Tuesday 29 May 2012

Picture of Millie by P. M. Hubbard (Michael Joseph, 1964): Book Review, Dust Jacket Design by Kenneth Farnhill

This second of two books by cult British suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard I'm showcasing is even scarcer than the 1970 Geoffrey Bles edition of Cold Waters I posted yesterday; at present there are only five copies of the book in question, in any edition, listed on AbeBooks. And not only that, but it's the rarest (and most expensive) of those editions that I've managed to acquire...

First published by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1964 (and by London House & Maxwell in the US that same year), Picture of Millie was Philip Maitland Hubbard's second novel for adults, following his 1963 debut Flush as May. To my knowledge there's only one copy of the Michael Joseph first of the novel available online at the moment, offered by an American dealer for around £100, but crucially the listing isn't accompanied by any pictures, so this is, I believe, the first time the Joseph dust jacket has been seen on the web. It was designed by Kenneth Farnhill, who designed many wrappers for Joseph, Collins and other British publishers from the 1950s to the 1970s, including a good number of Agatha Christie novels – on which more anon – and Sarah Gainham's Night Falls on the City.

Picture of Millie is set in the West Country resort of Pelant, where Paul Mycroft has taken his family on holiday, and where the seaside idyll is broken when Paul's children spot a body washed up on the beach. The corpse is Millie Trent, wife of Major Trent, and a topic of prattle and chatter among the holidaymakers due to her perceived easy virtues. Paul takes an active – and partly professional – interest in the police investigation into her death, talking to the men and women who knew her, slowly building up, well, a picture of Millie, although in truth we actually learn more about the various denizens of Pelant – vacationers and locals alike – than we do about the recently deceased Mrs. Trent.

It's a curious book in Hubbard's canon. There's little of the underlying menace that characterizes many of his novels, nor indeed of his preoccupation with remote, rural locales, although there is a lot of messing about in boats, which is another of Hubbard's abiding concerns. But what's really noticeable if you're familiar with Hubbard's work is that, in contrast to many others of the author's male leads, who are often amoral, occasionally unhinged, and frequently capable of violence (see later novels like A Hive of Glass, Cold Waters, etc.), Paul is essentially a decent sort. He has a mildly roving eye (Hubbard memorably describes a well-built teenage girl as being "virginal, massive in sky blue"), but he loves his wife and family and there's no sense of him straying from the straight and narrow – unlike some of the other husbands in Pelant, who may, or may not, have succumbed to Millie's charms.

Indeed, in the way it picks away at the repressed mores of the English middle classes – their frosty marriages, gossiping and habitual over imbibing – Picture of Millie brings to mind a less farcical version of Fawlty Towers, although there are one or two more unsettling sequences which hint at the Hubbard to come, especially towards the climax, which sees Paul pitched into the broiling sea and fighting for his life.

Kenneth Farnhill's evocative wrapper for Picture of Millie will, of course, be joining my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – along with the jackets in my next post. Because it just so happens that I have to hand some of the other dust jackets Farnhill designed in the 1960s, this time for novels by perhaps the most famous crime writer of them all...


  1. Congratulaitons on scoring a copy this book, Nick! I can't even find a US edition of this title that's one I would want to own. The only one I've ever encountered was a hideous beat up copy and the seller wanted over $40 for it. Pass.

  2. Thanks, John! And for your comment on the previous Hubbard post too. In regards of which, as London House & Maxwell published Picture of Millie as well as Flush as May, am I right in thinking Edward Gorey designed the DJ on Picture too?

  3. Your copy of Picture of Millie is fantastic. This is the only Hubbard I don't have - I need to go and find a copy.

    I've been reading John Burnside lately (The Devil's Footprint, The Glister, and soon, A Summer of Drowning) and he reminds me of Hubbard.

    This whole Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s thing you've got going is really great. Not to add to your workload but I think it might be time to update EE's wallpaper to include some of these beauties.

  4. Now there's an idea. My only reservation is I don't know if I have the image of the books on the shelves that's currently decorating the background, so if I change it, it might be lost forever (and obviously I've moved house now and all my books are in a different order). But do I like your notion, so I'll give it some serious thought.