Thursday 21 June 2012

The Damsel by Richard Stark (alias Donald E. Westlake); Alan Grofield #1, 1968 Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, Michael Dempsey Cover Design

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

Having showcased two never-before-seen Hodder & Stoughton British hardback first editions of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's Alan Grofield-starring Parker spin-off novels – The Dame (1969, Grofield #2) and The Blackbird (1970, Grofield #3) – it seems only fair I should shine the spotlight on the other Richard Stark novel Hodder published in hardback: the debut Grofield solo outing, The Damsel.

Published by Hodder in the UK in 1968 – the year after the US Macmillan edition – The Damsel is almost as uncommon in British first edition as The Dame and The Blackbird: at present AbeBooks has just three copies listed, one lacking a dust jacket.

That jacket was designed by Michael Dempsey, and is quite different to the jackets of the other two books:

Dempsey was very active in British publishing in the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s: he was art director at both Heinemann and Fontana/Collins, and in 1978 set up Carroll & Dempsey with freelance designer Ken Carroll. You can read Mike's own account of the history of Carroll & Dempsey on his excellent Graphic Journey blog, along with all manner of other fascinating posts on design matters; Mike's recent, righteous tirade against a Raymond Hawkey rip-off cover caught my eye, but the blog has been going for four years now, and is absolutely stuffed with wonderful reminiscences drawn from across Dempsey's near-fifty year career.

Certainly Dempsey's dust jacket for The Damsel is elegant enough, I feel, to join the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, where it has now taken its rightful place alongside his cover for the Heinemann edition of Patricia Highsmith's A Tremor of Forgery; and though they're not quite as refined – and I'm not sure they could be convincingly described as "beautiful", either – I've also added Craig Dodd's dust jacket for The Dame and Graphics Partners' one for The Blackbird – even though The Blackbird dates from 1970. What the hell: any excuse to include more Westlake books, I say.

And there'll hopefully be a couple more jackets from Westlake books joining the gallery before too long – one gracing a book I've already blogged about as a Westlake Score, but will be reviewing shortly; the other wrapping a brand new Westlake Score. Keep 'em peeled for those.

Next on Existential Ennui though, and with the summer blockbuster season in full swing: a series of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films...


  1. It's not bad artwork in itself, but it doesn't tell you a damned thing about the story. And of course the title character is supposed to be a blonde. And which one of the little thumbnail portraits at the top is supposed to be Grofield?

    I have the Signet paperback, which is for my money the best of a bad bunch--they make the titular Damsel a redhead, and Grofield looks way too somber and serious, but at least you can tell it's a crime novel and that the main character is in fact a man with dark hair who uses guns sometimes.

    This looks like a rejected cover for some mid-20th century feminist novel.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.


  2. Yeah, I'll admit it's not terribly apposite for the novel; I suspect Dempsey may have used one of the publisher's stock illustrations (it seemed to be a practice among some publishers back then to stockpile illos for designers to choose from). I still like it a lot though, and Dempsey's blog is well worth exploring.

  3. I think this is another case of Grofield falling between the cracks--how do you sell it? I can see publishers just shrugging in confusion trying to slot it.

    It's a lighthearted romp, but there's definitely a more serious side to it. It's cynical and hard-boiled, but also romantic and idealistic. It's got the Stark name on it, which should mean it's a tough hardboiled crime novel, but somehow it isn't.

    If Westlake had published it under his own name, I bet we'd have seen a more whimsical cover. But it's a Richard Stark, and his readers don't go in for whimsy. But if they give it a Parker-esque cover, people will be wanting their money back, because it's nothing like Parker.

    Essentially, Grofield is a Richard Stark character who somehow crosses over into the world of Westlake-ian farce when he's away from Parker. Literally, in the case of "The Hot Rock", even though that's clearly an alternate universe version of the character.

    It's really amazing he got four whole novels to himself. Which somebody must have bought, but other than Stark completists, I'm not really sure who.

  4. I doubt even that much thought went into it with this particular cover, Chris. Hodder began publishing the Parker novels in 1967, but in paperback, under their Coronet imprint. That division would have been quite separate from the hardback division, so The Damsel would have been just another half-decent genre novel for Hodder's HB King Crime imprint, alongside the likes of John Creasey, Josephine Bell, Peter Dickinson, etc., its cover designed in a style which pleased the art director at the time. (Hodder didn't begin publishing Westlake's own-name works in hardback in the UK until 1970; prior to that they were published by T. V. Boardman.) The wrapper is very much of a piece with other King Crime covers of the era, which you'll see if you do an image search for "Hodder King Crime" (ignoring the image hits you'll get from EE).

    I take your point about Grofield falling between stools though; I think I might have made a similar point in one or other of my various reviews of the books. Lord alone knows who bought the Grofield books on original publication; I can't imagine they sold that well. Certainly the scarcity of the Hodder editions suggests the print runs were small, and I expect most of those runs went to public libraries or were shipped off to Australia and New Zealand.

  5. I got that impression from what you already said, but I wasn't just talking about Hodder. I mean, I've seen five or six covers for "The Damsel" alone, and all of them seem--confused--to a greater or lesser extent. I guess this one may actually be less a case of confusion than indifference. :)

  6. Indifference to the novel, but not to the design: I'm sure Mr Dempsey gave his all. But yes, in that sense, the confusion of the various covers for the novel probably does reflect the confusion of the novel itself.

    Something occurred to me: I wonder if Westlake simply had a contract for four books with Macmillan and had to come up with something fast for it? His primary US hardback publisher around this period was Random House (even for the Tucker Coe books); Macmillan only published the first three Grofield titles and Up Your Banners (the final Grofield novel was published by World Publishing). Maybe he got a deal with Macmillan, and as he was on a roll with the Parkers, simply plucked a character he liked from those and did what he could with him. We know that Westlake's mindset was very much "write whatever you can for whoever you can". Maybe it's as simple as he had a contract to fulfill, and Grofield fitted the bill.

  7. I doubt that was the only reason--he was probably curious to find out if Grofield could work as a solo character--but yeah, that sounds very plausible. In fact, that's basically how we got the Parker Saga--because an editor said "We'll buy this book if you give us a bunch more with the same character." Grofield could well have been a package deal as well.

    And honestly, who knows--maybe he suffered as much from faulty management as faulty conceptualization. If the Grofields had been published by Pocket Books or Gold Medal, who knew how to package and market this kind of material, he might have sold much better, Westlake might have spent more time working out the kinks, and we might have had a lot more Grofield novels. Westlake couldn't give 100% to every single book he wrote. Some were going to get more attention than others.

    Then again, if the crack editors at Pocket or Gold Medal had thought Grofield was such a hot prospect, they might well have snapped him up. He actually started at Pocket, and for all we know Westlake first tried to sell him as a solo prospect there.

    But I confess, the more I read about the ins and outs of the publishing biz, the less I understand it.

    Many many moons ago, I applied for an entry-level job at Scott Meredith? Almost got it. Such is life.


  8. I've worked in publishing for years, and it still baffles the hell out of me. What William Goldman said of films is equally true of books: nobody knows anything.