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.