Friday 24 August 2012

Memo from Macmillan Publisher Alan Maclean to Chairman (and Former Prime Minister) Harold Macmillan Concerning P. M. Hubbard's A Thirsty Evil (1974); plus Review of the Novel

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

That mouthful of a title up top should give you a pretty good idea of what we're dealing with in this latest post on signed editions (and ephemera), but further explication is, I suspect, warranted...

This is the British first edition of cult suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard's A Thirsty Evil, published by Macmillan in 1974. Now, those of you with reasonable memories might recall my having blogged about this book before, albeit in a different edition: a 1974 US Atheneum first edition, to be precise, signed by P. M. Hubbard and inscribed to his friend, the author Alan Kennington, making it the only signed Hubbard book I've ever seen. That copy of the book came with its own remarkable bit of ephemera: a signed, handwritten letter by Hubbard to Kennington about the novel, which, one might reason, together with the signed edition would be quite enough for any Hubbard enthusiast. But I later spotted this Macmillan edition online and then went to take a look at it at the seller's bookshop, and simply couldn't resist it and the ephemera that was stapled to its front free endpaper.

I'll return to that in a moment, but first, the novel itself. As is often the way with the books I buy, I hadn't read A Thirsty Evil when I originally wrote about it, but I have since, and it is, as the late Wyatt James dryly notes in his annotated bibliography, "a characteristic book by this author". It certainly reminded me of Hubbard's clammy masterpiece A Hive of Glass (1965), although A Thirsty Evil isn't quite of that calibre; overall it's less oppressive, though still with that intensifying aura of dread, the juxtaposition of a rural idyll – in this case centred on a remote pool hiding a submerged, totemic tooth-like stone – with a sense of there being something very wrong in this summer sun-drenched English backwater.

Hubbard's protagonists are often unpleasant fellows, and the narrator of this one, novelist (and heir to a biscuit empire) Ian Mackellar, is a man who is, at root, as feckless as his nemesis, Charlie, the mentally disturbed brother of Julia, the woman Mackellar is obsessed with; it's evident early on that matters won't end well, and so it proves. But the getting there is grotesquely gripping – the tense scenes where Mackellar encounters Charlie and Julia's other sister, Beth, are especially memorable – and both Wyatt James, who labelled the book "not outstanding", and indeed Hubbard himself, who, in his letter to Kennington about the book, stated, "it's not one I'm very keen on myself", were, I think, doing A Thirsty Evil a disservice: it's a short, taut, unnerving little triumph.

The dust jacket illustration on the Macmillan edition of A Thirsty Evil is by well-known children's illustrator (and onetime tutor at Brighton College of Art) Justin Todd, and it's that image which prompted the writing, on 4 February, 1974, of the piece of paraphernalia stapled to the front free endpaper of this particular copy:

It's an internal Macmillan memo, from the then-publisher, Alan Maclean – brother, incidentally, of Cambridge spy Donald Maclean (who recently made a cameo in spy novelist Jeremy Duns's The Moscow Option) – to Macmillan's then-chairman: one Harold Macmillan, prime minister, from 1957 to 1963, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You see, after retiring from politics in 1964, Macmillan rejoined his family's publishing firm (he'd been a junior partner from 1920–1940), this time as Chairman – and if this document is anything to go by, it seems he was quite an active one...

Maclean's memo is apparently a response to a note from Harold Macmillan, who was evidently far from keen on Justin Todd's Henri Rousseau-esque jacket artwork for A Thirsty Evil. Maclean's defence of the design choice runs thus: "All the jackets for [Macmillan editor] George Hardinge's list are aimed particularly at the 'thriller' market, and this one has been very well received in the trade. The Australian company ordered 250 copies on the strength of the jacket alone!" After reasoning that the illustration "is not entirely irrelevant", Maclean signs off by saying that he's returning Macmillan's own copy of the book – presumably the very copy seen in this post.

And then, at the bottom of the memo, comes something quite extraordinary: a handwritten note by Harold Macmillan, signed "HM", with a "thank you" to Maclean, followed by the exclamation, "Oh God! Oh Montreal!" On first inspection those words might appear slightly baffling – they did to me, anyway – but it's actually a reference to English novelist and satirist Samuel Butler's "A Psalm of Montreal", a commentary on what Butler perceived as the Canadian propensity to embrace financial matters above artistic ones, as embodied by the fate of a plaster cast of the classical Greek sculpture Discobolus (epitome, appropriately enough in the wake of London 2012, of the Olympic spirit) on the premises of the Montreal Natural History Society. Essentially, Macmillan was bewailing the justification of what he thought was a rubbish cover by the book's advance sales.

As remarkable as this document is, there are a couple of things about it which, to my mind, make it even more so. For one, Harold Macmillan clearly read and enjoyed A Thirsty Evil, which strikes me as being, at the very least, notable: a former prime minister was a "fan" of P. M. Hubbard (there's one for the blurbs on the forthcoming Murder Room ebook reissues of Hubbard's novels). For another – and this is priceless – it looks to me as if Macmillan actually corrected Maclean's original note when he acknowledged receipt! Maclean misspelt "douanier" – as in Le Douanier, Henri Rousseau's nickname – as "douanaie", which Macmillan – it appears to be in his hand and his slightly darker blue pen, not Maclean's – has in turn amended, crossing out the additional "a" and adding an "r" at the end!

To be honest, I'm not sure if the bookseller I bought this from quite knew what he had on his hands – I paid a fair amount for it, but not much more than you'd have to pay for a decent Macmillan first edition of A Thirsty Evil anyway (like most of Hubbard's novels, it's become quite quite uncommon in first). In any case, I shall treasure this just as much as my signed Atheneum edition and accompanying Hubbard letter – and as a bonus, you all get to see it as well.

Next: we're leaving the signed editions for the moment for a Westlake Score...

Tuesday 21 August 2012

LB Score: Hit Man by Lawrence Block; Signed First Edition (Morrow, 1998)

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

Returning to the signed editions after a piece of signed Gavin Lyall paraphernalia, here's a book by a friend and contemporary – not to mention occasional collaborator – of Donald E. Westlake's, collecting – and reworking – a series of short stories starring a self-absorbed assassin...

This is the US first edition/first impression of Lawrence Block's Hit Man, published by William Morrow in 1998, with dust jacket art by Phil Heffernan (actually misspelt "Heffernen" on the jacket flap) and overall jacket design by Bradford Foltz, whose recognizably elegant designs have wrapped novels by the aforementioned Donald Westlake (Watch Your Back!, Mysterious Press, 2005) and Dennis Lehane (the Kenzie and Gennaro novels Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, Gone, Baby, Gone and Prayers for Rain), among others.  

Hit Man is the first of four books – soon to be five; there's a new one due next year – featuring John Keller, a hired killer in the throes of an extended existential crisis. The stories in this first collection – some of which originally appeared in Playboy – see Keller carrying out a variety of hits, most of which take him from his base of New York to nothing towns that he fantasizes about moving to and settling down in. Keller's quest to find some purpose in his life also sees him enter therapy (to less-than-satisfactory ends), get a girlfriend (ditto), get a dog (ditto again) and, best of all, in the final story, "Keller in Retirement", take up stamp collecting (as a book and comic collector, I was especially tickled by some of the collecting minutiae Block works in in that last one). The stories are wryly amusing and in places jarringly violent; you get that same sense of a tale being spun by a master storyteller as you do with Westlake (his capers in particular) or Elmore Leonard (another friend and contemporary of Block's). I liked the book a lot, and will definitely be back for more.

Hit Man had been on my radar for a while as one to read, so when I saw this copy squirreled away in the basement of a Cecil Court secondhand bookshop a few months back, and furthermore noted this inside:

I snapped it up. On the way back to Lewes from London I tweeted in a smug fashion that I'd just found a signed Lawrence Block book. Quick as a flash, LB tweeted back with, "It's the unsigned ones that are rare". Given that there are getting on for 3,000 signed Lawrence Block titles currently listed on AbeBooks, I guess he has a point, but even so: I was chuffed to get hold of a signed first edition of Hit Man, and an American first at that.

Next up, it's back to the signed ephemera, although in this case, unlike the Gavin Lyall letter mentioned above, the extraordinary piece of paraphernalia under discussion this time is stapled inside a book. Moreover, it hasn't been signed by the book's author, but by the book's publisher and, believe it or not, by a former prime minister...