Friday 16 August 2013

Parker Mega Score Prelude: Richard Stark British First Editions (Coronet Paperbacks, 1968–1977)

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

Good lord, has it really been nearly four months since I last posted something over at The Violent World of Parker? Tsk, I dunno: anyone would think I'd recently become a father or something. (Let's not get into the fact that I've managed about a dozen Existential Ennui blog posts on Elmore Leonard in the interim. Ahem.) Anyway, obviously my absence represents a dreadful dereliction of duty, for which I shall attempt to make amends by unveiling a shitload of Westlake Scores over the coming weeks. Or rather, Parker Scores; because all of the books I'll be blogging about are Parker novels – British paperback editions to be precise, published by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in the late 1960s and early '70s. And all of them came from a single source...

See, a couple of months back, quite out of the blue, I received an email from the critic and crime writer Mike Ripley (author of the Angel series of novels). I know Mike a little bit, and Mike knows I'm a Westlake/Stark/Parker nut, and so having, as he put it, "acquired a job lot of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark titles, all paperbacks in remarkably good condition for their age", he figured I might be a likely candidate to take them off his hands, for the price of a small donation to charity. Mike provided a list of the books, fourteen in total; three of them were Coronet paperbacks of Westlake novels I either owned already in hardback or wasn't especially interested in, but the remainder were all Coronet editions of the Parker novels, and even though I already had a number of them (and of course have every Parker novel in one or another edition anyway), well, I couldn't resist:

Turns out they're all, bar one, first impressions – most of the Coronet editions went through two or three printings – which means that they're (almost) all the British first editions (and the one that isn't I have a first printing of anyway, so it's all good) – Coronet being the original publisher of the Parkers in the UK. They're also in near-fine, virtually unread condition, certainly the nicest copies I've ever come across, and are, for the most part, the "bullet hole" editions – i.e. the distinctive metallic finish die-cut double-cover concept designed by Raymond Hawkey and introduced by Coronet in 1971. (Prior to that the six Parker novels Coronet published – out of sequence, mostly following the Fawcett/Gold Medal publishing programme – bore a mixture of movie still, illustrative and photographic covers.)

So, over the next however-many weeks, I'll be taking a look at some of them – ruminating on what they are, what they represent, their place in the wider Parker publishing scheme of things, their collectability, and maybe even reflecting on the novels themselves. Beginning with the book on the top of that pile: The Steel Hit, alias Parker #2, The Man with the Getaway Face...

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard: First Edition (Bantam Paperback, 1980); Review

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

In a 1991 interview with Elmore Leonard (published in the December 2012 issue of Contrapasso Magazine and available as a PDF here), interviewer Anthony May asked the writer what he saw as the distinction between the hardback and the paperback (a subject that's long been dear to my heart). Leonard responded: "...respectability, that's all. I have always been in hardback up until I chose, twice, the more recent time in 1978 when I went to Bantam, to be in paperback simply to make more money."

In actual fact, for a while there in the '70s, Leonard could more accurately be described as a paperback writer than a hardback author. Eight of the twelve novels he published from 1969 – when he resumed his fiction writing career after nearly a decade in the advertising wilderness – until 1980 – when Arbor House became his main American publisher with City Primeval (remaining so for the next ten years) – were issued as paperback originals in the States (a handful were published into hardback in the UK): The Big Bounce (Fawcett/Gold Medal, 1969), Valdez is Coming (Fawcett/Gold Medal, 1970), Forty Lashes Less One (Bantam, 1972), Mr. Majestyk (Dell, 1974), The Hunted (Dell, 1977), The Switch (Bantam, 1978), Gunsights (Bantam, 1979), and this book:

Gold Coast, published as a paperback original by Bantam in December 1980, cover photography by the Freelance Photographers Guild. The last of Leonard's novels to be published straight to paperback in the US, it's also significant in that it signalled a shift in locale in the author's stories. Up to this point, the majority of Leonard's contemporaneously set novels (not his westerns, in other words) had centred on Detroit and the surrounding area. In Gold Coast, though, the author moved the action down to Florida, where mobster's wife Karen DiCillia learns upon the death of her husband Frank that he's left instructions to the effect that if she wants to keep hold of his money, she can never be with another man again. It's a ludicrous scenario, but Leonard is less interested in the set-up than in the resulting chaos, as Karen is beset by mob hitman Roland Crowe – who has designs on both her and her money (or rather Frank's) – and enlists the aid of ex-con Calvin Maguire in helping her escape Frank's bizarre bequest and the unwanted attentions of Roland.

In truth Maguire, rather than Karen, is the novel's real lead; he's another in the long line of Leonard felons – see also Jack Ryan (The Big Bounce/Unknown Man No. 89), Ernest Stickley, Jr. (Swag/Stick), Chili Palmer (Get Shorty/Be Cool) and Jack Foley (Out of Sight/Road Dogs) – uncertain of or unhappy with their place in the world but unwilling to knuckle under and become Average Joes. Maguire may not know quite what he wants, but Leonard makes his confusion palpable, whereas Karen remains something of an enigma throughout: opaque, her intentions unclear (despite the misleading back cover copy on the Bantam paperback). It's only in the final few pages we start to get a sense of who she really is – or rather, who she might be.

But it could be argued that the real star of the show is Roland Crowe. A hulking lascivious hillbilly cut from the same cloth as the later Richard Nobles (LaBrava, 1983), Roland is the first in what would become a family tree of Crowes, its roots extending deep beneath Leonard's backlist. Roland's brother, Elvin, and his nephew, Dale Jr., both feature in Maximum Bob (1991), while another Crowe, Earl, pops up in the first Raylan Givens novel, Pronto (1993), and Dale Jr. makes a reappearance in its sequel, Riding the Rap (1995). The Crowes even make the leap to television in the form of Dewey Crowe, a recurring thorn in the side of Raylan Givens in the Justified TV show, although quite what Dewey's relationship is to the literary Crowe clan isn't made explicit.

Anyway, stone the Crowes (arf): I do believe I've reached the final post in this (over-)extended series on Elmore Leonard. Not that there won't be more from Mr. Leonard on Existential Ennui in the near future; I've further splendid first editions to blog about, and I'll be keeping an eye out for updates on Leonard's well-being (he was recently hospitalised following a stroke). But there'll be posts on other authors and books besides, starting with a Westlake Score...

Monday 12 August 2013

Stand on the Saber (Last Stand at Saber River / Lawless River) by Elmore Leonard (Corgi, 1960)

This penultimate Elmore Leonard paperback – nearly done now – dates from the first phase of Leonard's career, i.e. 1951–1961, when he was writing nothing but westerns:

Last Stand at Saber River, the fourth of five western novels Leonard published over that period, issued as a paperback original in the States by Dell in 1959. Except, as you can see, this isn't that edition: it's the first British paperback edition, retitled as Stand on the Saber and published by Corgi in 1960 (Corgi #SW847). In fact the novel's title was changed twice for British publication: Robert Hale published it in hardback under the title Lawless River in 1959 (you can see a facsimile of the Hale dust jacket, along with jackets for others of Leonard's early westerns, at Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC), and Corgi changed it again the year after.

Copies of the Corgi edition are almost as scarce as the Hale edition – there are presently two Corgi paperbacks versus one Hale hardback on AbeBooks – but prices couldn't be more different between the two: less than a fiver for the Corgi; over two grand for the Hale. So you can see why I went for the Corgi edition – that and the rather nice cover artwork, which I've unfortunately been unable to identify, despite asking a couple of paperback experts. (A partial signature – "HARRY" in capital letters – is visible bottom right of the artwork, which prompted one of the experts to suggest it might be by American artist Harry J. Schaare, but Schaare tended to sign his work with his surname, lowercase, so I remain unconvinced.)

But the main reason I bought the book is I was curious to see how it compares to Leonard's later western, the terrific Valdez is Coming (1970), and indeed to his work in general in that second phase of his career from 1969 onwards, when he returned to writing fiction after an enforced break (the western market having pretty much dried up by the end of the '50s). Answer being, not especially favourably.

Oh it's not a bad novel, by any stretch of the imagination. The story of Paul Cable, a Confederate soldier who, having been injured towards the end of the Civil War, returns with his family to his homestead in the Saber River valley to find it overrun by a Union gang, it's a decent enough western, moves at a reasonable clip and has its fair share of tense standoffs and shootouts. But it's certainly not the equal of Valdez is Coming, nor of the non-western novels Leonard penned when he resumed his writing career (The Big Bounce, Mr. Majestyk, Fifty-Two Pickup, etc.). Though there are hints of the Leonard to come – notably the way he makes the ostensible villains of the piece at least as compelling, if not more so, than Cable – it lacks the economy, the subtlety, the depth of later Leonard – that wry, supple prose and ear for the vernacular in dialogue.

Leonard himself admitted as much in a 2009 Goodreads interview. "When I read those [early westerns]," he told the interviewer, "I would definitely say my style has changed. I think it started with one of the last westerns – I was trying to get a little more humour in it, but also to be more spare in the writing. [Prior to that] I was using pronouns and making a lot of noise with the writing." He was also, at least on the evidence of Last Stand at Saber River, using adverbs – something that would become strictly verboten post-1969, as outlined in Leonard's celebrated 10 Rules of Writing – number 4, to be precise, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'... he admonished gravely." Which of course follows Rule number 3: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." Although if Last Stand at Saber River is any indication, Leonard learned his own lesson early there.

Right then. Just one final Elmore Leonard paperback to come: the last of his novels to be published as a paperback original in the States...