Friday 12 October 2012

Public Service Announcements: Changes to Existential Ennui, and the London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair, Sunday 28 October, 2012

All being well, next week I'll be posting that promised Peter Bryan George piece, and I'll also hopefully be adding to the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, with two lovely Lewes-bought illustrative wrappers which will edge the total number of covers on the page ever closer to 100. But before all that, and to round off the working week, a couple of announcements...

ITEM 1: You may, or may not, have noticed some minor changes to Existential Ennui this week, namely a slight widening of the blog and a new subtitle. The former I've been meaning to get round to for a while now; computer screens are a lot wider these days, so it seems daft to unnecessarily restrict the width of EE, especially when it makes it easier to position two book covers side by side in a post. The latter is also something I've been mulling for some time; to my mind the old, rather prosaic subtitle of "Crime and spy fiction, SF, book collecting, comics" had become a bit stale, and wasn't properly explaining what Existential Ennui is all about. So instead I've settled on the more narrative, yet still descriptive "The chronicle of an obsessive book collector*: crime, spy, suspense, thrillers, SF, comics". I think it does the job, and hey: it's tailor made for any eventual Existential Ennui blook. Ahem.

ITEM 2: If you'd care to cast your minds back to November of last year, you might recall my having written about the books I bagged at the 2011 London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair. Well I'm pleased to say the event is returning again this year, and will take place on Sunday 28 October at the Park Plaza Hotel, near Victoria Station. For anyone interested in old crime fiction, spy fiction, science fiction, horror and western paperbacks and pulp magazines, it really is an event not to be missed, and I'm reliably informed – by book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, who'll be hawking his splendid wares at the show – that horror editor Stephen Jones, acclaimed artist Les Edwards and fantasy author Adrian Cole will all be in attendance and signing. More importantly than that, however, I'll be there, so if you see this lanky streak of piss wandering about:

come and say hello. Although not in the first hour. I'll be too busy rifling through boxes of paperbacks.

Until next week.

* Since changed to the more alliterative "The chronicle of a compulsive book collector..." Although I reserve the right to change it back again, or indeed change it to something else entirely – "chronic book collector"**, perhaps. I'm mercurial like that.

** And indeed that's what I did change it to. Told you.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Denis McLoughlin Designs: The Big H by Bryan Peters, alias Peter Bryan George (T. V. Boardman, 1961); Book Review

Time for one last (for now...) Denis McLoughlin dust jacket-sporting T. V. Boardman thriller before I move on to other matters. Although as it turns out, those "other matters" will concern the author of this particular book...

The Big H by Bryan Peters, published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1961. This is the second of Peters's two published novels, the first being Hong Kong Kill (T. V. Boardman, 1958), which introduced the stars of The Big H, British agent Anthony Brandon and CIA operative Jess Lundstrom. Or rather, it's the second of Peters's two published novels under that particular moniker – because in fact Bryan Peters is a pen name of Peter Bryan George, a Welsh-born writer best known for his 1958 novel Red Alert, which itself was written under another pseudonym: Peter Bryant. Originally titled Two Hours to Doom when Boardman published it in hardback – complete with a spectacular Denis McLoughlin mushroom cloud illustration on the dust jacket – it's an account of "the first two hours of World War III", and was famously turned into a film in 1964 by Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the screenplay of which George co-wrote.

Nuclear paranoia characterizes much of George's slim body of work, including The Big H, which is ostensibly about a Russian plot to embarrass America by flooding the country with heroin, and finds agent Brandon tasked with posing as a heroin dealer in order to infiltrate the Los Angeles criminal gang at the centre of the conspiracy. Gaining the trust of mob boss Agostino proves trickier than Brandon expected, however, beginning with a card game which recalls James Bond's battle against Le Chiffre in Casino Royale – difference being, Brandon plays to lose, although the net result is essentially the same, i.e. a spot of light torture.

It's a well-constructed Cold War thriller, closer in tone to Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora novels maybe, or Edward S. Aarons's Sam Durell series than Ian Fleming's Bond books: tough, downbeat and with a dogged, determinedly unglamorous lead. It also has an unusual structure: long chapters are punctuated by shorter segments detailing the interrogation of a Russian spy by US Air Force officers, the significance of which only becomes clear late in the novel. It's that intermittent scene that Denis McLoughlin has chosen to illustrate in striking fashion on the dust jacket, combining it with – what else – a big red "H", prefiguring McLoughlin's type treatment on the wrapper for the 1962 Boardman edition Donald E. Westlake's 361.

McLoughlin's dust jacket for The Big H has now, of course, joined his other wrappers on the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s permanent page (taking the total number of covers thereon up to a tantalising 95). And if you take a look at the back cover:

You can see that Boardman have picked out four books from the same year as The Big H "by new authors, whom we believe will be the best-sellers of the future". Unfortunately Boardman's prediction didn't quite pan out: Larry Harris, a.k.a. Laurence Janifer, did make a name for himself in science fiction, but Eric Bruton isn't terribly well remembered these days, and Harry Olesker, after publishing three novels, embarked on a career in film and television before being killed in a motorcycle accident in 1969. Donald Westlake, however, did, as we're all doubtless well aware, do rather well for himself, The Mercenaries being one of over a hundred books he published in his lifetime.

As for Peter George, he took his own life in 1966, publishing one final novel before he died. And it looks as if I might have secured a very special copy of that book, so I'll be blogging about that very soon indeed, as well as exploring George's life and career a bit more and assembling a full Peter George bibliography – the first time, I believe, one has appeared online...

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Denis McLoughlin Designs: Amateur Agent by Christopher Adams, alias Kenneth Hopkins (T. V. Boardman, 1964); Book Review

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

I've just two further T. V. Boardman thrillers to blog about before moving on to other matters – both of which happen to be spy novels hailing from the early 1960s; both of which were written by British authors under non de plumes; and both of which boast dust jackets designed by Denis McLoughlin which will, of course, be making their way onto the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page. Let's take a look at this one first:

Amateur Agent by Christopher Adams, published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1964 (British Bloodhound Mystery #467). "Christopher Adams" was an alias of Kenneth Hopkins (1914–1988), an author who published seven crime novels and mysteries under his own name from 1955 – The Girl Who Died (Macdonald) – to 1963 – Campus Corpse (Macdonald) – plus one pseudonymous spy thriller – Amateur Agent. But Hopkins was also a critic, a man of letters and a poet, as a footnote in the third volume of C. S. Lewis's Collected Letters reveals:

[Hopkins] ...was born in Bournemouth, and after leaving school at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a builder's merchant. In 1938 he set out to sell his poems from door to door. He eventually made his way to London where he came to know the anarchist and publisher Charles Lahr and his circle at Lahr's Red Lion Street bookshop. After serving in the Second World War he worked as the literary director of Everybody's, a magazine concerned with social justice. Later he lectured on English literature and taught creative writing at several North American universities. [Hopkins published a book about one of his visits to the States, A Trip to Texas, in 1962.] His autobiography, The Corruption of a Poet, was published in 1954. His championship of the cause of the Powys brothers... reached its zenith with his biographical appreciation, The Powys Brothers (1967). He was an active member of The Powys Society.

Hopkins's background as a poet can certainly be glimpsed in Amateur Agent. A lively location-hopping tale of mistaken identity, wherein Jim Stone, a British car salesman vacationing in Mexico, gets mixed up in a plot to transport military plans to Cuba, the novel comes across as a more violent version of North by Northwest, but some of the descriptive passages are quite striking, especially those set around Teotihuacan. Indeed, Hopkins paints vivid pictures of all of the novel's various locales, and mixes smart-alec banter with jarring scenes of torture and bloodletting, all of which serve to keep one on one's toes throughout. It's a shame the book, like all of Hopkins's novels, has fallen out of print; the Boardman edition was its only outing and it's consequently become quite scarce (AbeBooks lists just three copies at present, one of those lacking a dust jacket).

Still, at least we all get to gaze upon Denis McLoughlin's evocative wrapper for Amateur Agent – which has taken its rightful place in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design gallery – and as a result of this 'ere post there's now a little more information about both the novel and its author available online. And I'll be providing a similar service with the next post too, as we head back to 1961 for a Cold War espionage tale by a novelist who was obsessed with nuclear annihilation...