Friday 30 March 2012

The Ilex Gift Giveaway: The Three Winners!

As is now traditional with my competitions (well, I've done it once before, anyway): drum roll, please! It's time to unveil the winners of my magnificent Ilex Gift giveaway!

To recap: two weeks ago I gave you all, you lucky Existential Ennui readers, you, the chance to win an, if I do say so myself, impressive amount of swag, courtesy of Lewes-based publisher Ilex Press and their new imprint, Ilex Gift. The haul comprised:

6 x Little Books:
• Little Book of Vintage Romance 
Little Book of Vintage Sci-Fi 
Little Book of Vintage Combat 
Little Book of Vintage Crime 
Little Book of Vintage Sauciness 
Little Book of Vintage Horror 

2 x Journals:
Lovelorn Journal
Tales of Terror Journal 

2 x Postcard Books:
Lovelorn: 30 Postcards
Tales of Terror: 30 Postcards 

1 x Magnet Pack
Lovelorn: 16 Classic Romance Comic Magnets 

each, for three Existential Ennui readers. Well with the competition now closed, and the entries all deposited in a fetching chapeau, I can now reveal which three winners were drawn from that hat. They are:

Dan Lester, Leeds, UK
Mark Bennett, Brighton, UK
Karl A. Russell, Widnes, UK

Well done to all three of you! Your prizes will be winging their way to you shortly. Thank you to everyone who took part – there were quite a lot of you – and don't despair if you didn't win: the Ilex Gift range will be available in all good bookshops soon!

Thursday 29 March 2012

Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s: A Permanent Page

As regular readers (usual caveats vis-a-vis "regular" – and indeed "readers" – apply) of Existential Ennui will know, I'm forever banging on about dustjacket design, in particular the jackets which wrapped around British books in the 1950s and '60s, especially – and unsurprisingly, given the loose remit of this blog – those gracing the thrillers and genre works of the era. To my mind, this period was something of a golden age for wrapper artwork, and you can find lots of examples of dustjackets from that mid-20th century era littering Existential Ennui.

And therein lies the problem: those covers are scattered about this blog like so much flotsam (or jetsam), and not readily accessible unless you're prepared to endlessly scroll through Existential Ennui – which, for various reasons (although chiefly to do with potential boredom), I wouldn't recommend. Yesterday, however, whilst tweeting links to past posts showing examples of great British dustjackets (an act of temporary insanity which was in turn inspired by this post on Val Biro), I had a brainwave: why not create a dedicated page for the best examples of British jacket design from the '50s and '60s, drawing on books from my collection?

Why not indeed. And so that's precisely what I've done. You can find the dedicated page here, or by clicking on the permanent "Pages of Particular Interest" link at the top of Existential Ennui's right-hand sidebar. Inside you'll find a cornucopia of covers, some you'll have seen before, others perhaps not – and a couple, one by Val Biro (the stunning jacket for Victor Canning's A Delivery of Furies which you can see above), the other by Peter Probyn (an elegant one for Francis Clifford's The Hunting-Ground), I'm presenting for the first time on Existential Ennui – arranged alphabetically by designer, with links to whatever nonsense I've written about that particular book or cover artist (if anything). It's a work in progress – I'll be adding to it as I find new examples – but it's off to a good start, I feel, and should hopefully prove a valuable resource as time goes by (not least to me). So go have a look and let me know what you think. And hey, you never know: I may even, at some stage, get round to doing a paperback cover page as well...

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Anatomy of a Cover: I Would Rather Stay Poor by James Hadley Chase (Robert Hale, 1962); Val Biro Jacket Art and Roughs

As teased in yesterday's final Geoffrey Household post, today's post concerns the artist responsible for the dustjacket on that 1952 Michael Joseph edition of A Time to Kill – one Val Biro. I've mentioned Biro's work once or twice before, but recently I've been paying more attention to the books his artwork graces the jackets of, especially those which fall within the broad remit of Existential Ennui – crime fiction, spy fiction and so forth. Reason being, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Biro just the other week, and consequently acquired two pieces of ephemera related to this book:

The UK first edition hardback of I Would Rather Stay Poor by James Hadley Chase, published by Robert Hale in 1962. Now, taken merely as a book, this is a fairly unremarkable item. It's one of umpteen crime thrillers that Chase – real name Rene Brabazon Raymond – wrote; witness the list of prior books opposite the title page:

Or indeed the comprehensive bibliography on this online tribute. It's a well-regarded but not especially notable entry in Chase's oeuvre, and it's not especially scarce in first edition either – at present AbeBooks has twenty copies listed. Mine came from Stort Books in Essex – whose blog can be found here – who kindly delivered the book in record time because they knew I was eager to blog about it. And the reason I was so eager to blog about it is because the dustjacket was, of course, designed by Val Biro – and I'd very recently come into possession of not one but two pieces of artwork related to that jacket.

Val, you see, is represented by children's book dealer David Schutte – Val having written and illustrated many kids' titles, notably the Gumdrop picture books – and was David's guest at the Midhurst Book, Postcard & Ephemera Fair in West Sussex earlier this month. Since I live not too far away in Lewes in East Sussex, I popped across to the Midhurst event – which, unlike many British book fairs, seems to be thriving, and had expanded into another two rooms since last I was there – and had a brief chat with Val. He kindly signed the jacket of one of the books from my collection (which he'd actually forgotten he'd designed; more on that in a future post) and I had a leaf through some of Val's jacket roughs – the quickly painted versions of book jackets that Val would show to publishers for approval before painting the final version. Most of these were for books by authors I was unfamiliar with, but David told me that he did have a handful of crime novel jacket roughs, and promised to bring what he had along to the following weekend's Lewes Book Fair.

You can probably guess where this is going, can't you? Yes, in amongst the selection of roughs David showed me at the Lewes Book Fair were a few James Hadley Chase jackets – and the best of the bunch, to my mind, were these:

As you can see, Val actually worked up a pair of roughs for I Would Rather Stay Poor. One is obviously quite close to the finished dustjacket, but the other one is interesting too – partly because it shows Val's thought processes when creating the cover, but also because two elements of this alternate version did make it onto the final jacket. If we take a look at the full printed jacket, including the spine:

We can see that instead of the figure of the man on the original rough's spine, Val has swapped in the bottle and the bundles of cash from the front of the alternate version.

For me, the 1950s and '60s were the high watermark of British book cover design, as illustrators like Peter Probyn, John Rowland, Donald Green, John Dugan, Roy Sanford, Denis McLoughlin, Patrick Gierth and of course Val Biro brought their considerable, hard-earned artistic skill and craftsmanship to bear on a succession of striking, vibrant, and most of all memorable dustjackets. Val's two roughs for I Would Rather Stay Poor afford a tantalising glimpse of the creative process behind a cover, of the choices these artists made and the techniques they deployed: chiaroscuro, restricted palettes, dynamic hand-cut lettering. Titles and author names weren't pasted on after the illustration was created, as they are today; they were painstakingly painted as part of the whole piece, intrinsic to the overall design. Certainly in Val's case – and this was a surprise to me – jacket artwork was worked up at the same size as the finished jacket, not done at a larger size and then scaled down. And on one of Val's roughs, we can even see the notes he made for the gouache pigments he intended to use:

Val painted hundreds upon hundreds of dustjackets over the years, for books by authors as varied as C. S. Forester (a number of the Hornblower novels, plus, in their Michael Joseph editions, Randall and the River of Time, 1951; Plain Murder, 1952; and The African Queen, 1953), J. B. Priestley (The Magicians, Heinemann, 1954), Evelyn Waugh (the Chapman & Hall editions of Men at Arms, 1952; Officers and Gentlemen, 1955; and The Ordeal of Gilbert Penfold, 1957) and Victor Canning (the Hodder & Stoughton editions of The Dragon Tree, 1958; The Burning Eye, 1960; A Delivery of Furies, 1961; and Black Flamingo, 1962). My two James Hadley Chase roughs were produced for a book which is, by comparison, a minor literary work, but even so: I like them a lot, and for the insight they provide into how dustjackets were created fifty years ago, they are, in a sense, invaluable.

I'll have much more from Val Biro down the line, but next on Existential Ennui, I was planning on revealing the winners of my Ilex Gift giveaway... but I think I'll be squeezing in a bonus missive ahead of that, in which, inspired by this post, I'll be unveiling a brand new permanent feature on EE...

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Sequel to A Rough Shoot: A Time to Kill by Geoffrey Household (Michael Joseph First Edition, 1952); Val Biro Cover Art

For this final Geoffrey Household post, here's a book which was published hot on the heels of the Household novel I last blogged about, A Rough Shoot – and even hotter, it would appear, in the States than in the UK, although it's the British first edition I'm showcasing here, for reasons – beyond its relative scarcity (there are currently nine British firsts on AbeBooks to the American first's fifty-plus copies, although many of the US ones are book club editions) – I'll come to shortly:

A Time to Kill was first published in hardback in the UK by Michael Joseph in 1952, and that's the edition you can see above. In America, however, the novel actually made its debut in 1951 – published by Little, Brown – the same year as A Rough Shoot, which it is, of course, a direct sequel to (the only other sequel in Household's backlist being Rogue Justice, the 1982 sequel to 1939's Rogue Male). As with its thrilling predecessor, A Time to Kill stars and is narrated by Roger Taine, the Dorset salesman and small game hunter who got mixed up in an international fascist plot in A Rough Shoot and who here finds himself plunged instead into a communist plot involving foot-and-mouth disease (communism and fascism being equally distasteful to Taine, as indeed they were to Household, who often described himself as a "romantic anarchist").

I've yet to read A Time to Kill, but spy novelist and spy fiction aficionado Jeremy Duns has, calling it (on Twitter) "excellent. Brutal in parts. Buchan with guts." Jeremy actually blogged about A Time to Kill (briefly) in this excellent post on Ian Fleming's Casino Royale and its influences, so I'd highly recommend giving that a whirl if you haven't already.

But why am I blogging about A Time to Kill when I haven't read the thing yet? (Not that that's ever stopped me in the past, but still – it's a fair question.) The reason, in this instance, is the splendid dustjacket of the Michael Joseph edition, which was designed by illustrator, artist and children's fiction writer Val Biro. I've mentioned Val in passing a couple of times before – in this post on Desmond Cory's Secret Ministry and this one on Rosalind Wade's Ladders – but I recently had the opportunity to meet Mr. Biro in the flesh, and subsequently acquired something very special from David Schutte, Val's art dealer. So while we may, for the moment, be done with Geoffrey Household, I do have a bonus post on Val Biro lined up next, in which I'll be detailing how and where I got to meet him, and showcasing that very special something... or rather, somethings...

Sunday 25 March 2012

Book Review: A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household (Michael Joseph First Edition, 1951)

To round off this series on British writer Geoffrey Household – author, lest we forget, of Rogue Male – I have a pair of posts on two short novels written and published in quick succession in the early 1950s – one a sequel to the other, both detailing the espionage exploits of one Roger Taine. And the first of those two novels is this:

A Rough Shoot was first published in the UK in 1951 by Michael Joseph (and that same year in the US by Little, Brown), under a dustjacket designed by painter and illustrator Patrick Gierth (who also designed the jacket for the 1951 Joseph first of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids). Originally written as a serial, it was penned in the wake of the two Middle East-set novels, Arabesque (1948) and The High Place (1950), which Household produced when he returned to writing fiction after World War II. (Following a stint in Romania for British Military Intelligence at the start of the war, Household served as a Field Security officer in the Middle East.) Neither novel matched the success of 1939's Rogue Male, however, and so, as Mike Ripley reports... 

...with no income and a new family to support, [Household] "plunged for pure speed and imagination, and produced a commercial thriller called A Rough Shoot in the hope of selling it for a serial in America" where it was indeed bought by the Saturday Evening Post. Although he at first opposed the idea of publishing the story as a book (its length is just over 40,000 words), he was persuaded, the film rights were snapped up and a sequel, A Time to Kill, rapidly followed with the result, as he wrote in 1957, "that I was typed as a thriller writer, and not a very good one at that." (Crime and Detective Stories #61, November 2011)

That last self-deprecatory remark must be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, as anyone who's read A Rough Shoot can attest: it is as pure a thriller as a person could wish for. The narrator is the aforementioned Roger Taine, a Dorset salesman who rents 450 acres of rough shooting from a local farmer, killing game "purely for the pot". One autumn evening Taine is out on the shoot when he spies two men who he takes to be commercial poachers. Taine decides to teach them a lesson, and so from a range of eighty yards lets one of them "have a charge of No. 5 shot in the seat of the pants". Unfortunately, the man falls on a strange broad spike he'd been laying on the ground, and is killed. The man's companion flees, and Taine is left with a corpse on his hands.

From there, the story takes on the trappings of a spy thriller, as Taine comes under suspicion by Robert Heyne-Hassingham, founder and leader of the People's Union, "a sort of Boys' Brigade for grown-ups, full of Ideals, Service and Religion", all of which quasi-fascism is anathema to Taine (and indeed to Household). Evidently it was one of Heyne-Hassingham's men that Taine inadvertently murdered, and before long Taine is enlisted by a Polish general named Peter Sandorski to thwart the fascist plot which quickly unfurls...

A Rough Shoot may have been written in haste for a cheque, but it's that very haste which lends the novel(la) its frantic pace. The story barrels along in a giddying fashion, barely pausing from incident to incident and all culminating in a mad dash for London by road and rail. But Household still finds time to paint a vivid picture of postwar English rural life. The author's persistent theme of the wild countryside as a place of refuge, so memorably depicted in Rogue Male when the anonymous hero-narrator – later named Raymond Ingelram – goes to ground in his burrow in Dorset, is evident here too: Taine clearly views his shoot as his haven – and woe betide anyone who disturbs it. But Household also includes wonderful, fleeting vignettes of country living, with all its peculiarities and idiosyncracies. Early on Taine lunches "at a remote pub overlooking the Blackmoor Vale, where the landlord, who was a friend of mine, always had something solid to eat which food controllers had never heard of. On this occasion it was a badger ham, and very good it was." 

A Rough Shoot is easily one of the most breathlessly exciting books I've read this year. But by all accounts the final book I'll be blogging about in this run of Geoffrey Household postsA Time to Kill, the direct sequel to A Rough Shoot (the only sequel, aside from the much later Rogue Justice, that Household wrote) – is just as exciting. And in the edition in which I'm showcasing it, it boasts a dustjacket designed by an artist and author I recently had the great pleasure to meet...

(Incidentally – and apropos of nothing; A Rough Shoot has no real bearing on this, beyond the fact that it's one of my favourite novels of the year so far – today is my birthday. Therefore, considering you didn't get a blog post on my birthday last year – merely a preview and review – think yourselves lucky you're getting one this year – and on a Sunday, too!)