Sunday 30 December 2012

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics: The Ten Best Books I Read in 2012

And so, suitably stuffed with turkey and sausages and Christmas pudding and the entire contents of a confectionery selection pack – and consequently suffering with the meat 'n' fruit 'n' chocolate sweats – we reach the final post in the three-part Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics – and indeed the final post for the year. And having presented a big long list of the sixty-four books I read this year – a list which, as usual, largely comprised books published well before 2012 (over sixty years before in some cases), and which, incidentally, this year was linked by both The Rap Sheet and The Comics Reporter – it's time to pick my ten favourites from that list.

I've elected to exclude any rereads, for the simple reason that if I hadn't, a third of the top ten would have been taken up by Patricia Highsmith Ripley novels, and I've endeavoured to restrict myself to just one appearance per author – although achieving that wasn't as hard as you might imagine: the only real candidates for two appearances were Donald E. Westlake with his Tucker Coe novel Murder Among Children, and Elmore Leonard with Mr. Majestyk. But there were other books besides those that could have quite easily made the cut in a less competitive year: John D. MacDonald's debut Travis McGee mystery The Deep Blue Goodbye; Anthony Price's fine espionage novel Other Paths to Glory; Brian Garfield's Death Wish; William Goldman's Marathon Man; P. M. Hubbard's A Thirsty Evil; and from 2012 itself, George Pelecanos's stylish '70s crime spree What it Was and Jeremy Duns's third Paul Dark spy thriller, The Moscow Option. And were I to expand the top ten to a top twenty, well: there's numbers eleven to nineteen right there.

As it is, I've cheated anyway: I couldn't separate the two books vying for the number ten spot, so I've made them equal tenth. If you have a problem with that, you could perhaps take a moment to consider that a) the top ten is drawn from a list of books which were published across seven decades, which makes it a fairly meaningless selection anyway (although arguably no more meaningless than other, more traditional "best of the year" lists); and b) it's my blog and ultimately I'll do what the bloody hell I like. So ner.

In ascending order, then, with links to whatever I wrote about them this year, here are the ten (ish) best books I read in 2012. Happy new year.

=10. Restless by William Boyd (2006)
The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)
I read a number of books this year over which Kim Philby cast his long shadow – including his autobiography – but these two were the best. Graham Greene's sad and moving portrait of a man who betrays his country for love clearly isn't, as Greene himself was at pains to point out, a roman a clef, but it's hard not to detect traces of Greene's old friend Philby in Maurice Castle's actions, if not his motivations and character. As for Restless, I read that one right after reading Ian McEwan's disappointing Sweet Tooth, in the hope that it would prove a more satisfying spy novel. In the event, it was a more satisfying novel overall, something I'll be exploring in a post in the new year in which I'll be comparing it to its recent BBC TV adaptation.

9. The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard (1969)
Elmore Leonard's debut crime novel, this meandering, surprising story, peopled with believable yet still idiosyncratic characters and peppered with choice dialogue, set the template for what was to come.

8. The Lovely Horrible Stuff by Eddie Campbell (2012)
I've loved Eddie Campbell's comics since I first came across them in the 1980s; to my mind he's one of the most important creators ever to work in the medium, and The Lovely Horrible Stuff is as good as anything he's done: an extended meditation on the pernicious influence of filthy lucre, drawing on the history of the Pacific island of Yap as well as some very personal, not to mention raw, episodes.

7. A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household (1951)
Fast-paced, light, thrilling, a joy to read. Plus: badger ham. Yes: badger ham.

6. This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (1960)
One of Highsmith's most powerful novels: an intense study of the mad impulses and justifications behind stalking.

5. Commander-1 by Peter George (1965)
An overlooked post-apocalyptic gem, as good as, if not better than, On the Beach and Alas, Babylon. I urge you to seek it out.

4. 361 by Donald E. Westlake (1962)
Westlake's third novel under his own name, and his first crime fiction masterpiece.

3. The Twelve by Justin Cronin (2012)
Beautifully written, epic in scope, and probably the most gripping novel I read all year.

2. Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert (1968)
Eleven short stories starring devious middle-aged intelligence operatives Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Sublime.

1. Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (1967)
I stated back in May that Towards the End of the Morning was the best book I'd read so far this year, and as 2012 draws to a close, it still is. Follow the links to find out why.

Sunday 23 December 2012

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics, 2012: A Big Long List of the Books I Read This Year

It's the end of the year as we knew it, and I feel... bloody knackered, actually, to tell you the truth. But that's by the by – it's the fact that 2012 is rapidly drawing to a close that's the pertinent point here, because we're at the midway mark of the three-pronged assault on your senses – well, one of your senses; you can neither hear, smell, taste nor touch me, although I will allow you to do all four of those things for a substantial fee – that is the Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics. And that in turn means that it's time for a big long list of the books I read this year – an exercise perhaps even more arbitrary and pointless than the misty-eyed navel-gazing missive which kicked off this end-of-the-year extravaganza. After all, who but me really cares what the hell I've read this year? And anyway, if you've been following Existential Ennui throughout 2012, you'll probably already know, seeing as I've blogged about most of these books this year, as evidenced by the links provided below.

Not all of them, though: there are a number I never got round to writing about – graphic novels mostly, but some novels too. So, y'know... there's that...

Oh, who am I kidding: there really is no justification for a self-centred, self-serving post such as this, so let's just get on with it. Here, then, for anyone who remotely cares, is a big long list of the books I read this year, in the order in which I read them:

Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert
Shockwave by Desmond Cory
Assignment to Disaster by Edward S. Aarons
One Endless Hour by Dan J. Marlowe
Secret Ministry by Desmond Cory
Operation Fireball by Dan J. Marlowe
Raylan by Elmore Leonard
Jimmy the Kid by Donald E. Westlake
What it Was by George Pelecanos
My Silent War by Kim Philby
The Human Factor by Graham Greene
Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household
Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring
A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household
Song of Freedom by Jeremy Duns
Tales of Adventurers by Geoffrey Household
I Gave at the Office by Donald E. Westlake
The Moscow Option by Jeremy Duns
Spandex: Fast and Hard by Martin Eden
The 9th Directive by Adam Hall
Trust Me on This by Donald E. Westlake
Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
Picture of Millie by P. M. Hubbard
A Game for the Living by Patricia Highsmith
This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith
Other Paths to Glory by Anthony Price
Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Tucker Coe (Donald E. Westlake)
Richard Stark's Parker in The Score by Darwyn Cooke
Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean
Death Wish by Brian Garfield
Mr. Majestyk by Elmore Leonard
The Chase by Richard Unekis
Deliverance by James Dickey
Marathon Man by William Goldman
The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin
The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Murder Among Children by Tucker Coe (Donald E. Westlake)
Goliath by Tom Gauld
The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
The Lovely Horrible Stuff by Eddie Campbell
Batman: Earth One by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
361 by Donald E. Westlake
Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Hit Man by Lawrence Block
A Thirsty Evil by P. M. Hubbard
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Restless by William Boyd
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
The Big H by Bryan Peters
Amateur Agent by Christopher Adams
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (reread)
Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household
Commander-1 by Peter George
The Volcanoes of San Domingo by Adam Hall
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard
The Sound of His Horn by Sarban
The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D. MacDonald
The Green Wound by Philip Atlee
King City by Brandon Graham

That gives us a grand total of sixty-four books, which is pretty good going, I think – more than last year (forty-eight), not as many as the year before (sixty-nine), and almost certainly more than I'll manage next year, for one reason or another. And of those sixty-four books: fifty-two were novels, eight were graphic novels, three were short story collections and one was a work of non-fiction; twenty-three I would describe as crime fiction, eighteen as spy fiction and the rest a mixture of thrillers, science fiction and I guess what you'd call literary works; seven were written by Donald E. Westlake (eight if you count Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Score), five by Patricia Highsmith and four by Geoffrey Household, with three each by Dan J. Marlowe and Elmore Leonard, and two each by Desmond Cory, Jeremy Duns, Adam Hall, P. M. Hubbard and Peter George (alias Bryan Peters); thirteen were published in 2012 itself, with the remainder published across the preceding sixty years; and four I'd read before.

And among those sixty-four books, there were ten that I thought were the finest ones I read in 2012 – ten books which will form the basis of the final post not only of the Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics, but on Existential Ennui overall this year.

Now that really is reason to get excited.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday 20 December 2012

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics: 2012 Edition

I'm afraid the title of this post is just as misleading as it was last year – more so, in fact: at least last year I had the decency to add the disclaimer "Insufferable Navel-Gazing" to the heading. Because that's what, in essence, the now-traditional (as in I've done this three years in a row, an uncharacteristic and therefore almost admirable act of perseverance on my part, if not yours) Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics is: a willful ignoring of events in both the publishing and wider worlds in favour of introspective musings on what I've been buying and reading and then blogging about this year. And you wouldn't have it any other way, would you, you little scamps?

In an astonishing abdication of imaginative thinking, I'll be repeating the three-act format I established last year, namely: a meandering and quite probably prolix overview, i.e. this post right here; a list of all the books and graphic novels I read this year, accompanied by some half-arsed analysis; and finally my pick of the ten, or possibly twenty – I haven't decided which yet – best of those books and graphic novels. All spectacularly self-centred and arbitrary of course, in that it'll make no sense whatsoever beyond the reactionary confines of Existential Ennui, but there we have it: take it or bloody well leave it, pal.

I suggest we get the comics out of the way first, because it hasn't been a banner year for those, at least the ones of the mainstream superhero variety. For reasons I outlined here and have little wish to rake over again, I'm now buying precisely one DC Universe title – Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Batman Incorporated – and one DC/Vertigo series: Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten. Go read that DC New 52 post if you want to learn why I'm so disinterested in and disenchanted with DC's wares, a double-D of dissatisfaction (or does that make it triple-D...?) which has since been expanded to a triple-D (or possibly a quadruple-D) with the addition of despair (quintuple?) at the company's utterly pointless and, I expect, ultimately damaging (sextuple!) Beyond Watchmen manyminiseries. And though Marvel are faring slightly better on my increasingly infrequent trips to the comic shop, I can't honestly muster much enthusiasm for their "Marvel Now" initiative either; I quite like Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen's All-New X-Men, and the first issue of Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opena's Avengers wasn't bad, but that's about it.

(Incidentally, part of the reason I haven't mentioned any of this on Existential Ennui this year – other than I couldn't be fucking bothered – is because, frankly, there's quite enough comics commentary on the web as it is – and not enough musty old books commentary, evidently – without my adding to the largely ill-informed din. Honourable exceptions there being Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter, J. Caleb Mozzocco's Every Day is Like Wednesday and Tucker Stone and Abhay Khosla's "Comics of the Weak" column; bookmark those buggers if you haven't already.)

That said, and speaking of Hickman, there have been some good comics published this year – largely by Image, including Hickman and Nick Pitarra's The Manhattan Projects – and, so I'm told, graphic novels – "so I'm told" because I'm afraid I've read very few of them. Even so, I have proffered the odd comics post myself – a Notes from the Small Press or four, and even a few graphic novel reviews; just enough to warrant the keeping of the word "comics" in Existential Ennui's subtitular list of subjects covered, I feel. For now, anyway.

The irony is, while I suspect there were more comics posts on Existential Ennui this year than there were last (although I'm not about to go and check or anything; that would require a modicum of effort), there were actually fewer posts overall: as of this one, 169, as opposed to 2011's 247. Which, taking into account the fact that I managed 366 posts in 2010, means that based on these trends, in a couple of years' time there'll be no posts at all. Reason to celebrate there, I'm sure, but it does seem something of a shame, especially as latterly I went to the trouble of acquiring a custom domain name for the blog – "", formerly "" – an exciting turn of events which I then proceeded to diminish by mithering on about SEO for weeks on end.

That was probably the biggest occurrence on Existential Ennui this year – the custom domain name, not the mithering; that's a regular, regrettable occurrence – the other contender being the establishment of the permanent Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, which has been a soaraway success (well over 8,500 hits and counting), and which for me proved an enjoyable distraction from regular books blogging throughout 2012.

As for that regular blogging, I think there was some pretty decent stuff in there this year. There were series of posts on, among others, Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy thrillers; Dan J. Marlowe and his Earl Drake crime novels; Geoffrey Household; books vaguely to do with journalism; books which begat films; and, most recently, vintage paperbacks. There was a visit to the TV Book Club. There were competitions, and a couple of interviews, one with Christopher Nicole (alias Andrew Yorke), the other with Jeremy Duns (alias... Jeremy Duns). There was the still-unfinished Great Tom Ripley Reread, all three instalments of which I was fairly pleased with, as indeed I was with this post on Peter George, which I researched the living bejeezus out of, to the extent that I even took the extraordinary step of introducing footnotes (in truth nothing more than a feeble and embarrassing attempt to appear scholarly by aping Michael Barber's similarly footnoted but immeasurably more intellectual guest post on Kingsley Amis from 2011).

Of course, at root, the rarely stated but doubtless utterly transparent point of all this blogging is to service my secondhand book habit, and I certainly acquired some doozies this year – not only one-of-a-kind signed and inscribed firsts like Donald E. Westlake's The Mercenaries and Patricia Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny, but ephemera too, in the shape of a 1981 letter about publishing by Gavin Lyall and a 1974 memo from Macmillan publisher Alan Maclean (brother of Cambridge spy Donald) to Chairman Harold Macmillan (yes, that Harold Macmillan) about a P. M. Hubbard suspense novel.

Besides all that, there were posts on books by such literary reprobates as Michael Gilbert, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, Roald Dahl (an excellent guest post by Adam Newell), Kim Philby, Graham Greene, Adam Hall and the aforementioned – and firm favourites of mine – Patricia Highsmith and Donald E. Westlake, the latter under various guises and duly cross-posted, of course, on The Violent World of Parker. One favourite author who remained conspicuous by his absence, however, was Ross Thomas: I didn't manage a single dedicated post on him (and nor did I get round to any of the books from his backlist that I've yet to read – something I fully intend to rectify next year). But since jazz musician and crime fiction aficionado Ethan Iverson posted the definitive guide to Thomas back in January, I'm not sure what more I can add... except that mentioning Ethan does give me the opportunity to thank him in public (relatively speaking) for inviting myself and Rachel along to Ronnie Scott's in October, where we were blown away by his brilliant band, The Bad Plus. (Truly, I am the master of the tricky segue.)

And someone else I'd like to thank, dear reader, is you – especially those of you who've taken the trouble to comment over the course of the year. I may make this blogging lark look easy – tortuously, torturously composed, sure, but still, I like to think, achieving a certain air of effortless flair (ha!) – but it can be bloody hard work at times, and it's not as if I get paid for the dubious pleasure of writing this shit. Knowing that you're reading, though, and seeing your comments, makes it all worthwhile. I couldn't do it without you.

...Actually I almost certainly could, but seeing as I'm keen to maintain my meagre readership, I figured it might be prudent to end on an ingratiating compliment.

Next: a big long list of the books I read this year.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness (Joe Gall / Nullifier Spy Series) by Philip Atlee, alias James Atlee Phillips (Gold Medal, 1963/64)

For this final post in this series on vintage paperbacks – for now, anyway; there'll doubtless be more old paperbacks in the new year – I thought I'd showcase a pair of Gold Medal spy fiction originals: one boasting cover art by an artist who'll be familiar to fans of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime series; the other boasting cover art by another artist who'll be familiar to Parker fans:

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness by Philip Atlee, published straight to paperback in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in, respectively, 1963 and 1964 (although the edition of The Green Wound seen here is the near-identical British one, published by Frederick Muller in 1964). The cover artist on The Green Wound is Harry Bennett, the man responsible for the covers of the initial eight Parker novels published by Pocket Books from 1962 to 1966; the cover artist on The Silken Baroness is Robert McGinnis, the man responsible for the ensuing four Parkers published by Gold Medal from 1967 to 1969, plus two reissues. I've written about both artists repeatedly – follow their tags at the bottom of this post for more – so I shan't cover old ground again here, except to note that it's interesting to see their different approaches to the material: loose and expressive in Bennett's case, tighter and more traditionally illustrative in McGinnis's, who still manages to include a nod to abstraction in the form of the canvas in the background.

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness are both narrated by CIA agent Joe Gall, who would go on to star in a further twenty novels – all of them bearing the legend "Contract" in their titles (for subsequent printings, the first two books in the series would become The Green Wound Contract and The Silken Baroness Contract) – in the process assuming the sobriquet "The Nullifier" (unfortunately "The Liquidator" and "The Eliminator" were already taken). Gall actually made his debut in an earlier novel, Pagoda, written under Atlee's real name, James Atlee Phillips, and published by Macmillan in 1951, but as the estimable Bill Crider points out, though it's the same character, it's not technically part of the series – for one thing, it's written in the third person rather than the later books' first.

All of the Joe Gall books fell out of print decades ago, but they're fondly remembered by paperback enthusiasts – witness George Kelley's overview at Mystery*File and its attendant comments. And on the strength of The Green Wound – which is the only Gall I've read thus far – there's certainly merit in them: a tough cynicism leavened by a surprisingly adroit facility with the written word (Gall reveals early on that he used to be a writer), and a mystery that remains intriguingly opaque until very late in the tale. It has to be said, however, that a modern day reader might find the notion of a white secret agent pitted against a black conspiracy – led by a character operating under the alias Uncle Tom Asmodeus, and funded by enforced prostitution and white slavery – somewhat uncomfortable (this modern day reader did, anyway), and as this follow-up Mystery*File post notes, other books in the series also suffer from issues to do with the depiction of race. Then again, that's not exactly uncommon with old thrillers – and according to Atlee Phillips's friend, Don Walsh – and to Atlee Phillips's credit – the eighth Joe Gall outing, The Skeleton Coast Contract (1968), apparently earned the author the ire of South Africa's apartheid regime.

Of course, like other spy thriller writers, Atlee Phillips was reflecting, and to a degree sensationalising, the real life events of his era, whether that be racial conflict or, potentially, nuclear conflict. But it seems he also had a rather more direct insight into America and the CIA's involvement in certain events. Not only did he have firsthand experience of intelligence work in the 1950s – as confirmed by both Don Walsh and Atlee Phillips's son, the musician Shawn Phillips – but secondhand as well, in the shape of his brother, David Atlee Phillips: for twenty years a high-ranking officer in the CIA, and one of the architects of the Bay of Pigs invasion – a fiasco which, oddly enough, Joe Gall states in The Green Wound was the catalyst for his taking an extended leave of absence from the CIA.

And that's yer lot for this year as regards paperbacks. If, heaven forfend, you've missed any of my recent posts on vintage softcovers, there are links below; but next on Existential Ennui: my review of the year in books and comics – 2012 edition.

The 2012 London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair

Man Hungry, Sally and Backstage Love by Donald E. Westlake

The Score by Richard Stark

The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution by Donald E. Westlake

Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durell/Assignment Spy Series

Assignment to Disaster by Edward S. Aarons

The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark

The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

The Stories of Ray Bradbury

Vintage British Patricia Highsmith Paperbacks

The Deep Blue Goodbye/Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

Friday 14 December 2012

Travis McGee in A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald: Gold Medal First Printing, 1964; Ronnie Lesser Cover Art

As a wee McGee bonus post in the wake of those Pan paperback editions of John D. MacDonald's first two Travis McGee mystery novels – The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink – I thought I'd show you another McGee I stumbled upon only very recently:

A Purple Place for Dying, the third of MacDonald's twenty-one books starring retriever of lost (or stolen) stuff, Travis McGee. This copy is the original 1964 Fawcett/Gold Medal paperback edition, which I found in the basement of a Cecil Court secondhand bookshop during a recent sojourn to London, and managed to secure for a hell of a lot less than it's probably worth. Because you see, it's the first printing as well as the first edition, as evidenced by the 40 cent cover price and the presence on the copyright page of the Gold Medal serial number #K1417 (without two dots, which would indicate a second printing):

Considering the Gold Medal edition went through something like twenty-five printings over the next twenty years, to chance across a genuine first printing in a British secondhand bookshop was quite something.

Remarkably, The Deep Blue Good-by (to give it its US title), Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying and the next McGee, The Quick Red Fox, were all published by Gold Medal in 1964, with the first three appearing at the rate of one a month. All four – and a handful of later McGees – boast rather lovely cover art by Ronnie Lesser, further examples of whose work can be found on Pulp Covers. And while we're linking, might I direct you to John D. MacDonald Covers, the mission statement of which is: "To create a comprehensive collection of John D. MacDonald bookcovers in one place for the use of collectors, readers, or compulsive completists (you know who you are)." An admirable aim, and yes: we do indeed know who we are.

And I'm staying with Gold Medal for the final paperback post of the year (there'll be further paperbacks next year, but I have the traditional Existential Ennui end-of-year round-up posts to deal with before then), on two early '60s spy novels...

Thursday 13 December 2012

Travis McGee in The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald (Pan Paperbacks, 1968)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker. Featured as part of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Next in this series of posts on vintage softcovers, a pair of paperbacks I was basically badgered into buying by one of the regular commenters on Existential Ennui and The Violent World of Parker (where I'm co-blogger) – which is why I'm posting them over there as well as here (that and the fact that there's a certain amount of fan crossover between these books and Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels):

The first British paperback editions of John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink, both published by Pan in 1968 (and both originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1964, the former as The Deep Blue Good-by), with cover artwork by Sam Peffer – among the last covers that the prolific Pan artist must have created for that publisher (I believe he left Pan in 1967). They are, respectively, books one and two in MacDonald's twenty-one book crime fiction series starring finder of lost fings, Travis McGee, a series that EE and TVWoP regular David Plante reckoned I would find rewarding.

Now, I have tried a John D. MacDonald novel before – The Only Girl in the Game, which I liked a lot – but I'd never read any McGee. But given that Kingsley Amis was an admirer of MacDonald's, and I am, in turn, an admirer of Amis's; and that another writer I love, Elmore Leonard, put it on record that MacDonald was "the best first-person writer I've ever read", adding, "Travis McGee's 'I' was never intrusive"; and that David bloody Plante clearly wasn't going to give it a bloody rest or give me a moment's bloody peace until I relented and cracked the spine of a bloody McGee (figuratively speaking – because as we all know, cracking the spines of books – even ones already bloodied – is WRONG), there was nothing else for it but to dive in.

Of course, that begged the question: which editions of the early McGee novels (I'm not worrying about the later ones just yet) to begin collecting? The original Gold Medal paperbacks would be the obvious choice; not so easy to come by for someone living in the UK, but not impossible. In truth, though, those are in relatively plentiful supply if one can be arsed to order online from the States – and anyway, when have I ever plumped for the obvious choice? That left, to my mind, two options: the British hardback editions of the novels, published by Robert Hale in the 1960s and '70s, which, with their miniscule print runs and beautiful Barbara Walton dust jackets, are prohibitively expensive these days, running into the hundreds if not thousands of pounds per book; or the British paperback editions, issued by Pan, which, when you can find them (and I found these two copies online and on a table outside a secondhand bookshop in Brighton), are fairly cheap. Naturally, skinflint that I am, I opted for the Pan paperbacks.

And I'm pleased to report that David was perfectly justified in his persistent pestering, because The Deep Blue Goodbye at least – I haven't made it as far as Nightmare in Pink yet – is terrific: tough, but also surprisingly tender, especially once Travis McGee, who's been hired to trace a twisted sort named Junior Allen and recover the loot Allen stole, visits Allen's former mistress and, finding her in a dreadful state, casts aside his affected nonchalance and decides to stay and nurse her back to health. In his essay "A New James Bond", Kingsley Amis noted that MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?", but on the evidence of The Deep Blue Goodbye – and indeed The Only Girl in the Game – I'd say that MacDonald could do "human-heart" as well as anyone – and he was no slouch at the thrills either, as demonstrated by a gripping and violent final encounter at sea.

Pan had largely switched to photographic covers by the late 1960s, and while the first Pan printings of The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink could boast Sam Peffer cover art, subsequent printings, and subsequent McGees, sported photographic designs. So, having started collecting the Pan paperbacks, I'm not sure I'll stick with them... and serendipitously, just the other day I chanced across a different edition of the next book in the series, A Purple Place for Dying...

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A Patricia Highsmith 1950s and '60s Corgi and Pan Paperback First Edition Cover Gallery

NB: see also the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery.

With the science fiction segment of this run of posts on paperbacks done, it's back to the crime fiction, and a Patricia Highsmith paperback cover gallery, which I've assembled by way of an apology for the non-appearance of the next instalment in the Great Tom Ripley Reread. That series of posts, you might recall, stalled at the midway point of the Ripliad, Ripley's Game, back in September; I do still intend to finish off the Reread, but it'll have to wait till next year now. To tide us over, then, I thought I'd showcase the first five Highsmith novels to be published in paperback in the UK.

All of these British paperback first editions have appeared on Existential Ennui before, in various permutations, but they're worth showing off again, I feel, especially as I've rephotographed them all from previous appearances. Additionally, this time out I've included some bibliographic details: the unique Corgi or Pan number for each title, along with cover artist (if known), original UK publisher, and pub date. Enjoy.

Strangers on a Train, Corgi #905, 1952; originally published in hardback in the UK by The Cresset Press in 1950. Highsmith's debut novel, her abiding theme of two men becoming inexplicably and dangerously fascinated by one another is established right from the outset, as well as her fondness for chance and coincidence in her plotting. I've never been able to establish who the cover artist is on the Corgi paperback, but I can tell you it's an uncommon edition – certainly a lot scarcer than the Cresset Press or US Harper & Brothers first editions.

The Blunderer, Pan G153, 1958; originally published in hardback in the UK by The Cresset Press in 1956. The cover art here is by James E. McConnell, a selection of whose work can be found over at Pulp Covers. I'm not as keen on this, Highsmith's second novel (under her own name; as Claire Morgan she published The Price of Salt in 1952), as I am others of her works, but the game of cat and mouse between Walter Stackhouse and bookshop owner Kimmel does have its suspenseful moments. From here until Penguin picked up her softcover rights in the 1970s, Highsmith would be published in paperback in the UK by Pan, and the Pan editions of her next three books boast, to my mind, some of the best covers ever to grace her novels.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Pan G397, 1960; originally published in hardback in the UK by The Cresset Press in 1957. David Tayler is the cover artist here, doing a terrific job of depicting Tom Ripley, Dickie Greenleaf and the fateful murder in the boat. As fellow Pan cover artists Sam Peffer and Pat Owen reveal in this interview, the Pan stable of artists always read the novels they were slated to illustrate the covers of, and were pretty much left to their own devices in choosing which scenes to depict.

Deep Water, Pan G435, 1961; originally published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1958. A glorious cover painting by the aforementioned Sam Peffer for this, Highsmith's fourth novel under her own name – one of only a handful of Highsmiths from the 1950s and '60s I've yet to read. I really must rectify that soon.

A Game for the Living, Pan G548, 1962; originally published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1959. Highsmith's fifth novel wasn't by any stretch the final Highsmith to be published in paperback by Pan, but it was the last to sport a fully painted cover, which again is by Sam Peffer. By this point, Pan covers were starting to become either more photographic in nature or more design-led; painted illustrations still appeared, but usually incorporated into an overall design, as on the next two Highsmiths that Pan published in paperback: This Sweet Sickness, which they issued in 1963, and The Cry of the Owl, in 1965. By the time of the Pan editions of The Glass Cell and A Suspension of Mercy in 1967, Highsmith's covers too had become photographic.

Even by the late 1960s, however, Sam Peffer was still painting the odd Pan cover, as I'll demonstrate in the next post, with a pair of John D. MacDonald paperbacks...