Thursday 22 August 2013

Fifty-Two Pickup (52 Pick-Up) by Elmore Leonard: First Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1974); Book Review

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

I hadn't planned on returning to Elmore Leonard quite so soon after completing that long series of posts on him; even though I'm still on the Leonard kick that started, ooh, I guess over three months ago now, I'm no longer reading him to the exclusion of all others, and there are a number of authors I'm itching to blog about besides Leonard. But then the bugger went and died on Tuesday, and so it seems only right and proper in the week that he passed away that I should take a look at an acknowledged Elmore Leonard classic:

Fifty-Two Pickup, first published in hardback in the UK by Secker & Warburg in 1974, the same year as the American Delacorte first. Like all the Secker editions of Leonard's novels – the publisher issued four of the author's works in the 1970s – Fifty-Two Pickup is becoming quite scarce and consequently fairly pricey in British first (and likely to become even more so now I expect). Obviously the print run would have been much smaller than the American edition, but there's the dust jacket design too: the Delacorte jacket is largely typographic, whereas the Secker one features an evocative photograph by Graham Miller, and is really rather good and quite distinctive I think; compare Miller's Fifty-Two Pickup wrapper with his one for the Heinemann edition of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game from the same year.

Certainly the cover is in keeping with the novel – a dark entry in the Leonard canon, in which Detroit factory boss Harry Mitchell is targeted by a trio of blackmailers who kidnap his stripper girlfriend and threaten to reveal his illicit affair to his wife if he doesn't pay them over $100,000. Given that thereafter the novel features a gruesome caught-on-camera killing, multiple murders and a heroin-assisted rape, it's perhaps surprising that for Leonard it was one of the novels where he felt he began to introduce more humour into his work. In 2002 he told The Onion A.V. Club:

I think the turning point was in the '70s, with Unknown Man No. 89 and Fifty-Two Pickup and those. That's when I finally got the confidence to let it go and have some fun with it. Before that, in the Westerns especially, there's no humor at all. There's no irony to speak of, and that's all the humor is. It's my humor. Because all these guys are serious. They can be funny, but they're serious when they deliver their lines. It's just that they're kind of out of context with what they're talking about. 

Of course, there is humour in Fifty-Two Pickup, but it's humour of a very black variety, born of the lethal bungling of the inept blackmailers and epitomised by an explosive climax involving an attache case packed with dynamite. Rather than a crime caper, then, the novel might be better viewed as a meditation on the decline of the city of Detroit – overwhelmed by vice, its manufacturing base crumbling. It's a theme that has as much resonance today as it did forty years ago – a mark, I'd suggest, of the way Leonard's fiction has remained relevant over the years, in turn helping to explain why his older books are still so popular – and one the writer would return to again and again throughout the 1970s in his "Detroit cycle": Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), The Switch (1978) and City Primeval (1980). And I'll have more on those last two novels anon.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Elmore Leonard, 1925–2013

Damn. Just this minute seen the sad news that Elmore Leonard died this morning, aged 87. (Update: head to The Rap Sheet for links to obituaries and a terrific homage.) Leonard had suffered a stroke a few weeks back and had subsequently been hospitalised; on the author's Facebook page, Gregg Sutter, Leonard's researcher and webmaster, reports:

The post I dreaded to write, and you dreaded to read. Elmore passed away at 7:15 this morning from complications from his stroke. He was at home surrounded by his loving family. More to follow.

Anyone who reads Existential Ennui on a regular basis will know that I've been on a Leonard kick of late, recently posting a string of reviews of the writer's novels. They weren't intended as a tribute to Mr. Leonard, and certainly not a eulogy – just my thoughts on his work; but under the circumstances, well, I guess a number of them – and a handful of older posts – go some way towards expressing my admiration for his brilliant, beautifully written books:

The Hunted (1978)

The Switch (1979)

Dutch Treat (1985), feat. Mr. Majestyk, Swag and The Hunted

Raylan (2012), Elmore Leonard's final novel.

Parker Score: Richard Stark's The Steel Hit (alias The Man with the Getaway Face) (Coronet, 1971) and Raymond Hawkey's Bullet Hole Cover Design

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

Plucked from atop the Parker Mega Score stack – i.e. that haul of British Coronet/Hodder Fawcett paperback editions of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novels I recently acquired – comes this:

The Steel Hit, Coronet's title for the second Parker outing, The Man with the Getaway Face (the publisher retitled a number of the Parkers, as we'll see in a later post). Published in paperback by Coronet in the UK in 1971 (originally published in the States in 1963), this was the first time the novel had been issued in Britain, four years after The Hunter – or rather Point Blank, it being a movie tie-in – had made its British debut. In the interim Coronet had published a further five Parkers, but these dated from later in the series (Coronet was loosely following the pub programme of its American sister company, Fawcett/Gold Medal). It wasn't until 1971 that the publisher began filling in the gaps, over the next year or two issuing the Parkers from The Man with the Getaway Face to The Handle (Parker #8). And when they did, it was under highly unusual covers...

Up to this point, the covers of the Coronet paperbacks had sported either film stills (Point Blank, 1967; The Split, 1969), illustrations (The Rare Coin Score, 1968; The Green Eagle Score, 1968; The Black Ice Score, 1969; The Sour Lemon Score, 1969) or posed photos (the 1970 reprints of Point Blank and The Rare Coin Score). But in '71 the publisher introduced a new cover concept: the "bullet hole" design. Created by Raymond Hawkey – the man behind the iconic dust jackets for Len Deighton's novels – the bullet hole covers were in effect a double cover: a metallic-finish card outer cover featuring, on the front, the author's name, the legend "a novel of violence" and a rough-edged "burnt" die-cut hole, through which the novel's title could be seen. Open it up:

and the thinner inner cover is revealed, bearing the text "Parker is in" and then the title. It was an innovative approach to paperback cover design, but actually typical of Hawkey, who already had form both with bullet hole-style designs and die-cuts on paperback covers – witness his cover treatments for the 1963 Pan edition of Ian Fleming's Thunderball and the 1967 Pan edition of Len Deighton's London Dossier.

But for Parker/Stark/Westlake fans, it's the back double-cover that might be of more interest. The outer cover carries the usual sort of stuff: description of the novel, ISBN, price, a blurb from the New York Times about Stark. Flip it open, however:

and there's a photo and short bio of Donald E. Westlake on the inner cover. Now, considering Richard Stark's true identity was still being kept a secret by his American publisher, Random House, even by the time Butcher's Moon was published in the States in 1974, it's notable that in the UK, by 1971 he'd already been "outed" as Westlake by Coronet. Although I don't believe they got there first; legend has it that it was the critic Anthony Boucher who unmasked Westlake as Stark in his New York Times "Criminals at Large" column – which presumably is how Coronet got the idea it was OK to do the same on their (inner) back covers: that New York Times quote on the back of The Steel Hit is taken from a Boucher review.

Copies of The Steel Hit are currently very thin on the ground; there are a couple on AbeBooks going for around £20 a piece, but that's about it – this despite it being reprinted in 1972 (with minor amends to the cover – see above). Indeed, the Coronet Parkers have become quite collectable in some circles – something I'll be exploring in the next Parker Score post.