique narrative style – with his curiously clipped sentences, his automaton-like reciting and numbering of facts, and his deployment of shorthand phrases like "red sector", "no go" and "so forth" – being one of the chief draws.

Another draw, of course, is that the Quiller novels are terrific spy thrillers, The Ninth Directive being a case in point. This time out, Quiller finds himself in Bangkok at the behest of his Bureau controller, Loman, who tasks Quiller with an unusual assignment: a "representative of the Queen" – only ever referred to in the narrative as "The Person", but clearly Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh – will be embarking on a goodwill tour of the city, and Loman has the following instructions for Quiller: "During the visit we want you to arrange for his assassination."

That gobsmacking order closes out the first chapter (evidently Jeremy Duns learned a thing or two from Adam Hall in terms of injecting a jolting volte-face into the opening chapter of a novel), but as becomes clear thereafter, the mission is more nuanced than that would suggest: a credible threat on The Person's life has been received, so Quiller's task is to determine how that assassination might occur, and to stop it happening. Unfortunately, the assassin is Kuo the Mongolian, whose speciality is long-range hits using a rifle, which leaves Quiller with two factors to work out: where on The Person's route the attempted assassination will take place, and more importantly, from where.

There follows a deadly game of cat and mouse – with much "tagging" and "flushing" (i.e., tailing and losing tails) – as Quiller tries to track down Kuo and his cell, an endeavour which is complicated by the involvement of "Mil6", who seem inordinately interested in Quiller. Why they are, and what Kuo's ultimate aim is provide a number of twists to the tale, leading to some searing and brutal set pieces, with Quiller facing seemingly certain death on a number of occasions. But he also finds time for love – or at least what passes for love in Quiller's world, which is to say a one-night stand with an equally damaged fellow operative – and the Bangkok backdrop against which the action is set is vivid and convincing.

Mind you, as Jeremy Duns recently pointed out to me, it's debatable how well Adam Hall knew Thailand, as Hall rarely visited the places he wrote about. Jeremy notes: "I was surprised to read an interview with him in which he revealed that he very rarely wrote about locations he had visited, because he found he lost the magic when he did that. Quite an astonishing thing to do, really. For the most part I think it's impossible to tell, and he makes locations come alive."

For Jeremy, "The Ninth Directive probably ties with The Tango Briefing [Quiller #5, 1973] for my favourite spy novel full stop. I read both in 2000, I think, one after the other. I love The Ninth Directive because it's both very pulpy in terms of plot – assassinate the assassin – but simultaneously seems extremely authentic. While reading the novel, you really believe that this is how a secret agent would think and act. It predates The Day of the Jackal by five years, but has much of that feeling of peeking inside a hidden world. I loved the way the target is never named, making it almost an elemental struggle to survive."

And there'll be plenty more from Mr. Duns, not only on Adam Hall but also on a variety of other topics, in the final post in this run of Duns: an exclusive Q&A with Jeremy, in which we discuss the books he read as a boy, his schooldays, how and where he writes, and of course his novels – including The Moscow Option – all illustrated with never-before-seen photos of his books. Look out for that over the weekend...

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Book Review: The Moscow Option by Jeremy Duns (Simon & Schuster, 2012); Paul Dark 3

This week I'm blogging about British expat (he currently lives in Stockholm) author Jeremy Duns, whose third thriller starring traitorous spy Paul Dark, The Moscow Option, is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK tomorrow (12 April), as both a paperback and an ebook. Yesterday I posted a review of the second Paul Dark novel, Song of Treason (formerly Free Country) – and of course my 2011 review of the first book in the trilogy, Free Agent, can be found here – and later in the week I'll be reviewing one of Jeremy's favourite espionage works, a cracking 1966 spy thriller by Adam Hall, before rounding off this run of posts with something very special indeed from Mr. Duns.

But let's turn now to the latest Paul Dark outing:

As with the initial two books in the trilogy, The Moscow Option is set in 1969 – and also as before, Duns bungs a tantalising twist into the opening chapter – although in this instance, it's followed by an even more gobsmacking moment in the second chapter. When last we left Paul Dark at the end of Song of Treason, he'd been forcibly extracted to Moscow, along with fellow British Intelligence operative Sarah Severn, there to await whatever fate his Soviet (former) masters decide for him. The Moscow Option opens five months on, and finds Dark languishing in a Russian prison cell, utterly bereft of hope and subjected to intermittent interrogation. So when he's marched out of his cell by a guard, he fully expects to be facing a firing squad. Instead, he's deposited in the back of a car with Sarah, driven to a nondescript building, and then taken in through the structure's air-locked door. The realization dawns that he's inside a nuclear bunker.

If that isn't alarming enough, in the lower levels of the bunker he's ushered into a huge hall, where, seated around a circular table are "around thirty elderly men, some of them wearing dark suits but most in uniform". One man is standing, "shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows... I didn't recognize him at first, because he was wearing spectacles and his hair was slightly in disarray, but then he looked up through dark eyes under thick eyebrows, and I realized with a start that it was Brezhnev."

It transpires that Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev and the gathered military and intelligence chiefs – among them GRU head Ivashutin and KGB head Andropov – believe that the USSR is under attack by the United States, and are debating launching a preemptive nuclear strike. A chemical assault on the Estonian coast has been reported, and eight American B-52 bombers have been detected heading towards Russia, armed with thermonuclear weapons. Dark can't explain the bombers, but based on his own experiences during the war he quickly determines that the chemical attack is almost certainly in reality a leak of mustard gas canisters, the forgotten cargo of a sunken U-boat. Unfortunately, the Russians don't believe him, and so he and Sarah effect a perilous escape and go on the run in order to try and prove the chemical incident is an accident, and so halt the impending nuclear Armageddon.

All of the Paul Dark thrillers draw on historical events for inspiration – each book has an Author's Note at the back detailing Duns's research (as well as a Select Bibliography) – but in The Moscow Option Duns goes one better by introducing actual players from the era – not only Brezhnev et al but also Cambridge spy and defector Donald Maclean, whom Dark recruits in his efforts to escape Moscow. (Kim Philby, who was also living in Moscow at this point, gets a mention, too, and was originally slated for a cameo – I'll be returning to that in the final post in this run.) Moreover, the Author's Note in The Moscow Option sheds light, in a frankly terrifying fashion, on how close the world came to nuclear apocalypse in 1969: as part of his "Madman Theory", President Nixon did indeed order B-52s to fly close to the Soviet border.

But Duns's clever interweaving of the real and the imaginary aside, The Moscow Option is a terrific helter skelter thrill ride in its own right. Paul and Sarah's desperate dash across Russia is utterly gripping, as they're pursued by the police, the army and the GRU, commanded by Paul's former handlers, Yuri and Sasha. The action surges from set piece to set piece – a scene in a Moscow cafe where Paul and Sarah await a contact is a masterclass of escalating tension – punctuated by moments of black humour (some of Dark's snarky asides and sarcastic put-downs are priceless; at one point he finds himself soaking wet and covered in human faeces and debates whether to remove his clothes so as to avoid hypothermia, but decides "a man in wet clothes with shit all over his face would still be more welcome than a naked one") and reflective interludes, as Paul uncovers yet more revelations about his time as a double-agent, especially regarding the death of his father. And though Paul's foreknowledge of the mustard gas strikes one as being perhaps a little too fortuitous, that can ultimately be forgiven both for lending purpose to his role in the story, and because The Moscow Option is so strong overall: to my mind, it's at least as good as the first book in the series, Free Agent, and in some respects is even better. And while its ending is decidedly downbeat, there is a small glimmer of hope, in that Jeremy reports there are further Paul Dark novels to come.

And speaking of Jeremy, next in this series of Duns-shaped posts I'll be reviewing one of his favourite novels – Adam Hall's 1966 Quiller thriller The Ninth Directive – with additional insight from Mr. Duns himself...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Book Review: Song of Treason (Formerly Free Country) by Jeremy Duns; Paul Dark Trilogy 2

The name Jeremy Duns has cropped up on Existential Ennui a considerable number of times over the past year-and-a-half, as spy fiction has come to increasingly dominate my reading and therefore the concerns of this blog. The "Abiding Preoccupations" tag-cloud in the right-hand column suggests there are currently seventeen posts (including this one) featuring Mr. Duns, but I suspect there are still more besides which I've yet to label, and, no doubt, many more to come. Jeremy has been invaluable in the writing of some of my spy fiction blog posts – generous with his time and forthcoming with enlightening additional information on, for example, Len Deighton, Sarah Gainham, Graham Greene and Joseph Hone – and both helpful and encouraging on many others.

But of course, we mustn't forget that besides being an espionage aficionado and a regular contributor not only to Existential Ennui but to many other blogs besides (including his own) – not to mention a journalist of long experience – Jeremy is an accomplished spy novelist in his own right – and this week is as good a time as any to remind us of that salient fact, because Simon & Schuster will be publishing the third novel in his Paul Dark trilogy on Thursday. I reviewed the first novel in the series, the excellent Free Agent (2009), in February of last year, and I'll be reviewing the new book, The Moscow Option, later this week – and then following that up with a review of one of Jeremy's favourite novels, before rounding off this run of Duns posts with something very special indeed.

But first I thought I'd take a look at the second Paul Dark thriller:

Song of Treason was first published by Simon & Schuster in paperback last year – at least, under that title. Because as Jeremy explains in this blog post, it originally appeared under the title Free Country in 2010, the idea being that each of the three novels in the trilogy would have "Free" in the title (the third book was to be called Free World). Simon & Schuster, however, "felt there was a danger that Free Country might not signal to those who hadn't read the first book in the series, Free Agent, that it was a spy thriller". Jeremy agreed, and came up with the more apposite Song of Treason. (Incidentally, the novel was published as an ebook for the first time last week.)

Free Agent opened with one of the best twists I've ever read in a thriller, one which I'm now, out of necessity, going to spoil, so if you haven't read Free Agent yet, I'd advise you to get yourself a copy before going any further. Set in 1969, the book began with Paul Dark, British secret agent, being summoned to the country retreat of the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Colin Templeton, where he learns that a Russian defector in Nigeria has information about a double-agent at the heart of SIS. As we discover at the close of the opening chapter, that traitor is Dark himself, and he promptly murders Templeton in order to cover his tracks, thereafter jetting to Africa to seek out the Soviet defector.

That rug-pulling twist was always going to be hard to beat in the second book in the series, but Duns does his damndest to top it in Song of Treason, which kicks off shortly after the events of Free Agent, in May 1969. Dark, having regained the trust of his SIS colleagues (or so he believes) and now in line to become Deputy Chief, is delivering a eulogy at Templeton's funeral at St. Paul's when he pauses mid-address, unable to continue. Acting Chief John Farraday approaches the lectern to find out what's wrong, and then falls to the ground, blood "gushing from the centre of his shirt". Farraday has been shot and killed, but Dark quickly surmises that the shot was actually meant for he himself.

From there, the action moves to Rome, as it's believed by Dark's colleagues that Farraday's assassination was the work of an Italian communist group called Arte come Terror. Of course, Dark believes something rather different, namely that his Russian handlers attempted to kill him due to his endeavours in Africa. The truth, however, is even more disturbing, and before long Dark, still suffering from the after-effects of a disease he picked up in Africa, is locked into a battle of wits with a Soviet agent and then abducted and tortured alongside Sarah Severn, the wife of head of Italian station, Charles Servern.

That brutal torture sequence recalls such infamous similar scenes as James Bond's severe grilling at the hands of Le Chiffre in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale or Quiller's attempts to resist a drug-induced interrogation in Adam Hall's The Berlin Memorandum – quite purposefully, Duns being an acknowledged appreciator of both novels – but it's also informed by public school initiation ceremonies – something Duns is personally familiar with, having attended public school as a boy. Indeed, Paul Dark's experiences at school – in particular one brutal episode – in part drive the narrative, alongside his exploits as a mole – especially his recruitment after the war – and the nefarious manipulations of a shadowy right-wing group. As Paul and Sarah embark on a feverish – literally in Dark's case – dash to the Vatican and then Turin, there are double-crosses and violent encounters aplenty, culminating in a jaw-dropping revelation and an unexpected extraction.

Dark remains as fascinating a creation as he was in Free Agent – duplicitous and willing to go to any lengths to save his own skin, but also questioning (his caustic, often irritable narration is peppered with reflective moments of self-examination), utterly determined to stop the impending atrocity he uncovers, and increasingly dedicated to ensuring Sarah's safety. He's no hero, but some of the things he does are certainly heroic, and his loss of faith in his communist ideals lends him an alluring ambiguity – an agent shunned by all sides, yet still driven to do the right thing. But as thrilling as Song of Treason is – and like its predecessor, it really is up there with the best of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Adam Hall, Geoffrey Household, Gavin Lyall, Desmond Cory and countless other past spy fiction masters – the final part of the trilogy is even better, as the stakes are raised to unimaginable levels and Dark finds himself attempting to stop nothing less than the devastation of the entire planet...

Saturday, 7 April 2012

An Evening at The TV Book Club (Channel 4 / More4, 2012)

I've never really been one for clubs. Not clubs in the over-imbibing-and-shuffling-about-to-loud-music sense – those I'm fine with: I've spent a substantial proportion of my life in those, and even made a living writing about them for eight years. No, I mean clubs as in the ones you join – like, say, after-school clubs (I did briefly flirt with a nascent comics club at school, but it was frowned upon by the teachers and never made it past its inaugural meeting), or organisations like the Cubs and the Scouts and the Brownies and the Guides (I was a Cub for a year; my mother made me go; the only badge I succeeded in attaining was the one you get for turning up each week – not by choice, obviously – and on a weekend camping trip I managed to get lost orienteering), or gentlemen's clubs (never been recommended for one, don't ever expect to be). Or, indeed, book clubs.

Book clubs have been big news for a while now, with groups of passionate readers gathering in coffee shops and pubs and living rooms up and down the land in order to discuss the finer points of plot, character and theme in their favourite novels – or, based on the evidence of a friend of mine, to simply get drunk on wine and shout at one another. Given the non-joining tendencies outlined above, you'll be unsurprised to learn that book clubs have largely passed me by – I'm far happier pontificating at extreme length in splendid isolation in the magnificent gated community that is Existential Ennui – but even I haven't failed to notice the leap to television of book clubs, with Oprah, Richard and Judy and, latterly, Channel 4 and More4's The TV Book Club. So when I was contacted out of the blue by the publicity team behind The TV Book Club, asking if I'd like to attend a recording of the show, I was at least (very) dimly aware of what they were on about.

Naturally, being, as I am, a misanthropic shut-in – and having barely watched the show – it was touch-and-go as to whether or not I'd accept the invitation. But I had nothing better to do on the Thursday evening in question (ingrate? Moi?), and I figured it'd give me the chance to take the afternoon off work and plunder the secondhand bookshops of Cecil Court before heading to the recording, so having bought a stack of first editions, I trotted along to Cactus Studios in Kennington at the appointed time.

Cactus Studios, it turns out, is also where ultimate weekend loafer programme Saturday Kitchen is filmed – on the same stage as The TV Book Club, natch – and as befits its name its swish, stark foyer is populated by a tasteful selection of cacti. It was also populated on this occasion by a handful of other books bloggers, all of whom had accepted similar invitations to mine, all of whom were seemingly avid viewers of the show, and at least one of whom had read all ten of the novels under discussion in this latest series – whereas I had read none (although I do have a first edition of S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep still waiting to be cracked).

One thing I became acutely aware of over the course of the evening was how bloody weird Existential Ennui is in comparison to most books blogs. I mean, in the circle of blogs with which EE intersects and interacts – Olman's Fifty, Book Glutton, Pretty Sinister Books, Pattinase, The Rap Sheet and so forth – Existential Ennui isn't especially atypical: a little on the verbose side, and probably still idiosyncratic, but at least concerned with similar subjects, i.e. old genre books. But compared to the vast majority of books blogs, which generally concentrate on reviewing new fiction and are courted by publishers and invited to blogging events and parties – blogs which, in other words, perambulate along gaily on the publishing publicity treadmill – Existential Ennui is decidedly odd.

If this was evident from the polite chat in the foyer, it became even more glaringly obvious in the Green Room before the recording, where all of the bloggers stood round in a ring and were invited by the publicity team to describe their blogs. My explanation of EE's modus operandi – "It's mostly about classic spy fiction and crime fiction, some reviews but more book collecting, cover art, that kind of thing" – was met by mystified stares, but thankfully I was spared further fumbling explication when a production assistant arrived to usher us into the studio.

The show we were about to watch was the final one in the series, and would be dealing with the tenth book in the run, Alexander Maksik's You Deserve Nothing, a Camus-indebted, Paris-set novel about an illicit affair, which is about as far from Existential Ennui's abiding concerns as you could get, although it does, perhaps, shed light on how my invitation came about: I suspect someone at The TV Book Club's publicity team googled "existential fiction" in their search for suitable bloggers and ended up at my door. But if my presence was somewhat incongruous, the special guest on the show was equally so: Blur bass-player-turned-organic farmer Alex James, who, while ostensibly there to talk about Maksik's novel, was actually there to plug his new cheese-making memoir.

James was joined by regular guests the actresses Caroline Quentin and Laila Rouass and the comedian Rory McGrath (the photos illustrating this posts are from a previous series if you're wondering where McGrath and Alex James are), and the discussion was lively and entertaining, although the between-takes chat was, for me, more diverting: McGrath and James debating their favourite cheeses; Quentin ruminating on her ideal farm and finding common ground with McGrath in banjo-playing. There were the expected and amusingly sweary "fluffs", including one eruption of "balls, arse" from Quentin, followed by a beseechment to the watching bloggers to "please don't report that" (oops). Quentin also noticed "someone sitting in the audience tweeting", which was actually me scribbling in my notebook, something which, again, marked me out from the crowd (nobody else appeared to be taking notes).

Unlike a lot of television recordings, which often go on for hours, The TV Book Club is a tightly run ship, and it only took around half an hour before we reached the pick-ups, one of which required James to nod silently while Rouass intoned "The Sister Brothers is a good read", Caroline Quentin sympathising with James afterwards that it's "not much fun being on the arse end of a sentence". Shortly after that Quentin was afflicted by the giggles whilst attempting to deliver a line, and had to hand it over to McGrath, who promptly buggered it up himself, accompanied by a hearty "oh fuck".

And then we were done, and after Quentin and Rouass were both presented with bunches of flowers to mark the end of the series (none for McGrath or James, sadly), we all retired back to the Green Room, where wine and beer was made available and some of the more earnest bloggers went into an intense-looking group huddle. I got chatting instead to a nice man named Will, who handles the graphics at Cactus and who, it transpired, is also in a New Order tribute band. Needless to say, I was the last blogger to leave, suitably "refreshed" and clutching my goody bag of signed paperback copies of some of the books covered in the series. I'm still not sure what to do with them, to be honest. Perhaps I'll run a competition and give them away.

But anyway: it was a thoroughly pleasant evening, and though I'm still of the belief that my invitation was the result of a minor misunderstanding, it was lovely to be asked, and I'd like to thank Tommy and all at MEC for extending the invite. And should you wish to watch the show I attended, it'll be on More4 on Sunday night (8 April) at 7.20pm.

Next on Existential Ennui: Jeremy Duns and Paul Dark...

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Book Review: Killy, by Donald E. Westlake (Random House, 1963 / T. V. Boardman, 1964)

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

Slight change of plan here: I had intended to post a Westlake Score this week, but I've decided to hold off on that for the moment – partly because on a whim I actually started reading the Westlake Score in question, and so I might as well delay blogging about it until I've finished it, at which point I'll be able to review it as well as drone on drearily about its scarcity (which, depending on your point of view, could either be a good thing or a bad thing); partly because it fits in with a series of posts I have planned, and I'm not quite ready to begin that series yet; but also because I realised there's another Westlake novel I've yet to review, one which I read ages ago but for some reason never posted anything substantial about: Killy.

It was whilst I was assembling my new, permanent Existential Ennui page, Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s (which is off to a cracking start, having been linked to via tweets by Alexis Petridis of The Guardian and writer Margaret Atwood) that I realised I hadn't yet reviewed Killy. First published in the US in 1963, it didn't make its debut in the UK until the following year, when T. V. Boardman published it as part of their American Bloodhound Mystery line (no. 454), under one of the best dustjackets Boardman's in-house designer, Denis McLoughlin, ever created for a Westlake novel. Indeed, legend has it that that's actually McLoughlin himself on the front cover you can see above – which is possibly why the Boardman edition is so scarce: there are currently no copies of it for sale online.

Killy was Donald E. Westlake's fourth novel under his own name, and is the first-person account of one Paul Standish, a trainee at the American Alliance of Machinists and Skilled Trades union (an organisation which, in one of Westlake's self-referential nods, also merits a mention in the later Richard Stark/Parker novel Butcher's Moon). Paul is wet behind the ears but eager to learn, so when a junior executive named Walter Killy takes Paul under his wing, Paul is more than happy to follow Killy's lead. Killy takes Paul to the small town of Wittburg to assess an application from the workers at the McIntyre Shoe Co. plant to join the AAMST, but when the pair get to Wittburg they encounter a decidedly frosty reception: they're arrested, assaulted, and accused of shooting and killing Charles Hamilton – the McIntyre worker who invited them to the town.

Before the story's done there'll be another corpse lying alongside Hamilton in the Wittburg morgue, but despite its murder mystery trappings, Killy is less a whodunnit than a portrait of corruption and double-dealing. Paul soon learns that the affable Killy is a seasoned operator, working for his own benefit and advancement as much as, if not more than, the union's, and happy to take another person's credit – i.e., Paul's – if it suits his purposes. Indeed, the picture Westlake paints of unionism isn't especially flattering – rife with self-interest and run by hard-nosed types more than ready and willing to mix it up if needs be.

The ultimate corruption, however, is of Paul himself. At the outset of the story he's naive and square, but he's a fast learner, and his eventual "revenge" on Killy is as cold-hearted as the actions of any other of the colourful characters who populate the novel. Of all those participants, it's George, the union "protector" – who calls Paul his "little friend" – who is the one player who understands just what Paul is capable of – and just how far and high he'll eventually go in the union.

Westlake's position as an acknowledged master of crime fiction often obscures the fact that many of his books are only crime fiction by decree. Like his near-contemporary, Ross Thomas – who also wove politics and its attendant corruption into what were ostensibly crime and spy thrillers (see The Porkchoppers for a similarly scathing take on unionism, but also The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, Chinaman's Chance and many other tales of wholesale corruption) – Westlake was as interested in the failings and foibles of ordinary folk as he was in the mechanics and intricacies of truck heists or bank jobs (or bloodbaths). As a protagonist, Paul Standish may not be the most memorable of Westlake's creations... but as a person – as a weak, ambitious, all too-human man – he's probably more true to life than the more exotic likes of Parker or Grofield or Dortmunder. In that sense, then, while less exciting than others of Westlake's novels, Killy is perhaps more representative of urban America in the early 1960s – and, no doubt, can still tell us much today.

Coming up next on Existential Ennui: over the Bank Holiday weekend I'm hoping to post something about my recent visit to Channel 4's The TV Book Club, but after that... it's the return of Paul Dark...