Thursday 20 December 2012

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics: 2012 Edition

I'm afraid the title of this post is just as misleading as it was last year – more so, in fact: at least last year I had the decency to add the disclaimer "Insufferable Navel-Gazing" to the heading. Because that's what, in essence, the now-traditional (as in I've done this three years in a row, an uncharacteristic and therefore almost admirable act of perseverance on my part, if not yours) Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics is: a willful ignoring of events in both the publishing and wider worlds in favour of introspective musings on what I've been buying and reading and then blogging about this year. And you wouldn't have it any other way, would you, you little scamps?

In an astonishing abdication of imaginative thinking, I'll be repeating the three-act format I established last year, namely: a meandering and quite probably prolix overview, i.e. this post right here; a list of all the books and graphic novels I read this year, accompanied by some half-arsed analysis; and finally my pick of the ten, or possibly twenty – I haven't decided which yet – best of those books and graphic novels. All spectacularly self-centred and arbitrary of course, in that it'll make no sense whatsoever beyond the reactionary confines of Existential Ennui, but there we have it: take it or bloody well leave it, pal.

I suggest we get the comics out of the way first, because it hasn't been a banner year for those, at least the ones of the mainstream superhero variety. For reasons I outlined here and have little wish to rake over again, I'm now buying precisely one DC Universe title – Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Batman Incorporated – and one DC/Vertigo series: Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten. Go read that DC New 52 post if you want to learn why I'm so disinterested in and disenchanted with DC's wares, a double-D of dissatisfaction (or does that make it triple-D...?) which has since been expanded to a triple-D (or possibly a quadruple-D) with the addition of despair (quintuple?) at the company's utterly pointless and, I expect, ultimately damaging (sextuple!) Beyond Watchmen manyminiseries. And though Marvel are faring slightly better on my increasingly infrequent trips to the comic shop, I can't honestly muster much enthusiasm for their "Marvel Now" initiative either; I quite like Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen's All-New X-Men, and the first issue of Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opena's Avengers wasn't bad, but that's about it.

(Incidentally, part of the reason I haven't mentioned any of this on Existential Ennui this year – other than I couldn't be fucking bothered – is because, frankly, there's quite enough comics commentary on the web as it is – and not enough musty old books commentary, evidently – without my adding to the largely ill-informed din. Honourable exceptions there being Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter, J. Caleb Mozzocco's Every Day is Like Wednesday and Tucker Stone and Abhay Khosla's "Comics of the Weak" column; bookmark those buggers if you haven't already.)

That said, and speaking of Hickman, there have been some good comics published this year – largely by Image, including Hickman and Nick Pitarra's The Manhattan Projects – and, so I'm told, graphic novels – "so I'm told" because I'm afraid I've read very few of them. Even so, I have proffered the odd comics post myself – a Notes from the Small Press or four, and even a few graphic novel reviews; just enough to warrant the keeping of the word "comics" in Existential Ennui's subtitular list of subjects covered, I feel. For now, anyway.

The irony is, while I suspect there were more comics posts on Existential Ennui this year than there were last (although I'm not about to go and check or anything; that would require a modicum of effort), there were actually fewer posts overall: as of this one, 169, as opposed to 2011's 247. Which, taking into account the fact that I managed 366 posts in 2010, means that based on these trends, in a couple of years' time there'll be no posts at all. Reason to celebrate there, I'm sure, but it does seem something of a shame, especially as latterly I went to the trouble of acquiring a custom domain name for the blog – "", formerly "" – an exciting turn of events which I then proceeded to diminish by mithering on about SEO for weeks on end.

That was probably the biggest occurrence on Existential Ennui this year – the custom domain name, not the mithering; that's a regular, regrettable occurrence – the other contender being the establishment of the permanent Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, which has been a soaraway success (well over 8,500 hits and counting), and which for me proved an enjoyable distraction from regular books blogging throughout 2012.

As for that regular blogging, I think there was some pretty decent stuff in there this year. There were series of posts on, among others, Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora spy thrillers; Dan J. Marlowe and his Earl Drake crime novels; Geoffrey Household; books vaguely to do with journalism; books which begat films; and, most recently, vintage paperbacks. There was a visit to the TV Book Club. There were competitions, and a couple of interviews, one with Christopher Nicole (alias Andrew Yorke), the other with Jeremy Duns (alias... Jeremy Duns). There was the still-unfinished Great Tom Ripley Reread, all three instalments of which I was fairly pleased with, as indeed I was with this post on Peter George, which I researched the living bejeezus out of, to the extent that I even took the extraordinary step of introducing footnotes (in truth nothing more than a feeble and embarrassing attempt to appear scholarly by aping Michael Barber's similarly footnoted but immeasurably more intellectual guest post on Kingsley Amis from 2011).

Of course, at root, the rarely stated but doubtless utterly transparent point of all this blogging is to service my secondhand book habit, and I certainly acquired some doozies this year – not only one-of-a-kind signed and inscribed firsts like Donald E. Westlake's The Mercenaries and Patricia Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny, but ephemera too, in the shape of a 1981 letter about publishing by Gavin Lyall and a 1974 memo from Macmillan publisher Alan Maclean (brother of Cambridge spy Donald) to Chairman Harold Macmillan (yes, that Harold Macmillan) about a P. M. Hubbard suspense novel.

Besides all that, there were posts on books by such literary reprobates as Michael Gilbert, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, Roald Dahl (an excellent guest post by Adam Newell), Kim Philby, Graham Greene, Adam Hall and the aforementioned – and firm favourites of mine – Patricia Highsmith and Donald E. Westlake, the latter under various guises and duly cross-posted, of course, on The Violent World of Parker. One favourite author who remained conspicuous by his absence, however, was Ross Thomas: I didn't manage a single dedicated post on him (and nor did I get round to any of the books from his backlist that I've yet to read – something I fully intend to rectify next year). But since jazz musician and crime fiction aficionado Ethan Iverson posted the definitive guide to Thomas back in January, I'm not sure what more I can add... except that mentioning Ethan does give me the opportunity to thank him in public (relatively speaking) for inviting myself and Rachel along to Ronnie Scott's in October, where we were blown away by his brilliant band, The Bad Plus. (Truly, I am the master of the tricky segue.)

And someone else I'd like to thank, dear reader, is you – especially those of you who've taken the trouble to comment over the course of the year. I may make this blogging lark look easy – tortuously, torturously composed, sure, but still, I like to think, achieving a certain air of effortless flair (ha!) – but it can be bloody hard work at times, and it's not as if I get paid for the dubious pleasure of writing this shit. Knowing that you're reading, though, and seeing your comments, makes it all worthwhile. I couldn't do it without you.

...Actually I almost certainly could, but seeing as I'm keen to maintain my meagre readership, I figured it might be prudent to end on an ingratiating compliment.

Next: a big long list of the books I read this year.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness (Joe Gall / Nullifier Spy Series) by Philip Atlee, alias James Atlee Phillips (Gold Medal, 1963/64)

For this final post in this series on vintage paperbacks – for now, anyway; there'll doubtless be more old paperbacks in the new year – I thought I'd showcase a pair of Gold Medal spy fiction originals: one boasting cover art by an artist who'll be familiar to fans of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime series; the other boasting cover art by another artist who'll be familiar to Parker fans:

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness by Philip Atlee, published straight to paperback in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in, respectively, 1963 and 1964 (although the edition of The Green Wound seen here is the near-identical British one, published by Frederick Muller in 1964). The cover artist on The Green Wound is Harry Bennett, the man responsible for the covers of the initial eight Parker novels published by Pocket Books from 1962 to 1966; the cover artist on The Silken Baroness is Robert McGinnis, the man responsible for the ensuing four Parkers published by Gold Medal from 1967 to 1969, plus two reissues. I've written about both artists repeatedly – follow their tags at the bottom of this post for more – so I shan't cover old ground again here, except to note that it's interesting to see their different approaches to the material: loose and expressive in Bennett's case, tighter and more traditionally illustrative in McGinnis's, who still manages to include a nod to abstraction in the form of the canvas in the background.

The Green Wound and The Silken Baroness are both narrated by CIA agent Joe Gall, who would go on to star in a further twenty novels – all of them bearing the legend "Contract" in their titles (for subsequent printings, the first two books in the series would become The Green Wound Contract and The Silken Baroness Contract) – in the process assuming the sobriquet "The Nullifier" (unfortunately "The Liquidator" and "The Eliminator" were already taken). Gall actually made his debut in an earlier novel, Pagoda, written under Atlee's real name, James Atlee Phillips, and published by Macmillan in 1951, but as the estimable Bill Crider points out, though it's the same character, it's not technically part of the series – for one thing, it's written in the third person rather than the later books' first.

All of the Joe Gall books fell out of print decades ago, but they're fondly remembered by paperback enthusiasts – witness George Kelley's overview at Mystery*File and its attendant comments. And on the strength of The Green Wound – which is the only Gall I've read thus far – there's certainly merit in them: a tough cynicism leavened by a surprisingly adroit facility with the written word (Gall reveals early on that he used to be a writer), and a mystery that remains intriguingly opaque until very late in the tale. It has to be said, however, that a modern day reader might find the notion of a white secret agent pitted against a black conspiracy – led by a character operating under the alias Uncle Tom Asmodeus, and funded by enforced prostitution and white slavery – somewhat uncomfortable (this modern day reader did, anyway), and as this follow-up Mystery*File post notes, other books in the series also suffer from issues to do with the depiction of race. Then again, that's not exactly uncommon with old thrillers – and according to Atlee Phillips's friend, Don Walsh – and to Atlee Phillips's credit – the eighth Joe Gall outing, The Skeleton Coast Contract (1968), apparently earned the author the ire of South Africa's apartheid regime.

Of course, like other spy thriller writers, Atlee Phillips was reflecting, and to a degree sensationalising, the real life events of his era, whether that be racial conflict or, potentially, nuclear conflict. But it seems he also had a rather more direct insight into America and the CIA's involvement in certain events. Not only did he have firsthand experience of intelligence work in the 1950s – as confirmed by both Don Walsh and Atlee Phillips's son, the musician Shawn Phillips – but secondhand as well, in the shape of his brother, David Atlee Phillips: for twenty years a high-ranking officer in the CIA, and one of the architects of the Bay of Pigs invasion – a fiasco which, oddly enough, Joe Gall states in The Green Wound was the catalyst for his taking an extended leave of absence from the CIA.

And that's yer lot for this year as regards paperbacks. If, heaven forfend, you've missed any of my recent posts on vintage softcovers, there are links below; but next on Existential Ennui: my review of the year in books and comics – 2012 edition.

The 2012 London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair

Man Hungry, Sally and Backstage Love by Donald E. Westlake

The Score by Richard Stark

The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution by Donald E. Westlake

Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durell/Assignment Spy Series

Assignment to Disaster by Edward S. Aarons

The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark

The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

The Stories of Ray Bradbury

Vintage British Patricia Highsmith Paperbacks

The Deep Blue Goodbye/Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald