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.

Thursday 28 February 2013

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré: a Review (Gollancz, 1963)

Having recently read and reviewed John le Carré's first two novels – Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) – it seemed only right and proper that I should tackle his third one too: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For one thing, it's arguably le Carré's most famous book (although in recent years it's perhaps been surpassed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as a result of that later novel's 2011 film adaptation); for another, it's widely regarded as his best (although, as brilliant as it is, for my money Tinker is the better novel); and finally, it's actually a sequel of sorts to Call for the Dead – so with that novel still fresh in my mind, what better time to pluck my 1963 first edition (second impression) of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from the shelves and give it a go.

As it turns out, it's quite a different novel to its two predecessors. Both Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality have an element of the murder mystery to them – much more so in the latter, but that strand of DNA is certainly present in the (largely espionage) genetic makeup of Call. In any case, both are very much reactive novels – British Intelligence operative George Smiley investigating the death of a civil servant and an attendant East German plot in the former, and the rather more down-to-earth death of the wife of a schoolmaster in the latter – whereas The Spy Who Came in from the Cold could be characterized as proactive. Here, the plot is propelled by the machinations of the Circus (MI6) and its head, Control, who hatches a plan to take revenge on Mundt, the East German agent-cum-assassin-turned-Abteilung bigwig who murdered two people in Call (and almost did for Smiley as well).

Furthermore, Smiley isn't the star of Spy. Instead, the man tasked with carrying out Control's fiendish scheme is Alec Leamas, a washed-up operative whose chief East German agent is killed at the beginning of the book. Leamas's assignment is to make himself into a candidate for recruitment by East German Intelligence, a goal which entails him hitting the bottle, getting kicked out of the Circus and even being sent to prison for assault. The one chink of light in this dark descent is Liz, a young librarian who becomes his lover, and who will prove instrumental both to his mission, and in his eventual undoing. (Interestingly, not the first time, nor indeed the last, that a woman will be the downfall of a man in a le Carré novel.)

But although Smiley, supposedly still retired after the events of Call for the Dead, doesn't feature much in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he's a spectral presence throughout. Control enlists his (reluctant) aid in concocting the plan, and he haunts the novel like a portly ghost: glimpsed by Leamas in a greasy spoon and at an airport kiosk; paying Liz a visit with Peter Guillam. He also pops up in the final scene, which brings the action full circle to the East/West Berlin border, but the true climax of the book comes just prior to that, and takes the unexpected shape of a courtroom drama – never my favourite form of fiction, but deployed effectively here by le Carré to lay bare the machinations of Control and the Circus and deliver a final twist which throws a new and awful light on those endeavours.

In the end, le Carré leaves us questioning not only whether the ends justify the means, but whether the ends are desirable either – questions which have as much resonance – as much relevance – today as they did fifty years ago.

Monday 25 February 2013

Westlake Score: Adios, Scheherazade, by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)

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

Before I get to the final John le Carré novel I'll be reviewing in my short series of posts on the author – i.e. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I'm still reading – let's have a Westlake Score, in the shape of this:

A UK first edition of Adios, Scheherazade, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971, the year after the US Simon & Schuster first. Quite an uncommon book this one: it fell out of print decades ago – in English anyway; there are more recent French editions – making it one of the scarcest of all of Donald E. Westlake's novels – either under his own name or one of his numerous nom de plumes – in any edition, especially so in this British printing. I acquired this copy – for a ridiculously low price – from famed book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, who originally acquired it from... actually I don't really know where Jamie got it from – which I guess is why he's the famed book dealer and I'm simply one of the clueless slobs wot buy books off him.

The dust jacket design is by Lipscombe, Lubbock, Ewart & Holland, doing a grand job of evoking the era, if not the specific milieu, of the novel: that of the American sleaze paperback field, in which Westlake toiled away in the late-1950s/early-1960s under a variety of aliases. Chief among those was Alan Marshall, under which moniker Westlake wrote over a dozen smutty softcovers for Midwood; I blogged about some of them towards the end of last year, inspired by Trent's series of posts over at The Violent World of Parker on the Westlake sleaze catalogue. Adios, Scheherazade is about that part of Westlake's life, and is also one of his more experimental novels; as Ethan Iverson notes in his brief precis of the book as part of his peerless Westlake overview: "here there are 10 chapters of exactly 5000 words each, just like the sex novels the hapless narrator is supposed to be writing".

Speaking of other folks' thoughts on the thing, there's a detailed review of Adios, Scheherazade over at Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, but perhaps the best piece on the novel available online (linked previously by Andrew Wheeler, Matthew Asprey and Bill Crider) is Earl Kemp's "Nobody Can Write This Shit Forever". Kemp actually edited some of Westlake's sleaze efforts – quite heavily, if Kemp is to be believed – and his candid, gossipy reminiscences as he picks his way through Adios, Scheherazade make for entertaining and arresting reading. As Kemp drily observes: "The [Alan Marshall] manuscripts consistently rose just to almost the absolute minimum required input level."