Thursday 11 October 2012

Denis McLoughlin Designs: The Big H by Bryan Peters, alias Peter Bryan George (T. V. Boardman, 1961); Book Review

Time for one last (for now...) Denis McLoughlin dust jacket-sporting T. V. Boardman thriller before I move on to other matters. Although as it turns out, those "other matters" will concern the author of this particular book...

The Big H by Bryan Peters, published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1961. This is the second of Peters's two published novels, the first being Hong Kong Kill (T. V. Boardman, 1958), which introduced the stars of The Big H, British agent Anthony Brandon and CIA operative Jess Lundstrom. Or rather, it's the second of Peters's two published novels under that particular moniker – because in fact Bryan Peters is a pen name of Peter Bryan George, a Welsh-born writer best known for his 1958 novel Red Alert, which itself was written under another pseudonym: Peter Bryant. Originally titled Two Hours to Doom when Boardman published it in hardback – complete with a spectacular Denis McLoughlin mushroom cloud illustration on the dust jacket – it's an account of "the first two hours of World War III", and was famously turned into a film in 1964 by Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the screenplay of which George co-wrote.

Nuclear paranoia characterizes much of George's slim body of work, including The Big H, which is ostensibly about a Russian plot to embarrass America by flooding the country with heroin, and finds agent Brandon tasked with posing as a heroin dealer in order to infiltrate the Los Angeles criminal gang at the centre of the conspiracy. Gaining the trust of mob boss Agostino proves trickier than Brandon expected, however, beginning with a card game which recalls James Bond's battle against Le Chiffre in Casino Royale – difference being, Brandon plays to lose, although the net result is essentially the same, i.e. a spot of light torture.

It's a well-constructed Cold War thriller, closer in tone to Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora novels maybe, or Edward S. Aarons's Sam Durell series than Ian Fleming's Bond books: tough, downbeat and with a dogged, determinedly unglamorous lead. It also has an unusual structure: long chapters are punctuated by shorter segments detailing the interrogation of a Russian spy by US Air Force officers, the significance of which only becomes clear late in the novel. It's that intermittent scene that Denis McLoughlin has chosen to illustrate in striking fashion on the dust jacket, combining it with – what else – a big red "H", prefiguring McLoughlin's type treatment on the wrapper for the 1962 Boardman edition Donald E. Westlake's 361.

McLoughlin's dust jacket for The Big H has now, of course, joined his other wrappers on the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page (taking the total number of covers thereon up to a tantalising 95). And if you take a look at the back cover:

You can see that Boardman have picked out four books from the same year as The Big H "by new authors, whom we believe will be the best-sellers of the future". Unfortunately Boardman's prediction didn't quite pan out: Larry Harris, a.k.a. Laurence Janifer, did make a name for himself in science fiction, but Eric Bruton isn't terribly well remembered these days, and Harry Olesker, after publishing three novels, embarked on a career in film and television before being killed in a motorcycle accident in 1969. Donald Westlake, however, did, as we're all doubtless well aware, do rather well for himself, The Mercenaries being one of over a hundred books he published in his lifetime.

As for Peter George, he took his own life in 1966, publishing one final novel before he died. And it looks as if I might have secured a very special copy of that book, so I'll be blogging about that very soon indeed, as well as exploring George's life and career a bit more and assembling a full Peter George bibliography – the first time, I believe, one has appeared online...

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