Friday 15 June 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books Review: Other Paths to Glory by Anthony Price (David Audley Spy Series #5, Gollancz, 1974)

Remarkably – to me, if not to you – it's been a good six months since I last posted anything substantial about Anthony Price and his David Audley series of espionage novels, and almost a year since I reviewed the fourth book in the series, October Men (1973). Oh, there's been the odd mention here and there, and of course the second Audley thriller, The Alamut Ambush, grabbed the number two spot in my 2011 end-of-year chart; but a proper return to the nineteen-book series is, I think, long overdue. Therefore, presented as part of Patti Nase Abbott's weekly Friday's Forgotten Books initiative – although in truth this terrific book isn't so much forgotten as perhaps under-appreciated these days – let's turn to the fifth Audley novel...

First published by Victor Gollancz in 1974, Other Paths to Glory introduces a new character to Price's series in the shape of Paul Mitchell, a World War I researcher at the British Commonwealth Institute for Military Studies. Mitchell is interrupted at work at the novel's outset by Dr. David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler of the Ministry of Defence's Research and Development Section – although Mitchell is initially unaware of their provenance – who present him with a photocopied map fragment showing German trenches in the Somme and then enquire after the whereabouts of Mitchell's boss, Professor Emerson. Later, on his way home, Mitchell is set upon by unknown assailants and thrown into a dangerous river, only escaping with his life due to becoming inadvertently wedged under a bridge. After finally extricating himself, and with no sign of his attackers, Mitchell arrives at his house to find his mother attended by a policeman and clutching a suicide note – one purporting to be from Paul himself. Furthermore, he's informed that Professor Emerson was killed earlier that day in a fire.

Before Mitchell has had much of an opportunity to digest all this, David Audley turns up again, and eventually convinces Paul to go "underground", letting everyone think he's missing (presumed dead) in order to assist Audley and Butler in their investigation into Mitchell's enforced "suicide", Emerson's apparently not-so-accidental death, and why the professor had become inordinately interested in an obscure engagement during the Battle of the Somme, and in particular a patch of French countryside known as Bouillet Wood ("Bully Wood" to the British troops)...

There's a telling line in Other Paths to Glory, when Audley remarks to Mitchell that "the past is always waiting to revenge itself on the present" (a line Anthony Price himself is fond of reiterating). It's a useful summation of the modus operandi of Price's novels, but it's also slightly misleading, in a couple of ways. For one thing, although Mitchell, Audley and Butler must follow the historical threads in Other Paths to Glory in order to reach the truth, that truth – and its attendant threat – is very much in the here and now – or rather, the then and now, i.e. the early 1970s. As Price explained when I met him last year, back then, for him, as for others, Communist Russia and China represented a clear and present danger (he memorably characterized himself to me as a "Cold War warrior"), and Audley and co.'s adventures were his way of addressing that menace.

For another thing, there's a kind of reverse-engineering going on in Price's fiendish mysteries. Plot-wise, the starting point for Other Paths to Glory is the Somme of the First World War, but the story really begins – unwitnessed by the players – in France in the "present" day. Mitchell and Audley may follow the path of deduction from the past, but in fact the way is paved from the other direction – indeed from Bully Wood itself, now ringed by an electrified fence and hiding a potentially lethal secret.

As he did in the previous three novels – The Alamut Ambush (1971), Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972) and October Men (1973) – each of which was related from the perspective of a protagonist other than Audley, Price again distances Audley in Other Paths to Glory, adhering firmly to Mitchell's viewpoint and thus making Audley more inscrutable and enigmatic than he would otherwise appear. There's a good reason for this narrative choice: Audley is invariably the cleverest man in the room, and usually three paces ahead of anyone else, which was why in the first novel in the series, The Labyrinth Makers (1970) – told, remember, from Audley's point of view – the withholding of information which was necessary in order for the mystery to work became more conspicuous. In Other Paths to Glory, however, Audley only tells Mitchell – and consequently the reader – what he needs to know, so that any concealment on Price's part is less noticeable, more natural – although it must be said that Audley is himself often in the dark.

But Mitchell also inherits Audley's role from The Labyrinth Makers, in that here Paul is the neophyte field man, propelled into perilous situations beyond his control. As such, his perspective on the other characters – Audley, the irascible Butler, and even Hugh Roskill, here making only a brief appearance after the traumatic events of The Alamut Ambush – is both illuminating and frequently amusing, their conversations – those pages of puzzle-solving dialogue that are the hallmark of Price's novels – as deliciously engrossing as anything from the four prior books.

In the end, Paul's bacon is saved by, aptly, an historical artefact, and despite an explicit warning from Roskill, who knows only too well from first hand experience how getting mixed up with Audley can impact a person's life (paraphrasing Bruce Bairnsfather's famous WWI cartoon, Roskill tells Mitchell, "'If you know of a better hole, go to it.' And that's pretty damn good advice, it seems to me—as far as you're concerned"), it's evident that Audley's promise of further intrigue and mystery has him hooked. Which, it transpires, may have been the aim all along...

Other Paths to Glory is a cracking spy thriller: brainy, gripping, scholarly in its grasp of the minutiae of the Great War – witness the testimonial on the right – and a fine whodunnit to boot; it's easy to see why it claimed the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for 1974 (going one better than The Labyrinth Makers, which had to settle for a Silver Dagger). Moreover, unlike many of the books I blog about, it's still in print, and readily available as both a paperback and an ebook.

I will, of course, have more on Anthony Price down the line, including a review of the next book in the David Audley series, Our Man in Camelot (1975) – said review hopefully appearing rather sooner than this one did. Next, though: all being well, another Westlake Score...

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Westlake Score: The Split by Richard Stark (Gold Medal, 1968); Robert McGinnis Cover Art

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

After a run of Patricia Highsmith posts, it's time for a Westlake Score – and further evidence, as if any were needed, of the madness which consumes me. Because despite already owning three different editions of the seventh Richard Stark Parker novel – both under its original title of The Seventh (the 1966 US Pocket Books paperback first edition) and its later title of The Split (a 1969 UK Hodder movie tie-in paperback, and a 1985 UK Allison & Busby hardback) – I've now acquired a fourth edition on eBay:

A 1968 US Gold Medal paperback printing. Really, I can offer little in the way of defence here. I mean, The Seventh/The Split is one of my favourite Parkers, and this edition does boast Robert McGinnis cover art (featuring Parker modelling a fetching roll-neck), and furthermore copies of the Gold Medal paperback aren't easy to come by here in Britain; but even given all that, I'm still not sure I can justify this purchase – except that it does give me an opportunity to point out that, as with the 1967 Gold Medal edition of Point Blank, which is often mistakenly credited as being published in 1962 due to the appearance of a "Copyright © 1962" line in the indicia, the Gold Medal paperback of The Split – which, again like Point Blank, was retitled in order to tie in to its then-forthcoming movie adaptation – often suffers a similar fate; just take a look at the listings on AbeBooks, half of which are currently incorrect. Reason for that being the same as for Point Blank

The only indication of pub date is the copyright line from the original publication.

...Yeah, I'm clutching at straws for justification even there, aren't I?

No matter. At least this post gives us another opportunity to gaze at that great McGinnis cover art. And next week I should have a pair of much more interesting Westlake Scores, neither of which, to my knowledge, have ever been shown online before, making them Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui exclusives. Mind you, I haven't seen the covers of either of the books yet (they're currently en route), so we could all be in for a crushing disappointment if they turn out to be the same as the American editions...

Next on Existential Ennui, though: it's the return of Anthony Price...

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Introducing Choose Your Highsmith: The Patricia Highsmith Recommendation Engine

So, having completed a series of posts on little-seen British first editions of Patricia Highsmith suspense novels – the dust jackets of all of which have now, of course, joined my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – I had intended to move swiftly on to a Westlake Score. But as is often the way with Existential Ennui – where I frequently receive behind-the-scenes emails from readers drawing my attention to literary matters which might be of interest to me – no sooner had I posted the final Highsmith missive than I was contacted by Steve Colca from W. W. Norton in the States. Norton publish many of Highsmith's novels and short stories, and on 4 June reissued twenty-one of her books as ebooks, including all five Tom Ripley novels. And to promote this happy event, they've come up with a fun web innovation:

Choose Your Highsmith: The Patricia Highsmith Recommendation Engine. It's simple enough to navigate, but in case there are any grandmothers among us requiring further instruction vis-a-vis sucking eggs, here's how it works. You click on the "Choose Your Highsmith" button at top left:

Then click through to choose a setting:

Hmm... I believe I'll go for a European locale in this instance, which presents me with these options:

I'm thinking France, which leads me here:

Choices, choices... I think I'd like to read about a shooting:

Um, yes, really...

And there you have it: the recommendation is my favourite Highsmith novel, Ripley's Game, which does indeed feature a shooting in France, towards the end of the book. Although it also features a shooting in Germany, and there doesn't appear to be a "shooting" option if you pick Germany earlier in the process. But no matter: The Patricia Highsmith Recommendation Engine is a diverting development both for Highsmith neophytes and for those of us who are more familiar with her work, and W. W. Norton have also included a short video on the site, which sees the likes of graphic novelist Alison Bechdel and Highsmith's biographer Joan Schenkar extolling the virtues of "the poet of apprehension" (as Graham Greene put it).

I'll have more on Patricia Highsmith in the not-too-distant future, notably a very special first edition of one of her short story collections. But next on Existential Ennui – and indeed on The Violent World of Parker blog – that promised Westlake Score...

Monday 11 June 2012

This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1961); Jack Whitsett Dust Jacket Design

I've saved the best for last in this short run of posts on Patricia Highsmith first editions; not necessarily in terms of dust jacket design – I reckon the wrapper for the 1959 Heinemann edition of A Game for the Living takes the top honours there – more that the novel in question is one of Highsmith's most powerful: a clammy study of infatuation, delusion and murder...

This Sweet Sickness was first published in the US – by Harper – in 1960 and in the UK – by Heinemann, which is the edition seen above – in 1961. The dust jacket of the Heinemann edition was designed by Jack Whitsett, and to my knowledge this is the first time it's been seen online; certainly there are no pictures of the jacket on AbeBooks, where a decent copy of the Heinemann first will set you back £60–£100.

The protagonist of This Sweet Sickness is David Kelsey, a brilliant young chemist living in a boarding house in the (fictional) New York State town of Froudsburg. Every weekend David leaves Froudsburg to spend time with his ailing mother in a nursing home – or at least that's what he tells his few friends and the other residents of the boarding house. In fact David's mother has been dead for years, and David spends his weekends at a house upstate, bought under the name of William Neumeister, and decorated in what David imagines is a manner which will appeal to his one true love, Annabelle. Trouble is, Annabelle dumped David in favour of another man – a turn of events David refers to as "the Situation" – and David has become dangerously obsessed by her – an obsession which drives him to ever more twisted extremes...

In the twin themes of dual identity and stalking, there are echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955 – and indeed Ripley Under Ground, 1970) and The Cry of the Owl (1962) in This Sweet Sickness – and the novel is certainly (at least to my mind) the equal of both of those books. Highsmith never deviates from David's viewpoint, so that his obsession with Annabelle becomes almost unbearably intense, developing from frequent letter-writing to unwanted visits to, latterly, violence and murder. Time and time again Annabelle tries to let David down gently – although in the clumsy way that she does, Highsmith suggests that she is also, to a degree, leading him on – and each time David twists her words to suit his own purpose. And once David finds himself with a body on his hands, he becomes caught in a trap of his own making, as his other life as William Neumeister – whom he comes to identify as a separate, more confident (and luckier) persona – crashes into his own, leaving him with no way out of his queasy, self-induced nightmare.

This Sweet Sickness is an unsettling, gripping, brilliant book, up there with The Tremor of Forgery (1969) and even, dare I say it, Ripley's Game (1974) in terms of accomplishment, and its Heinemann dust jacket has now joined the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, along with those of A Game for the Living and The Glass Cell. That brings the total number of wrappers in the gallery up to 70, which is where I'll be leaving things for the moment, because I'm moving on to other matters – namely, in the first instance, a Westlake Score. But before we get to that, I've just been made aware of an intriguing Patricia Highsmith innovation, so look out for a Highsmith bonus post very soon...