Friday 25 October 2013

A Magnum for Schneider, alias A Red File for Callan, by James Mitchell (Herbert Jenkins, 1969 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2013); Book Review

NB: Proffered as part of this Friday's Forgotten Books.

I've a few posts planned on the various spy novels penned by author and television writer James Mitchell, beginning with this:

The 1969 Herbert Jenkins British first edition of A Magnum for Schneider (with a dust jacket designed by Ian Kestle), perhaps better known under its American title of A Red File for Callan – a title subsequently adopted – minus the "A" – for the British Corgi paperback edition. Callan, for those who don't know, was an ITV drama series which ran in the UK from 1967 to 1972 – with a big screen spin-off in 1974 and a one-off TV revival in 1981 – created by James Mitchell and starring Edward Woodward as David Callan, a reluctant assassin working for a section of British intelligence known as, er, "the section". I was a bit too young to have watched Callan at the time, but I was dimly aware of it being on telly when I was a kid (I guess either in repeat or via the 1981 TV movie), and so have that vague childish sense of it being something that was serious and adult and consequently, to my young mind, really boring.

These days, of course, a gloomy, murky espionage series starring a recalcitrant killer sounds right up my strasse, and I fully intend to investigate it on DVD at some point; but for right now, my exposure to Callan consists of A Magnum for Schneider, a terrific novel which Mitchell adapted from his own eponymous teleplay for Armchair Theatre (broadcast in early 1967 and effectively the pilot for the Callan TV series). As is explained early on in the story, Callan worked for the section for seven years before his conscience got in the way of his job and he was let go by Hunter, the head of the department. Since then Callan has been working as a bookkeeper for Waterman, a wholesale grocer, but Hunter has called Callan back in again with a chance of redemption: a red file – the section's colour code for the most dangerous subjects, those most likely to be offed – a man named Schneider, whom Hunter wants executed within the week. And it so happens Schneider's office is across the hall from Callan's.

Not having seen the television version of A Magnum for Schneider I couldn't comment on how close the novel is to the Armchair Theatre production – although this telesnap synopsis suggests fairly close – but I'm given to understand that Mitchell considerably expanded on his teleplay, especially as regards Callan's background. We learn that Callan had been a commando in the jungles of Malaya, where he'd once single-handedly rescued a captain from the clutches of the enemy, killing all six opponents; that he'd twice lost his stripes for drunken brawling; and that, upon being demobbed, out of sheer boredom he'd robbed a supermarket and was subsequently sent down for two years.

It was in Wormwood Scrubs that he met Lonely, an odoriferous lowlife who fell under Callan's protection in prison, and who Callan now seeks out in order to purchase a gun. And it's here, in Callan's edgy exchanges with Lonely (who calls him "Mr. Callan", even though Lonely despises Callan), or his combative conversations with Hunter and Meres, a fellow assassin from the section, or his battles of wits with his irascible boss Waterman, or indeed his friendlier ones with Schneider (who he finds he quite likes) rather than in the scant sequences of action, where much of the appeal of the thing lies. For me, these passages are the most compelling parts of the book, and it's perhaps no accident that in their parry and thrust these encounters reflect Callan's only real passion: wargaming, i.e. the reenactment of historical battles with toy soldiers, a passion shared, oddly enough, by Schneider. (I wonder too if it was shared by James Mitchell. He wouldn't have been alone among thriller writers if so: Gavin Lyall was a committed wargamer, and even wrote a book about it.) (UPDATE, 28/11/13: Spy novelist and espionage aficionado Jeremy Duns just pointed out to me on Twitter that another thriller writer was an active wargamer too: Desmond Bagley.)

But another attraction of the novel – at least it will be for those of us who respond to this kind of stuff – is the milieu. This is a very grimy, grubby, street-level sort of espionage, residing in warehouses and cramped offices and pubs and fuelled by pork pies and pints of bitter. Callan is chippy, working class and unremarkable-looking, more in line with Len Deighton's nameless secret agent (or Harry Palmer, if you're cinematically minded) than Ian Fleming's far-from-anonymous James Bond, while the section is a pretty rum outfit, not averse to resorting to kidnapping and torture (one poor sod, having run afoul of Callan, is effectively stripped of most of his memories – as well as his ability to speak English – by sadistic section doctor Garstang; we never learn his ultimate fate) alongside its main purpose of, as Hunter says, "Getting rid of people," whether that be "Bribery, blackmail, frame-ups" or, as Callan adds bluntly, "death". That last eventuality being, despite Callan's conscience, his particular area of expertise, as he lethally demonstrates on more than one occasion.

The Herbert Jenkins edition of A Magnum for Schneider is quite hard to come by these days, and the novel itself had, until very recently, been out of print for decades. Happily this splendidly dour spy thriller is now readily available again – both as a paperback and an eBook – courtesy of Mike Ripley's excellent Top Notch Thrillers imprint – as is its 1973 sequel, Russian Roulette. Because you see Mitchell published a series of Callan novels – a series that stretched into the early 2000s. And what's more, it wasn't his first spy series either, as I'll be exploring in subsequent posts.

Thursday 24 October 2013

1970s Elmore Leonard Crime Fiction British Hardback First Editions Book Cover Gallery (Secker & Warburg, 1974–1979)

There's a school of thought that reckons the late Elmore Leonard did his best work in the 1970s (a school that Leonard himself was possibly enrolled at: according to this interview the novels he was most fond of were Swag and The Switch, and he felt his best western was Valdez is Coming). I'm not sure I'd necessarily agree with that – Leonard published fine novels in the 1980s (Stick, LaBrava), the 1990s (Get Shorty, Pronto) and beyond – but you could make a case that for sheer variety, the '70s were hard to beat. There were three westerns (Valdez is Coming, 1970; Forty Lashes Less One, 1972; Gunsights, 1979), a near-novelisation (Mr. Majestyk, 1974), a buddy crime caper (Swag, 1976), and in the four novels published in hardback by Secker & Warburg in the UK alone, two kidnapping tales (one, The Switch, more comedic than the other, Fifty-Two Pickup), a novel at least partly about alcoholism (Unknown Man No. 89), and a cross-country manhunt thriller set in Israel (The Hunted).

And since I now own all four of those hard-to-find-at-an-affordable-price Secker & Warburg editions, and two of them boast distinctive, evocative dust jacket cover photos by Graham Miller, whose work also appears on on the jacket of the 1974 Heinemann edition of one of my favourite novels of all time, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, and a third boasts a similarly evocative cover photo, this time by Bill Richmond, one of whose photos also appears on the jacket of a Heinemann edition of a Patricia Highsmith novel – The Boy Who Followed Ripley, 1980 – and furthermore two of them feature the same Oxford Mail review excerpt on their back covers, penned by abiding Existential Ennui preoccupation Anthony Price...

OK, these reasons are getting a bit tenuous now – and in truth what reason need I, other than I fancied assembling an Existential Ennui '70s Elmore Leonard British hardback first edition cover gallery. And so here one is.

Fifty-Two Pickup, Secker & Warburg, 1974; cover photograph by Graham Miller

Unknown Man No. 89, Secker & Warburg, 1977; dust jacket design uncredited

The Hunted, Secker & Warburg, 1978; photography by Graham Miller

The Switch, Secker & Warburg, 1979; photography by Bill Richmond

Wednesday 23 October 2013

The Hunted by Elmore Leonard: First Hardback Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1978)

From 1974 to 1979, British publisher Secker & Warburg issued four Elmore Leonard novels in hardback in the UK: Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), The Hunted (1978) and The Switch (1979). Those last two are especially notable as they represent the first hardback editions of those two novels, both having been published as paperback originals in the States (by, respectively, Dell in 1977 and Bantam in 1978). But while the Secker edition of The Switch doesn't appear to be in any shorter supply these days than Fifty-Two Pickup or Unknown Man No. 89 – in each case there are around a dozen copies for sale online at present, in other words not exactly plentiful, but at least attainable (although the cheapest copies of each are about forty quid) – the Secker edition of The Hunted is so scarce you'd be hard-pressed to find a single copy for sale online – and this despite it apparently being reprinted in the year of publication.

I like The Hunted a lot. A punchy, lean little thriller about a manhunt across the tiny nation of Israel, I only read it for the first time earlier this year, in the omnibus Dutch Treat, but it impressed me so much that I had to get a copy of the novel on its own. This I did, picking up a 1980 Hamlyn first British paperback edition, figuring that would be the best I could do until a Secker hardback (or, failing that, an affordable Dell paperback) presented itself. (There was a solitary copy of the Secker edition on Amazon Marketplace UK – it's still there at time of writing – but it was a second impression, lacking its front endpaper and thus probably ex-library, and listed at £32, so that was obviously a no-no... although I must admit I did still consider it.)

Given its scarcity, I didn't expect to get my hands on a Secker first of The Hunted anytime soon. But as it turned out, a month or so after I bought that Hamlyn paperback, I did:

A genuine, rarely seen, 1978 Secker & Warburg first edition/first impression, complete, not ex-library, and in pretty good nick. It popped up on eBay one day, quite out of the blue – which I guess is how most things pop up on eBay, but you take my point – and I only went and won the bugger (for what I thought was a fair price, albeit still a not inconsiderable sum of money).

The question remains, however – at least, it does for this chronic book collector, and presumably so too for any similarly afflicted poor sod deranged enough to have read this far – why, out of all the Secker Leonards, is this one so flipping scarce? The eBay seller I got this copy from reckoned it was because "most of the very small print run went to [public lending] libraries", which seems plausible to me; indeed, if that second impression on Amazon Marketplace mentioned above is indeed ex-library, it appears Secker so underestimated their initial – likely meagre – print run that an unknown quantity of the – likely even more meagre – second printing went to lending libraries as well.

Two things I noted when this copy arrived chez Louis XIV: first, regarding the top press blurb on the back of the dust jacket, when he wasn't reviewing crime fiction for The Oxford Mail – and editing sister paper The Oxford TimesAnthony Price was of course writing a series of splendid spy thrillers, as detailed in my two-part interview with Mr. Price in 2011 (incidentally, that blurb is also on the back of Secker's edition of Unknown Man No. 89); and second, as I suspected when I saw The Hunted's dust jacket in the eBay listing – the first time I'd seen the wrapper, there being, hitherto, no images of it online – the photo on the front is by Graham Miller, whose distinctive work can be found not only on the wrapper of the Secker edition of Fifty-Two Pickup, but on the jacket of the 1974 Heinemann edition of one of my favourite novels of all time, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game.

So, with The Hunted I now own all four Elmore Leonard Secker & Warburg editions. Which, as regular readers of Existential Ennui (if such fabled creatures exist) will attest, can mean only one thing: cover gallery...

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Patricia Highsmith's Those Who Walk Away and The Blunderer (Heinemann, 1967 / 1971 Uniform Edition)

In a further demonstration of what a shoddy piece of workmanship Existential Ennui is, I'm once again delaying an Elmore Leonard blog post because, as with the Lewes Book Fair the other weekend, I completely forgot I was going to a book fair this past weekend – well, actually a comic mart with a pulp and vintage paperback bit tacked on: Comic Empire, which took place at the Royal National Hotel in London's Russell Square on Sunday 20 October, and which I attended because this year's Paperback and Pulp Bookfair had been cancelled. That my decision to attend Comic Empire led in a roundabout fashion to my winding up in the doghouse at home (don't ask) is on first inspection deeply ironic, in that it turned out the event was, as its title suggests, very much weighted towards comics – there were, at a guess, getting on for fifty comics dealers in attendance – and very much less so towards pulps and paperbacks: there were, I think, just two paperback dealers there; but in the end my doghouse status was at least partly assuaged when having given up on Comic Empire (while I still buy new comics, nowadays I don't have many back issues on my wants list) I chose to pop round the corner to Skoob Books, whereupon and wherein I scored a pair of Patricia Highsmith novels. All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that I have two new additions to my recently established Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery – or rather, a new addition and a swapsy, because this book:

the 1967 Heinemann first edition of Those Who Walk Away, or rather, another copy of it, was already in the gallery. The dust jacket of that other copy wasn't in the greatest of shapes, however, and I've been toying with finding a replacement almost since the day I bought the book back in 2010. So I was delighted when I spied this copy, lying flat – secreted, almost – atop some paperbacks in Skoob's crime fiction section. The case and block are in near fine condition and, more importantly in this context, the Bruce Pinkard-designed dust jacket is at least, I'd say, very good. A snip at nine quid, then.

I paid a little less for the other Highsmith book I bought in Skoob, although it's debatable whether that was still too much; depends on your point of view, I guess. It's certainly very scarce, but it's also a reprint – a reprint of a reprint, in fact – and furthermore this particular copy is missing its front endpaper, which suggests it's probably ex-library. On balance, however, and ultimately – I must admit I did um and ah a bit, popping outside the shop to check on my phone for other copies online (Skoob is in a basement, so there's no signal inside) before eventually laying down the cash – its scarcity, in conjunction with another intriguing aspect, made it irresistible to me. So what is it?

The 1971 Heinemann reprint of the 1966 Heinemann edition of the 1956 Cresset Press edition of The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith's second novel (or third if you count the pseudonymous The Price of Salt). Published in Heinemann's "uniform edition", I've showcased a similar book previously:

The 1973 Heinemann reprint of the 1966 Heinemann edition of the 1957 Cresset Press edition of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's third novel (or fourth etc., etc.). Heinemann republished a number of Highsmith's novels in uniform editions in the early 1970s, not just those originally published by Cresset Press (they also reissued Highsmith's debut, Strangers on a Train) but those originally issued by Heinemann themselves in the late 1950s (Deep Water, A Game for the Living) and throughout the 1960s (This Sweet Sickness, The Cry of the Owl, etc.). All sport similar (uncredited) dust jacket designs – lower case author name (in colour) and title with an image of a metal puzzle, all on a white background – and all are, to varying degrees, hard to come by these days.

Even harder to come by, however, are the 1966 Heinemann printings of Strangers, Blunderer and Talented. I've never seen copies of any of them, so I've no idea whether they sport the same dust jacket design as the early '70s uniform reprints or something else entirely; if anyone reading this has any of those '66 edition, I'd love to take a look at them. But what I do know is that at least in the case of The Blunderer, there were a number of errors in the '66 edition, as evidenced by the reprint line on the copyright page of the '71 reissue:

Wonder what those "corrections" were...? Anyway, I've added The Blunderer to the Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery – under "Patriciaphernalia" down the bottom – and swapped the old copy of Those Who Walk Away for the new one, so I invite you once more to take a stroll along the gallery and gaze upon the Highsmith editions therein.

Next: Elmore Leonard. (Honest, guv.)

Monday 21 October 2013

And the Winners Are...

...drum roll please... oh, wait, hang on, I haven't said what these winners are winning yet, or how they've won it. They have, of course, won this:

The Art of Movie Storyboards, a splendid new illustrated book written and researched by Fionnuala Halligan and published by The Ilex Press – where, lest we forget, I work – and Chronicle Books. I had three copies to give away to anyone who could answer the question which 1939 novel was Fritz Lang's Man Hunt – one of the films whose storyboards are featured in the book – based on – answer being Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, or as a number of American entrants pointed out, Man Hunt, that being the US title of the book, a fact I had forgotten when I concocted the question, and which rather made a mockery of the whole enterprise. BUT NEVER MIND. The point is that there was a competition to win one of three copies of The Art of Movie Storyboards, and three of you have done just that. And those winners are... reprise drum roll please...

Matthew Keeley, Kelly Robinson and Mark Brockbank!

Congratulations to all three of you. Your copies of The Art of Movie Storyboards will be winging their way towards you at the earliest opportunity, i.e. when it stops raining and I can pop over the road to the other office and grab some copies. (Although Matthew, you'll need to email me your address in order for me to send you your book.) Commiserations to those who didn't win, but you could always, if you so desired, buy the book – it's readily available from the likes of Amazon UK and US – and thus contribute, in a roundabout fashion, in as much as an undisclosed proportion of my Ilex wages go towards the many secondhand books you see littering this blog, to the upkeep of Existential Ennui. Ithangyew.