Friday 27 January 2012

Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora Spy Novels: Johnny Goes North (Muller, 1956; a.k.a. The Swastika Hunt) and The Head (Muller, 1960)

After yesterday's breaking news story about spy novelist Helen MacInnes's return to print, it's back to Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora espionage series. And having thoroughly explored the series-closing Feramontov Quintet – and there are some great comments on those posts now, including some fascinating additional info on the last one, so do check those out if you haven't already – I'm heading deeper into Johnny Fedora's past now, with two first editions dating from earlier in his literary career. Let's take a gander at this one first:

A UK hardback first edition of the seventh Johnny Fedora adventure, Johnny Goes North, published by Frederick Muller in 1956. Similar to the five-book Feramontov series-within-a-series, Johnny Goes North is the first in a loosely linked run of Fedora novels, at least titularly; it was followed by Johnny Goes East (1957), Johnny Goes West (1958) and Johnny Goes South (1959). The effect was slightly ruined, however, when three of the four were retitled for paperback publication (either by Award in the States or Four Square in the UK) as The Swastika Hunt (...North), Mountainhead (...East) and Overload (...South).

There's no credit for the dustjacket illustration on the Muller edition of Johnny Goes North... but it looks suspiciously like the work of British illustrator/comics artist Denis McLoughlin to me. Only problem is, I don't know if McLoughlin ever worked for Muller; he's primarily associated with T.V. Boardman, although he did do covers for others publishers besides. Go compare the Johnny Goes North cover to the ones in these Boardman/McLoughlin galleries and see what you think.

(UPDATE 1: Actually, scratch that; I think I can see a signature on the artwork, but I can't quite read it. Doesn't seem to be McLoughlin's, though; bear with me while I do some more digging.)

(UPDATE 2: OK, looks like the signature is "Chambers", but I've not yet been able to work out who that is/was. I'll update when I have.)

As for the story, according to the jacket flap copy that sees Johnny Fedora, freelance operative for British Intelligence, embarking on a Europe-wide chase with his pal Sebastian Trout of the Foreign Office following the death in Venice of an American writer and "the mysterious disappearance of a glamorous Swede". (I've been linking the Desmond Cory Website throughout this run of posts, but the Spy Guys & Gals website also has a pithy summary of this book and the other Fedora adventures, plus a good introductory overview.)

As with others of Cory's Fedora novels, Johnny Goes North is quite hard to come by, either under its original title or as The Swastika Hunt. As you can see, the jacket on my copy, which came from one of those bulk secondhand internet booksellers I usually try to avoid, is a bit battered, and although there is one other, rather nicer copy of the Muller first on AbeBooks at present, it's in Australia (the only other copy is also in Australia, and is ex-library). For any Americans interested in a cheaper alternative, there are currently two Award paperbacks of The Swastika Hunt on AbeBooks... and that's about it for available copies online.

But as uncommon as Johnny Goes North is, it's still not as scarce as the second Cory/Fedora novel I'm showcasing in this post:

A British hardback first edition of The Head, published by Frederick Muller in 1960. The eleventh Fedora novel, this one is incredibly rare: there are, to my knowledge, currently no copies whatsoever of any edition of the book for sale online. My one was a lucky eBay win, from an auction run by the Northampton Bookshop, which, judging by the pictures on its website, looks like it'd be well worth a visit (not that I'm likely to be anywhere near Northampton in the foreseeable future, mind).

Once again the dustjacket is uncredited... but there is a signature at bottom right of the illustration, which I can just make out: Ray Theobald. Theobald is perhaps better known for his science fiction art than for illustrating spy or crime fiction – there's a bibliography of his distinctive SF covers here and a short note on him here – but he did work in other genres, and there's an absolutely corking example of one of his crime covers here.

In the Johnny Fedora series The Head nestles between the North/East/West/South quartet and the Feramontov Quintet, which began with Undertow in 1962 (see the Fedora bibliography on the Desmond Cory Website). But it shares with the five Feramontov novels a common setting: Spain, a country Cory knew very well indeed. That said, it's an unusual entry in the series as a whole: it sees Johnny pitted not against a person (or persons), but a thing – a mountain, to be precise, as Fedora and a group of village locals attempt to move a statue to the mountain's peak.

There's just one final post to come now in this current Cory run, and for that one we're heading right back to the beginning of the Johnny Fedora series, with a review of a novel that's quite different in tone from the later books, in a rarely seen edition that took me on a (virtual) adventure to the continent of Africa. And therein lies a tale in itself...

Thursday 26 January 2012

BREAKING NEWS! Queen of Spy Writers Helen MacInnes Returns to Print in 2012, Courtesy of Titan Books!

Interrupting my now-extended series of posts on Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novels, here's a rather exciting announcement for you. Regular readers may recall my having broken the news in December of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm spy novels being brought back into print by Titan Books. Well Existential Ennui is first with the news once again, because I'm pleased to report that Titan will soon be bringing another spy novelist back into print – this time an author who was known in her day as the Queen of Spy Writers (as well as the Queen of Spy Fiction and the slightly more cumbersome Queen of International Espionage Fiction): Helen MacInnes.

One of a select band of female espionage novelists (Sarah Gainham being another), MacInnes's career as a writer began in 1941 with the publication of her debut novel, Above Suspicion, which was turned into a Joan Crawford/Fred MacMurray film in 1943. She had a further twenty novels published over the next forty-plus years (and one play), a number of which were also filmed, including The Venetian Affair (1963, the Robert Vaughan-starring movie of which arrived in 1967) and The Salzburg Connection (1969, filmed in 1972; that's the Collins first edition you can see below). Like Gainham's protagonists, MacInnes's leads were usually amateurs rather than professional spies, and her novels were hailed by critics and fans as credible, plausible espionage thrillers.

And starting this summer, MacInnes's work will once again become widely available, as Titan begins reissuing the author's novels. In a press release, Titan Books' Editorial Director, Katy Wild (who knows her onions when it comes to crime and spy fiction, believe me), explained: "I have loved Helen MacInnes's novels all my life. They are exciting stories, immaculately researched, but with immense integrity and heart. I always felt that she had been unfairly neglected in the revival of interest in the classic spy thriller genre, so I was delighted when I was able to enter into an agreement with her descendants. Our agreement with them will enable us to bring the books back into print and e-book formats and show readers what they've been missing all these years."

Quite so. There'll probably be an official announcement tomorrow (so remember where you read the news first), and as ever I expect there'll be further details down the line, so keep 'em peeled. For now, though, it's back to Desmond Cory and Johnny Fedora here on Existential Ennui, with a couple of quite scarce first editions...

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora Spy Novels: Feramontov (Feramontov Quintet #3, Frederick Muller, 1966) and Timelock (Feramontov Quintet #4, Muller, 1967)

I had intended this to be the final post in this current series on British author Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy novels... but on reflection, I've decided to extend the run slightly. I'll explain how and why at the end of this post, but first, having reviewed books one and two in what's known as the Feramontov Quintet – the five-book series-with-a-series which finishes off the Fedora thrillers, and which all pit Johnny against Soviet spymaster Feramontov – Undertow (1962) and Hammerhead (1963, alias Shockwave), let's take a look at two further Feramontov novels I've managed to find in first edition.

First up, a British hardback first edition of Feramontov, the third book in the Feramontov Quintet – and the fourteenth Johnny Fedora novel overall – published by Frederick Muller in 1966. The jacket design is credited to Klim Forster, about whom I've been able to determine very little, although he did illustrate the cover to the 1967 Macmillan edition of Jean Stubbs's My Grand Enemy, and a 1972 Daily Telegraph Magazine article titled "The Major and the Macaroni" by journalist and Labour MP Chris Mullin (whose excellent diaries are well worth a read).

I mentioned in my introductory Desmond Cory/Johnny Fedora post that many of Cory's Fedora novels have become decidedly uncommon in first edition (or any edition in some cases), and although the Muller first of Feramontov isn't the scarcest of the Fedoras, it is still in short supply: AbeBooks currently has just three copies listed, one of those lacking a dustjacket. Set once again in Spain, the story sees Feramontov eliminating British agents; on publication in the States the novel was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review alongside Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Octopussy, the latter dismissed as "a thin and even emaciated volume", while Feramontov was hailed as being full of "colorful action, copious carnage, elaborate intrigue, frequent surprises" (see article "The Evolution of Desmond Cory" on the Desmond Cory Website).

Cory was often compared with Fleming, even though Johnny Fedora beat Bond into print by two years (the debut Fedora outing, Secret Ministry, appearing in 1951; Casino Royale wasn't published until 1953), and the second Feramontov Quintet novel I'm showcasing in this post was even more directly contrasted with Fleming's work – and just as favourably:

First published in hardback in the UK by Frederick Muller in 1967, Timelock is the fourth Fermaontov novel (and the fifteenth Fedora outing). The jacket design in this instance is credited to Abis Sida Stribley, a designer who was also a photographer; Stribley's photographs illustrated the original 1965 Woman's Own serialization of Agatha Christie's novel At Bertram's Hotel (I'm assuming the photo on the cover of Timelock is Stribley's, too). Set, like the other Feramontov novels, in Spain, Timelock is notable for the fact that Fedora and Feramontov actually meet this time; previously they'd only set eyes on each other from afar.

I bought this copy in Dim and Distant in Heathfield, East Sussex, but the Muller edition is practically common as muck in comparison with other Cory firsts: AbeBooks currently has a staggering five copies listed (although one of those might be sans jacket). As mentioned above, Timelock was again juxtaposed with Fleming's 007 adventures, this time by writer and critic Anthony Boucher, who wrote in his New York Times Magazine column Criminals at Large: "I must say once more that I find Cory's Johnny Fedora a much more persuasive violent, sexy and lucky agent than James Bond." (Again, see "The Evolution of Desmond Cory" on the Desmond Cory Website.)

I had, as I say, planned to leave it at that for now for the Cory/Fedora posts – I'm still on the hunt for an affordable first of the final Feramontov – and Fedora – novel, 1971's Sunburst – but I do actually have in my possession one or two other, earlier books from the series (I've been a busy little bee, as per usual), one of which is particularly exciting. So rather than save those for a later date, let's carry on with Cory a wee while longer, with another first edition showcase post... and another review.

Before that, though, look out for some breaking news regarding a different spy novelist – a contemporary of Cory's whose novels are all out of print... but not for much longer...

Monday 23 January 2012

Book Review: Hammerhead / Shockwave (Feramontov Quintet #2) by Desmond Cory (Muller 1963 / Four Square 1966)

Continuing this run of posts on British thriller writer Desmond Cory's series of spy novels starring secret agent Johnny Fedora (after a brief Len Deighton interlude), next it's the turn of the second book in the Feramontov Quintet – the five novels which close out the Fedora series, which all feature feline Russian spymaster Feramontov – Hammerhead:

Except, as you can see, that's not the title which graces the above book cover. That's because, in common with others of Cory's novels (see the bibliographies on the Desmond Cory Website), Hammerhead was retitled for American publication, in this instance by Walker in the States, who issued the book in hardback as Shockwave in the same year (1963) as the British Frederick Muller hardback edition of Hammerhead. Indeed, the Muller edition was destined to be the book's only appearance as Hammerhead; thereafter, the novel became known as Shockwave even in the UK, where Four Square published a paperback edition under that title in 1966.

All of which is a little tiresome, I'm sure, for those with an, at most, nominal interest in publishing or collecting matters, but it does go some way towards explaining why the cover you can see above is the Four Square paperback of Shockwave – the remainder of the explanation being that I couldn't for the life of me find a readily available British or American hardback first edition (as I mentioned before, many of Cory's books have become uncommon in all editions). No matter, though. This paperback'll do me fine until I find a first – and in truth, I was slightly less taken by Hammerhead/Shockwave than I was by Undertow.

Don't get me wrong: Shockwave definitely has its merits. The story sees Johnny Fedora, freelance operative-cum-assassin for British Intelligence, back in Spain (Madrid this time) at the behest of Marisa de Camba – with whom, I believe, Johnny shared an adventure in The Head (1960), the Fedora novel prior to Undertow (1962). Marisa wants Johnny to look into the murky circumstances surrounding the death of a friend of hers, Sofia Domecq, and sends him to an investigative journalist, who explains that Sofia was the mistress of influential industrialist Chaval. It appears that Sofia was in possession of damaging information about Chaval's role in the Civil War, and about Chaval possibly running a drug ring in Madrid. And not only that, but Johnny learns separately from his British handlers that Chaval's company installed the electrics in a number of American "H-bomber" bases – and furthermore, the Brits have reason to believe Feramontov is somehow mixed up in all this.

In an effort to unravel the various strands of the case, Johnny and another friend of Marisa and Sofia's, Carlota, attend one of Chaval's parties, and here we encounter a scene which typifies Desmond Cory's unusual approach to thriller-writing. Johnny is caught snooping round Chaval's house, but rather than concoct a cover story, as, say, James Bond might do, Fedora comes right out and reveals that he's investigating whether or not Chaval murdered Sofia. After a violent struggle, Johnny is ejected from the party; when Carlota subsequently asks how his encounter with Chaval went, Fedora responds (somewhat prophetically), "Like a bomb," before adding after a pause: "...Right off in my face."

It's a neat illustration of Fedora's character. In many ways Johnny is a blunt instrument, prone to tackling a problem head-on – something Chaval experiences again before too long, when Fedora tortures him to get to the truth. Much of this interrogation takes place off-page, but it's no less horrific for that – and neither is a preceding passage, where Johnny uses two kitchen knives to dismember a dead body and then stuffs the pieces into a suitcase, afterwards telling a tied-up Chaval, who's complaining of cramp, "You'd feel even worse inside a suitcase. And you may come to that, even yet." For all Johnny's civilized trappings – his  talent on the piano, for example – Cory leaves us under no illusions that Fedora is a cold-blooded killer.

For his part, Feramontov possibly features even less in Shockwave than he did in Undertow. But whereas in Undertow, Feramontov's goal was rather low key – the retrieval of a ship's logbook – in Shockwave his scheme is both breathtaking in scope and apocalyptic in scale, with nothing less than the survival of Madrid at stake. Conversely, however, despite these high stakes, Desmond Cory's narrative is even more relaxed than in Undertow. The languorous interludes which peppered the previous Fedora outing are in evidence here, too, but although these do help to throw the explosions of violence – more extreme than before – into sharp relief, the pacing overall is perhaps a little too lackadaisical this time out, and those who complain of nothing happening in Cory's novels will find ample ammunition in Shockwave.

Even so, I still wouldn't place myself in the "Cory is boring" camp – not by a long chalk. The introspective nature of parts of Shockwave for me make the book more interesting – as do the novel's political aspects: Cory further develops here his intriguing and unconventional notion of Spain being at the centre of the struggle between East and West. That theme of Spain acting as a fulcrum in the Great Game would persist in the remaining Feramontov novels, and I'll be looking at first editions of two of those in the next Cory/Fedora/Feramontov post...