Thursday 7 June 2012

A Game for the Living by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1959); Stein Dust Jacket Design

On to the second of three posts on Patricia Highsmith first editions, each of which, when I'm done, will be joining the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery. And this next book is certainly scarcer in British first than the 1965 Heinemann edition of The Glass Cell I blogged about yesterday, and boasts a wrapper that's as beautiful as any other in the British Book Jacket gallery. Disappointingly, however, the novel in question isn't one of the author's best – and its fiercest critic was probably Highsmith herself...

First published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1959 (a year after the US Harper edition), A Game for the Living was Highsmith's sixth novel, and the last to be published in the 1950s. Copies of the Heinemann first edition are in pretty short supply: there are only five listed on AbeBooks at present, one lacking a dust jacket, and the other four ranging in price from just over £30 to £150. The lovely (and little-seen) wrapper was designed by Stein, who was quite active in British publishing in the 1940s and '50s, designing jackets for Carter Dickson, Joan Fleming, Georgette Heyer and others.

Highsmith's lead in A Game for the Living is Theodore Schiebelhut, a wealthy painter based in Mexico. The novel opens with Theo returning from a painting trip to find his lover, Lelia, brutally murdered. Theo shared Lelia's affections with Ramon Otero, a deeply Catholic, tortured individual whom Theo calls his friend but who is also possessed of a violent temper, and therefore, Theo reasons, theoretically capable of murder. His suspicions are seemingly confirmed when Ramon confesses to the crime – but after interrogation by the police, Ramon is discounted as a suspect... and then Theo starts receiving letters purporting to be from Lelia...

In essence, A Game for the Living is a murder mystery, which makes it an unusual book in Patricia Highsmith's canon – typically the killer in her novels (when there is a killer) is the protagonist, so there's no "whodunnit" to solve. For me, that made A Game for the Living less interesting than others of her works; Highsmith is at her best, I think, when she's concentrating on the psychology of her damaged leads rather than detailing a police investigation, as she does to a large extent here. But although I wasn't terribly keen on A Game for the Living – the relationship between Theo and Ramon is probably the best thing about the book, another exploration of her frequent theme of a strange fascination between two men (see also Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Ripley's Game, etc.) – it seems Highsmith herself had an even lower opinion of the novel...

In her 1966 non-fiction book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith devotes a long paragraph to A Game for the Living, calling it "the one really dull book I have written". She notes that whodunnits are "definitely not my forte", then continues: 

I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, the stretching of the reader's credulity, and above all that intimacy with the murderer himself. I am not an inventor of puzzles, nor do I like secrets. The result, after rewriting the book four times in a grueling year of work, was mediocrity. I always say to foreign publishers, and to publishers who contemplate a reprint, "This is my worst book, so please think twice before you buy it." However, I believe that any story can be told properly, using some of the writer's stronger points, but the writer must first be aware of what his stronger points are. I disobeyed my natural laws in this boring book.

Happily, the final Patricia Highsmith novel I'll be looking at in this run of posts is among her very best, and in its Heinemann first edition boasts a striking dust jacket which, to my knowledge, has never been seen online before...

Wednesday 6 June 2012

The Glass Cell by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1965): Book Review; M. Mohan Dust Jacket Design

I've just three more dust jackets to add to the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page before drawing a line under it for the time being; there are plenty of other splendid wrappers waiting in the wings, but I've been banging on about beautiful book jackets for more than a fortnight now, so best to move on to other matters, I feel, before I bore us all to bloody tears. And what better way to round off this current deluge of '50s and '60s dust jackets than with three first editions by one of my favourite authors: poet of apprehension, Patricia Highsmith. All three of the books I'll be writing about are becoming quite uncommon in UK first, and boast some of the best wrappers ever to grace a Highsmith suspense novel. And we'll begin with this:

Published by Heinemann in the UK in 1965, the year after the Doubleday US first edition, The Glass Cell was Patricia Highsmith's tenth novel (including her pseudonymous 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt). The jacket of the Heinemann edition was design by M. Mohan, who I believe is Mon Mohan, whose design credits encompass wrappers for the 1980 Jonathan Cape edition of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, the 1981 Hamish Hamilton edition of Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, the 1981 Cape/Hodder & Stoughton edition of John Gardner's first Bond novel Licence Renewed, and the 1983 Cape edition of Salman Rushdie's Shame.

This is actually the second copy of the Heinemann first of The Glass Cell I've bought; I acquired a cheap ex-library copy two years ago, but more recently decided to part with a tenner for a much nicer one from the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Streatham, south London, via AbeBooks. There are currently getting on for thirty copies of the Heinemann edition listed on AbeBooks, so it's not the scarcest of British Highsmith firsts, but a decent copy with a presentable wrapper can still set you back anything from £25 to £60.

Personally, I wouldn't pay that sort of money for a first edition, because although The Glass Cell is a good novel, it's not, to my mind, one of Highsmith's best. For me, it's literally a book of two halves. The first – and strongest – half details the harrowing experiences of the lead, Philip Carter, who's been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit; it's a vivid, convincing portrayal of what it was like to be banged up in an American penitentiary in the 1960s, as Carter is strung up by his thumbs and consequently becomes addicted to morphine. The second half follows Carter's attempts to adjust to life on the outside – reacquainting himself with his wife (who has been unfaithful) and child – and to find out who it was who framed him; there are twists and turns and a couple of murders, but the trouble is that's precisely the kind of stuff we expect of Highsmith, and so suffers by comparison.

Intriguingly, the prison part of the novel was originally longer, but was, as Highsmith reveals in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966, later revised), cut at the insistence of her editor at Harper & Row. Although some of the other edits and revisions Harper requested were sound, cutting the jail sequences was plainly a mistake; one yearns to read those lost "solid paragraphs of description" that Highsmith refers to in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction – a loss felt not least by Highsmith herself, who laments the cuts as "painful, as I thought this part interesting". The irony being, of course, that Harper eventually rejected the book entirely, and Highsmith switched publishers to Doubleday.

Highsmith dwells at length on The Glass Cell in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, but she also makes a passing reference to the next book I'll be blogging about – although not in especially glowing terms...