Thursday, 28 March 2013

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household: First Penguin Edition, 1949, plus Robert Macfarlane on the Novel

Let's round off this short, sporadic run of vintage Penguin paperbacks with an iconic edition of an iconic work of fiction:

The 1949 first Penguin printing of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, originally published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1939. As with the Penguin paperback of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, this particular edition has appeared on Existential Ennui before – more than once, in fact – but not, I hasten to add, this particular copy. Because for reasons far too tedious and testing to go into I've ended up with two copies of the Penguin first edition: the one seen in this post, which is a recent acquisition, and the one seen in this 2010 review. Ridiculous really, but at least it gives me the excuse to dedicate a post to what is an uncommon edition (despite appearances to the contrary; at time of writing I can't see a single copy of the 1949 Penguin printing on AbeBooks) of a brilliant book.

Of course, the novel itself already has a dedicated post on Existential Ennui, in a 1939 Chatto & Windus Services Library edition; if you've a mind to, you can read that or my 2010 review – or indeed this post on the 1982 sequel, Rogue Justice – for my thoughts on it. But I'd direct you instead to this more recent Guardian piece on the book by the travel writer Robert Macfarlane. When I came across it in the Review section of the paper the other week it was an unexpected delight; an edited version of Macfarlane's introduction to Orion's new edition of Rogue Male, it covers, as Macfarlane himself says on Orion's Murder Room website: 

...its cult status, my own relationship/history with it, my visits to its landscapes, my tracking of Household's hero, Household himself, the book's qualities and histories and interests, why it compels (and survives) and why it is still read – and still should be read – now, more than seventy years after it was published.

I was especially struck by Macfarlane's pilgrimage to what he'd been led to believe was the Dorset "holloway" in which Household's initially nameless hero – later christened Raymond Ingelram in Rogue Justice – literally goes to ground in order to elude his pursuer, the cunning Major Quive-Smith. It's this part of the novel that I found the most affecting, not to mention alluring: a retreat into a primitive rural idyll, one which for me exerts a powerful appeal. Many others of Household's novels have a similar rustic fascination (A Rough Shoot springs to mind), something that Macfarlane touches on when he mentions on the Murder Room site that "Household has been, in his odd way, at the heart of my writing for years now."

And as luck would have it I have another Household novel lined up for my next post, in which I'll be revisiting what has become by far the most popular post or page on Existential Ennui: Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Westlake on Rabe: A Shroud for Jesso & Kill the Boss Goodbye by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955/6)

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

Continuing the rolling – if intermittent – showcase of Peter Rabe books I've bought of late (well, over the last year or so, anyway) – with, of course, additional commentary on each by perhaps Rabe's greatest admirer, Donald E. Westlake, taken from Westlake's 1989 essay on Rabe – we reach Rabe's third novel:

A Shroud for Jesso, published, like Stop This Man! and Benny Muscles In, by Gold Medal in the States in 1955. Although once again this particular copy is the British Frederick Muller edition, issued... I don't know when, actually: there's no publication date inside. But anyway, it's essentially the same as the Gold Medal edition, with the same Lu Kimmel-illustrated cover.

This, according to Westlake in his "Peter Rabe" essay in Murder off the Rack, is where Rabe starts to come into his own – at least, "in the second half of" the book. Westlake calls the characters "rich and subtle, their relationships ambiguous, their story endlessly fascinating". For me personally, it's that ambiguity in Rabe's novels that makes them especially appealing: there's an unpredictability to his characters, and as a consequence to his plots; one never quite knows in which direction they're going to head next. He's also a dab hand at eliciting empathy with essentially unheroic or criminal characters, something Westlake, whose Parker series (written as Richard Stark) was almost certainly inspired in part by Rabe, naturally responds to, as evidenced by the elevated position in his essay he affords Rabe's fifth novel:

Kill the Boss Good-By, published by Gold Medal in 1956 (although as before, this copy is the Frederick Muller edition, bought at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair), with terrific cover art by Barye Phillips. Westlake uses Kill the Boss Good-By to kick off his essay, ridiculing the title ("Why would anybody ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye?") but calling the novel itself "one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written", adding "The entire book is spare and clean and amazingly unornamented."

For Westlake, Kill the Boss Good-By "was the peak of Rabe's first period, five books [the fourth being A House in Naples, 1956; I don't have a copy of that yet], each one better than the one before". He continues: 

In those books, Rabe combined bits and pieces of his own history and education with the necessary stock elements of the form to make books in which tension and obsession and an inevitable downward slide toward disaster all combine with a style of increasing cold objectivity not only to make the scenes seem brand new but even to make the (rarely stated) emotions glitter with an unfamiliar sheen.

Sadly, in Westlake's eyes, that peak was followed by a trough that lasted roughly ten novels; for him it wasn't until the late-1950s that Rabe regained some of his early promise, producing a "final cluster of five excellent books"...

Friday, 22 March 2013

Kingsley Amis: My Enemy's Enemy (1965, Penguin #2346) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Lewes Book Bargains)

A Friday Forgotten Book.

From one Penguin paperback edition of a Kingsley Amis book, to another – one which, like that copy of Lucky Jim, I again plucked from the dump bins outside Lewes secondhand bookshop A & Y Cumming (although rather more recently; just the other week as opposed to a couple of years ago):

Published in paperback by Penguin in 1965 under a Pop Art cover designed by Alan Aldridge (who became Penguin's art director that same year), My Enemy's Enemy was Amis's first collection of short stories, originally issued in hardback by Gollancz in 1962. All bar one of the stories had been published prior to appearing in this collection – mostly in the 1950s in the likes of The Spectator, Esquire and an anthology or three – and three of them form a sequence of sorts, all set within the ranks of the Royal Corps of Signals at the tail end of the Second World War: "My Enemy's Enemy", "Court of Inquiry" and the previously unpublished "I Spy Strangers".

It's these three tales that are the standouts of the collection; taken together they can be considered the equal of the best of Amis's novels, including my personal favourite, The Anti-Death League, for which they act as a kind of aperitif, tackling similar themes of prejudice, class and petty point-scoring in the British Army. (Amis served in the Royal Signals during the war; in 1975 he told Michael Barber of The Paris Review that "Court of Inquiry" was based on his own experiences.) "I Spy Strangers", where the politics of Westminster – and Europe – are played out in a mock parliament, is especially good, but for reasons to do with an ongoing situation at my place of work (don't ask), it was the title story that really struck home with me: a cautionary tale for anyone who's ever considered clambering up the greasy pole.

I wasn't quite so taken with the ensuing (unlinked) trio of tales of civilian life: "Moral Fibre", "Interesting Things" and "All the Blood Within Me"; of the three, I found the latter the most affecting, dealing as it does with regret, old age and the lies we tell ourselves (themes Amis would return to in later works). But perhaps most intriguing of all is the final story, "Something Strange", wherein Amis has a stab at writing science fiction. I've blogged about his interest in the genre before – he published a critical volume on SF (New Maps of Hell, 1960), edited a series of SF anthologies (Spectrum, with Robert Conquest), and some of his novels have elements of SF to them (alternate history tale The Alteration, for example). But "Something Strange" is one of the few – possibly only – pieces of "proper" science fiction Amis wrote, and while it pales in comparison to the better stories in My Enemy's Enemy, it's still not bad at all: a little stiff, and with a telegraphed "twist" that anyone familiar with, say, Ray Bradbury will see coming, but otherwise effective and thoughtful.

"Something Strange" had actually been published three times prior to appearing in My Enemy's Enemy: in 1960 in The Spectator; and in 1961 in Pick of Today's Short Stories 12, and here:

The November issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Vol. II, No. 12, British edition). Which in fact is where I first read it: I found the copy seen here in, I think, the Lewes Antique Centre last year, and bought it expressly for Amis's tale. To my knowledge it was the only time Amis contributed fiction to the magazine (correct me if I'm wrong, SF fans); his story appeared alongside his friend Brian Aldiss's novelette "Undergrowth", which would become part of the full-length novel Hothouse the following year.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: First Penguin Edition (1961, #1648); a Lewes Book Bargain

Y'know what? That post on the first Penguin edition of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop from the other week has got me hankering after some more hot Penguin action (steady), so rather than showcase random softcovers in amongst the Peter Rabe paperback posts, let's stay with the Penguins for a little while and pluck some vintage examples of the publisher's wares from my collection – such as this:

The first Penguin edition of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Penguin #1648, published in 1961, with a cover illustration by Nicolas Bentley, who would later illustrate Amis's excellent book on booze On Drink (Jonathan Cape, 1972 – in fact one of three boozy books Amis wrote). Not an especially uncommon Penguin this one; I found this copy in a dump bin outside one of Lewes's secondhand bookshops – probably A & Y Cumming – a few years ago, and you can pick up copies online quite easily. But it's a nice edition in which to own Amis's debut novel, I feel, and certainly a damn sight less expensive than the 1954 Victor Gollancz first edition, i.e. a few quid as opposed to a couple of thousand.

This particular copy of Lucky Jim has popped up on Existential Ennui before, back in 2010, when I used it to illustrate a highly tedious essay on Kingsley Amis, but it's never had its own dedicated post. However, there's little point in my reviewing the thing; as Amis's best-known work, doubtless there are already countless critiques available online – I can't be arsed to look right now, but I'd be astonished if there aren't – so I'll simply restrict myself to saying that while it's not my favourite of the Amis novels I've read (that honour would go to either The Anti-Death League or Ending Up), it's still first rate, and an indispensable part of the Amis canon – and even more so now that Twitter users have adopted the novel's eponymous lead, Jim Dixon's habit of deploying "faces" to denote emotional states (*Sex Life in Ancient Rome face*).

Actually, I've changed my mind: I will direct you to one review of the book, because during the writing of this post I came across an excellent Penguin collector blog, one to which I suspect I'll be referring again before too long: A Penguin a week, in which, unsurprisingly given the blog's title, owner Karyn Reeves reads and reviews a Penguin a week. A splendid and admirable endeavour, I'm sure you'll agree.

And I've another Lewes-found Kingsley Amis Penguin lined up for the next post: a collection of short stories, no less, dating from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Westlake on Rabe: Stop This Man! & Benny Muscles In by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955/58)

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

Right then. Let's get stuck into that stack of Peter Rabe crime fiction paperbacks I've been threatening to unpack for a while now, and find out what Donald E. Westlake – upon whom Rabe was a big influence – made of each of them in his critical essay "Peter Rabe" in Murder off the Rack (Scarecrow Press, 1989). Beginning, appropriately enough, with Rabe's first novel:

Stop This Man!, originally published by Gold Medal in the States in August of 1955. The copy seen here isn't that printing, however; it's the April 1958 second printing, which I bought for a few quid online, and which sports a different cover to artist Lu Kimmel's 1955 original. And much as I admire Kimmel's art in general, I think I prefer this deftly painted, simultaneously titillating and menacing effort, which is by Ernest Chiriaka, who often used the alias "Darcy" (his signature can be seen bottom left). Evidently Chiriaka was pretty pleased with it too: he used very similar staging for a 1962 Beacon Signal sleaze paperback cover – Cult-Priest's Daughter by John Furlough.

In his essay on Peter Rabe, Westlake reckons that Stop This Man! "showed only glimpses of what Rabe would become", adding: "The elements... just don't mesh. There are odd little scenes of attempted humor that don't really come off and are vaguely reminiscent of Thorne Smith, possibly because one character is called Smith and one Topper. A character called the Turtle does tiresome malapropisms. Very pulp-level violence and sex are stuck onto the story like lumps of clay onto an already finished statue." Although he does offer some praise – calling one character "real and believable" – clearly Westlake expects more of Rabe's writing.

At the close of the passage on Stop This Man! Westlake acknowledges that "An inability to stay with the story he started to tell plagued Rabe from time to time", a criticism he also levels at Rabe's second published novel:

Benny Muscles In, originally published in the same year as Stop This Man! I've blogged about this one before, in a 1973 UK Five Star edition, but the copy seen here is the first British edition, published by Frederick Muller in 1958, but practically identical to the 1955 Gold Medal original, complete with cover by the aforementioned Lu Kimmel. I could have sworn I bought it at one or the other of the last two London Paperback & Pulp Bookfairs I attended, but having examined the photos of my ill-gotten gains from those fairs (follow the links to see them), it appears not, so Christ knows where the damn thing came from.

In any case, in his essay Westlake is much more approving of Benny Muscles In than of Stop This Man!, noting that the "characters of Benny and Pat are fully developed and very touchingly real", and that the "hopeless love story never becomes mawkish... The leap froward from Stop This Man is doubly astonishing when we consider they were published four months apart".

But it's Rabe's next book where Westlake believes the author "finally came fully into his own" – the third Peter Rabe novel to be published by Gold Medal in 1955, A Shroud for Jesso...

Monday, 11 March 2013

Peter Rabe, by Donald E. Westlake, in Murder off the Rack (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

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

Chances are, if you become inordinately interested in the work of Donald E. Westlake as I self-evidently have – at some point you're going to encounter Peter Rabe. In interviews and articles Westlake would often cite Rabe as being a major influence (alongside Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov and perhaps one or two others), an influence that's particularly noticeable in the hardboiled Parker crime novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark (especially in Stark/Parker's debut, The Hunter). I've blogged about Rabe repeatedly over the past few years, sometimes comparing Stark to Rabe – notably in this post on Rabe's 1960 crime novel Anatomy of a Killer (which also appears, in an altered form, on The Violent World of Parker) – mostly just reviewing and showcasing Rabe's novels (the majority of which were published straight to paperback). But for true critical insight into Rabe's work, there's really only one place to go, courtesy of Rabe's biggest fan, the aforementioned Donald Westlake.

In 1989 Westlake contributed an essay to Murder off the Rack: Critical Studies of Ten Paperback Masters, an anthology edited by Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg and published by Scarecrow Press. Titled simply "Peter Rabe", and nestling alongside essays by, among others, Bill Crider ("Harry Whittington"), Max Allan Collins ("Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Him"), Ed Gorman ("Fifteen Impressions of Charles Williams") and Loren D. Estleman ("Donald Hamilton: The Writing Crew"), across twenty pages Westlake examines the bulk of Rabe's work, novel by novel from his 1955 debut, Stop This Man!, to 1974's Black Mafia – turning an often highly critical eye on each of them.

The opening line of the essay – "Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of" – is oft-quoted in relation to Rabe, but make no mistake: this is no bibliographic hagiography. When Westlake feels Rabe is good – Kill the Boss Goodbye (1956), say, or Anatomy of a Killer, or The Box (1962) – he's fulsome in his praise; but when he believes Rabe's writing is subpar, he doesn't pull punches. I was surprised, for instance, by the treatment meted out to Rabe's series of novels starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port; I'd always figured the Port novels had been a big influence on the Parkers in particular, but apparently not. Of the debut Port outing, Dig My Grave Deep (1956), Westlake writes: 

[The book] is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett's The Glass Key, without Hammett's psychological accuracy and without Rabe's own precision and clarity. The book flounders and drifts and postures. The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett's.

Ouch – and the remainder of the Daniel Port series fares little better. Even so, Westlake has the gift, possessed of the best critics, to make even the duffest-sounding of novels seem interesting. His clear-eyed assessments are consistently entertaining, affording insight even when he's slating Rabe's work – and I'll be drawing on a number of those assessments over the coming weeks, as I unveil some of the Peter Rabe paperbacks I've picked up over the past year, and take a look at what Westlake had to say about them.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 4: The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1980)

NB: This is the somewhat belated fourth instalment in the Great Tom Ripley Reread, which, as the overarching title suggests, entails me rereading, and then blogging about (in a prolix and frankly disturbingly gushing fashion), each of the five Patricia Highsmith novels to feature Tom Ripley, the man with no conscience.

Featured in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Of all the characters Patricia Highsmith created, Tom Ripley was the one she most identified with. After The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) she returned to him four times – the only one of her leads to be granted a sequel, let alone four of the buggers – and each time there seemed to be more of Highsmith herself visible in the characterization of Ripley. Whether it be Tom's frustration at the haphazard nature of the telephone service in France, where Highsmith lived in the 1970s (Ripley Under Ground, 1970; Ripley's Game, 1974), his thoughts on spy novels, or indeed his politics (both Ripley's Game), his opinions are often seemingly simpatico with hers. And so it proves again in the fourth novel in the Ripliad: when Tom mithers about having to do his accounts in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980; UK Heinemann first edition, Bill Richmond cover, seen above) or has a pop at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (comparing it to a blow-up doll), the passages could have been lifted directly from Highsmith's own diaries or notebooks.

Which is, in effect, what happened for the segment of the book set in West Berlin, where Tom travels with Frank Pierson, the sixteen-year-old American heir to a fortune who has latched on to (and who idolises) him. According to Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, Highsmith travelled to Berlin expressly in order to research her fourth Ripley outing, eventually reworking her own excursions, which she documented in her notebook, for the novel. After initially being confused by Berlin, over repeated trips Highsmith had become fascinated by the city, a fascination that's almost tangible in The Boy Who Followed Ripley: even during my first reading of the novel the Berlin section felt by far the most alive of the book, and that remained the case for my second go-through.

What the rest of the novel lacks is any real sense of existential danger for Tom. Where in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground and even, to an extent, Ripley's Game, Tom had to fight for his very survival – which is to say his liberty and his idle, comfortable way of life (in Ripley's Game, his own actions lead directly to an assault on his rural French home, Belle Ombre) – in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which, in the mutable timeline of the Ripliad, is set roughly six months on from Game), the Berlin escapade aside (I'll return to that shortly), he's preoccupied for the most part with saving Frank from himself. The teenager tracks Tom down in France having heard of him thanks to a Derwatt painting (actually a Bernard Tufts fake) Frank's father owns (see Ripley Under Ground for the story behind Derwatt/Tufts). Tom soon learns that Frank's father, who was confined to a wheelchair, was killed when he fell from a cliff behind the family mansion just before Frank fled America, and that furthermore, Frank believes he was responsible.

What Highsmith is setting up here is yet another spin on her familiar theme of two men becoming strangely fascinated by and fixated on one another. The problem is that in this instance, it's a passive relationship for both parties. What made previous takes on the theme so compelling was the manipulative, malicious – and ultimately murderous – nature of at least one of the protagonists, whether it be Bruno in Highsmith's debut, Strangers on a Train (1950), or indeed Tom himself in Talented, Under Ground and Game. Here, however, Frank – despite apparently offing his father – is utterly guileless, while Tom takes on the guise almost of a mother hen – or, perhaps more accurately given the gay undercurrent of the relationship, a bear to Frank's cub.

Because although the twisted, violent impulses inherent in so many of Highsmith's male-on-male (as it were) dynamics are missing here, the subtext of homosexuality that's also often present – not least in the Ripley novels – is brought to the fore. The question of Tom's sexuality (or lack thereof) is a constant background buzz in the Ripliad; in The Talented Mr. Ripley it was evident that he was in love with Dickie Greenleaf (or at least the idea of Dickie), and his marriage to Heloise thereafter is, if not entirely sexless, then devoid of any noticeable passion. For her part, Highsmith always denied Tom was gay, although latterly she did acknowledge that he might have been suppressing homosexual tendencies. But in The Boy Who Followed Ripley, she addresses the question more directly than at any other point in the series.

Early on, when Antoine Grais, a friend of Heloise's, arrives at Belle Ombre unexpectedly, Tom – who we're explicitly informed is reading Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind – tells Frank to go upstairs in order to avoid awkward questions. Antoine catches a glimpse of Frank, apologisies for disturbing Tom, and then, with "a nasty curiosity", asks if his "friend" is male or female. "Guess," Tom replies. Frank clearly arouses in Tom a protective passion that's usually reserved for those times when he's engaged in deadly acts of self-preservation; when Frank admits to Tom that he killed his own father, uncharacteristically Tom grabs Frank by the throat and shakes him to dissuade him from running off. Not long after, Frank hides from Tom in the woods behind Belle Ombre as a kind of test; when Frank appears from behind a tree, Tom feels "relief, like an ache".

That episode is echoed by another once the action moves to Berlin, where Tom takes Frank on an impulse. Having spent an evening with Frank in a gay bar (where else?), the next day the two are walking in the woods at the edge of the city when Frank is kidnapped. Tom is shaken by this turn of events, "thoroughly shattered by the boy's – rape, in the sense that he had been snatched away". Subsequently, in order to retrieve Frank, Tom dons full drag, ostensibly as a disguise so he can follow the kidnappers who are holding Frank to ransom. Fully made-up, wearing a wig and dressed in a "very pretty" pink, white and transparent gown, Tom takes to the dancefloor of a gay club as he waits for the kidnappers, feeling "exhilarated and stronger", delighting in the freedom his disguise affords him.

Of course, this isn't the first time Tom has disguised himself: in Ripley Under Ground he assumed the identity of the painter, Derwatt, donning a fake beard and applying makeup, and his rescue of Frank – which he accomplishes still dressed as a woman – recalls some of the giddy, freewheeling insanity of that novel. And there are other nods to Under Ground besides, as well as to Ripley's Game: Ed and Jeff from the Buckmaster Gallery are mentioned, as is Murchison, the art collector whom Tom bludgeoned with a bottle of red; Tom is taking lessons for the hapsichord he bought in Game; and Tom's friend, the fence Reeves Minot, features again, along with a couple of fresh faces, two Berlin associates of Reeves's, Eric and Peter, who regard the legendary, unpredictable, mercurial – and, yes, courageous – Tom Ripley with something approaching awe.

In the end, the sexual aspect of Tom and Frank's relationship is less important than the psychological one. Because at root the book is a study of a conscienceless man who wonders if he's perhaps found a kindred spirit: a killer, like himself; not quite on the same scale – just the one murder to Tom's "seven or eight" – but even so, someone he can guide, "steer", maybe even mould. That Tom is mistaken provides the tragedy in the tale; for Tom Ripley, the "font of evil" (as he so memorably puts it in Ripley Under Ground), can never truly be anyone's saviour – quite the opposite, in fact, as the gauche American couple who decide to stick their noses into the Murchison affair in the final book in the Ripliad, Ripley Under Water, discover to their cost...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh; First Penguin Paperback Edition (Penguin #455, 1943)

Back in December 2012, I intimated at the close of my month-long series of posts on vintage paperbacks that there'd be further paperback posts on Existential Ennui in the new year. Not entirely unpredictably – this is, after all, a blog about old books (although ones of the hardback variety for the most part) – so it has proved: I posted a 1962 Peter Rabe sleaze softcover at the end of last week – with plenty more non-sleaze Rabe softcovers to come – and now I have for you an even more recent online purchase, the first of a handful of random paperbacks I'll be showcasing in an intermittent fashion over the coming weeks. It's one of my favourite novels, but I've never owned it in any edition of note – until now.

It's the first Penguin paperback edition of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, published in 1943 (Penguin #455), five years after the Chapman & Hall first edition (although, curiously, the copyright line in the Penguin edition states the novel was first published in 1933). Still the preeminent "Novel About Journalists" (as the subtitle has it) – up to a point, Lord Copper; Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning (1967) is, I'd suggest, just as sublime – there have been umpteen impressions and resets of the Penguin paperback over the decades, some of them bearing very similar front covers to this iconic design. But true first impressions are quite uncommon (at time of writing there's only one other copy on AbeBooks, for example), a consequence, perhaps, of the edition's wartime provenance – apart from anything else, the book is printed on very thin paper stock and therefore prone, I imagine, to damage – and, related to that, unique features. Such as the back cover:

where an ARP warden evinces the evident benefits of Eno's Fruit Salt via a toothsome grin worthy of a Terry Gilliam Monty Python animation. Or the inside front cover and first page:

where an advert for Norvic Shoes rather overshadows the admission from Penguin that "war-time production difficulties" have buggered up their backlist. And there's one further advert to be found, on the inside back cover, promoting a confectionery that's very close to my heart:

the good old Mars Bar. Although as the ad's small print states, due to wartime zoning, at the time Mars's "sustaining", "energising", "nourishing" properties could apparently only be enjoyed by citizens in the "Southern Counties". Well, at least I'd have been OK down here in Lewes. "So here's hoping for a quick victory," it adds cheerily, "and plenty of Mars for everyone – everywhere." Hear hear.

Next: finally, the Great Tom Ripley Reread resumes, with The Boy Who Followed Ripley.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Peter Rabe and Sleaze Paperbacks, feat. His Neighbor's Wife (Beacon Signal #B542F, 1962)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

Back at the beginning of the week I posted a rather nice Westlake Score, in the shape of a 1971 British first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Adios, Scheherazade, a work of fiction about a writer trying to pen a sleaze novel – the kind of sleaze novel, in fact, that Westlake himself wrote dozens of in the late 1950s/early 1960s, under a variety of pseudonyms (chiefly Alan Marshall). It's common knowledge among enthusiasts and aficionados that a number of Westlake's friends and contemporaries toiled alongside him in the fields of sleaze, often sharing pen names with him; two of them, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block, even published their own semi-autobiographical novels on the sleaze scene (respectively, The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books, 1965, and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, 1971). But I only very recently realised that one of Westlake's major influences wrote a handful of sleaze novels too, a nugget of info I uncovered as a result of spotting, and then winning, this on eBay: 

His Neighbor's Wife, by Peter Rabe, published in the US in paperback by Beacon Signal in 1962 (cover art uncredited). Now, this one isn't, strictly speaking, a sleaze novel; it's obviously been packaged (and possibly titled) as such by Beacon, and Rabe told George Tuttle in 1989 that he wrote it as a "quickie with pornographic overtones... when I was very short of money and simply had to knock something out". (Ooer, missus.) But it's actually more of a psychological melodrama than anything – admittedly with a bit of additional bed-hopping between the four leads, but overall not too far removed from the bulk of Rabe's crime and suspense canon.

Perhaps that's why Rabe allowed it to be published under his own name – unlike the other two novels he wrote for Beacon: Her High School Lover and New Man in the House. Published in 1963 under the nom de plume Marco Malaponte, Rabe described them to Tuttle as "absolute crap", adding "everything just deteriorated as far as the craft was concerned". In light of which, as keen on Rabe's work as I am, I probably won't be seeking them out. (An aside: Rabe again assumed an alias in 1975, that of J. T. MacCargo – not to write sleaze, but to pen two Mannix novelisations. I doubt I'll ever buy those either.)

On balance, His Neighbor's Wife might well be the most collectible – which is to say, expensive – of all of Rabe's novels; of the five copies currently available on AbeBooks, the cheapest is around sixty quid (with the more expensive more like ninety), so I was pretty pleased to win my copy – from a British seller, unusually – for much less than that, and in splendid condition too.

And there'll be much, much more from Peter Rabe on Existential Ennui over the next month or so, because I've a whole stack of Rabe paperback originals to unveil, all of which will be accompanied by commentary by none other than the aforementioned Donald Westlake (as a consequence, I'll be cross-posting them on The Violent World of Parker). In amongst those, I'll be spotlighting some other, non-Rabe, paperbacks I've acquired of late – and while I'm in a teaser-y frame of mind, let me just mention that on top of all that, next week (fingers crossed) I'll finally be returning to the Great Tom Ripley Reread, with the fourth novel in the Ripliad, The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Hope you can join me then.