Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 3: Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann First Edition, 1974)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

We've reached the halfway mark now in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, with a book which is not only my personal favourite of Patricia Highsmith's five Ripley novels, but one of my favourite books full stop. And this particular edition – which is becoming quite uncommon these days – also holds a special place in my heart, because it's one of the first books I bought when I started collecting first editions, lo those many moons ago (er, about three or four years ago, for anyone counting):

It's the British first edition of Ripley's Game – the third Tom Ripley novel, following The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground – published by Heinemann in 1974 under a dust jacket featuring photography by Graham Miller (and scanned for me by the estimable Ellie Wilson). I bought this copy in a Cecil Court bookshop which has since disappeared, but I read the novel itself some years prior to that and fell for it in a big way. It's an atypical book in the Ripley series – although not in Highsmith's oeuvre overall – in that it's related from two perspectives, rather than just Tom's. In fact Highsmith preferred to write from two viewpoints whenever possible, and did precisely that in, to name but a handful, Strangers on a Train (her 1950 debut), The Blunderer (1954) and The Two Faces of January (1964). So that might be one reason why I rate Ripley's Game so highly, and linked to that, the way in which Highsmith, by practically sidelining Tom in parts, brilliantly shows not only his malicious and manipulative nature, but his admirable resourcefulness, bravery and even, bizarrely, loyalty.

Set six months on from the events of Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game further explores the notion of Tom as malevolent spirit, an idea never really touched on in The Talented Mr. Ripley – Tom is too young and headstrong in that novel, too impetuous to be pinpointed as a master manipulator – but instead raised in Under Ground, where Tom identifies himself as "a mystic origin, a font of evil". At the heart of Game is "...nothing more than a practical joke... a nasty one", as Highsmith/Tom puts it: as payback for a perceived slight at a party, Tom suggests local framer – and what an apposite occupation that is – Jonathan Trevanny, whom Tom learns is slowly dying of Leukemia, to his shady associate Reeves Minot, who is looking for an innocent to commit one, perhaps two murders of Mafia men in Germany. Despite the fact that "Tom detested murder unless it was absolutely necessary", he puts Trevanny's name forward purely out of malice, because it amuses him to do so. Thus begins Ripley's game.

Thereafter, Tom effectively vanishes from the narrative for sixty pages, and events are related from Jonathan's perspective, as Reeves convinces him to come to Hamburg to seek a second medical opinion on his illness and, it transpires, carry out the first of the two hits. Even so, Tom is a constant presence: Jonathan wonders who it was who spread the rumour that his condition had worsened, and who might have suggested him to Reeves; and in a more general sense Tom is a corrupting influence: Jonathan is forced to lie to his wife, Simone, to explain the money he's been paid by Reeves, a lie which grows in size and becomes ever more toxic as the novel progresses.

Once Tom reenters the tale and hears that Jonathan has actually carried out the first assassination, he briefly speculates, "Could it be that Trevanny was one of us?", but quickly decides that "us to Tom was only Tom Ripley". It's additional confirmation that Tom is fully aware of who and what he is – not only a font of evil but "a man on the borderline of the law" – and how different he is to most, if not all, people. And by and large he can live with this knowledge, even revel in it to an extent; certainly he takes pleasure in shocking his friends around Villeperce, the (fictional) village in France where he and his wife, Heloise, live, telling Antoine and Agnes Grais, a couple who live locally, that he's "thought of a wonderful way to start a forest fire", to which Antoine "chuckled grudgingly" and Agnes and Heloise "gave appreciative shrieks of horror". That Tom has been mixed up in one or two murky episodes is evidently common knowledge, something he himself is cognizant of: 

He was aware of his reputation, that many people mistrusted him, avoided him. Tom had often thought that his ego could have been shattered long ago – the ego of the average person would have been shattered – except for the fact that people, once they got to know him, once they came to Belle Ombre and spent an evening, liked him and Heloise well enough, and the Ripleys were invited back.

On the other hand, when a Mafia man later cowers in fear at Tom's feet, Tom confesses, "For once [he] was proud of his reputation." He does, however, admit to feeling "vaguely ashamed of himself" for having got Jonathan involved in Reeves's scheme – especially the planned second hit, which proves rather trickier than the first – and his guilt motivates him to offer assistance to Jonathan, and consequently become more involved in his affairs – much to Simone's alarm. Simone is afraid that Tom has corrupted Jonathan, which is precisely what he has done. But he's also, in a way, made him more alive: Highsmith never lets us forget that Jonathan is dying – will die sometime within the next few years no matter what he does – and so securing some kind of financial future for his wife and son gives him purpose. Of course, the money too is tainted; Jonathan cannot confess to Simone how he earned it, and his feeble excuses – supplied by Tom – for how he obtained it only make it more suspect in her eyes. And in the end, even Simone will be corrupted by it, and by Tom.

Unlike, arguably, Talented and Under Ground, where Tom often seemed to be at the mercy of events, trying to stop them spinning out of control, in Game he's as in command as we'll ever see him. His superhuman intuitiveness again plays a big part in this: his leaps of logic and ability to anticipate what might or will happen – "...those inspirations that came sometimes while he was under the shower, or gardening, those gifts of the gods..." – inspirations which also, handily, assist Highsmith in keeping the plot moving. In Game Tom explains this acuity of vision: "I'm the worrying type. You'd never think so, would you? I try to think of the worst before it happens. Not quite the same as being pessimistic."

Reading a novel for the second or even third time, naturally one notices things that either initially passed one by, or that now spark as a result of things one has since become interested in. Early on in Game, Tom ruminates on Reeves's "microfilm activities", the smuggling operations that Tom sometimes acts as a middle man for, and "which presumably had to do with international spying". When I originally read Game my passion for spy fiction had yet to ignite, but this time round I found Tom's thoughts on espionage wryly amusing. Highsmith came to identify strongly with Tom Ripley, and every now and then it's possible to detect her voice rather than his, such as in this passage, which could be taken as a commentary on the 1960s spy boom, the aftereffects of which were still being felt in fiction in the early 1970s: 

Were governments aware of the insane antics of some of their spies? Of those whimsical, half-demented men flitting from Bucharest to Moscow and Washington with guns and microfilm – men who might with the same enthusiasm have put their energies to international warfare in stamp-collecting, or in acquiring secrets of miniature electric trains?

Much later, Tom is subjected to Simone's righteous fury, and his reaction again seems to reflect Highsmith's own attitudes and feelings, in this case her tempestuous relationships with other women: 

To Tom [her fury] was a circular chaos, a ring of little fires, and if he successfully extinguished one, the woman's mind leapt to the next.

Numerous links to the previous two books litter the text – mentions of Dickie Greenleaf from Talented and Murchison and Derwatt from Under Ground; Tom using the fake passport Reeves supplied to him in Under Ground – but something we learn for the first time in Game is Tom's (skewed, of course) politics. Noting that Heloise is reading a book he bought on the French socialist movement, he reflects: 

That would not improve relations with her father, Tom thought. Often Heloise came out with very leftist remarks, principles which she had no idea of practising. But Tom felt he was slowly pushing her to the left. Push with one hand, take with the other, Tom thought.

Set against these reread revelations is the fact that the terrific twist, or rather reveal, in the middle of the novel loses its impact on second reading. At the same time, on this go round I was struck by the level of violence in the book. Much of this is blackly comic, but even so, Game is by far the most bloodthirsty of the Ripley novels, boasting a succession of shootings and garrotings, bludgeonings and burnings, all climaxing with a full-on Mafia assault. During the course of all this Tom and Jonathan go from being antagonists to allies to friends – almost; or at least brothers in arms: eating steak together prior to a battle, defending and saving each other again and again, like protagonists in a prototypical 1980s buddy flick, complete with narrative back-and-forth and a sprinkling of verbal sparring. There's even, ultimately, what appears to be a noble sacrifice, although little in the way of redemption; this is, after all, a Ripley novel.

By story's end it's clear that Highsmith has once again returned to her frequent theme of two men who become oddly fascinated by one another – see, among others, Strangers on a Train, A Game for the Living (1958) and, of course, The Talented Mr. Ripley (Tom and Dickie) and, to an extent, Ripley Under Ground (Tom and Bernard Tufts). And see also the next book in the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, in which, just for a change, it's Tom who becomes the object of a bizarre fascination...

Monday, 24 September 2012

Book Review: The Art of Denis McLoughlin by David Ashford; Edited by Peter Richardson (Book Palace, 2012)

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

Of all the designers featured on the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page, there are, at time of writing, just two who can boast more than five covers to their names in the gallery. One of those is Val Biro, an incredibly prolific artist with an instantly recognizable style who I've written about repeatedly (and who I'll be returning to shortly). The other is Denis McLoughlin, an equally prolific artist with a style just as distinctive, who again I've spotlighted a number of times on Existential Ennui, primarily in relation to the wonderful dust jackets he designed for British publisher T. V. Boardman's Bloodhound Mystery imprint in the 1950s and '60s – around 550 of the buggers – and especially the jackets he created for Boardman's editions of Donald E. Westlake's earliest novels (see this post on Westlake's 361 for a recent example).

McLoughlin's striking, evocative Boardman jackets are, to my mind (and to many other avid collectors), among the best ever to wrap around a novel – let alone a crime or spy novel – and a new illustrated book celebrates those spectacular wrappers alongside the hundreds of other covers and comics McLoughlin created during his near-fifty year career.

Published by Book Palace Books, David Ashford's The Art of Denis McLoughlin is a sumptuous hardback expansion of Ashford's own rather shorter 1994 tome The Hardboiled Art of Denis McLoughlin, which has been revised, added to and given an all-round spit and polish by editor and designer Peter Richardson. The result is 272 pages of glorious cover and comics art, interspersed with essays by Ashford, recollections by the late McLoughlin and checklists of every dust jacket and comic strip McLoughlin ever worked on (plus some he didn't, included to avoid confusion).

Here in the UK, McLoughlin is still probably best know for his comics: his Buffalo Bill western strips for Boardman, his war and adventure comics for IPC (in Wizard, Warlord, etc.) and DC Thomson (a twenty-year run on Commando: War Stories in Pictures from 1982 to his death in 2002), plenty of which is showcased in the book, and which, taken on its own, would be enough to secure him a place in the pantheon of top flight British illustrators. But add in those Boardman covers as well, and the scope and scale of McLoughlin's achievement becomes breathtaking. All told, McLoughlin must have created well over 800 covers for Boardman – not just for crime and suspense novels but also romance, westerns, and even the odd bit of science fiction – almost all of them hand-painted and lettered.

Ashford and Richardson rightly dedicate well over half the book to this remarkable but rarely seen (a good many of the Boardman Bloodhounds are extremely hard to come by) body of work, tracking the development of McLoughlin's Boardman covers from 1944 to 1968. Ashford's personal preference is for the "glorious" full colour covers McLoughlin painted up to the late 1950s, rather than the later duo-tone or restricted palette jackets, which he calls "a pale shadow" of the earlier works, and which are perhaps under-represented as a result. For my money, however, it's those later covers – including some of the Donald Westlake wrappers, notably Killy (1964, and sporting a self-portrait of McLoughlin) and The Fugitive Pigeon (1966) – with their masterly deployment of chiaroscuro and command of negative space, that are the more inventive, innovative and experimental, and even Ashford has to admit that they're "arresting and imaginative".

Much is revealed about how McLoughlin created the Boardman covers, some of which information I previously suspected but didn't know for certain – such as the fact that he almost always painted the lettering directly on top of the artwork (rather than as an overlay), making it intrinsic to the overall design (see also the aforementioned Val Biro), and that he made a point of reading every one of those novels, often illustrating scenes lifted directly from the stories (see the apocalyptic climax depicted on the wrapper of Westlake's Killing Time). Ashford and Richardson even include some of the posed photographs McLoughlin took for reference, many of them featuring McLoughlin himself or his brother Colin as models, sometimes dressed up for the part as gangsters or cowboys (Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson, working around the same period, did something similar); when McLoughlin was particularly pushed for time, he'd occasionally collage the photos themselves into his cover designs.

Other revelations abound. I wasn't aware that McLoughlin took his own life, for example, shooting himself – with "the only non-replica gun that he possessed and for which he had only the one bullet" – at the age of eighty-four because he was "worried about the loss of feeling in his right arm and feared that he wouldn't be able to draw again". I'd also seen scant few of his comics stories, one of which, a 1954 crime tale titled "Roy Carson meets Waldo the Mystic", is reproduced in full; the dialogue, by brother Colin (who took over the writing from Denis after the initial outing), is an uneasy, haphazard mix of hardboiledisms and British comics exclamations ("ouch!"), but the art, staging and pacing are surprisingly good, and in places quite modern.

If I had to level a criticism at the book, it would be this churlish and rather childish one: I'd like to have seen even more Bloodhound covers. I certainly don't begrudge the space taken up by the comics material, but a volume showcasing every single T. V. Boardman dust jacket McLoughlin created: now that would be a thing to behold. But given how many hundreds are present and correct in this book, that really is an ignoble sentiment, and one that, frankly, I'm embarrassed to have shared. So let's forget I said anything, and instead end on a positive note: The Art of Denis McLoughlin is a beautiful and fitting tribute to an astonishingly talented artist, illustrator and designer, and deserves a place on the shelves of every discerning appreciator of fine dust jacket design.

The Art of Denis McLoughlin is limited to 950 regular editions and 120 signed editions, and is available to buy from The Book Palace. For more on McLoughlin, click here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 2: Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann Uncorrected Proof, 1971)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

For this second post in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, I've another intriguing edition from which to springboard some random thoughts. Like the 1959 Dell edition of The Talented Mr. Ripley that kicked off this series, it's a paperback; but unlike that Dell edition, which was published some years after the US and UK first editions, this particular paperback actually predates the first edition – the British one, anyway:

It's an uncorrected proof of Ripley Under Ground, the second of Patricia Highsmith's five Tom Ripley novels, which was published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1971, the year after the US Doubleday edition. Despite already owning a copy of the Heinemann first of Ripley Under Ground (actually two copies... don't ask), with its Mon Mohan-illustrated dust jacket (see below), I conspired to win this proof as well when it popped up on eBay a while back, for no other reason than I fancied a look at it. On first inspection it appears to be almost identical to the proper Heinemann first; obviously the cover is a text-only, thin card affair as opposed to the first edition's illustrated wrapper and boards, but the interiors look pretty much the same. Look closer, however, and there are very slight differences – such as, for example, a missing quote mark on page 20 of the proof, which has been corrected for the final edition. Because of course it's an uncorrected proof, i.e. a galley, intended for proofreaders, reviewers, libraries, and possibly even Highsmith herself.

Ripley Under Ground is set five or six years after The Talented Mr. Ripley, although in reality fifteen years had passed between the two books, which means that either Under Ground is set in the then-past or Talented was set in the then-future (I'm guessing the latter is more likely, as at one point in Under Ground a policeman finds a buried coin dated 1965 and the inference is it's been there some time). Either way, Tom is now thirty-one, and has secured for himself the kind of comfortable, idle existence he worked – and killed – so hard for in Talented. He lives with his wife of three years, Heloise, in a large house, Belle Ombre, in rural France, spending his time pottering about in the garden, reading, painting, and occasionally acting as a middle man for a fence friend of his, Reeves Minot (and oh, what an attractive way of life it is – at least, to me). Heloise has a stipend from her father, and Tom has Dickie Greenleaf's inheritance, but Tom also derives an income from an art forging ring in England, and it's the unravelling of this that forms the basis of the plot.

In making art, painting and forgery the focus of the book, Highsmith is picking up on themes she established in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dickie painted, as did Tom – except of course Tom only painted as Dickie, having assumed Dickie's identity. Right at the end of Talented, however, Tom discovers a genuine interest in painting, determining not so much to paint himself (although by the time of Under Ground he has, as I say, taken it up, and as a painter believes himself to be, amusingly, "worse than Dickie"), but "to collect paintings that he liked, and to help young painters with talent who needed money". In a perverse sort of way, this is what he does prior to Under Ground. As is established at the start of the novel, when Derwatt, a painter in whom Tom became interested, died a few years back, Tom suggested to Derwatt's friends that another painter, a friend and admirer of Derwatt's named Bernard Tufts, forge further Derwatt paintings, and helped concoct a story that Derwatt was in fact still alive and living in Mexico. Tom has two Derwatts hanging on his walls at Belle Ombre, one real, one fake, and it's telling that he prefers the Tufts fake to the genuine Derwatt.

But there are other strands from Talented that Highsmith immediately picks up in Under Ground. Tom's association with the shady Reeves Minot speaks to Tom's fascination for the criminal, and he's soon called upon to impersonate Derwatt himself, donning make-up and a fake beard for a press conference in London, echoing the moment in Talented when he briefly tries out eyebrow pencil and putty on his nose to impersonate Dickie. Tom's skewed perspective is highlighted when he takes delight in the obscene but witty graffiti scrawled on the London Underground, and when he observes that "Some people didn't know how to run a business" upon learning that the gallery which sells Bernard's Derwatt fakes hasn't accounted for how the paintings might have arrived from Mexico – as if faking records and ledgers were a typical business practice.

Highsmith professed herself very pleased with Ripley Under Ground when she finished writing the novel, and it's easy to see why. There's an unhinged, giddy, almost farcical quality to the book – a grotesque hall of mirrors, with Bernard's forging of and Tom's impersonating of Derwatt reflecting Tom's impersonation of Dickie and forging of his will in Talented. (Derwatt, Dickie... is it a coincidence that their names both begin with "D"...?) Moreover, Dickie's cousin, Chris, is staying with Tom when Bernard comes to stay at Belle Ombre also, Chris's expressions often reminding Tom of Dickie. On top of that, after six years Tom has just killed again, this time an art collector, Murchison, who had come to suspect Derwatt was being forged. Tom buries Murchison's body in the woods out back of his house before enlisting Bernard's aid in moving it and dumping it in a river instead; with all this going on, it's little wonder that Tom comes close to cracking up.

Of course, Highsmith is performing the same trick she did in Talented: getting the reader to empathize and even sympathize with Tom. Her aim with Talented, as quoted from her diaries in Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, was to show "the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and [rejoice] in it". She added: "I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too." That said, in Under Ground – unlike, arguably, in Talented – Highsmith leaves the reader in no doubt as to Tom's true nature: after Bernard, whom Tom greatly admires (although perhaps more as a forger than a painter), tries to kill him (the first of two attempts, the second of which will see Tom buried alive – hence the novel's title), Bernard tells him, "I detest you – because all this is entirely your fault. I should never have agreed to it – true. But you're the origin." After which Tom reflects: "Tom knew. He was a mystic origin, a font of evil."

The realisation that Tom full well understands who and what he is is perhaps more disturbing than the revelation that he's evil incarnate. It's a stark illustration of Tom's lack of conscience: even with that knowledge, he's perfectly able to continue operating and to live his life; to appreciate art; to be fond of ("love" would be putting it too strongly) his wife; to take pleasure in learning and in his garden and his house. But that self-awareness and self-acceptance extends to his perception of others, too – and here is an ability that serves both him and Highsmith well. His "otherness" grants him insight into how people – adversaries and potential allies – think; allows him to foresee what they might be planning. In a sense, this is Highsmith making things slightly easier for herself: by endowing Tom with an acute intuitiveness, she can have him make startling leaps of logic and consequently move the plot along.

Tom's intuitiveness, his knack for feeling his way through hazardous situations, helps him to evade capture in both Talented and Under Ground, but just as important are his single-minded ruthlessness – which reaches its apotheosis at Under Ground's climax with the monstrous desecration of another corpse – and his aptitude for obfuscation, misdirection and impersonation. He weaves an intricate web of lies in Under Ground – admittedly strengthened with a little luck (the literal luck of the devil) – and will do much the same in the next book in the series. And as rewarding a novel as Ripley Under Ground is – and it actually rose in my estimations this time around – the third Ripley outing, Ripley's Game, is, I think, even better...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds (Mauretania Comics, 2012)

While we're all waiting, breath appropriately bated (ahem), for the next instalment in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, let's have a Notes from the Small Press, and a return to a creator who featured very early on in this intermittent series on small press comics: Chris Reynolds.

Back in 2010, Chris, you might dimly recall, kindly granted me permission to reproduce one of his Monitor stories for the second Notes from the Small Press: "Monitor's Human Reward". As I said at the time, "Monitor's Human Reward" is my favourite ever comics short story, but I struggled to articulate why exactly that was – because the thing about Chris's comics is, although I often find them deeply affecting, pinpointing their peculiar appeal is tricky. They're elliptical, elusive things, characterized by a wistful sense of loss or longing, an evocation of solitude and introspection. This is especially true of the Monitor tales, and it's certainly true of Chris's latest Monitor comic, Planet 4, available for $2.99/£1.95 from Smashwords, Amazon and other e-retailers.

Told in a one-panel-per-page form, Planet 4 follows Monitor as he returns to the eponymous world where he once lived, revisiting old haunts and reflecting on his feelings about the place now. It's ostensibly a science fiction tale – Chris himself describes it as "meditative science fiction" – but the SF trappings, as mysterious and intriguing as they are, aren't where its appeal lies: anyone who's ever gone back to a town or city in which they once resided will recognise the plaintive emotions the story evokes. But Planet 4 isn't just about the past: it's about the future, and change, and lives not lived, epitomized by a twin planet which hoves into view, unannounced, halfway through, like one of the lands at the top of Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree – a place of "maybes" and "might-have-dones".

It's a beautiful, quietly compelling little comic, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Don't just take my word for it though: Chris's fellow small presser Ed Pinsent managed to sum up what's special about Planet 4 in one pithy paragraph the other day, so I urge you to go read that if your curiosity has been piqued – and indeed the rest of Ed's site, as he's been updating his small press cover galleries of late, a fantastic resource which, as it happens, boasts lots of examples of Chris's comics from the 1980s and '90s.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 1: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Dell Paperback, 1959)

I'll have further signed editions (and some original artwork) soon enough, but I've been promising for a while now (perhaps 'threatening' is more accurate) that I'd be returning to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels at some point. And having posted that signed, inscribed edition of Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny last week, and having acquired some intriguing editions of the Ripley books, I've finally been inspired to embark on the Great Tom Ripley Reread.

I'll be looking at each of the five Tom Ripley novels in turn (with some non-Ripley posts in-between, I expect), although these missives won't, strictly speaking, be reviews; there are probably quite enough of those online as it is, and my love for the books is such that I'm not especially minded to offer a robust critique. Instead, I'll be sharing some random thoughts, on how Tom comes across on this second (or third or fourth in some cases) go through the books; how he changes; how he stays the same; how the stories work as a whole, and so forth – the aim being to inspire a little debate: I'm as interested in hearing what you make of the Ripley novels as I am in prolixly pontificating about them myself (more so, in fact – which makes a change).

For the record, the five novels featuring Tom Ripley are:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)

If you haven't read them yet, well, now's as good a time as any: they're all very good, and a few of them are quite remarkable (as outlined in this post). And let's begin – where else – at the beginning, with a recent eBay win:

Namely the first American paperback edition of The Talented Mr. Ripley, published by Dell in 1959, which I bagged for a very reasonable amount. Proper first editions of Highsmith's fourth novel – as in the Coward-McCann and Cresset Press US and UK hardbacks – go for many hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds these days, so early paperbacks are about the best I can do in terms of collecting; I already own the first British paperback edition, published by Pan in 1960, which you can see below. And actually I think I prefer David Tayler's more restrained cover art for the Pan edition to William Teodecki's art for the Dell paperback; Teodecki's is a terrific painting, to be sure, but anyone who knows anything about Tom Ripley will surely agree that the leering, evil-looking fellow on the Dell cover isn't really an accurate portrait of our admittedly (multiple) murderous, conscienceless non-hero.

The first time I read The Talented Mr. Ripley I hadn't read all four of its sequels, so reading it again this time around was quite instructive. Highsmith didn't have sequels in mind when she wrote Talented, but she was fairly scrupulous in ensuring that the Tom of the later books was in keeping with the Tom of Talented – older, wiser, more settled, more sure of himself, but still the same man. Throughout the series Tom exhibits an attraction to the criminal underworld, something which is established right at the start of Talented, where Tom is engaged in an IRS scam. But there are other examples scattered throughout the book; one episode sees Tom taking Dickie Greenleaf, the idle, well-off fellow American he's come to Italy to befriend in order to convince him to return home – and who he will, in due course, murder – to see an Italian criminal, Carlo, in order to convince Dickie to join him in a bizarre drug-smuggling scheme (a scheme Highsmith later revealed was originally to have formed the basis of the main plot). Dickie is sneering and dismissive of Carlo, an attitude which infuriates Tom, who finds the Italian's reserve and strength of character fascinating.

The encounter with Carlo is important for other reasons too: it is the catalyst for Tom's eventual decision to kill Dickie – although the slightly earlier scene where Dickie catches Tom in Dickie's clothes is also significant – and it neatly encapsulates Tom's attitude towards people in general. In one long paragraph Highsmith details Tom's awful realisation that Dickie is not who he thought he was, and also sets up the tone and tenor of Tom's relationships and friendships to come: 

He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them...

I wonder sometimes what would have become of Tom had Dickie reciprocated his love – because it's evident that Tom does love Dickie, in his own way. Would the flowering of and embracing of his sexuality have eased his anxieties? Would he have found an empathy for humanity? Would it have prevented him from becoming a murderer? Somehow, I doubt it. For one thing, it's hard to imagine vain, self-centred Dickie settling down with Tom for good. But more that that, Tom himself is just too removed from his fellow man. There's a lot of truth in the line Tom trots out for his friends in New York about not being able to make his mind up whether he likes men or women, so he's thinking of giving them both up: as he reflects after Dickie finds him in Dickie's clothes, "As people went, he [Tom] was one of the most innocent and clean-minded he had ever known. That was the irony of this situation with Dickie."

In fact Tom is more in love with the idea of Dickie, which is partly why he makes the leap to trying to become him – the other reason being Dickie's easy lifestyle, which Tom covets, having never had the funds himself to pursue the way of life he'd like to pursue. Late in the book, once he has money, Tom ruminates on the possessions – how they "gave a man self-respect" and "reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence" – and the security that wealth brings; how being well-off would allow him "to collect Etruscan pottery if he wanted to... to read his Malraux tonight as late as he pleased, because he did not have a job to go to in the morning". This is the comfortable lifestyle – in particular a comfortable European lifestyle – which he desires in Talented, and it is the lifestyle he has managed to attain for himself by the later books, and which he will go to any lengths to protect.

Another facet of Tom's makeup established in Talented, one which again will play a big part in the sequels, is his aptitude for forgery and impersonation. He assumes Dickie's identity, forges his signature, and even, in an effort to look more like Dickie, tries out (but eventually discards) pencil on his eyebrows and putty at the end of his nose – a theatrical touch that foreshadows elements of the first sequel, Ripley Under Ground.

And then there's the trait, or rather the ability, or perhaps the proclivity, both for the act itself and for getting away with it, which earns Tom his longed-for way of life, and which he is forced to resort to again and again as the series progresses: murder. Dickie's murder, and to a lesser degree Freddie's, in all their horrific mundanity, define Tom, something that he himself comes to understand late in Talented. He can protest that he "hadn't wanted" to kill, that he "didn't want to be a murderer", that "he could absolutely forget that he had murdered" – but a murderer is what he is. The Talented Mr. Ripley could not have existed without murder, and therefore Tom could not have existed, and therefore the series as a whole could not have existed. Murder haunts the sequels, even in those Ripley novels where there's virtually no killing – the next book I'll be looking at, Ripley Under Ground, being a case in point...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith: Signed and Inscribed First Edition (Heinemann, 1977)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Let's return to the signed editions again (after a Richard Stark cover gallery) with a book which is among my most prized signed novels – up there with the signed US first edition of P. M. Hubbard's A Thirsty Evil (with its accompanying letter – and not forgetting that special copy of the UK first as well); the signed and inscribed (to Byrne Fone) UK first of Donald E. Westlake's debut novel, The Mercenaries; the signed and inscribed (to his friends) UK firsts of Gavin Lyall's Blame the Dead and Spy's Honour (and a signed Lyall letter, too); and those signed and inscribed (to me!) UK and US firsts of Anthony Price's The Labyrinth Makers, The Alamut Ambush and Our Man in Camelot. (Phew.) All of those books share in common personal inscriptions from their authors, an attribute that, to my mind, makes them more interesting, and therefore more special, than just a regular signed edition, and such is also the case with this book:

A British first edition of Patricia Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny, published by Heinemann in 1977. It's a collection of (very) short, amusing, dark and disturbing stories in which a procession of women meet sticky ends at the hands of of a variety of men and, indeed, themselves. It's all deliciously, delightfully evil, and Olman posted a pithy review of it a couple of years ago (and there's a longer one by Cory Pung here which is also worth a read).

I saw this particular copy on AbeBooks (having already bought the same edition previously in Much Ado Books in Alfriston a few years ago; I know, I know... there's a long and complicated story surrounding why I went looking for another copy – I was actually looking for signed Highsmith novels in general having been stiffed on eBay – but I shan't bore you with the details), and the listing caught my eye. It stated that there was an inscription inside the book, but it was a little uncertain if said inscription was by Patricia Highsmith or not. I asked a question or two of the seller, and then decided to take a punt, as it was only a fiver. Turns out that it was indeed inscribed by Highsmith, and also boasts a little drawing (demonstrating a smidgeon of the talent she must have at one time deployed as a comics creator):

The inscription reads:

"With New Year's greetings to Champak and Amrit from Pat – with love – 29 Dec. 1977 (sour reading – for sweet spirits)"

Who Champak and Amrit are/were I haven't been able to determine; I checked my copy of Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, but to no avail, and I don't have Joan Schenkar's more recent biog; if anyone reading this does, and is willing to have a butcher's at its index, let me know if you have any luck.

Patricia Highsmith is, as I've stated more than once, one of my favourite authors – especially her five Tom Ripley novels (see here for a graph representing my appreciation of them) – so to own an evidently fondly inscribed (and illustrated!) book like this one is quite a thrill. There are roughly eighty or so signed Highsmith editions listed on AbeBooks, but many of those are the limited-to-250-copies editions produced by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Books in the late-1970s and 1980s – a 1986 American edition of Little Tales of Misogyny among them. Prior to that Highsmith did sign the odd book, but not too many, and this is the only non-Penzler signed copy of Little Tales of Misogyny I've seen. Not bad for five quid, then.

And I'll be staying with Highsmith for the next few posts, with some intriguing editions of a couple of the Ripley books I've come into possession of, and some thoughts thereon...

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: UK Coronet First Editions (Plus Some Reprints), 1967–1970

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

Right then. There'll be another signed edition along soon enough, this one bearing a lovely personal inscription – and even a little drawing – from one of my favourite authors. But before we get to that, last week I posted a Westlake Score – a 1969 Hodder Fawcett/Coronet paperback of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novel The Sour Lemon Score – which, for me, completed a run of British first editions of the Parkers – i.e. those editions Coronet published in the UK in the late-1960s before switching to the "bullet hole" style of cover design. And since I now have all of those – plus a couple of reprints – I reckon it's time for a Parker/Coronet cover gallery.

I'm arranging the covers in order of original publication (a publication order which did, in fact, follow Coronet's American counterpart company Fawcett/Gold Medal's order), even though that means The Split breaks up the nice run of illustrated covers. Hey – don't blame me: blame Coronet; you can always grab the images and rearrange them to your heart's content. And by the way, a few of these covers haven't yet made it into the Violent World of Parker cover galleries, so this may be the first time some VWoP regulars have set eyes on them. Click on the covers to enlarge, and enjoy.

Point Blank, Coronet, 1967; original US publication 1962 (as The Hunter)
The Rare Coin Score, Coronet, 1968; original US publication 1967
The Green Eagle Score, Coronet, 1968; original US publication 1967
The Split, Coronet, 1969; original US publication 1966
The Black Ice Score, Coronet, 1969; original US publication 1968
The Sour Lemon Score, Coronet, 1969; original US publication 1969
Point Blank (second impression), Coronet, 1970
The Rare Coin Score (second impression), Coronet, 1970

Monday, 3 September 2012

New Beautiful British Book Covers: Most Unnatural Murder by Fiona Sinclair; A Spy in the Hand by Henry Talbot; Death in the Lebanon by John Tyndall

Time, I think, for some more Beautiful British Book Jacket Design. The addition of Victor Reinganum's wrapper for John Wain's Nuncle and Other Stories to the BBBJD gallery on Friday brought the number of dust jackets on the page up to 87, which, let's face it, is no kind of number to leave the total at. So I've now added a further three jackets to take it up to 90 – getting ever closer to the magic 100 – all of which wrap books I bought on a visit to secondhand bookshop Dim and Distant in Heathfield, East Sussex, and all of which were created by designers already represented in the gallery. Let's take a look at 'em in order of publication, shall we?

Most Unnatural Murder by Fiona Sinclair, published by Geoffrey Bles in 1965. The dust jacket on this one was designed by Donald Green, and to my mind it's every bit as good as his distinctive wrappers for C. S. Forester's The General, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon and P. M. Hubbard's The Tower. For her part, Sinclair is an overlooked but intriguing author: she wrote a series of crime novels starring Superintendent Paul Grainger and one or two standalone works – Most Unnatural Murder being one. Many of her books were published posthumously, Sinclair having died at a fairly young age in 1961; Most Unnatural Murder was apparently found among her papers after her death.


A Spy in the Hand by Henry Talbot, published by Robert Hale in 1966. There aren't many photographic covers in the Beautiful British Book Jackets gallery, but this one is worth including, I think, for a couple of reasons: it's nicely balanced – typographically simple but effective – and it was put together by a designer of whom I'm a great admirer and who's much better known for his illustrative covers: Val Biro. I was surprised when I saw Val's name listed as jacket designer on the front flap, but I've since discovered that he designed other photographic wrappers besides this one; David Schutte, Val's agent, thinks that possibly the photographs were supplied by the publisher and Val simply arranged the typography, but I must admit the other covers I've seen are quite similar, so I wonder if Val did in fact take the photos himself.

The author of this one, Henry Talbot, is even more obscure than Fiona Sinclair. There's very little information about him online and A Spy in the Hand is, I believe, his only novel under that name, but as Henry Talbot Rothwell and H. T. Rothwell he seems to have written a handful of other espionage thrillers for Hale in the mid- to late-1960s, including Exit a Spy (1966), Duet for Three Spies (1967) and No Honour Amongst Spies (1969). Of course, I might have got my wires crossed there, so do let me know if you happen have any further information on Talbot/Rothwell.


Death in the Lebanon by John Tyndall, published by Geoffrey Bles. Now, this one actually dates from 1971, which should, by all rights, put it beyond the remit of Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s. But its dust jacket was designed by Cecil Walter Bacon, who I wrote about in this post on P. M. Hubbard's Cold Waters, and whose work, I'd suggest, owes more to the approach to dust jacket design in the '50s and '60s than it does to that of the '70s. Plus Bacon's wrapper for Death in the Lebanon is a splendid piece of design and illustration, and it's my gallery and I'll include it if I want to, so ner.

As for the author of Death in the Lebanon, John Tyndall, again there's practically nothing about him online. He seems to have written just two novels – this one and Death in the Jordan (1970), which also stars the lead of Death in the Lebanon, detective Roger Turnbull. However, there is quite a famous John Tydnall – the onetime leader of the National Front and founder of the British National Party – and on his Wikipedia page Death in the Lebanon is listed as one of his published works. Of course, Wikipedia isn't always the most reliable of resources, so that could just be a mistake – and as commenter C points out below, it seems fairly unlikely. But if anyone can confirm or deny one way or the other, do please drop me a line or leave a comment.

Anyway, I'm aiming to get the Beautiful British Book Jacket gallery up to 100 covers over the course of the next month or so, so stay tuned for further additions. But I've some book covers of a different order lined up for the next post: a gallery of the British paperback first edition covers for Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novels in the late-1960s...