Friday 23 March 2012

Tales of Adventurers: Short Stories by Geoffrey Household (Michael Joseph First Edition, 1952)

Geoffrey Household is chiefly remembered these days for his novels – in particular his 1939 classic thriller Rogue Male – but he was also a prolific writer of short stories. He had seven collections of short stories published, many of which originally appeared in periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly and Argosy, but it was the second of those collections which, for Household, held a special significance.

Tales of Adventurers was published in hardback in 1952 by Little, Brown in the States and Michael Joseph in the UK – that's the Joseph edition you can see above. According to crime writer and critic Mike Ripley – who, of course, has resissued two of Household's novels under his Top Notch Thrillers imprint – of all the novels, novellas and short story collections Household published – thirty-six in total – the author "always maintained that the one book he wanted to be judged by was his anthology Tales of Adventurers".

It's remarkable, then, that the Little, Brown and Michael Joseph first editions remain the only printings of the book. The Little, Brown first is fairly easy to come by at present (if you're in the States) – AbeBooks currently has eleven copies listed for sale – but the Joseph first is extremely uncommon: I bought the only copy on AbeBooks, which means there are, right now, no copies available. (There are two copies listed on Amazon Marketplace, but I suspect they might be "phantom" listings, and they're very pricey anyway.) The dustjacket design is uncredited, but it reminds me a little of the (similarly uncredited) jacket for the 1955 Heinemann first edition of Grahame Greene's The Quiet American.

The stories in Tales of Adventurers run the gamut of themes and genres, from spy thrillers to historical romps, from the poignant to the comedic, from wartime vignettes to tales with a touch of the supernatural. I haven't read all of them yet – the book only turned up in the post the other day – but those I have read are utterly beguiling. The opening story, "First Blood", details the Mediterranean sea voyage of Mr. Avellion, a civilian businessman recruited by the British Board of Trade on the eve of World War II by dint of his supposed familiarity with Alexandria in Egypt. But Mr. Avellion, "pear-shaped" and with "a powerful nose sprouting blue-grey buds like a tree in winter", hadn't reckoned on the lack of alcohol on the long, overcrowded cruiser passage, and soon the crossing becomes for him a DTs-induced hallucinatory nightmare.

"Culture" takes place slightly later in the Second World War, and finds a Greek waiter shivering in a snowbound Albanian valley awaiting an attack on the Italian outpost above – an attack which climaxes with a surprising and strangely cheering exchange of polite pleasantries. "Woman in Love", meanwhile, deals with a rather colder war, in which a spymaster of Greek origin named Theotaki operating in Roumania is forced at short notice to enlist the aid of a female agent who's due to be married in Sweden, exhorting her to memorize Russian troop movements and pass on the information. But the woman, Alexia – codename D17 – is naturally preoccupied by her impending nuptials, leading to an oversight so potentially perilous it's almost funny.

One story, "The Picket Lines of Marton Hevessey", takes the form of a letter of reference, written to an American security official as a spirited defence of the extraordinary eponymous Hungarian who became a Jew to spite the Nazis, a Baron to vex the communists, and has now, in the wake of Senator McCarthy's accusations (although these are never directly referenced), been asked whether he was ever a Red. Needless to say, Hevessey's response is as trenchant as the exploits depicted in the letter would suggest. Another story, "The Pejemuller", is set in a Spanish fair ground, where two proud Basques enter into an argument with the Andalusian proprietor of a booth displaying what appears to be a live mermaid ("pejemuller" translating as "fish woman") – a disagreement which can only be resolved by an honourable act of vandalism and liberation.

Reading these stories, one begins to understand why Household held this collection in such high regard. The tales are populated by lightly sketched but wonderfully vivid and colourful characters, set in recognizable European locales – evidently informed by the widely-travelled Household's familiarity with them – and grounded in (largely) realistic events, yet laced with irony and a wry wit and told in an engrossing, absorbing fashion. One of the stories, "Brandy for the Parson", was even turned into a film in the year of publication, starring James Donald, Kenneth More, Jean Lodge and Charles Hawtrey. It's a wonderful comic fable, featuring a troop of minor crooks who disguise themselves as the in-training British Imperial Andean Exploration Society in order to explain the Exmoor ponies they're using to carry smuggled brandy into Dorset – a ruse that eventually takes on a life of its own.

The back of the jacket of this Michael Joseph edition features an assortment of notices for the two books which preceded Tales of Adventurers – both novels, one a sequel to the other – the only time, apart from the much later Rogue Justice, that Household ever wrote a sequel. And it's those two novels which will form the basis of the final pair of posts in this series on Household – both of them in rather lovely British editions...

Thursday 22 March 2012

Geoffrey Household: The Sending (Michael Joseph, 1980), Summon the Bright Water (Joseph, 1981), and Ruminations on the Rural

Thus far in this ongoing run of posts I've been occasionally referring to Geoffrey Household as a thriller writer. But "thrillers" only goes some way towards describing the books and stories he wrote. Some aren't thrillers at all, but even those which fall within that loose term are often something else besides, and such is the case with the two books I'm showcasing in this post. Published in consecutive years just prior to 1982's Rogue Justice, one features occult elements, while the other details a quest for hidden golden treasure, but both revisit Household's abiding concern of the countryside as a place of escape, refuge, and indeed danger. And the first of those two books is this:

Published in hardback by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1980, with a jacket cover photo by Chris Yates – whose work as both a photographer and a professional angler (!) I explored in this earlier Geoffrey Household post and this P. M. Hubbard postThe Sending was Household's twenty-fourth novel, and like many of his books is written in the first-person. In this instance the narrative takes the form of a diary, that of the intriguingly named Alfgif Hollaston, "a government surveyor" and "mystic and painter" who returns to "the Somerset home of his ancestors" where he inherits a polecat named Meg who, it transpires, is a witch's familiar. All of which sounds very odd indeed – have a read of the jacket flap blurb below for more:

I bought this first edition in the excellent secondhand bookshop Dim and Distant in Heathfield, East Sussex, for the princely sum of four quid, and it's in very nice, near-pristine condition – with one or two curious exceptions. Here and there in the text someone has marked up in pencil typos:

Which makes me wonder if this copy is a file copy, marked up by a publisher for a prospective paperback printing, as was the case with this Simon & Schuster hardback of Ross Thomas's The Mordida Man. Either that, or its previous owner was a particularly over-zealous editor unable to leave his or her work behind of an evening.

The second of the two books I'm showing in this post was bought even closer to home – in A & Y Cumming in Lewes, to be precise, again for £4, which was even more of a bargain than The Sending, since copies of this one are in rather shorter supply:

Published again by Michael Joseph, this time in 1981, and once again featuring a Chris Yates cover photo, on the surface (hey!) Summon the Bright Water's plot appears more conventional than that of The Sending: the narrator, Piers Colet, travels to the Forest of Dean, and on a skin diving expedition in the River Severn is nearly drowned by his guide, Simeon Marrin, thereafter coming to suspect that there is treasure in the river. But of course there's more to it than that: Marrin is financing the "esoteric community" of which Colet is a guest in the Forest of Dean – and that community is "preparing its members for the collapse of urban civilisation by learning the simple crafts of the Dark Ages". As before, allow me to guide you to the jacket flap blurb for more details:

In common with a good many of Geoffrey Household's novels and stories, both The Sending and Summon the Bright Water are set in and deal with rural locations and life – a preoccupation Household shares with suspense writer P. M. Hubbard, although in Hubbard's case the countryside is often a much more hostile place. Not that Household romanticizes the English countryside: as crime writer and Top Notch Thrillers head honcho Mike Ripley points out in this 2011 Crime and Detective Stories article, despite not actually moving to the country until he was in his late forties, Household was "able to bring the reader closer to nature, albeit a nature very red in tooth and claw".

Mike continues: 

The central theme of most of his thrillers is the hunter and the hunted and many of his heroes are solitary ('Rogue'?) figures, almost cat-like animals with their scented 'runs' and burrows where they take cover from their enemies. In Household's world, ground is most efficiently covered on horseback and every dip in the landscape, every ditch, every hedge and every copse of trees is noted as a possible source of cover, camouflage or danger.

That affinity for the rural and sense of the wild as a place in which to seek refuge and respite is something I touched on in my 2010 review of Rogue Male (alongside Concrete Island and Ordinary Thunderstorms), and it's a theme I'll be returning to in a review of a similarly rustic Household novel later in this run of posts. But next, I'm turning to Geoffrey Household's short stories, and an early collection which Household always maintained was the book he wished to be judged by...

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Book Review: the Sequel to Rogue Male – Rogue Justice, by Geoffrey Household

From a 1939 British first edition (third impression) of thriller writer Geoffrey Household's third novel, Rogue Male, we move on in this series of Household posts to his third-from-final novel – a book which is, in fact, a direct sequel to that hands-down classic, but published over forty years later:

Rogue Justice originally appeared in 1982, published in the UK by Michael Joseph – I blogged about that edition back 2010. The cover seen above, however, isn't that edition; it's the Top Notch Thrillers reissue, published by Mike Ripley's imprint in 2011 – just one of many overlooked thrillers that Mike has brought back into print. And it's great that Rogue Justice is widely available again, because even though it doesn't scale the lofty literary/thriller heights of its illustrious forebear, it's an intriguing novel nonetheless.

For a start, whereas in Rogue Male the identity of the European dictator the narrator attempted to assassinate at the beginning of the novel was never revealed, in Rogue Justice it's plainly stated that it was indeed Adolf Hitler. Not a huge or especially startling revelation, I know, but remember that Rogue Male was written and first published in peacetime, so basing a character on Hitler was pretty daring, even if he wasn't named. But we don't just learn the identity of the dictator in Rogue Justice: we also learn the name of the narrator of both novels. In Rogue Male, we're given to understand that our protagonist is noble enough in heritage that he's well-known in Britain, but we aren't told his name. In Rogue Justice, his name is finally revealed: Raymond Ingelram. (Curiously, in his 1977 survey Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Donald McCormick calls the narrator of Rogue Male "Sir Robert Hunter" – influenced, no doubt, by the 1976 Peter O'Toole BBC TV adaptation – an error he then repeats for his 1990 follow-up, Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, published eight years after Household had named his lead Raymond Ingelram!)

Rogue Male ended with Ingelram determining to take another crack at killing Hitler – whose thugs murdered Ingelram's one true love – having survived a perilous pursuit by agents of Nazi Germany, in particular the cunning and savage Major Quive-Smith (or von Lauen, to give him his true name). Rogue Justice picks up his story four years later in 1942, and finds Ingelram languishing in a Rostock prison cell. As he explains, he used Quive-Smith's Nicaraguan passport – issued under the name Don Ernesto Menendez Peraza – to try and inveigle himself into German society as a Nazi sympathizer, in the hope of getting close enough to Hitler to off the bugger, but was unmasked and banged up instead. But a fortuitous RAF raid destroys the gaol in which he's being held, and he makes his escape, dressed as his now-dead captor, Hauptmann Haase.

From there, the action ranges across Nazi-occupied Europe, as, realising that he'll never be able to assassinate Hitler, Ingelram embarks instead on a quest to exact a different sort of vengeance. Effectively, he turns himself into a one-man army, falling in with the occasional resistance or guerilla movement, attacking German troops where he can, notching up a steadily increasing number of kills. In that sense, then, Rogue Justice is less focused than Rogue Male. In the former novel, Ingelram's aim was simple: to evade the enemy agents on his tail. In Rogue Justice, however, he becomes by turns pursuee, then attacker, then pursuee again, with no real purpose beyond slaughtering as many Germans soldiers as he can (and perhaps returning home to England).

But while Rogue Justice lacks Rogue Male's elegantly streamlined plot and consequent escalating tension, it does work as a kind of wartime travelogue, offering glimpses of life in occupied Poland (Ingelram has a near-brush with Auschwitz), Slovakia, Romania and Greece. And Ingelram remains an agreeable companion: resourceful (his long experience as a hunter comes in very handy here), obviously aristocratic yet never patronising towards the many downtrodden locals he meet, his observations are often barbed with a sly, witty sarcasm (Mike Ripley has written about how in Rogue Justice Household "has perfected the cool, very British (English) attitude of self-deprecation when under fire"; see this excellent Crime and Detective Stories article on the TNT/Ostara website).

Quite apart from its intriguing revelations as to the identity of the narrator of the novel (and its predecessor) and his intended target, Rogue Justice is interesting bibliographically too. The gap of forty-three years between the publication of Rogue Male and Rogue Justice must surely rank as the longest between a novel and its sequel (written by the same author) in publishing history (don't just take my word for it: Mike Ripley reckons that's the case as well). Then there's the fact that Rogue Male gained a sequel at all: Geoffrey Household didn't, as a rule, write sequels, and only one other novel in his canon besides Rogue Male was awarded a follow-up – although in that case the length of time between the two books was considerably shorter.

I'll be returning to those two novels later in this run of Household posts, but next I'll be looking at the two novels which precede Rogue Justice in Household's backlist – both of which boast cover designs by the same photographer-turned-professional fisherman responsible for the jacket photo on the Michael Joseph edition of Rogue Justice...

Monday 19 March 2012

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household; 1939 Chatto & Windus First Edition, Services Library Wrapper, Enid Marx Cover Design

Well the entries for my splendid Ilex Gift giveaway are rolling in, so if you haven't done so already, make sure to email me via the link in that post to be in with a chance of winning all those classic comics Little Books, Journals and what have you. But back to business. And business for the foreseeable future will largely concern a British writer of thrillers, suspense novels and spy fiction (among other genres) who I've touched on a number of times previously...

Geoffrey Household (1900–1988) had twenty-eight novels and novellas, seven short story collections and one autobiography published in his lifetime, but his best known book is still his fourth – his third novel – and his first thriller (the previous two novels being a children's novella and a philosophical character study) – Rogue Male (1939). I've written about Rogue Male before, when I reviewed it alongside J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island and William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms – both of which, in common with Household's novel, feature protagonists who find themselves cast adrift from society – back in 2010, eventually ranking it the fourth best book I read that year. But this elegantly written, exciting, engrossing, landmark novel has only risen in my estimations since then – I'd probably place it at number three in that chart these days, beaten only by John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Richard Stark's The Hunter – which is why, despite owning a 1949 Penguin paperback first printing of the book (in fact two copies), I bagged this more recently, from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye:

A 1939 Chatto & Windus UK hardback first edition. Now, this isn't the first printing of the novel; it is, in fact, the third impression, issued in the same year as the first and second impressions. True (British) first editions are extremely uncommon, and even more so in a dustjacket: there are currently just two copies of the true first on AbeBooks, both sans jacket, one for £300, the other for £450. Even secondhand book dealers of long experience, such as Any Amount of Books on London's Charing Cross Road, have never handled a jacketed copy of the book. But as you can see, this third impression does have a jacket – designed by noted painter and pattern-maker Enid Marx; Independent obituary here – although its design differs from that of the true first.

See, with the advent of the Second World War in 1939, Chatto & Windus reissued ten of their books as Services Library editions, all with suitably patriotic red, white and blue dustjackets (and possibly blue boards; my copy of Rogue Male has blue boards, as opposed to the original printing's black boards), intended for British servicemen (and women). There's a list of the Services Library books on the back of this edition of Rogue Male:

In the case of Rogue Male, I'm uncertain as to whether the novel went into the Services Library as of the second or third impression – I've never seen a picture of the second impression, let alone a copy for sale online – so I don't know if the third impression is the first appearance of the novel in the Services Library wrapper (the original wrapper shows the novel's nameless narrator lining up in his sights the equally nameless dictator – obviously intended to be Hitler – he's attempting to assassinate); if anyone owns a second impression – or indeed a first impression – and is perhaps willing to show their copy to the world, do please leave a comment below. But what I do know – or at least think I know; I could be wrong – is that the copy of Rogue Male seen in this post was the earliest jacketed printing of the Chatto & Windus first for sale online (until I bought it, that is): there is one other jacketed UK first on AbeBooks at present, but that's a fourth impression from 1941 (priced at eighty-odd quid, plus shipping from the States).

So it's a nice addition to my select Geoffrey Household collection – select, but growing, as we'll discover in this run of posts. Before we get to some of those other Household books, however – one or two of which are really quite special – I thought I'd post a review of a much later novel – one I've actually covered before (bibliographically – and bibliophiliacally – rather than critically): the 1982 sequel to Rogue Male, Rogue Justice...