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"...