Friday 20 January 2012

Deep Cover: The Hunt for Len Deighton's Dustjacket and Paperback Cover Designs

Interrupting the Desmond Cory/Johnny Fedora posts momentarily, Rob Mallows from The Deighton Dossier contacted me last night asking for assistance on a matter to do with Len Deighton's dustjacket designs. For those who don't know, prior to making a splash with his debut novel, The Ipcress File, in 1962, Deighton was a designer and illustrator (he trained alongside his friend Raymond Hawkey at the Royal College of Art), and created covers and jackets for a good number of books from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s (something of a Golden Age for cover design, in my opinion), perhaps the most famous being his design for the 1958 Andre Deutsch British edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Together with Len himself, Rob Mallows has identified twenty-two books which sport Deighton-designed covers, but he suspects there may be more, and is currently working with The Len Deighton Companion author Edward Milward-Oliver to try and track down any missing ones. Rob's posted a complete list of the known covers on The Deighton Dossier blog, so pop along there and have a look, and if you can spot any gaps in the list, do leave a comment either on that post or this one.

And with that, let's return to Desmond Cory, Johnny Fedora and Feramontov...

Thursday 19 January 2012

Undertow (Feramontov Quintet #1) by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1962 / Walker, 1963 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2011): Book Review

In this latest run of an ongoing series of posts on various spy fiction series, I'm blogging about British author Desmond Cory's series of novels starring secret agent Johnny Fedora – specifically the five novels, commonly known as the Feramontov Quintet, which close out the Fedora adventures: Undertow (Frederick Muller, 1962), Hammerhead (Muller, 1963, alias Shockwave), Feramontov (Muller, 1966), Timelock (Muller, 1967) and Sunburst (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971). Each of those stories sees Fedora facing off against Soviet spymaster Feramontov, who makes his debut here:

That there is the 1963 US Walker hardback first edition of the twelfth Johnny Fedora novel, Undertow – jacket design by Frederick Marvin – which was as close as I could get to a 1962 British first edition. I have seen one copy of the UK Frederick Muller first for sale online, but it was sans dustjacket, which is no use to anyone – although of course if you couldn't care less about book collecting, the novel is readily available courtesy of Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint. And I really would recommend getting yourself a copy, because it is, quite simply, brilliant – so good, in fact, that it more-than-comfortably made it into my 2011 Best Books I Read This Year chart. (And let's face it: praise doesn't come much higher than that.)

The reasons for that are many, but chief among them is that Undertow is so beautifully written. Right from the off Desmond Cory's quiet facility with the written word is self-evident, as he describes the dead body of an escaped prisoner, Juan Guerrero, lying face down beside a Spanish road, a "black halo" of blood staining the ground around his head. Guerrero has been murdered by a fellow escapee from one of Franco's jails, Moreno, whose extraction has been effected by Feramontov, orchestrating events from a yacht off the coast. Feramontov and his associates Meuvret and Elsa need Moreno to secure certain logbooks, which are hidden in or near a house overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar... a house owned by an Argentinian heiress and currently occupied by two idle Englishmen...

The Englishmen are, of course, Johnny Fedora and his pal Sebastian Trout. By this point in the series Fedora is practically retired, loafing around his girlfriend's house in Spain (a country Cory knew well; he lived there for a time and eventually retired to the area around Malaga where Undertow is set), lounging by the swimming pool, drinking too much and playing the piano. It's sheer bad luck on Feramontov's part that Fedora happens to be in residence at Moreno's target, but when the housemaid winds up dead in the pool, Fedora makes it his business to find out who killed her, in the process getting sucked into Feramontov's scheme.

Cory has been criticized in some quarters for his unhurried pacing and apparent lack of interest in plotting (the words "boring", "lame", "nothing" and "happens" have been trotted out in response to his work), but that's to overlook his books' very particular qualities as idiosyncratic thrillers. For sure, Undertow is characterized by long, languorous passages where seemingly little of note occurs, and yet those sequences are wonderfully vivid and descriptive, subtly delving into the psychology of the protagonists. Take the scene where Fedora, Trout and Elsa are diving in the harbour. Fedora finds himself, unusually, utterly at peace with the world, subsumed into the aquatic environs, "a pair of eyes and a brain behind a vaseline-smeared plastic panel... no longer human... a disembodied spirit".

Cory continues: 

Looking up, he could see the sunlight broken by the wavelets on the surface into shuddering, boiling bands and flecks, into streamers of bright gold and orange that became suddenly alive with all the colours of the prism; and he could see the bubbles of his own breath rising swiftly, colourless like pearls, then glinting as though with flame as they reached that surface froth, mingled with it and disappeared...

Offsetting these calm interludes are moments of extreme violence and gripping bursts of action, which punctuate the prose at intervals. One of the most memorable of these is an assault by Feramontov-hired thugs on a police station where Fedora is being held. From start to finish this episode is just two two-page chapters long (the numberless chapters in Undertow are typically very short), but Cory packs a hell of a lot into that scant space, his economy with words lending the scene a shocking intensity.

Equally shocking are some of the things Cory's cast do to one another. Elsa goads the dangerous, unhinged Moreno into attacking her (and then nearly kills him), while the antagonistic relationship between her and Feramontov explodes into sexualised violence twice in quick succession. That Feramontov is left gasping for breath after the first encounter and sporting a bloodied lip after the second speaks to Elsa's strength as a character, but she's as damaged as the rest of them, although nowhere near as twisted and sadistic as Feramontov himself.

Mind you, Johnny's no saint either. His reasons for becoming involved in the affair amount at first to little more than boredom and a professional interest in a fellow killer (Moreno), although the death of his maid does give him an added impetus to dig deeper. But as we'll see in the next Fedora book I'll be reviewing – the second Feramontov Quintet novel, Hammerhead – Johnny isn't above resorting to questionable methods himself in order to get what he wants, even if that entails torture...

NB: A version of this review also appears on the Shots website.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Spy Thrillers of Desmond Cory: Johnny Fedora and the Feramontov Quintet

If you're wondering whether we'll ever reach the end of my protracted series of posts on spy fiction series – well, quite frankly, you're reading the wrong bloody blog (see masthead). But even the most committed of espionage enthusiasts can tire of "the Great Game" on occasion, and since the spy series posts have been running on and off for two months now, and I'm keen to mix it up a bit more going forward, you can take some solace in the fact that there will be some non-spy stuff (and indeed non-Westlake stuff for that matter) on Existential Ennui very soon indeed. But not just yet. There are still a couple of terrific spy fiction authors I'm eager to cover before moving on to other matters, not least among them being British writer Desmond Cory.

Desmond Cory – a pen name of Shaun McCarthy (1928–2001) – had dozens of crime and spy thrillers published over a forty-plus year period from 1951 to 1993. Sixteen of them feature British secret agent Johnny Fedora, and it's those novels I'll be concentrating on in this run of posts, specifically the five books which close out the series. Johnny Fedora made his debut in one of two Cory novels published in 1951, Secret Ministry (the other being a crime novel, Begin, Murderer!) – reissued in the States as The Nazi Assassins – beating another, more famous operative, Ian Fleming's James Bond, into print by two years (Casino Royale didn't arrive until 1953). Half Spanish, half Irish, a former Spanish Civil War combatant, Chicago gangster and F.B.I. counter-espionage agent – not to mention a talented piano player – Fedora is essentially freelance, hired by British Intelligence on a case-by-case basis – often assisted by Sebastian Trout of the Foreign Office – and pitted against Nazi spies, trained killers and Soviet agent provocateurs, against whom he proves highly lethal.

As is the way with a lot of the authors I blog about, Desmond Cory is largely overlooked these days, but the odd review aside, there is one excellent resource for him on the web. The Desmond Cory Website is a treasure trove of information about the author and his best-known creation, with bibliographies, book cover galleries and downloadable articles on and interviews with Cory. Even so, the majority of Cory's books have slipped out of print, some of them becoming incredibly scarce in any edition, so that reading Cory's Fedora novels – let alone collecting them – has become a tricky proposition, and nigh on impossible in some cases. The major exceptions are the first three Fedora outings, which are available as eBooks for the Kindle through Amazon, and 1962's Undertow – the first novel in what's known as the Feramontov Quintet – which Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint – home, too, to the Jonas Wilde books I've just finished blogging about – reissued towards the end of last year.

And it's to Undertow that I'll be turning next, as Johnny Fedora encounters for the first time the twisted, feline Russian spy who would bedevil him for the remainder of his literary career: Feramontov...

Monday 16 January 2012

Book Review: The Mercenaries (1960, a.k.a. The Cutie / The Smashers) by Donald E. Westlake

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Ahead of my next run of spy fiction posts, let's return to crime fiction giant – and perennial Existential Ennui obsession – Donald E. Westlake, and his debut novel ("official" debut, that is; he had other pseudonymous sleaze works published before it), 1960's The Mercenaries, a signed, inscribed British first edition of which I blogged about just over a week ago. I mentioned in that post that Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent had already reviewed The Mercenaries – which was reissued under Westlake's originally intended title, The Cutie, by Hard Case Crime in 2009 (and also published as The Smashers by Dell in 1962) – in the course of which review Trent reasoned that the novel laid the groundwork for Westlake's Parker series (written, of course, as Richard Stark), which would commence just two years hence with The Hunter.

It's a valid point. Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between the amorality of the Parker books and the amorality of The Mercenaries – at least as regards the bulk of the characters in the latter. The story is related in the first person by Clay, right-hand man of mob boss Ed Ganolese. Clay has been working for Ganolese ever since the mobster helped Clay out back when Clay was plain old George Clayton; as he explains to his squeeze, Ella, Clay is "Ed's boy, he's my boss, he says do, I do" – and that translates into anything from strong-arming to straight out murder.

So when a stuttering junky known as Billy-Billy comes to Clay with a dead broad on his hands and the cops on his trail, and yet still protesting his innocence, Clay's first instinct is that Billy-Billy's days are probably numbered. Trouble is, Billy-Billy is connected, and it's in Ed Ganolese's interest to look out for Billy-Billy and find the real killer. Thus Clay must turn investigator, hunting down the unknown "Cutie" who set Billy-Billy up and is now leaving a trail of bodies behind him, in turn bringing down unwanted heat on the Organization.

Much as he does in the Parker novels, in The Mercenaries Westlake immerses us in an utterly criminal world, with only Clay's girlfriend, the occasional walk-on cop and Clay's niggling conscience serving as moral compasses. But whereas in the Parkers Westlake reserves judgment on the rights and wrongs of Parker's lawless endeavours, in The Mercenaries there is a sense of the author disapproving of Clay. There's a strong suggestion that Clay will, in the end, get his comeuppance – something one never feels with Parker. Clay has his doubts about the life he leads, but they're ultimately fleeting: he's "Ed's boy", a lackey, and therefore quite different from the self-sufficient and consequently strangely admirable Parker. By comparison, there's little to admire about Clay, either on our part or, it seems, Westlake's.

The milieu of New York mob life is well-realised. There's, if not an authenticity, then at least a plausibility, a believability to The Mercenaries. Although he was hardly the first author to have criminals as his protagonists – the likes of Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald and, perhaps most significantly, Peter Rabe got there before him – Westlake's take on low level gangsterism is convincing. At root, however, The Mercenaries isn't really a gangster novel at all; it's a gumshoe tale, with Clay in the role of the P.I. Good as The Mercenaries is, it's noticeably derivative, and it was only once Westlake managed to divest himself of the Hammett (overtly namechecked on the cover of the first British edition of the book) and Chandler trappings that he began to craft something more distinctive and original, in the shape of the Parker novels and, to a lesser degree, the Dortmunder books.

To my mind, "The Mercenaries" is a more apt title than Westlake's preferred choice of "The Cutie"; the novel is populated by disagreeably venal characters, not least Clay himself. But the (almost) eponymous adversary does provide the impetus for events, and again could be seen as an indicator of things to come: in the way in which he wreaks merry havoc with Clay's life, the Cutie prefigures the anonymous foil who frustrates Parker in The Seventh (1966).

As a debut novel, The Mercenaries has a lot going for it. It's a credible portrayal of a criminal underworld, disarmingly brutal in places, and a decent whodunnit to boot. And though in and of itself it's perhaps unremarkable – there were other writers doing similar things to more forceful effect around this period – it does offer tantalising glimpses of greatness to come. As such, it's an important book in Westlake's canon, and a milestone in his career as a writer.

Next up: Desmond Cory, Johnny Fedora, and Feramontov...