Friday 10 August 2012

Secret Ministry by Desmond Cory (Frederick Muller, 1951): Dust Jacket Proof, Val Biro Signed Wrapper

NB: featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

After that showcase of Peter Probyn's lovely dust jackets for Francis Clifford's thrillers, let's stay on an art and design tip with another signed edition, one which hasn't been signed by the author, but by the cover artist...

Desmond Cory's Secret Ministry was first published in the UK by Fredrick Muller in 1951, under a dust jacket designed by Val Biro. It is, as we're all doubtless well aware, since I reviewed it earlier this year, Cory's debut Johnny Fedora spy thriller. However, the jacket seen above isn't the same one as wrapped the copy of the Muller first edition I wrote about back in January; it is, in fact, a proof of the wrapper's front and spine, which I acquired from book and art dealer David Schutte – who represents Val Biro's work – along with this:

A pristine proof of the full jacket, with Muller's publication date stamp on the front flap. Val's original artwork is seemingly long lost (unless anyone knows otherwise...), but publishers would often send Val a proof of the jackets he designed, and such was the case with Secret Ministry. Finding a first edition of Secret Ministry, let alone one in a dust wrapper, is nigh on impossible – I had to order mine from an African website, remember – so to come into possession of not only a pristine wrapper but an additional proof of the front and spine is quite something.

David brought the jacket(s) with him to Saturday's Lewes Book Fair (along with a piece of original cover art, which shall, for the moment, remain a mystery...), after I'd asked him at one of the Midhurst Book Fairs if he had either the original artwork or a rough. Obviously he didn't, but after rummaging in Val's loft he came up with these proofs instead. Val himself was actually at that Midhurst show as David's guest, and having heard that he'd be there beforehand, I took along my copy of the Muller edition of Secret Ministry. Initially Val thought that the wrapper design wasn't one of his, until David pointed out Val's signature at bottom left of the front cover, whereupon Val kindly signed the reverse of the jacket front flap:

So I now own not only the single (physical) copy of Secret Ministry I've ever encountered, but its jacket bears Val Biro's signature. Meanwhile I've replaced the image of the slightly battered (but now signed) jacket wrapping my copy of Secret Ministry in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery with an image of the proof – and very lovely it looks, too.

I've got much, much more to come from Val Biro in the future, but I'm staying with Desmond Cory for the next post, with one of the very few signed books of his that I've come across...

Thursday 9 August 2012

Peter Probyn Dust Jackets for Francis Clifford's Time is an Ambush, The Green Fields of Eden and The Hunting-Ground (Hodder, 1962/3/4)

The symbiotic relationship between authors and cover artists is something I touched on last week when I was writing about the dust jackets that William Randell designed for Harry Carmichael crime novels in the 1950s and '60s. Sometimes the relationship between a writer and a cover artist is lengthy and celebrated – the covers that Tom Adams designed for the Fontana paperbacks of Agatha Christie's novels spring to mind. Other times it's a fleeting encounter, often brought about by happenstance – an author is published by a particular publisher, for whom a cover artist happens to be working at the same time.

Such is almost certainly the case with thriller writer Francis Clifford and artist and cartoonist Peter Probyn. By 1960 Clifford had had six novels published, first by Jonathan Cape (Honour the Shrine, 1953), then by Hamish Hamilton; as of his seventh novel, 1962's Time is an Ambush, he moved over to Hodder & Stoughton, where he would remain for the rest of his career. Probyn had been a cartoonist for Punch in the 1930s and '40s and a schoolteacher (one of his pupils was the painter Howard Hodgkin, who remembered Probyn fondly in this 2006 Guardian interview), and in the '50s wrote and drew the comic strip Grandpa for the Eagle (home of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future). He began illustrating books and designing dust jackets in the late-1950s, for Lutterworth Press, Chapman and Hall, and then, in the early 1960s, Hodder.

As the 1970s approached, and in common with other thriller writers, the dust jacket designs for Clifford's novels would become largely photographic in nature, but the initial three books published by Hodder all boasted illustrative wrappers, and were all designed by Peter Probyn. I posted one of them, The Hunting-Ground (1964), yesterday, as part of my ongoing series of posts on signed editions, and I blogged about the first of Probyn's Clifford jackets, Time is an Ambush (1962), last year. But I've also come into possession of the other Probyn/Clifford wrapper, The Green Fields of Eden (1963), courtesy of book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, so I'm now able to present all three of the extraordinary dust jackets Peter Probyn designed for Francis Clifford's novels in the 1960s. (Needless to say, The Green Fields of Eden has also now joined Probyn's other designs on the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page.) I'll be returning to Clifford soon enough, but for now, enjoy.

Time is an Ambush by Francis Clifford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1962); wrapper designed by Peter Probyn

The Green Fields of Eden by Francis Clifford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1963); wrapper designed by Peter Probyn

The Hunting-Ground by Francis Clifford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1964); wrapper designed by Peter Probyn

Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Hunting-Ground by Francis Clifford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1964): Signed and Dedicated First Edition, Peter Probyn Cover

Returning to the signed editions following a review of Donald E. Westlake's Killing Time, here's a book I picked up for a song off a table outside one of Cecil Court's secondhand bookshops:

Francis Clifford's The Hunting-Ground, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1964. Clifford's ninth novel, it's the story of an Irish photographer who witnesses a plane crash in the Caribbean, and who consequently becomes "suddenly and dangerously the subject of governmental interest, suspicion and attention". Not having read The Hunting-Ground yet I can't say for certain how suddenly or indeed dangerously events progress from there, but this pithy Kirkus review suggests it's a solid entry in Clifford's canon, and for my part I have read perhaps Clifford's best-known novel, The Naked Runner, and that was clammily exciting, plus I know that crime writer and critic Mike Ripley is a fan of the under-appreciated Clifford's work – via his Top Notch Thrillers imprint Mike brought back into print two of Clifford's novels, Time is an Ambush and The Grosvenor Square Goodbye – so there's all of that too.

However, for the purposes of this particular post, we are gathered here not to debate the relative merits of the novel, but to gaze upon this:

Francis Clifford's signature and dedication on the front free endpaper, along with a loosely-inserted little note which suggests that the book was a birthday present, possibly to the lucky Eileen, whoever she was. But there's also this:

Clifford's signature again, this time on the title page. Weirdly enough, I do know of another signed copy of the Hodder first of The Hunting-Ground, this one with a letter from Clifford enclosed (I'm not saying where it is, but it's not online). Given that my copy only cost me a quid, I may still buy the other one, if only to show that letter. On the other hand, sanity may prevail, and you'll just have to live without it.

The dust jacket of The Hunting-Ground was designed by Peter Probyn, an artist I wrote about in this post on the aforementioned Time is an Ambush – in its 1962 Hodder edition, with its Probyn-designed wrapper – which I again found outside a Cecil Court bookshop going for a pittance. Both The Hunting-Ground and Time is an Ambush are already in my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, but Probyn designed the jacket for one other Clifford novel besides, and as luck would have it I recently came into possession of that book as well. So in the next post, I'll be showcasing all three of Probyn's splendid wrappers for Clifford's novels...

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Book Review: Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake (T. V. Boardman, 1962)

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

Thanks to a series of Westlake Scores, I've ended up reading – and reviewing – some of Donald E. Westlake's earliest novels this year. I wrote about his debut novel – under his own name, that is; he'd had a number of pseudonymous sleaze works published prior to it – The Mercenaries (1960), back in January, and then last week reviewed his third own-brand book, the brilliant 361. Nestling in-between those two novels is Killing Time (1961), which, in its 1962 British T. V. Boardman edition, I blogged about as a Westlake Score back in 2010 but only just got around to reading. And while it's certainly not the equal of 361, it's still a fine crime novel, and in its blistering finale again affords a glimpse of what was to come in Westlake's Parker novels (penned, of course, under the nom de plume Richard Stark) as the 1960s unfolded.

Written, like The Mercenaries and 361, in the first-person, Killing Time is narrated by Tim Smith, a private investigator living and working in the small town of Winston. Tim is eating in a diner late one night when a stranger enters, pulls a gun and attempts to kill him. Pretty soon after that the assailant is himself shot dead by a gunman across the street, leaving Tim wondering who in Winston would want to see him dead, and just as importantly, why. Part of the answer comes with the arrival in Winston of Paul Masetti, an agent of a reform group called the Citizens for Clean Government. Having cleaned up Monequois and New Hamburg, the CCG have set their sights on Winston, and Masetti wants Tim to provide information on corruption in the town.

Tim, you see, has a filing cabinet full of the town's dirty secrets, making him a prime target for anyone wishing to stop those secrets seeing the light. Except Tim is happy in Winston: he has a girlfriend, Cathy, who, if he doesn't love her, is at least comfortable with her; a job he likes; and plenty of friends in high places. But one of those "friends" evidently wants him dead, and as the town divides into rival factions, Tim is forced to choose sides, leading to an all-guns-blazing showdown.

It's that blood-soaked climax that's the real draw in Killing Time; it's no accident that Westlake titled the book thus, because it's by far the most gripping part of the novel: a fast-moving, startlingly violent battle royale between dozens of gun-toting men in an industrial plant (note Boardman's blunt labelling of the novel on the dust jacket flap as "massacre and mayhem"). And it's here that we can see hints of some of the finales in the Parker novels – The Seventh (1966), The Handle (ditto) and Butcher's Moon (1974) spring immediately to mind. Prior to that, Killing Time is little more than an agreeable P.I. mystery, narrated by a wisecracking protagonist clearly in debt to Hammett (the book has been likened by some critics to Red Harvest): 

Now I walked through the block-square City Hall Park in the late June sunshine. A few bums were loafing on the benches by the trees, resting up between elections. Over to the left, the town library was doing a thriving business in high-school students boning up for their exams. This year, the teen-agers were all imitating Sal Mineo and Brigitte Bardot, and they all looked as though they were going to do something obscene any minute.

But even in the pre-bloodbath stages of the book there are pointers to the Parkers: Westlake names one of Winston's clans "Wycza", prefiguring Dan Wycza, one of the Parker novels' recurring characters. That said, however, anyone expecting Killing Time to evoke the dour intensity of Stark – as, to an extent, 361 does – will be disappointed. Killing Time is an entirely different kettle of fish: an enjoyable whodunnit and an amusingly cynical portrait of a corrupt town, lifted by a brilliant ending that feels slightly bolted-on.

Right then: it's back to the signed editions next, with a 1964 thriller boasting a dust jacket that's already made it into the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery...

Monday 6 August 2012

We Alien Seed by J. A. Wood (Robert Hale, 1979): Signed and Dedicated First Edition (a Lewes Book Bargain)

It's back to the signed editions again, following a Beautiful British Book Jackets detour and a Westlake Score-and-review. And this next signed book is a real curiosity: an obscure science fiction novel by an author who seemingly only had the one book published...

J. A. Wood's We Alien Seed was published in hardback in the UK by Robert Hale in 1979, under a rather nice dust jacket designed by the painter Helen Hale (any relation...?). Despite much feverish googling I've not been able to find out much about the elusive Wood; there's a single listing for the author on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (for We Alien Seed), but other than that I've drawn a blank. Perhaps, like another science fiction author I blogged about a couple of years ago, the now not-so-mysterious Michael Vyse, this post will prompt a comment from someone who either knows the whereabouts of J. A. Wood, or can provide further information on the author, or who might even be able to shed light on who "Pam" and "Alan" are:

Evidently they were/are friends of Wood, and since I found this copy of We Alien Seed in the Lewes Castle bookshop (of all places; its stock mostly consists of history and local interest tomes), it's reasonable to assume that either they or Wood have some kind of connection with the Lewes area.

The Hale edition of We Alien Seed was the novel's only printing; there are only four copies listed on AbeBooks, three of those ex-library (and none of them signed). It's certainly something of an oddity, a comedy SF tale (much like another one-off novel I wrote about last year, Bernard MacLaren's Day of Misjudgment, which I also bought in Lewes) about a writer for Sci-Fi-Fact magazine who has a close encounter with an alien species in Wales (!) – the "Fathers", who "used their knowledge to seed this planet and its crude native inhabitants with genealogical traits similar to their own", and thus "influenced the course of evolution... directing the dominant strain towards a reproduction of themselves". Which makes me wonder if J. A. Wood was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and if in turn Ridley Scott's Prometheus was inspired by We Alien Seed.

Probably not, eh?

Moving on, and later in the week I'll have a signed edition by a thriller writer I've featured on Existential Ennui a fair few times already, featuring a dust jacket which is already in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery. Before that, though: a review of another early Donald E. Westlake crime novel...