Friday 30 November 2012

Elmore Leonard's Debut Crime Novel: The Big Bounce; First Edition (Gold Medal, 1969); Robert McGinnis Cover Art; Review

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

From a Gold Lion original sporting a Robert McGinnis cover, next in this series of posts on paperbacks, another Gold Medal original, once again sporting a Robert McGinnis cover:

Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce, published straight to paperback in the States by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1969. This copy came from the basement of a Cecil Court secondhand bookshop, for less than a tenner – quite a nice find, considering the only copies I've seen online are in the US and listed for rather more than a tenner (and with postage on top), and the book's significance. Because The Big Bounce was Elmore Leonard's first crime novel – or, more accurately, his first contemporaneously set novel. Up to this point in his career, Leonard had published only westerns – novels and short stories – pretty successfully in the 1950s, with two of them, 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T (alias The Captives) – more on that one later – being made into films in 1957. As soon as he decided to leave his ad agency job in 1960, however, the western market died on its arse; as Leonard explains in his introduction to the 1989 Armchair Detective Library edition of The Big Bounce, for most of the rest of the decade he "wrote ads, promotional material, industrial and educational films, everything but cocktail napkins and not a word of fiction". Eventually, the movie rights for his 1961 novel Hombre sold, and Leonard used the money to fund the writing of his "first novel with a contemporary setting, Mother, This is Jack Ryan".

Eighty-four (!) rejections, one rewrite and a title change later (although the line the original title was inspired by is still in the book), The Big Bounce found a home as a novel at Gold Medal and as a movie at Warner Bros. The film, directed by Alex March and starring Ryan O'Neil and Leigh Taylor-Young, is by all accounts a bit of a stinker – and the 2004 version isn't much better regarded – but the novel is terrific; not Leonard at his absolute best – that would come later with the likes of Stick, Get Shorty and Pronto – but not far off. Even at this early stage in his career, Leonard had a prose style all his own: lilting, deceptively easygoing, yet focused and intense; clever, lightly handled but thorough character work; and that gloriously naturalistic and yet still idiosyncratically Elmore-esque dialogue.

The plot isn't terribly complicated, but then Elmore Leonard plots rarely are; that aspect of writing just isn't that important to him. A young drifter, Jack Ryan (no relation to Tom Clancy's later CIA analyst-turned-president), takes a job working as a handyman at a Michigan lakeside cabana complex owned by local justice of the peace Walter Majestyk (no relation to Vincent Majestyk from Leonard's own Mr. Majestyk). Majestyk has seen film footage of Ryan using a baseball bat in a fight and so knows he has a self-destructive streak; but he also sees something worthwhile in the younger man, and does what he can to help him out – with a certain amount of resistance on Ryan's part. But then Ryan, who has a string of minor robberies in his past and has already turned over one local property, gets mixed up with Nancy, the manipulative mistress of Ray Ritchie, the rich farm owner for whom Ryan briefly worked as a picker – and Nancy has a plan for stealing fifty grand from Ritchie.

Everything flows from character in an Elmore Leonard novel: the decisions the protagonists take and the ramifications of those decisions; the things they say or do to one another and the consequences of those actions. It helps that Leonard has a forensic eye for character – not in an overwritten, overly intrusive sense – for really, how well can we truly know one another (something that Leonard-through-Ryan reflects on late in the novel: "What good was being cool if you weren't you? Whoever you are, Ryan thought") – but in the way he observes the little details: a certain look shot across a bar booth; the cocked head and corner-of-an-eye glance when combing one's hair in the mirror; the idle daydreams of a bored female holidaymaker, fantasizing about Ryan sweeping her off her feet.

Ryan is the archetypal Leonard male lead: quick-tempered, ready to stand up for himself (there's a memorably bruising but ultimately amusing encounter with Ray Ritchie's right hand man, Bob Jr.), sometimes kind of dumb, unselfconscious for the most part, but also self-aware and thoughtful. In fact, so archetypal is Ryan that Leonard admits in that 1989 introduction to The Big Bounce (reproduced here) that "All of my male leads... even in the westerns, resemble Jack Ryan in that they have much the same basic attitude about their own existence, what’s important and what isn’t", adding, "Jack Ryan might possibly have become a continuing character aging along with his maker, if it were not for the fact that each time you sell a film rights to a studio, they own the character for a specified number of years. So I change the names." Or rather, some of the names: like Raylan Givens and Ernest Stickley, Ryan would be granted the honour of another starring role, this time in 1977's Unknown Man No. 89.

The one character in The Big Bounce I struggled with was Nancy. She's so bored, feckless, destructive and malicious it's a wonder any man falls for her, let alone Ryan, who has to constantly fight the urge to boot her in the behind and bugger off out of it. As it turns out, though, Nancy has her basis in a particular type of Los Angeles lass, characterised in a February 1967 issue of Esquire as "The New American Woman", and described by Hollywood literary agent H. N. Swanson as girls looking for "the bounce". The bounce in this case being the scheme to grab Ritchie's money – although latterly Nancy concocts an even bigger, rather more deadly bounce.

The Big Bounce marked the end of one phase of Elmore Leonard's career and the beginning of another, one which would come to define him as a writer. Appropriately, there's a sly parting farewell to the wild west form in the novel: during one of their misadventures, Ryan and Nancy spy on Walter Majestyk while Majestyk is watching television in his house. Ryan recognises the Randolph Scott horse opera the older man is engrossed in – "a good one", Ryan recalls, and then listens intently to "the part where Randolph goes in the cave after the guy named Billy Jack... jams the sawed-off shotgun under Billy Jack's chin and wham the guy's face disappears quick, the way it would happen, without one of those fakey fights." The western in question? The Tall T.

Next in this run of paperback posts: things take a turn for the science fictional...

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Westlake Score: The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10) by Richard Stark (Gold Medal, 1967); Robert McGinnis Cover Art

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

As trailed at the end of that post on Edward S. Aarons's Gold Medal spy novel Assignment to Disaster, I've got lots more lovely paperbacks lined up for you over the coming weeks – terrific books by the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Richard Matheson and Elmore Leonard; published by such iconic imprints as Pan, Corgi and Gold Medal; and featuring spectacular cover illustrations by the likes of Sam Peffer, Harry Bennett... and the man responsible for the cover art of this latest Westlake Score:

Robert McGinnis, here painting to my mind one of his best visualizations of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's taciturn antihero Parker. Published straight to paperback in the US in 1967, The Green Eagle Score was the tenth novel to star Parker, but only the second to be published by Fawcett/Gold Medal (second new one, anyway; Gold Medal also reissued the first Parker outing, The Hunter, in 1967, as Point Blank); the eight novels prior to the preceding Parker, The Rare Coin Score, were all issued by Pocket Books.

I'm not sure how many "Top Five Parkers" lists The Green Eagle Score would feature in, but it's a solid Top Ten, I think, at least once you get your eye in as regards the greater series. In his brilliant book-by-book overview of the Westlake canon, Ethan Iverson memorably recalls how The Green Eagle Score was the first Parker he read, and how he "could not understand how dry as dust, simple, and matter of fact it was". By this point in the series, Westlake/Stark's prose is so stripped back, so deadpan and impassive it's almost zen-like in its doggedness: just the facts, ma'am. And yet this is deceptive; the novel's opening paragraph is a perfect example of the Stark less-is-more approach, of how much Westlake crams in with so few words:

Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits. He was standing near Parker’s gear, not facing anywhere in particular, and he looked like a rip in the picture. The hotel loomed up behind him, white and windowed, the Puerto Rican sun beat down, the sea foamed white on the beach, and he stood there like a homesick mortician.

I shared some other thoughts about the book back in 2010, so I shan't go over old ground again here, except to note that I like The Green Eagle Score enough that spotting and then winning this copy of the Gold Medal first edition on eBay was an unexpected thrill. As I've mentioned before, it's unusual to see US paperback firsts of the Parkers on this side of the pond, and nabbing them gives me the opportunity to hold little pieces of publishing history in my hands; to discover things about them – for example, the opening page of The Green Eagle Score:

Which affords a glimpse into Fawcett's marketing strategy for the book, positioning master thief Parker alongside other characters in the Gold Medal stable: two spies – Philip Atlee's Joe Gall and Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm – and a salvage consultant. Matt Helm I've blogged about before, but it just so happens that Messrs Gall and McGee – the latter created, of course, by John D. MacDonald – will be appearing later in this run of paperback posts. But next: another Gold Medal novel, published a couple of years after The Green Eagle Score, one which again boasts a Robert McGinnis cover, and marks the crime fiction debut of one of America's greatest writers.

Monday 26 November 2012

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7, by Martin Eden; Mini-Comic Review

In the two years I've been posting these intermittent small press comics missives, the name of one comics creator in particular has remained conspicuous by its absence: Martin Eden. Martin's been a leading light in the British small press scene for over a decade, first with his epic superhero soap opera The O Men, more recently with his gay superhero saga Spandex; but more than that, for twelve years he's been one of my closest friends – which is why, quite frankly, it's an outrage that it's taken me this long to get round to featuring him.

I haven't ignored him completely, mind: I wrote about the publicity storm surrounding Spandex's launch in 2009, and I've mentioned the comic a couple of times since – plus I reviewed this year's splendid Titan Books hardback collection of the first three issues of Spandex. Still, an appearance in Notes from the Small Press is not only long overdue but, I have little doubt, eagerly awaited by Martin himself (ahem), so the recent publication of the seventh issue of Spandex strikes me as the perfect opportunity to right a wrong.

That said, if you haven't yet read Spandex, this issue is a perfectly ridiculous place to start, seeing as it's the culmination of over two years' worth of plots and subplots, with questions answered, motivations revealed and, ultimately, lives lost. The confidence of Martin's artwork and storytelling, however, is plain for all to see: clean lines, bold blocks of colour, and a tale that moves from clever fight scene to quiet character moment to explosive climax with admirable aplomb. By this point in the story the cast has become so extensive as to be verging on the unwieldy, but Martin still finds space for individual character moments (some very touching), the tying up of character arcs, and even a discussion between team leader (and cross-dresser) Liberty and Spandex stalwart Prowler on the potential ramifications of God being a lesbian.

That's actually something of a spoiler if you haven't got this far in the series, an audacious twist which provided the cliffhanger at the end of Spandex #6 and prompts a number of philosophical debates and metaphysical excursions in this issue, perhaps the best of which being a two-page sequence illustrating Martin's notion of heaven: cherry blossom falling onto a tiny, floating island where one is reunited with one's soul mate. But if that makes Spandex #7 sound a bit highfalutin, fear not: the comic's innate sense of fun is never far from the fore, whether it be a disgraceful misappropriation of the "Fastball Special" or indeed a special guest appearance by Wolverine himself, telling Liberty in no uncertain terms what she can do with her invitation to join the team.

In "Little Notes from Martin" at the back, Mart is at pains to point out that this isn't, in fact, the final issue of the series; there's another one to come, a Spandex Special, due in the second half of 2013. But Spandex #7 does mark the end of this particular storyline, and so Martin has included not only a bonus mini-comic, Spandex Black and White, featuring interpretations of the team by small press stars like Paul Rainey, Grant Springford and Graham Pearce, but one of ten different badges as well (mine sports a picture of Pussy).

Spandex #7 is available to order for £3.20 for UK readers and $7.00 for US ones (both those prices including postage and packing) from the official Spandex website, along with all six previous issues. I can't recommend them highly enough – and I'm not just saying that because Martin and I are mates. Well, not entirely...

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds