Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (Viking, 2013); Signed Waterstones Exclusive

How time flies. Seems like only the other month I was making my way through John le Carré's first three novels and now here he is with his twenty-third... Actually, come to think of it, it was only the other month: I polished off Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) in quick succession in February of this year.

Of course, I'm being disingenuous in order to begin this post with a feeble joke; part of my reason for reading those novels, having previously read and loved the later Karla Trilogy, was I knew there was a new le Carré on the way, and last week A Delicate Truth duly arrived, published by Penguin/Viking in the UK under a dust jacket designed by Superfantastic and heralded by a clutch of positive notices. Indeed, so adulatory were some of the reviews – Mark Lawson's one in The Guardian ("Le Carré is back at full power") and Robert McCrum's one in The Observer ("a remarkable return to mid-season form") spring to mind – that I was moved to pop to Waterstones in Brighton at the weekend and pick up a first edition. Not just any first edition, mind:

The Waterstones Exclusive, which boasts added content (see also the Waterstones edition of Justin Cronin's The Twelve, which included an additional chapter) in the shape of an introduction by le Carré detailing the background to the novel. And that's not all:

It's signed too. There were a few signed copies secreted in amongst the stock, which I only realised as I was about to exit the shop having bought an unsigned one; needless to say I went straight back to the counter and exchanged it for this copy. And though the novel isn't quite the "return to mid-season form" claimed by Robert McCrum – it's certainly not the equal of, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (then again, what is?) – it's still a sterling entry in what my good friend and colleague Roly Allen calls "later le Carré", hewing to around half of the points Roly identified as characterising the majority of the author's works from The Little Drummer Girl (1983) onwards. ("Le Carré gets cross about something he reads in a John Pilger book, or Amnesty newsletter"; "Good end up dead; bad end up dragging the bodies into the back of an unmarked van and driving off", etc.) Plus it's a nice companion to my signed first of le Carré's previous book, Our Kind of Traitor.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Richard Stark's Parker Novels Series: The Allison & Busby Hardback Collection, feat. The Black Ice Score, 1986 (a Westlake Score)

Early in 2010, when my secondhand book collecting – an interest which had only really been kindled the year before – was gathering pace and Existential Ennui was drifting towards its eventual destination as – and stop me if you've heard this one before – an increasingly circumlocutory chronicle of what has since become, let's be frank, a flaming obsession, I decided to finally try The Hunter, the first novel in Richard Stark's twenty-four book series starring taciturn heister Parker. I'd been thinking about it for a while before that, having long been an admirer of John Boorman's 1967 film adaptation of The Hunter, Point Blank; indeed it was in the British Coronet movie tie-in paperback edition – a slightly scruffy copy since replaced with a rather nicer one – that I eventually read The Hunter – retitled, accordingly, as Point Blank.

It was lust at first sight: stripped-back, brutally efficient prose; a cold-hearted protagonist as fascinating in his own way as another fictional career criminal I'd previously fallen for (Tom Ripley, of Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad); and a structure whose seeming simplicity belied the clever tricks played by the narrative. In short order I bought and read a Coronet paperback of the next book in the series, The Man with the Getaway Face (or The Steel Hit as it was titled by Coronet), then a US Berkley paperback of the third Parker, The Outfit, and I was off to the races: like so many before me I had embarked on my own personal Parker odyssey. (Somewhere during that first flurry of books I learned that "Richard Stark" was a pen name, just one of many employed by Donald E. Westlake, thus instigating a larger, parallel odyssey... but that's another story.)

At that stage I wasn't giving much thought to how I was collecting the Parkers; I just knew I wanted to read them, preferably in cheap, vintage paperback editions (which, given that they were mostly out of print in the UK at that point, was how they were largely available). Then I encountered Allison & Busby's hardback editions of the Parkers, issued in the UK in the 1980s. I think I first saw a copy of the 1984 A&B edition of Point Blank, with its black, foil-embossed bullet-holes dust jacket (designed, like the bulk of the A&B Parker jackets, by Mick Keates), on the shelves of the late lamented Nigel Williams Rare Books on London's Cecil Court – priced out of my range, naturally (I rarely ever actually bought anything from Nigel Williams, much as I loved the place).

My book collecting inclinations were increasingly leaning towards modern firsts, and consequently my curiosity was piqued: though the A&B Parkers weren't, strictly speaking, the first editions of the novels – for the sixteen Parkers in the original 1962-1974 run of the series that honour belonged to American publishers Pocket Books and Gold Medal in the '60s and Random House in the '70s – they were the first hardback editions (in most cases; Slayground was published straight to hardback by Random House, and I later discovered that another three of the Parkers A&B published were first issued as hardbacks by Gold Lion in 1973).

Here, then, was an interesting way for me to collect the bulk of the Parker series, one which I readily – perhaps foolhardily, given how pricey some of them were – embraced. I secured a relatively inexpensive copy of Allison & Busby's edition of Point Blank, and over the next six months managed to track down the majority of the remainder of the thirteen Parkers A&B issued in hardback (A&B did publish a fourteenth title, Deadly Edge, but only in paperback), chronicling the quest on Existential Ennui as I did so.

And then my mission stalled: two of the Allison & Busby Parkers proved highly elusive, partly due to scarcity, partly to prohibitive prices. One of those, the 1986 hardback of the sixth Parker, The Jugger, I eventually managed to nab in 2011, leaving me with just one last Allison & Busby hardback to find at an affordable price. Which brings me, in my usual long-winded manner, to the point of this post:

That there is the first (and only) hardback edition of Richard Stark's The Black Ice Score, Parker #11, published by Allison & Busby in 1986 under a Mick Keates-designed dust jacket and won by me on eBay last month. The irony here is that the Parker that took me the longest time to acquire in hardback (I bought an Allison & Busby paperback in 2010 as a stopgap) is the one that I probably like the least – but that's by the by; what matters is what it represents: the last piece of a collection that has taken me over three years to complete.

Which leaves me with an odd mixture of feelings. There's a sense of accomplishment, sure, but also a little sadness (in every meaning of the word, heading any quips off at the pass). Trying to find all of the Allison & Busby hardback Parkers has been a constant in my book collecting, not to mention my blogging about that book collecting – the one feeding the other. My crazed quest to collect all of the A&B editions helped to build Existential Ennui's (admittedly still slender) readership: I know there are some folk who began following the blog as a direct result of that quest. (Some of them have even stuck around, poor buggers.) I guess reaching the end of a journey – to use X Factor parlance – any journey, however minor and inconsequential it may be in the grander scheme of things, can be a bittersweet experience: arriving at a destination only to realise it was the getting there that was the thing.

Mind you, that phase of my Parker collecting might be done, but I expect I'll still be picking up intriguing editions of the Parkers as and when I see them; after all, these days, in a way as a consequence of the Allison & Busby Parker collecting quest, I have to have a ready supply of material for the Violent World of Parker blog as well as for Existential Ennui. And though my hardback Richard Stark shelf is a handsome thing to behold:

There are still a few hardback Parkers I'd like to get my clammy mitts on (and doubtless there are other, non-Parker Westlake Scores still to be had). So I suppose in a wider sense it's not really the end at all. The quest – and the chronicle – continues...

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Guest Post: It's Impossible to Be Objective About Evelyn; Michael Barber on Evelyn Waugh

It's been over a year since I last hosted a guest post, so I reckon it's long past time for another one. And so I'm delighted to welcome back to Existential Ennui writer, broadcaster and critic Michael Barber. Michael has twice before contributed terrific articles to this 'ere blog, on authors in whom he knew I had an interest: a piece on Zachary Leader's biography of Kingsley Amis, and one on Dennis Wheatley, both of which appeared in January 2011. Michael's latest offering is on another author I've blogged about, only very recently in fact – Evelyn Waugh, whose archetypal "novel about journalists", Scoop, I wrote about in a Penguin paperback edition in March. Coincidentally, around the same time Michael's short biography of Waugh was published by Hesperus Press as part of their Brief Lives series, and Michael suggested I might like to run the preface to the book, along with a specially written introduction.

Naturally I leapt at the chance; apart from my admiration of Michael's writing, unashamed opportunist that I am I knew it would give me the opportunity to showcase a 1977 Heinemann Evelyn Waugh Omnibus I'd acquired but was struggling to find anything interesting to say about – you can see its cover above and below. So without further ado, over to Michael.

. . . . . . . . . .

Evelyn Waugh, by Michael Barber

In September 1975 I interviewed Christopher Sykes for the BBC World Service about his biography of Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years later I was commissioned to write a book about Waugh myself. I can't pretend that this was always my ambition. Waugh may have been the greatest English novelist of his generation, the 'Commanding Officer' mourned by Graham Greene. But as a subject he had less appeal for me than, say, contemporaries of his like Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly, neither of whom shared Waugh's militant Catholic faith.

On the other hand you do not spend your life in Grub Street without learning that it's a crime to waste material. Over the years I had accumulated innumerable anecdotes about Waugh and his circle. I had also covered Sword of Honour, his war trilogy, in two radio series I wrote and presented. Meanwhile interest in Waugh, which had declined rapidly following his death in 1966, was reawakened by the publication of his Diaries and Letters and by the alluring television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. His novels continue to sell briskly and OUP are planning a scholarly edition of all his works.

One of Waugh's earliest biographers, Frederick Stopp, said that 'several quite different books' could be written about the writer, a view echoed by Christopher Sykes in the preface to his biography. My aim has been to try and produce a 'short, popular life', like Waugh himself did of the Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion, selecting the incidents that strike me as important and relating them in a single narrative. I hope to amuse the reader as well as instruct him (or her), my target being the sort of person who would welcome an appetizer rather than a banquet.

. . . . . . . . . .

Preface to Evelyn Waugh (Brief Lives), Hesperus Press, 2013

Lunching one day at the Beefsteak club with the historian High Trevor-Roper, Christopher Sykes spoke of the 'terrible difficulty' of writing the life of a man 'whose every action showed him to be a shit'. The man in question was his old friend, Evelyn Waugh, probably the most paradoxical figure in modern English literature. Waugh wrote some of the funniest passages in the English language, yet for the last twenty years of his life he suffered from chronic melancholia. Again, he gave away large sums of money to Catholic charities and, unprompted, went out of his way to commend other writers whose work he admired; yet he was also a merciless bully, particularly of those whoe were not equipped to answer back. In later life he behaved like a country gentleman, but spoilt the effect by dressing like a bookie in loud check suits and a grey bowler hat. His second home was White's club in St James's, yet his intimates were tough, opinionated females like Nancy Mitford, Ann Fleming and Diana Cooper. And so disillusioned did he become with his one-time favourite novel, Brideshead Revisited, that he mocked it in the final volume of his war trilogy, Sword of Honour.

Sykes's 'terribly difficulty' was all too apparent to Kingsley Amis, who began his review of the biography by saying that this book reinforced his thankfulness that he never met Evelyn Waugh. But would Waugh have written so well had he not been such a shit? Amis – of whom one could ask the same question – thought not: '[W]ithout this compulsion to say the unsayable he would never have come to be the writer he was.' John Carey, writing later, made a similar point: 'The acid refinement of his style required a certain part of his brain to remain dead. His blanket denunciation of fellow humans would have been impossible for a fully formed intelligence.' He was at his best with rogues like Basil Seal and Captain Grimes. When he tried to create a righteous character like the saintly Mr Crouchback senior, he asked too much of his reader: the old man was simply too good to be true.

Waugh's friends, all of whom knew how badly he could behave, forgave him his trespasses because they were outweighed by his qualities. 'What a monster!' wrote Nancy Mitford. 'How I miss him!' She died before the publication of his diaries reawakened an interest in his life and work that continues to this day. Whether this would have flattered Waugh himself is another matter. When an inoffensive American woman with whom he was dining praised Brideshead Revisited, he replied: 'I though it was good myself, but now that I know a boring, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure.' No wonder Waugh's fellow-novelist, Anthony Powell, told Sykes, 'It's impossible to be objective about Evelyn.'

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Ripliad: Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley Series of Books Revisited and Rated

Having finally completed the Great Tom Ripley Reread (roughly seven months later than I figured I would, but hey, who's counting? Er, apart from me, evidently), I thought I'd take the opportunity to reflect on Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series as a whole, and revisit the Tom Ripley Quality Graph I proudly – perhaps foolishly, if the first comment on that post is anything to go by – unveiled back in 2011, with a view to seeing where each of the five Ripley novels now resides on it (innit). An absurdly self-indulgent and inconsequential exercise, I realise, but hey: when has that ever stopped me in the past?

First though, for any latecomers, in order of publication the five Tom Ripley novels are:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)

If you're so inclined, and if you haven't done so already, you can click on each title to read my prolix Ripley Reread piffle – or you can simply take my word for it that those five blog posts are some of the most insightful and critically incisive essays ever written about Highsmith's Ripliad and leave it at that. Ahem. In any case, the Reread was certainly instructive as regards my relative appreciation of each Ripley novel: of the five books, only one remained unchanged in my estimations, and that was mostly because I rate it so highly – unlike some of the other novels in the Ripliad, I'd actually read it at least twice, possibly three times, before this latest Reread – it couldn't really rise any further. Although I suppose it could have fallen... which is what happened to one of the other Ripley novels, as we shall see.

Here's what the Tom Ripley Quality Graph looked like in 2011 (actually, not quite: I've redrawn it – the original was a bit scruffy – although the data is the same):

The Talented Mr. Ripley scored a very healthy 8 – it is, after all, the bedrock upon which the Ripliad is based – then the first sequel, Ripley Under Ground, scored an even healthier 9, and then the high water mark: Highsmith's masterpiece, Ripley's Game, with an unbeatable 10 – unbeatable, that is, if your graph only goes up to 10. Which mine does. Anyway, after that it's a steep decline to The Boy Who Followed Ripley on 7, and another drop to the final novel in the series, Ripley Under Water, on 6.

That was then. Now here's how things look in the wake of the Great Tom Ripley Reread:

Just one book has remained where it was: Ripley's Game, the Ripley novel par excellence. Or so I once believed, because its lofty position is now paralleled by the preceding Ripley book, Ripley Under Ground, which on this second go-through, and in its own way, I found just as compelling as Game. Talented has also moved up one – for me, more so even than Highsmith's 1950 (non-Ripley) debut, Strangers on a Train (and certainly more so than 1954's The Blunderer), it's the first book where her abiding concerns of power, identity, obsession, deception and the nature of evil fully coalesced – whereas the fourth Ripley novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, has fallen one place; on this read I found it lacked the urgency of others in the series (although as an aside, I should note that such is my enthusiasm for Ripley that Highsmith could have written an entire novel consisting of Tom gardening, playing the harpsichord and sauntering down the road to George and Marie's bar-tabac and I'd probably have been perfectly happy). Finally, Ripley Under Water – a direct sequel to Under Ground – went up one; on reflection I feel it is a better book than Boy, although still not as good as the first three Ripley novels.

So there you have it. For further thoughts on each book in the series I'll direct you to each of my five individual posts on them – assuming you've read the books, that is; if you haven't, well: you know what to do next. Suffice it to say in closing that to my mind Highsmith's Ripliad is a remarkable achievement: a peerless extended study of a man who literally gets away with murder – who is, as he himself puts it (in Ripley Under Ground), "a font of evil" – and how such a man might live with himself and even, by his own cunning, intellect, force of will and sense of self-preservation, flourish.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Great Tom Ripley Reread, 5: Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith (London Limited Editions, Signed / Bloomsbury, 1991)

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 19/4/13.

And so the Great Tom Ripley Reread – which seemed like such a good idea when I embarked on it, ooh, over seven months ago – reaches the final novel in Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad: Ripley Under Water. And once again I have a very special edition of the book from which to springboard some musings:

This is the London Limited Editions, er, edition of Ripley Under Water, published in 1991 in conjunction with Bloomsbury, who published the regular UK first edition, with a dust jacket illustrated by Elspeth Ross, that same year. Bound in marbled cloth boards under a delicate glassine paper jacket – not shown, although my copy does have its wrapper – it was limited to just 150 copies, each one signed by Highsmith. Curiously, however, this one isn't numbered:

Even though the signature does appear to be genuine, so either the number got forgotten for this copy, or Highsmith ended up signing more than 150 of the buggers. I missed out on an eBay auction for another copy over a year ago – as a consolation prize bagging a terrific signed and inscribed first edition of Little Tales of Misogyny instead – so when this one popped up on eBay, I made damn sure I secured it (as it turned out for under half what the first copy went for). Anyone who's been following this series of posts will hopefully understand that for me, owning a signed Ripley novel is quite something, especially since the cheapest copy currently listed on AbeBooks is £135 (plus postage from America).

Although the four Ripley novels which follow The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) are, loosely speaking, sequels, most of them aren't sequels in the sense that they pick up on plot threads from previous books. The exception is this fifth and final entry in the series, which is a direct sequel to the second book, Ripley Under Ground (1970). Set five years on from that novel – in the mutable timeline of the Ripliad, that is, which means the presence in the narrative of slightly incongruous-for-1975 things like CDs and microwave ovens – it finds Tom besieged by an unhinged American couple, David and Janice Pritchard, who have moved into a house in the area of rural France in which Ripley resides. The Pritchards – David especially, but also Janice – are digging into the death of the art collector Thomas Murchison, who, you'll recall, Tom murdered in Under Ground in order to keep Murchison from revealing that Tom and his English cohorts Ed Banbury and Jeff Constant of the Buckmaster Gallery were up to their necks in an art forgery ring.

Having got wind of this from Cynthia Gradnor, the one-time girlfriend of the artist doing the forging, Bernard Tufts (standing in for the deceased Derwatt), David Pritchard is now seemingly intent on finding the corpse of Murchison, which Tom, enlisting the aid of the aforementioned Bernard (who also subsequently died), deposited in a local river. All of which is explained piecemeal by Highsmith for those who haven't read Under Ground, but even so, unlike that and the other Ripley sequels, with Under Water, it helps enormously here to have read the book it references.

Which isn't to say there aren't references to other parts of the Ripliad too. For instance, one of the methods David Pritchard employs to unsettle Tom is prank telephone calls from someone purporting to be Dickie Greenleaf, the first of Tom's multiple victims (killed, of course, in The Talented Mr. Ripley). Dickie is perhaps the only one of Tom's murders that he feels any kind of remorse for – "The beginning of his troubles", as Tom reflects after the first call: "The first man he had killed, and the only one he regretted killing, really, the only crime he was sorry about." Though he's certain that Dickie is in fact dead, that initial phone call makes Tom physically sick – an atypical response from the usually in-control Ripley.

The presence of an existential threat for Tom makes for a welcome change from the previous book in the series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), in which Tom's role was often quite passive. Highsmith's original idea for what would be her last Ripley novel (she died in 1995) was "Ripley touches madness" (jotted in one of her notebooks, as revealed in Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography Beautiful Shadow), and elements of that notion do make it through to the finished novel: when David Pritchard – or "Prickard", as Tom's wife, Heloise, repeatedly mispronounces it, causing Tom to drily correct her ("Pritchard, dear") – follows Tom and Heloise to Tangier, Ripley lures him to a coastal cafe and beats him up, only just keeping from killing him. By and large, though, Tom acts no more crazy than at any other point in the Ripliad, and considerably less so than in Ripley Under Ground, where he struggled to keep a grip on the freewheeling insanity he'd unleashed.

Of course, Tom is unhinged; at one point, in reference to Pritchard, he muses that he doesn't understand cracked people (the one exception being Bernard), when in fact he himself is by any definition, to put it mildly, highly abnormal: a conscienceless serial killer. Highsmith is performing her usual trick here of never deviating from Tom's viewpoint, so that we unwittingly empathize with him and Pritchard becomes the villain of the piece. In reality, they're as bad as each other; indeed, Pritchard nails Tom when he calls him a "snob crook".

There again, Tom does display some of his more admirable qualities in the book as well. His relationship with Heloise is never more touching than it is here: he twice tells her he loves her – an unusually forthright declaration from the normally reticent Ripley – and a postcard from her makes "his heart jump". (The only hint of his latent homosexuality this time comes courtesy of his reading a biography of Oscar Wilde – in the previous book he was reading Christopher Isherwood – but even there, that was the book Highsmith herself was reading whilst writing Under Water.) Meanwhile, his loyalty to Ed and Jeff, and theirs to him, seems to go beyond simple self-preservation; when Ed volunteers to come over to France to help thwart Pritchard's "anti-Ripley game" (nicely done, Ms. Highsmith), he apparently does so out of genuine friendship.

Still, let's not get too carried away. Ripley is still, as Cynthia Gradnor puts it, "the most evil man I've ever met", adding: "if you consider that a favourable distinction. You probably do." He does some pretty despicable things in Ripley Under Water, not least of which being his gruesome "autopsy" of Murchison's remains when they're delivered by David Pritchard to his house, freshly recovered from the river, complete with "bits of flesh... pale and flabby, [stuck] to the spinal column" – a scene which recalls the similar desecration of Bernard Tufts' corpse in Under Ground. As for Tom's opportunistic solution to the Pritchards' meddling, in its own way that's as cold and calculating as any other of his actions across the Ripliad.

Unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying Ripley Under Water a lot more than I thought I would on this second go-round. I'd previously viewed it as the weakest instalment in the Ripliad, but it actually went up in my estimations; I think I'd put it somewhere just above The Boy Who Followed Ripley on my Tom Ripley Graph now. In fact, having (finally) completed the Great Tom Ripley Reread, I'm of a mind to revisit that graph to see where each of the five Ripley novels now rests on it...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Francis Clifford's Honour the Shrine (Cape, 1953) & Helen MacInnes's Pray for a Brave Heart (Collins, 1955) Join Beautiful British Book Jackets

Let's take a look at the two latest additions to the still-expanding (these covers will take it up to 104 entries) Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – the first one of which I could do with some assistance identifying the jacket designer:

Namely Honour the Shrine by Francis Clifford, published by Jonathan Cape in 1953. There's no credit on either flap and no signature that I can see; I did wonder if it might be by Val Biro, but I put it in front of Val at a Lewes Book Fair last year and he thought not. Mind you, when I asked Val to sign the jacket of Desmond Cory's Secret Ministry at an earlier Midhurst Book Fair, he told me that wasn't one of his wrappers either – until his agent, David Schutte, pointed out Val's signature in the bottom left corner (Val did, after all, design an estimated 3,000 dust jackets). Plus, Val was doing a little work for Cape around this period (as was Hans Tisdall, who also comes to mind as a possible culprit) – he designed the wrapper for the 1953 Cape first of Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope for one – so he could have misremembered. In any case, until confirmation is forthcoming, the cover is consigned to the "Designer Unknown" group at the bottom of Beautiful British Book Jacket Design.

No such confusion surrounds the book itself, however, at least not round these parts, because I've blogged about it before, in its 1957 Corgi paperback incarnation. Clifford's debut, and quite uncommon these days (there are barely a dozen copies in any edition on AbeBooks at present, none of those the Cape first), it's one of a number of the author's novels I've spotlighted – see also Time Is an Ambush (1962), The Green Fields of Eden (1963), The Hunting-Ground (1964) and The Naked Runner (1966) – the jackets from the first editions of all four of which are also featured in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design.

And there's little doubt as to who was responsible for the dust jacket design of the second new addition to the gallery, despite there once again being no credit on the flaps:

This is the British first edition of Pray for a Brave Heart by Helen Macinnes, published by Collins in 1955 and bought by me just the other week for two quid in the excellent Tome in Eastbourne. MacInnes's ninth novel, it's one of fourteen MacInnes spy thrillers that Titan Books have brought back into print since last year. The wrapper isn't, as I say, credited, but it does bear a signature: "Petty". That's almost certainly the Australian political cartoonist Bruce Petty, who evidently had a nice sideline designing jackets in the 1950s; other examples of his jacket work include a further three wrappers for Collins in 1955 – Jon Cleary's Justin Bayard, Laselle Gilman's The Dragon's Mouth and Kem Bennett's Dangerous Knowledge – along with Edward Maxwell's Quest for Pajaro (Heinemann, 1957), Tom Girtin's Not Entirely Serious (Hutchinson, 1958) and Robin Maugham's The Man with Two Shadows (Longmans, Green, 1958).

So, two further splendid duotone dust jackets for Beautiful British Book Jacket Design. And I'm not done with the gallery just yet...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2013); Signed First Edition

As I'm sure I've stated before, I don't buy many new (as in, newly written and published) novels; my tastes tend to run to older, usually mustier tomes (although those tomes, though frequently foxed and smelling of fags, are often as not "new" to me). But occasionally either a new novel will catch my eye – as was the case recently with Roger Hobbs's debut, Ghostman, which I bought and read shortly after publication (verdict: not bad at all) – or an author whose work I admire will publish a new novel and I might find myself inclined to pick it up. Which brings me to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.

I love Atkinson's four Jackson Brodie novels – I've blogged about them a few times – but I've never read any of her non-Brodie books, so I was in two minds whether or not to try Life After Life, which was published by Doubleday in March of this year under a dust jacket designed by Claire Ward. In the end, the prospect of securing a signed first edition at cover price swayed me, along with the novel's premise: a woman, Ursula, dies over and over again at various junctures of her life, from childhood to adulthood, throughout the twentieth century until she gets it "right". I'm a sucker for a World War II-related alternate history tale (which Life After Life in part is) – Len Deighton's SS-GB, Sarban's The Sound of His Horn, C. J. Sansom's Dominion – so for me the novel's science fiction trappings – to use the term loosely – were an additional lure, even though I knew going in that the hows and whys of Ursula's plight probably wouldn't be addressed.

Which of course they aren't. But in the event, it turns out Atkinson has inadvertently tapped into a rather different form of storytelling than the alternate history thriller (and it'll be no surprise to anyone familiar with Atkinson's work that Life After Life isn't a thriller, either, even though it opens with an assassination attempt on Hitler). Structurally, the form the novel most brought to mind for me was that of the video game, or perhaps more accurately those old "choose your own adventure" Fighting Fantasy books. Video games and Fighting Fantasy novels both hinge on a learning process: you get something wrong the first time, get killed, and have to start again either at the beginning or earlier in that level, and that's pretty much how Life After Life works too, both for Ursula and in a more passive sense for the reader. In fact, you could probably chop the novel up and rearrange it in the same manner as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and it would still function reasonably well. ("If you want to retrieve the dolly Queen Solange from the snowy rooftop, turn to page 87; if you want to leave her where she is, turn to page 36.")

I say Atkinson has "inadvertently" alighted on this approach because I kind of doubt she's ever played a video game, or indeed read The Citadel of Chaos. In that sense, while the novel's structure might have more resonance and perhaps even be more familiar to younger generations than linear storytelling, it's not comparable to what, for instance, Christopher Brookmyre was getting at in a recent interview in SFX to promote his novel Bedlam (thank you to Book Glutton for bringing it to my attention) when he said that video games are changing storytelling, pointing to the film Source Code as possessing "the structure of playing a videogame, you have someone who has to keep reloading the game until he's got it right". It's more feasible that it's a side effect of a parallel development in home computing: word processing, which has made it far easier, far more natural-feeling, for writers to write in a disjointed, out of sequence fashion – something that many have always done anyway – noting random lines of dialogue, penning whole scenes before embarking on a book – but which writing on a word processor particularly lends itself to.

Mind you, I've no idea what Kate Atkinson uses to write with or on – computer, typewriter, pen and paper, an Etch A Sketch. From the little I've read about her, the scattershot, seemingly meandering quality of her novels is merely a symptom of how her mind works; witness the parenthetical asides which litter her books (Atkinson has said that she herself thinks in brackets). So the structure of Life After Life could simply be a case of Atkinson starting the novel over and over again, allowing Ursula to drift almost of her own accord into a succession of (slightly deadly) cul-de-sacs (where darkness, the "black bat", awaits her) and then rewinding and trying a different plot branch.

In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter how Atkinson arrived at the approach (thus making my musings in this post even more pointless than usual); the novel is what it is: enchanting, frustrating, breathless, confounding, but above all beautifully written – and in that sense at least the equal of the Jackson Brodie books. By way of illustration, I'll leave you with a passage from early in the novel, describing how the baby Ursula is regularly left alone in her pram in the garden by Bridget, the maid, at the behest of Ursula's mother, Sylvie, who has "inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie":

Bare branches, buds, leaves – the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula's eyes. She observed the turn of the seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mould and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them – sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)

Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon – astonishing and terrifying in equal measure – when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Westlake on Rabe: Murder Me for Nickels & Anatomy of a Killer by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1960 / Panther, 1962)

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

In his 1989 essay on Peter Rabe for the critical anthology Murder off the Rack, Donald E. Westlake identified two distinct periods during which, Westlake reckoned, Rabe produced his best work. The first came at the start of Rabe's career, encompassing the five books from Stop This Man! (1955) to Kill the Boss Good-by (1956). The second – also encompassing five books – began in 1959 and comprised the final Daniel Port novel, Time Enough to Die, along with My Lovely Executioner (1960), The Box (1962), and the final two novels I'll be blogging about in this current run of Rabe posts: Murder Me for Nickels and Anatomy of a Killer (both 1960).

Only the second of Rabe's novels to be narrated in the first person (the first being the aforementioned My Lovely Executioner), for Westlake Murder Me for Nickels was "absolutely unlike anything that [Rabe] had done before... as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum". Westlake isn't alone in appreciating the merits of the novel, either: it's also a particular favourite of Westlake aficionado and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, who has called it "marvelously sardonic". And the Gold Medal original – this copy of which I found at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair – boasts one of the best covers ever to grace a Peter Rabe book, by the great Robert McGinnis.

But for anyone looking for the single Rabe novel that perhaps exerted the greatest influence on Westlake, especially on his pseudonymous (as Richard Stark) Parker series, I'd still point to Anatomy of a Killer. I blogged about this one two years ago, in its original hardback edition – published, as Westlake puts it in his essay, by "a penny-ante outfit called Abelard-Schuman" – that post later appearing in an altered form over at The Violent World of Parker. In order to demonstrate the similarities between Anatomy and the Parkers I quoted extensively from the opening of the novel, and would you Adam and Eve it that's precisely what Westlake does too, sampling the exact same passage – including the opening "When" – and labelling the novel "as cold and clean as a knife".

The copy seen here is the British paperback edition, published by Panther in 1962 as part of their Crime Circle line. The cover art is uncredited and I can't make out the signature, but around this time Panther had a habit of taking cover art from often random and unrelated American paperbacks and reusing it, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that this artwork is lifted from a completely different book.

UPDATE: Ray Garraty quickly identified the original book the cover art was taken from as Harry Whittington's 1959 novel Strange Bargain, as seen on Killer Covers. No word as yet on cover artist, although that signature could be "Darcy", an alias of Ernest Chiriaka.

I do have a handful of other Peter Rabe paperbacks to blog about, dating from the mid-1960s to the early '70s, but Westlake doesn't have much to say about those in his essay, so I think I'll save them for another time. But before I leave Rabe behind, there is one last book of his I'd like to take a look at – an atypical entry in his canon that has a special significance for me right now...

Friday, 5 April 2013

Donald E. Westlake Non-Fiction Anthology Announced

Here's something rather exciting for those of us unhealthily obsessed with the work of Donald E. Westlake: Levi Stahl of University of Chicago Press (publishers, as if you didn't know, of Westlake's written-as-Richard Stark Parker novels) has announced on his blog that he's got the go-ahead to put together an anthology of Westlake non-fiction. This is a project that I and one or two others have known about for a little while: Levi initially cavassed myself, Trent (from The Violent World of Parker, where I'm co-blogger) and Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame, and a noted Westlake aficionado) for our opinions on what we thought should appear in the collection last year. I'm not sure how much help I was, but Trent and Ethan both had excellent suggestions, so it should prove a fascinating volume.

Levi hasn't yet revealed which pieces will end up in the collection, other than that it will comprise "reviews, essays on favorite writers, magazine pieces, occasional writings... likely... a couple of the most interesting interviews he sat for over the years; a piece or two by prominent fans, friends, and critics about Westlake and his work; and possibly even letters and e-mails". I've blogged about a number of Westlake's non-fiction pieces over the years – his enlightening introduction to Levine; his book on the British invasion of a Caribbean island; his piece on prison breaks; his farewell to science fiction; his essay on Peter Rabe – and I'm hopeful at least some of those articles (as in, Westlake's articles, not my rubbish posts) will make it in. But Levi is keen to cast his net as wide as possible, and so has asked for further suggestions; anyone who has any can contact him via his blog, or maybe drop him a line on Twitter.

I'll endeavour to post updates on the project as and when... and I'll also, hopefully, have some more Westlake/University of Chicago Press news before too long...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Beautiful British '50s & '60s Book Jacket Design: Beyond 100 Covers

Ever since the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery reached the 100 cover mark back in October of last year I've been pondering what to do next with the page. I hadn't really intended to venture beyond 100 covers, instead expressing a desire in that centenary celebration post (which also announced Existential Ennui's custom domain name) to set up a permanent page dedicated to paperback covers, say, or to particular dust jacket designers, most likely Val Biro and/or Denis McLoughlin. Which I might still get round to doing at some point: I have some cracking additional examples of each of those two artists' dust jacket work still to unveil, and dedicated artist pages strike me as a fitting way of showcasing those jackets.

Inevitably, however, and despite an ongoing concerted effort to cut back on the number of secondhand books I buy, I've since acquired a small pile of books bearing wrappers not by Biro or McLoughlin but every bit as good as their stuff, not to mention that of the other artists featured in the gallery. Which begs the question: what to do with those further wrappers? I considered setting up another general dust jacket page – Beautiful British Book Jacket Design Part II, if you will – but that would only be an encouragement to start buying loads of books again, something I'm keen to avoid (for reasons which will become clear quite soon). Plus, there's something to be said for having all of those covers together in one place, especially since the page has by itself clocked up over 10,000 hits.

Therefore, I've decided to add a few more covers to the gallery. Not too many: just a handful – the very best wrappers from my recent acquisitions. Beginning with two books, both published by Michael Joseph in 1955, both boasting jackets designed by children's book author and illustrator Brian Wildsmith.

Fellow Passenger by Geoffrey Household, and White August by John Boland. Given that Wildsmith graduated from The Slade in 1952 and did his National Service shortly thereafter, these two covers must represent some of his earliest professional work. And jolly lovely they are too – splendid examples of the duotone style prevalent at the time, and fine additions to the Beautiful British Book Jackets page, marking Wildsmith's debut in the gallery.

Both books are eBay wins; Fellow Passenger was Household's seventh novel for adults (following 1951's A Time to Kill) – and one of his personal favourites – White August Boland's first. I've blogged about Household many times before, most recently in this post on his most famous novel, Rogue Male, but Boland is a new name to Existential Ennui. His best-known work is probably this:

The League of Gentlemen, first published by T. V. Boardman in 1958 but seen here in its 1960 Pan paperback incarnation, complete with cover art by Sam Peffer. Personally, I was more aware of the film adaptation of the same year – blurbed on the back cover of the Pan edition – than I was of the novel; I think I must have caught it on telly at some point. And that Peff cover's rather good, isn't it? Hmm. Maybe I should set up a permanent paperback cover art page after all...