Thursday, 31 January 2013

Kingsley Amis and The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage (HarperCollins, 1997)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

Thus far in this series of posts on Kingsley Amis we've had some spy fiction – The Anti-Death League and The Egyptologists – and some science fiction – the Amis-edited SF anthology Spectrum. Now it's time for some nonfiction, with a book I bought in secondhand bookshop Tome in Eastbourne, for just two quid (remarkably, all of their secondhand books are priced at two pounds):

A first edition of The King's English, published in hardback by HarperCollins in 1997, two years after Amis's death. It is, as the subtitle states, "A Guide to Modern Usage", and given that Kingsley Amis had a way with the written English word few could match in the twentieth century, you'd be hard pressed to think of a better guide. But that subtitle does make the book sound drearier, more pedagogical – not to mention considerably less witty – than it actually is. As Charles Moore points out in this 2011 Telegraph review (The King's English was reissued by Penguin that year): "...what does shine throughout is Kingsley’s love of his language. He is exact, but not pedantic. Even when making minute points about the letter of the law, he is really talking about its spirit." A good example of this might be the entry titled "Preposition at the end of a sentence", wherein Amis writes:

This is one of those fancied prohibitions (compare SPLIT INFINITIVE) dear to ignorant snobs. In this case they should be disregarded, and they mostly are, though the occasional stylistic derangement may suggest that a writer here and there still feels its force. It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with. As [H. W.] Fowler famously observed, 'The power of saying . . . People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.' This time idiom and common sense have triumphed over obscurantism.

In his introduction to the 2011 edition of The King's English, Martin Amis makes a similar point to Charles Moore: "...those who remember [Kingsley] as a reactionary – or, if you prefer, as an apoplectic diehard – will be astonished to discover how unfogeyish he is. With remarkably few exceptions, he takes the sensible and centrist course. He is also deeply but unobtrusively learned. As a result, this is not a confining book but a liberating one." That said, there are some cases where the rules are immutable – apostrophes, for instance, where Amis père takes issue with the "greengrocer's apostrophe" and highlights common errors, such as inserting an apostrophe where none is needed. Even here, though, he's notably lenient, admitting that the "rules governing the use of this vexing little mark are evidently hard to master" and conceding that those "who mind their p's and q's must be tolerated".

The word "tolerance" isn't one generally associated with Kingsley Amis, at least in most people's minds – unless, perhaps, it's in regard to his levels of alcohol consumption – but anyone who's spent any amount of time with his writings will know that, like all of us, he was a complicated man. Take the entry titled "Gay", for example, which Martin Amis identifies as "perhaps the most stirring passage in the book": 

The use of this word as an adjective or noun applied to a homosexual has received unusually prolonged execration. The 'new' meaning has been generally current for years. Gay lib had made the revised Roget by 1987 and the word itself was listed in the 1988 COD under sense 5 as a homosexual... And yet in this very spring of 1995 some old curmudgeon is still frothing on about it in the public print and demanding the word "back" for proper heterosexual use...

...once a word is not only current but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

This time it is not a wholly unwelcome truth. The word gay is cheerful and hopeful, half a world away from the dismal clinical and punitive associations of homosexual. We lucky ones can afford to be generous with our much larger and richer vocabulary.

As Martin Amis notes: "An 'old curmudgeon': towards the end of his life, Kingsley was monotonously so described. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines curmudgeon as 'a grasping and miserly churl'. Whereas all careful readers of The King's English (and of his novels) will find themselves responding to a spirit of reckless generosity."

I'm not sure, however, that the phrase "a spirit of reckless generosity" could be applied to the final Kingsley Amis book I'll be looking at: a 1963 novel that some critics have pointed to as a prophetic portrait of Amis himself.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest: Science Fiction, Spectrum (Gollancz, 1961) and The Egyptologists (Cape, 1965)

I touched on Kingsley Amis's experiments with genre in the previous post, on 1966's The Anti-Death League – the genre in that instance being (largely) spy fiction. But The Anti-Death League also boasts elements of science fiction in its genetic make-up, a genre Amis was a leading exponent of. He wrote a key critical text on SF – 1960's New Maps of Hell – and the following year, in collaboration with his friend, the diplomat, historian and poet Robert Conquest, published this:

Spectrum, issued in hardback in 1961 by Victor Gollancz under one of the publisher's iconic yellow dust jackets, and bought by me in first edition back in November 2011 at the same Bloomsbury Book Fair – and indeed from the same dealer – as the similarly jacketed first of Anthony Price's October Men (which will give you an indication of how long some of the multitudinous books on my "to be blogged about" shelves have been awaiting my blogging attention). It's an anthology of SF tales by the likes of Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak and Robert Heinlein, selected by Amis and Conquest, and with an introduction – obliquely referencing New Maps of Hell – which starts off as a robust rebuttal of ill-informed criticisms of science fiction – drawing the analogy that "a useful qualification for reviewing a book on Georgian cutlery is the ability to tell a knife from a fork" – only to turn into almost an apology for its inadequacies, especially as regards characterization (or lack thereof). Although as my learned friend Olman argues in his review, that perceived deficiency is, by and large, borne out by the stories themselves.

Amis and Conquest would go on to edit a further four Spectrum anthologies for Gollancz throughout the 1960s. But they also collaborated on a novel:

The Egyptologists, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1965, bought by me in first in Hall's Bookshop, Tunbridge Wells either last year or the year before – or maybe even the year before that; I genuinely can't remember (see above re: the length of time it takes me to to get round to blogging about some of these bloody books). The situationist-style jacket design is by Jan Pienkowski, who also designed the Richard Chopping-referencing wrapper for Amis's The James Bond Dossier (Cape, 1965), not to mention, while we're on the subjects of Fleming and Cape, the dust jacket of John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming (1966). Kirkus describes The Egyptologists as a "long legpull" and "nonsense", but there's a more favourable – and lengthier – review over at Mystery*File.

Next in the series of posts on Kingsley Amis, I'll probably have a posthumously published work of linguistic pitfalls and pronunciation...

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1966): New Fiction Society Signed Edition, 1972; Uncorrected Proof, 1966

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

The final signed edition I have to show you (for the moment; I do have other signed books waiting patiently in the bookcases) also begins a run of posts on its author:

The Anti-Death League, by Kingsley Amis, originally published in hardback by Victor Gollancz in 1966 under an evocative dust jacket designed by the great Raymond Hawkey, photography by Adrian Flowers. This isn't that edition, however – at least, not quite. It's the second impression from 1972, which I spotted in Lewes's Bow Windows Bookshop last year and couldn't resist – even though I already own a first edition – because each copy was signed by Amis for members of the New Fiction Society:

Although given that this edition came along six years after the first edition, it would have been a slight contradiction in terms to call it "new". Mind you, I've no idea how apposite the New Fiction Society's name was/is: after much fruitless googling I've been unable to determine who or what they were/are (I even resorted to posing the question on Twitter, to a deafening silence). If anyone can shed any light on this mysterious Society, do please leave a comment. 

UPDATE: Fellow fan of The Anti-Death League Philip Gooden emailed me shortly after I posted this with the following insight: 

"The NFS was a kind of upmarket book club that flourished briefly in the mid-70s. Since its aim was to encourage more serious fiction – or at least something between popular and highbrow – it may even have had some Arts Council support. My memory's a bit hazy but I don't think you had to commit to buying a set number of books and they were sold at only a small discount to the published price (in pre-discounting days). The jackets were just the same, with the addition of the NFS sticker on the spine. Perhaps you could get signed copies by paying more.

"The only two I have are Martin Amis's
Success (1978) and Robert Nye's Falstaff (1976). I don't think the society was going in the early 70s so suspect that your copy of The Anti-Death League was retrospectively branded by them. Delighted to find someone else who thinks that it's K. Amis's best book.

And I'm delighted to be able to post this information. Thank you, Philip!

The Anti-Death League was Kingsley Amis's seventh published novel – including 1965's The Egyptologists, co-written with Robert Conquest – and marked the beginning of his (solo) experiments with genre, in this case spy fiction with a dash of science fiction... kind of; there's actually a lot more to the novel than that would suggest, the military espionage trappings merely a backdrop to a highly eventful extended meditation on the nature of life, love, death, friendship, God (who also receives a good kicking in another Amis genre experiment, 1969's The Green Man) and sexuality. It's the one book I would recommend to anyone who reckons they have Amis père pegged: a surprisingly warm novel which stands in marked contrast to the cantankerous likes of, say, Ending Up (1974) – which, incidentally, after The Anti-Death League is my second favourite Amis (of those that I've read).

Speaking of Robert Conquest, as I briefly was above, he'll be popping up in the next post, in which I'll be examining two books he and Kingsley Amis produced in collaboration...

. . . . . . . . . .

ADDENDUM: In March 2019, six years after I originally posted this, I came across an uncorrected proof of the 1966 Gollancz edition of The Anti-Death League in a Lewes antique emporium. 

Extremely uncommon in its own right – it's the only proof of the novel I've ever seen – this copy is also remarkable in that it's an association copy, bearing the ownership signature of literary agent Hilary Rubinstein, who, when he was an editor at Gollancz, brought Amis's debut novel, Lucky Jim, to the publisher. Quite a nice find, then – especially for eight quid.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Celebrating 50 Years of Richard Stark's Parker, and the Parker Movie: Infographics and Character Guide from University of Chicago Press

Interrupting the signed editions briefly: Trent has already linked this one over at The Violent World of Parker after Levi at University of Chicago Press gave us (and fellow Parker fanatic Ethan Iverson) the heads up, but it's diverting enough that I'd like to post something here too. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's taciturn career criminal Parker (The Hunter hit the streets early 1963) and the US release of the new Parker movie, UCP, current publishers of the Parker (and Grofield) series, have unveiled a terrific new dedicated page on their site.

There's a guide to Parker's rules, witty infographics detailing the body count in each book and Parker's take from each score, and most useful of all, I think, a sortable character guide, featuring practically every player – major and minor – from the twenty-four-book series, the novel(s) they appeared in, a bit of biographical background, and even little spoilers.

Clearly a hell of a lot of work went into all this, and I suspect the character guide in particular will prove a godsend in years to come (not least of all to me when I'm researching Parker posts), so a hearty congratulations to Levi and all at UCP. Go check it out.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Harriet Lane, Alys, Always (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012; Signed Edition), Patricia Highsmith, and Tom Ripley

As with C. J. Sansom's Dominion, I became interested in this next book as a result of reading a few reviews at the tail end of last year:

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, published in hardback – under a lovely dust jacket designed by Carrie May – by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February 2012 – which, if you're paying attention at the back of the class, might beg the question, how come I only read those aforementioned reviews at the end of 2012...? Although if you're sitting at the front of the class with the rest of the exceptionally bright children, you'll probably already have worked out that it wasn't the reviews of the hardback edition that I noticed but the reviews of the paperback edition, which was published by Phoenix in December (tick, VG, clever kids; dullards at the back see me after). Of course, awkward bugger that I am, the paperback wasn't good enough for me – and neither was the regular hardback first edition. No – I decided that nothing less than a signed first edition would do, and so went and bought the only one I could find for sale online:

Which has been signed and dated pre-publication. And I suspect in years to come it'll be one to treasure; Lane's debut novel, Alys, Always has been rapturously received by critics, more than a few of whom have pointed to Patricia Highsmith as an influence, especially Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels – which was why my curiosity was piqued by those reviews I saw. Turns out Lane is indeed a fan of Highsmith's work – all the best people are, I find – and there are certainly echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley in particular in Alys, Always. Not so much stylistically – the novel is written in the first person, present tense (where Highsmith stuck rigidly to third and past), and Lane is a lighter writer (hey!) than Highsmith – more in the way it centres on a manipulative type inveigling themselves into an unsuspecting circle of family and friends. In Talented it was Tom inserting himself into, and eventually co-opting, Dickie Greenleaf's life; here it's Frances Thorpe – thirty-something subeditor on the literary section of an ailing newspaper – worming her way into the lives of novelist Laurence Kyte and his children.

One major difference is that unlike Tom Ripley, Frances doesn't actually kill anyone. Instead, at the novel's outset she chances upon the crashed car of Laurence's wife, Alys, who, after a brief, strained conversation, promptly dies on her. Even so, it's the kind of opening one can imagine Highsmith herself entertaining: a coincidence (she was very fond of those) that sets in motion a chain of events largely driven by a scheming loner. For though Frances may not share Tom's murderous tendencies, she does share his outsider's viewpoint, observing the Kytes – not to mention her own family and friends – at a step removed, which in turn allows her to shape and mould their emotions and intuit and almost predict their reactions. She also shares Tom's ultimate aim – a better life for him/herself – and even, in a parallel of the scene in Talented where Tom tries on Dickie's things, drifts about the Kytes' holiday home draped in Alys's shawl and pores over her cookbooks and photo albums.

I don't mean to bang on about Patricia Highsmith – even though I, er, kind of have – but the more you look at Alys, Always, the more Highsmith comes to mind – or at least, to my mind. It's important to note, however, that this isn't imitation on Lane's part: it's inspiration. Lane has a style all her own; she's especially good at evoking an environment in a few lines, and I particularly admire her brevity (the novel clocks in at just over 200 pages, which, in an era of bloated doorstoppers, is refreshing). My learned friend Book Glutton put it best: he identified Alys, Always as being "Highsmithic" – and to my way of thinking, there's no higher praise than that.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2012): Signed Ltd Edition; Review

Our next signed book was actually a Christmas present from the lovely Rachel, who managed to arrange its delivery ahead of the day itself even though, in my usual indecisive manner, I'd only told her what I wanted a week beforehand:

It's a British first edition/first impression of C. J. Sansom's Dominion, published in hardback by Mantle/Pan Macmillan at the tail end of 2012. Or rather, to be more accurate, it's the limited, signed edition:

I started seeing reviews of the book at the beginning of December and was immediately intrigued; I've long been fascinated by alternate history stories, especially those which posit what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War – see Len Deighton's SS-GB, Robert Harris's Fatherland (which Sansom acknowledges a debt to in a Bibliographical Note at the back of Dominion), and even Sarban's The Sound of His Horn. Dominion is set in Britain in 1952, twelve years after, in Sansom's timeline, this country signed a Peace Treaty – surrendered, to all intents and purposes – with Hitler's Germany. Unsurprisingly, it's a grim place: at the behest of the Nazis the indigenous Jewish population is finally being rounded up, and the prime minister, Lord Halifax, heads a coalition government that's little more than a puppet administration. Winston Churchill, now in his late-seventies, commands the Resistance, for whom civil servant David Fitzgerald is spying when he's tasked with a mission to assist an old friend, Frank Muncaster, who's been imprisoned in a mental hospital, and who holds a terrifying secret that the Germans would be only too pleased to obtain.

It's a deliberately paced affair; not having read any of Sansom's historical novels (he's perhaps best known for the sixteenth century-set Shardlake series) I don't know if the measured pace of Dominion is a symptom of the 1950s setting or simply the manner in which he writes, but either way, although it's a compelling read, and evidently heavily researched, I found it a tad starchy in places. That said, there's some ingenious use of London locations – Senate House as SS HQ, for example – and some decent character work; not so much David, who's a bit bland, but certainly poor, troubled Frank with his nervous "monkey grin", and, on the opposite team, the idealogically determined but war-weary Sturmbannführer Gunther Hoth (echoes there of Standartenführer Oskar Huth from SS-GB). And it's an admirable endeavour overall; there've been grumblings in the right-wing press over the treatment of some of the real historical figures, notably Enoch Powell, but Sansom's suppositions about which politicians would have kowtowed to Hitler struck me – with my admittedly meagre knowledge of history – as being plausible.

Sansom's aim in writing the novel, however, wasn't to stir up controversy over which public figures might, under different circumstances, have been collaborators. As he reveals in the Historical Note at the back of the book, he had a particular target in mind: nationalism – which he identifies as being on the rise again in Europe – and especially the Scottish National Party, to whom he delivers a well-aimed kick to the cobblers. He writes: 

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and to vote 'no' in the referendum on Scottish independence, it will have made the whole labour worthwhile. The recent record of other parties in Scotland has not been good; that is never a reason to vote for something worse, and to do so irrevocably; and a party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the 'National Movement' should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have so often meant in Europe.

It's an impassioned polemic, penned with an urgency that's occasionally lacking in the preceding novel, and almost worth the price of admission by itself.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard; Signed First Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1977), Sequel to The Big Bounce

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

I've got a further handful of signed editions (I ran a lengthy series on signed books from July to September last year) lined up for forthcoming posts, two of them dating from as recently as 2012, making them almost – splutter – new. But not this next one; this one dates from 1977, and is a sort-of sequel to a novel I blogged about during my series of posts on paperbacks at the tail end of last year:

It's the British first edition of Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard, published in hardback by Secker & Warburg. The dust jacket design is uncredited but it's almost identical to the 1977 US Delacorte edition – the type treatment is different and there's a bit of extra blurb on the American one – although since I don't know who designed the jacket of the Delacorte edition either, that doesn't really get us anywhere. This copy is, however, signed, and inscribed:

to a Howard, who has been advised by Leonard to "take it easy". I sincerely hope he followed Leonard's excellent advice. The Secker first is uncommon enough, but signed copies of it are really thin on the ground; I've seen three offered for sale online, the cheapest being a copy bearing a signed bookplate for £55, and the cheapest one signed on the actual page being about £130 (I didn't pay anything like that – or indeed like £55). I found this one on the shelves of the same Cecil Court secondhand bookshop as the book it's a sort-of sequel to:

Elmore Leonard's first published contemporaneously-set novel (following a number of westerns), The Big Bounce, which was issued as a paperback original by Gold Medal in 1969. In truth, though, if I hadn't told you that – and if you hadn't read both books, like I have (and hadn't seen the information online somewhere... oh, whatever) – you wouldn't know it: there are no connecting plot threads between the two, and Jack Ryan, the protagonist of Unknown Man No. 89, is barely recognisable as Jack Ryan, the protagonist of The Big Bounce.

Leonard wrote in a 1989 introduction to The Big Bounce that all his male leads "resemble Jack Ryan" and that 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." Which makes me wonder if he hadn't, then would Tom Clancy have alighted on that same moniker for his hero? But I digress: I think Leonard's actually doing himself a disservice. Though it may seem counterintuitive to praise a novelist because a protagonist is quite a bit different to the protagonist from an earlier book, even though they're supposed to be the same character, in the context of Leonard's explanation in that intro, it makes a strange sort of sense. Leonard's leads aren't all the same, even when they're meant to be; the earlier and later Ryans are different, and that's A Good Thing.

If you wanted to, I guess you could put those differences down to Ryan having grown up, but it's simpler just to ignore The Big Bounce and take Unknown Man No. 89 on its own merits. Because it has a great many. Like the best Leonard books it boasts deceptively simple, idiosyncratically honed prose and terrific dialogue, right from the opening lines: 

A friend of Ryan's said to him one time, "Yeah, but at least you don't take any shit from anybody."

Ryan said to his friend, "I don't know, the way things've been going, maybe it's time I started taking some."

It's unpredictable and surprising, the plot ebbing and flowing around the cast of beautifully defined characters: the calculating, infinitely flexible Mr. Perez, whose business is finding lost stock – in this case belonging to the soon-to-be-late Bobby Leary, the eponymous unknown man – and taking a cut; the charming but dangerous Virgil Royal, Bobby's partner-in-crime, who smells a significant payday; Bobby's wife, Denise, who finds a kindred spirit in Ryan; and of course Ryan himself, here having discovered a talent as a process server in Detroit. Surprisingly for what is ostensibly a crime novel – I mean, surprisingly if you haven't read Leonard and think his work is basically just crime fiction (oh I'm insufferable, aren't I?) – it's partly about alcoholism; Leonard is especially good on the cravings and justifications of the alcoholic, and the perceptive, insightful middle section of the novel spends some time exploring the affliction.

As it winds towards its conclusion, though, and Ryan attempts to turn the tables on Mr. Perez, the undercurrent of menace buzzing deep beneath Leonard's misdirecting veneer of geniality intensifies, embodied partly by the cunning and deadly Virgil, and partly by the even deadlier Raymond Gidre, Mr. Perez's right hand man.

Incidentally, here and there Unknown Man No. 89 reminded me of another 1970s-set urban crime drama: George Pelecanos's What It Was, in particular that novel's Red Fury, who's akin to Virgil Royal... except that Pelecanos's book was published in 2012. I'd be interested to find out if Pelecanos was influenced by Leonard's novel at all. (UPDATE: Book Glutton has since pointed out in the comments below that in Pelecanos's 2011 novel The Cut, Spero's brother Leo teaches Unknown Man No. 89 to his students – which, given that I reviewed The Cut last year, I really should have remembered... but at least it answers that question. Thanks, BG!) But anyway: Unknown Man No. 89 may not be the best known of Elmore Leonard's books, but it's a bloody good one. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, like The Big Bounce did last year, it wound up in my "best of" list come the end of 2013.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Flashfire (2000, Parker #18, Basis for the 2013 Parker Movie) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

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

With Backflash (1998), the second entry in the second run of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's series of books starring coldblooded career criminal Parker, Westlake was firmly back in the Parker groove. It was a classic Parker heist tale: an intriguing target (a casino riverboat); a familiar crew; and a bloody aftermath. But there's another type of Parker tale, one where the heist, if there even is one, isn't the focus of the book; where Parker's on the back foot, foiled at every turn, scrabbling to retrieve what he can from a foul-up: books like The Seventh, The Sour Lemon Score, Plunder Squad, and even, going right back to the beginning, Parker's debut, The Hunter (1962), which opens with Parker double-crossed and penniless. And joining these, the third entry in the second block of Parkers: Parker #19, Flashfire (2000).

Flashfire has something else in common with The Hunter, too, in that we get to see Parker commit the kinds of crimes he prefers to avoid: small scores, taken down by himself, with the bare minimum of planning. Having been double-crossed (yet again) at the start of the novel, Parker finds himself in the position of needing to build up funds in order to get back at the heisters who've crossed him (and unwisely left him alive). And so he embarks on a trek across the States from Indiana to Florida – where his erstwhile compatriots are planning a jewelry heist – on the way robbing a gun shop, a check-cashing store, a drug-dealing operation, a movie theatre and a bunch of houses.

This is Parker in the raw: stripped of cohorts, brutally efficient, driven by the same two interlinked aims as in The Hunter: revenge, and getting what he's owed. In the Parker series as a whole, it's the big, flashy take-downs that tend to remain in the memory – a football game; an entire town; an entire island – but in their relatively quiet way, these short episodes are as good as anything else Westlake wrote for the Parkers: clipped, economical, the crimes all the more believable for their simplicity.

The irony is that while Parker carries off his crime spree successfully, he comes a cropper when attempting to secure new false ID, through sheer bad luck getting caught up in the middle of a bloody encounter that will ultimately see him shot and left for dead in the Everglades. That his salvation comes in the unlikely shape of a forty-year old estate agent named Lesley is just one of many surprising aspects of a book which confounds expectations at every turn.

It probably speaks to something troubling in my character that it's these kinds of frustrating, erratic, oddly misshapen Parkers that I enjoy the most. They appeal to me in the same way that Elmore Leonard's work does: they're possessed of an understanding that it doesn't matter how smart, tough and proficient you are, like anyone else you can still take a wrong turn and wind up in a cul-de-sac – or, in Parker's case in Flashfire, a hospital bed. Time and again in Flashfire the signs point one way only to lead to somewhere unexpected, right down to the final confrontation with the men who crossed Parker, which sees him effectively sidelined. I suspect that Flashfire's idiosyncratic tendencies – plot strands derailed by the unforeseen and happenstance, violent scenes where the protagonist ends up being almost a bystander, tension pumped up only to be deflated at the last moment – is why the novel is less well liked than others in the second run of Parkers, but for me, perversely I guess, it makes it a more compelling book.

Of course, quite what the makers of Parker, the Jason Statham-starring movie adaptation of Flashfire, due in US cinemas on 25 January, will make of all this remains to be seen (and will seemingly remain that way for me until March, as the film isn't out in the UK until then). I suppose it's unreasonable to expect a Hollywood production that's potentially the first instalment in a new franchise to take quite so many chances with narrative as the nineteenth novel in a series... but I live in hope.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Backflash (1998, Parker #18) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker. Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

In the previous Parker Progress Report – my overarching title for my continuing blogging journey through Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's twenty-four book series starring taciturn heister Parker – I took a look at the seventeenth Parker, Comeback (1997), originally published twenty-three years after the sixteenth Parker, Butcher's Moon (1974). Luckily, Parker fans didn't have quite so long to wait for the next book in the series: Backflash arrived just one year later, in 1998.

Clearly, Westlake was back in the Parker groove; where Comeback had taken him twenty years to write (on and off... mostly off), now he was writing the Parkers fast again: a new one would appear every year or two until the author's death in 2008. Whether that's why Backflash is a better book than Comeback – which, to my mind, it is – I don't know, but it's at least notable that that's the way Westlake wrote the Parkers in the original 1962-1974 run.

And actually, as with Comeback, Backflash could quite easily have slotted into that original run. It starts with a "When"; it's divided into four parts; and Parker's cohorts all hail from earlier books: racetrack driver Mike Carlow from The Rare Coin Score and Butcher's Moon; stout, fastidious expat Lou Sternberg and female heister (heistess? With the meistess?) Noelle Braselle from Plunder Squad; and professional wrestler Dan Wycza from The Score and Butcher's Moon – in the latter of which, like Comeback's Ed Mackey, Wycza seemingly came back from the dead. Although we never actually witnessed Wycza's death in the first place – Parker merely reports it in The Rare Coin Score with a perfunctory "He's dead", while Westlake heralds his resurrection in Backflash with an equally perfunctory, "There was a rumor he was dead for a while, but then he'd popped up again". And the score is classic Parker too; novel, sure – Parker and co. take down a floating casino on the Hudson River – but a straight cash grab nonetheless. Mind you, straight doesn't necessarily equate to straightforward: the heist itself goes as planned, but as is often the way in a Parker story, the aftermath gets bloody.

There's a belief among some Parker fans that the later books, and Parker in particular, are somehow softer than the earlier ones – that Westlake and his most famous creation mellowed with age. Frankly, I see little evidence of it here. From Parker's blunt assessment of a co-heister's condition following a car crash at the start of the book ("You're fucked") to his cold, calculating tying off of a – all-too-human – loose end in the latter stages, he's as heartless – and ruthless – as he's ever been.

The odd mishap aside, traditionally Parker has usually only killed when absolutely necessary: to protect himself, his money, his moll (Claire), or, and perhaps most importantly of all, his rep. And so it is in Backflash. That said, and to counter the "humanising" argument, I think it's possible to detect something new in his dispatching of his nemesis at the end of Backflash – an even deeper chill. Parker's never been a (movie) James Bond, dispensing terminally unfunny quips as he offs not-quite-as-bad-as-he-is guys, but he has proffered the occasional one-liner, perhaps the best being "Now you're the message" in Butcher's Moon. As menacing as that is, though, his closing one in Backflash strikes me as being even colder, simply because of the distracted, offhand manner in which it's delivered. With his adversary gut-shot and writhing in agony at his feet, Parker reflects on the act of mercy at the start of the novel which ultimately led him to this point. Ignoring the guy's "panting and spitting out words", Parker muses, "We live and learn", and shoots him in the eye.

Of course, having made the same merciful mistake with George Uhl in The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12) and consequently paid the price in Plunder Squad (Parker #15), you'd have thought that's one lesson Parker might have taken to heart by now. If only he had one.

Next – the basis for the imminent Taylor Hackford/Jason Statham Parker movie: Flashfire.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Comeback (1997, Parker #17) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

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

Crikey: would you believe it's been over a year since I last posted a Parker Progress Report? Long enough that I expect most Existential Ennui readers – and a good number of Violent World of Parker ones, too – have either forgotten what they are, or weren't even around for the last one (as in, weren't reading Existential Ennui, not weren't born; I've anecdotal and some reasonably scientific evidence – comments and stats, basically – that this blog has picked up a fair few new readers in the interim... although I guess some of those new readers could be babies).

To recap then: since 2010 I've been blogging my way through Donald E. Westlake's twenty-four-book series starring taciturn heister Parker, which were written under the alias Richard Stark (Westlake also wrote four spin-off novels under the Stark alias featuring actor/thief Alan Grofield – those I covered as The Grofield Files). The last proper Parker Progress Report I posted, back in November 2011 – leaving aside this one on the Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid, which boasts a Parker meta-cameo – was on the sixteenth Parker, Butcher's Moon, originally published in 1974. So, seeing as January 2013 marks the beginning of what is to all intents and purposes the fiftieth anniversary of Parker, and since there's a new movie based on the nineteenth Parker, Flashfire, due any day now (at least, in the US; it's not out in the UK until March for some reason), I figured I'd try and rattle through the Parker Progress Reports in order to reach that book, starting with the seventeenth Parker, Comeback (1997).

In a way, taking a year-long break between Parkers makes sense: after all, Comeback didn't appear until twenty-three years after Butcher's Moon, although you wouldn't guess that from reading it: the outside world may have changed, but not much has in the Parkerverse. Parker and his girlfriend, Claire, haven't aged, and neither have Parker's irregular cohorts, husband and wife heisting team Ed and Brenda Mackey (there's still no word on how Ed was resurrected having apparently died in Parker #15, Plunder Squad – that won't be addressed until Parker #21, Breakout). In fact the only real nod to change in the book is a mention that it's become harder to find cash scores – harder, but not impossible: the caper this time centres on an evangelical event at a stadium, where cash donations will total half a million dollars.

Structurally, too, things are much as they ever were: like the bulk of its predecessors, the novel is made up of four parts; there's the expected jumping back and forth in time, and the inevitable double-cross – and it won't be a surprise to anyone familiar with the series to this point that that comes courtesy of the man who arranged the robbery, George Liss. Even so, Westlake does have other surprises up his sleeve, notably a new spin on Parker's traditional plan of finding a local hideout after the score, rather than making a run for it – although for me, that doesn't quite work here; the hideout is a little too close to the stadium for it to be believable – and Parker posing as an insurance man and winding up in a hospital teeming with cops.

Still, to my mind, there's something missing from the book – that raw, searing intensity that the best Parkers – The Hunter, The Score, The Seventh – possess. There are some great scenes, some diverting business, but the novel never really coalesces or comes fully to life. That could be a consequence of the way it was written – in fits and starts over a twenty-plus year period, as Westlake explained in this 1997 interview by Jesse Sublett. Or maybe he just needed time to warm up. Either way, the next Parker novel, Backflash (1998), was written much faster, the way Westlake usually penned the Parkers, and for my money it's a better book – something I'll be exploring in the next Parker Progress Report.

Monday, 7 January 2013

William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury, 2006), the 2012 BBC TV Adaptation, and Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Enough with the procrastinatory obfuscation; time to get back into blogging proper, with a 2006 historical espionage novel I was inspired to read last autumn as a result of reading a 2012 historical espionage novel:

Restless by William Boyd, published by Bloomsbury in hardback in the UK in 2006, and bought in first edition by me in Bookworms in Shoreham last summer. Now, my original plan, when I read Restless, had been to read Boyd's most recent novel, Waiting for Sunrise, which was published by Bloomsbury in June of 2012, and which I showcased in signed first in August. But then I went and bought a signed first of this:

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, published by Jonathan Cape not long after Waiting for Sunrise, and dove into that instead. Unfortunately it proved to be a disappointment – at least for me – both as a spy story and as a novel: Serena, the narrator, is a pretty rubbish secret agent, not to mention a rather dreary sort altogether, and though the final reveal does offer an explanation for that, it was all a little too tricksy and self-satisfied for my liking, and ultimately pointless, even given the meta trappings (which are undermined by the presumed complicity of Serena anyway). So, having enjoyed William Boyd's 2009 thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms, and knowing that Restless was, like Sweet Tooth, ostensibly a historical spy novel, I figured I'd give that a go, reasoning that it might act as a kind of palate cleanser (I know: bit weird, but that's how my mind works). And I'm glad I did, because not only did it turn out to be a cracking read – so much so that it ended up in my top ten books I read in 2012 chart – but a few months later, at the end of December, the BBC broadcast a two-part television drama based on the novel, adapted by Boyd himself.

And a pretty good fist he made of it as well, as did director Edward Hall and stars Hayley Atwell – playing Russian-born British World War II spy Eva Delectorskaya – and Rufus Sewell as Eva's handler, Lucas Romer. There's some stilted dialogue, especially early on, but once it gets going the TV Restless does a terrific job translating the subterfuge and set pieces of the novel, notably one exciting sequence where Eva is dispatched by Romer to Holland to witness the supposed defection of a German agent (an episode Boyd based on the real-life Venlo Incident).

Where the adaptation falls down slightly is in its treatment of Eva's daughter, Ruth Gilmartin. The novel alternates between Eva's WWII adventures, which are written in the third person, and Ruth's first-person recollection of the long hot summer of 1976, when her mother revealed to her that she was a spy during the war. Boyd spends quite a bit of time establishing Ruth's character and fleshing out her life: her friendly and amusing relationship with her professor at Cambridge and with the students to whom she teaches English (one of whom becomes infatuated by her); her fraught relationship with her estranged German lover (and his brother), the father of her child. In the adaptation, however, much of this excised – probably to keep the running time down to three hours, which I guess is fair enough (although why Ruth's professor becomes German in the TV version is beyond me); except that as a consequence, the strong, willful, warm Ruth of the novel is reduced to little more than a way of keeping the plot moving.

Still, if you haven't seen the television Restless, don't let that put you off: it has much to recommend it... just not quite as much as the book is all.