Friday 1 November 2013

Introducing British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s: a New Permanent Page

Here's a potentially entertaining diversion for you on a Friday: over 90 British – and British edition – thriller book covers from the '70s and '80s, all lovingly arranged in a brand new Existential Ennui gallery:

British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

You can read all about the gallery and what my aim was in putting it together by following that link, but as well as introducing the permanent page, I just wanted to make a few additional comments and fill in some of the background here on the main blog. As with the recently established Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery, this one took me by surprise somewhat. The idea only really came to me last week, when I was posting those Elmore Leonard '70s dust jackets. Those, and Graham Miller's wrapper for the 1974 Heinemann edition of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game – Miller also having provided the cover photos for two of those Leonard books – plus a subsequent exchange with Andrew Nette of the excellent Pulp Curry on Twitter, got me thinking: perhaps there might be some mileage, a la my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, in a gallery devoted to 1970s thriller book covers, especially British ones.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like it could work. I certainly had enough of those kinds of books to assemble such a thing, a lot of them already photographed, the images appearing elsewhere on Existential Ennui. But limiting it to just the '70s didn't feel quite right. After all, the bold, brutalist, largely – but not exclusively – photographic style of 1970s British thriller book cover design was still prevalent in the 1980s – and there was the added impetus that presenting two decades rather than one would mirror the original Existential Ennui gallery, the aforementioned Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s.

Once I'd settled on showcasing the '80s as well as the '70s, and elected to limit the selection to the covers of thrillers, suspense novels, crime and spy fiction published in the UK – which is what my book collection essentially consists of – it all fell into place remarkably swiftly and easily. And so now British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s is, for better or worse, a reality. At last, here is a permanent home –accessible via the link at the top of Existential Ennui's sidebar (although it may at some point move under the masthead) – for all those brilliantly blunt, sometimes bloody awful Beverley le Barrow covers I've been banging on about for ages; for those stray '70s and '80s thrillers I've collected over the last few years and have never quite known what to do with; as well as for covers for novels from the '70s and '80s by some of my favourite authors: Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Thomas, Donald E. Westlake, Gavin Lyall, Anthony Price, Geoffrey Household and others.

Alongside those authors you'll find a couple of dozen more besides, over forty in total, represented by over 90 dust jackets and paperback covers (yes, paperback covers: there's no format snobbery in this gallery). Many have appeared elsewhere on Existential Ennui. Some, like Robert Ludlum's Bourne books, I've rephotographed especially for the page. Others are making their Existential Ennui debut, such as some of those illustrating this post: Jon Knights' classic Ipcress File-style arrangement for the 1980 Granada first edition of Ted Allbeury's The Twentieth Day of January; Jeremy Ford's stark illustration for the 1979 Hutchinson edition of Robert Littell's The Debriefing and Barry Glyn's realist one for the 1975 Collins first of Berkely Mather's With Extreme Prejudice (purchased just the other day for a pound in a Lewes charity shop); and of course the wrapper for the 1979 Cape edition of Raymond Hawkey's Side-Effect, designed by the man who bears more responsibility for the look of British thriller covers in the '70s and '80s than any other: Raymond Hawkey.

And I'm not done yet. Over the coming weeks I'll be adding loads more covers to the page, starting next week with a bunch of covers wrapping books by perhaps Existential Ennui's most enduring abiding concern.

British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Man Who Sold Death: James Munro, alias James Mitchell, and the '60s John Craig Spy Novels Series

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

By the time he came to create the TV espionage series Callan in 1967 and write the subsequent series of spin-off novels – beginning with 1969's A Magnum for Schneider – James Mitchell already had plenty of form with spy fiction. Three years before Callan made his television debut, Mitchell, writing under the alias James Munro (not his first nom de plume; he began his career as a novelist in 1955 as Patrick O McGuire), published the first of what would become a four-book series of spy novels:

The Man Who Sold Death, published by Hammond in October 1964 (dust jacket design uncredited). It was an instant hit, tearing through at least three printings in the month of publication alone and garnering rave reviews from Violet Gray of The Daily Telegraph, Frances Iles of The Guardian, Peter Phillips of The Sun, Julian Symons of The Sunday Times, John Weir of The Sunday Express and Anthony Boucher of The New York Times.

The novel's lead is John Craig, a Tyneside shipping manager whose lucrative sideline as a gunrunner comes to a violent end when agents of the French Society for the Solution of the Algerian Problem, enraged by Craig's role in supplying the Algerian Arab rebels with firearms, explode a bomb under his car. On the run and with his wife in a coma and his associates being picked off one by one, Craig is approached by Loomis, head of Department K of MI6, with a proposal: with the assistance of an agent Grierson, go to Nice and assassinate the head of the Society, Colonel Pierre-Auguste Lucien de St. Briac.

Fifty years on from publication the qualities which so enraptured the critics are still evident. The pace is brisk; the background of Algerian unrest, which at the time would have been zeitgeisty, helps to ground the more outlandish aspects of the story; there's international intrigue and even that staple of the spy novel (since Casino Royale anyway), the torture scene; and Craig is an appealing lead – a working class rough diamond made good (Mitchell/Munro had a thing for working class heroes; see also David Callan and, from the Mitchell written-and-created When the Boat Comes In, Jack Ford) whose rugged looks and expertise in gunplay and hand-to-hand combat make him, inevitably, irresistible to the opposite sex.

That the novel strives hard to tick all the espionage boxes, and that these elements don't quite hang together (the narrative links are uncoupled in a bizarre midpoint interlude where, with Department K's help, Craig tracks down a man he met in the war in order to find out if he's a failure... er, or something) – and that Craig isn't as interesting a creation as David Callan (see the aforementioned bizarre interlude, an abortive attempt to add depth to the character) – is why, for me, The Man Who Sold Death isn't as successful a spy novel as A Magnum for Schneider. Like most spy novels of the period it owes a debt to Ian Fleming's Bond novels, but though it's well-written, it rarely rises above its influences. Desmond Cory, whose Johnny Fedora debuted two years before 007, was doing something similar around this period, but to my mind much better; see my review of the 1962 Fedora adventure par excellence, Undertow.

All of which mean that, unlike the Callan novels, where I fully intend to explore the entire five-book series, I'm not sure I'll venture much beyond The Man Who Sold Death, despite the similarly excellent titles of its sequels – Die Rich Die Happy (1965), The Money That Money Can't Buy (1967) and The Innocent Bystanders (1969). Of course, that hasn't stopped me picking up a few John Craig first editions. The copy of The Man Who Sold Death seen above is a first impression (you can also see, alongside the back cover, the back of a third impression too, which carries reviews of the novel), but first printings are so scarce the only affordable copy I could find once resided in the officers mess of the Royal Air Force base at Hack Green:

a base which in 1976, appropriately enough given our Cold War context, was turned into a secret nuclear bunker. First editions of the later novels are slightly easier to come by, but even with these you can come a cropper and wind up with a second impression, as I did with this:

Die Rich Die Happy, the second Craig outing, published by Hammond in 1965, cover design by Roger Harris. I bought it dead cheap on eBay, deciding to take a chance on it being a first impression, which, as it turned out, and as evidenced by the "2nd Impression" on the dust jacket front flap:

it isn't. The copy of the other Craig novel I own in first is a first impression, though:

The Innocent Bystanders, the fourth book in the series, published by Herbert Jenkins in 1969. Though this would be the final John Craig novel, Craig was destined to live on – for a little while longer – in a different medium when The Innocent Bystanders was adapted for the big screen in 1972, written by Mitchell (using his own name rather than that of Munro), directed by Peter Collinson and starring Stanley Baker as John Craig. Sadly, the film wasn't terribly well received upon release and isn't held in terribly high regard now; an ignominious end for Mr. Craig, at least until, a la Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint with the Callan novels, some enterprising soul elects to bring the series back into print.

I'll be blogging about another TV spy writer with a sideline in novels before too long, but ahead of that, I have another Existential Ennui permanent page to unveil, one which incorporates some of the covers to James Mitchell's books...

Monday 28 October 2013

The Callan Spy Thriller Series of Novels by Writer and Creator James Mitchell (Jenkins / Hamilton / Severn House, 1969–2002)

Last week saw the return to print after nearly forty years of the first two instalments in author and television writer James Mitchell's five-book spin-off series of novels from his Edward Woodward-starring TV series Callan, courtesy of Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint (not to mention their eBook debuts too). I reviewed the first of those, 1969's A Magnum for Schneider, alias A Red File for Callan (its US title), alias Callan (it was reissued by Corgi in 1974 to tie in with the Callan movie), originally published in the UK by Herbert Jenkins, on Friday; now I thought we could take a look at some of the other Callan first editions I've acquired, beginning with the second Callan novel:

Russian Roulette, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton in 1973, with a dust jacket photograph credited to Beverly Lebarrow, alias Beverley le Barrow, alias former glamour photographer Beverley Goodway – at least, I believe "Beverley le Barrow" to be an alias of Beverley Goodway; an anonymous commenter on my post about the James Bond Panther paperbacks begs to differ, despite the information presented in that post. Anyway, Russian Roulette was the other Callan novel reissued by Top Notch Thrillers last week, and sees recalcitrant assassin David Callan offered up to the Russians by his former employers at British Intelligence outfit the Section as a trade for a captured agent.

By the time Russian Roulette was originally published the Callan TV series had effectively ended (as mentioned above, it was revived for the big screen in 1974 – that film telling the same story as the 1967 Callan TV pilot and A Magnum for Schneider – and was further revived in 1981 as a TV movie). But James Mitchell had been a novelist longer than he'd been a television writer – his first novel, A Time for Murder, written under the pen name Patrick O McGuire, was published in 1955 by Hammond, whereas his debut television drama, the Armchair Theatre production Flight from Treason, adapted by Mitchell from his own novel (A Way Back, Peter Davies, 1959), was broadcast in 1960 – and so it was natural for him to extend Callan's life in the novel format. Which he did again in 1974:

with Death and Bright Water, again published by Hamilton (dust jacket design uncredited, although the photo on the front is a publicity shot from the Callan movie), sending Callan "and the faithful, odoriferous Lonely", as the jacket flap copy puts it, to Crete. While British first editions of Russian Roulette are relatively easy to come by these days, British firsts of Death and Bright Water aren't quite so common, at least not in the UK; I can see just one (non ex-library) copy for sale online at present, although there are others available from Australian and American sellers. Oddly enough I've ended up with two copies of the Hamilton first – one bought in the late lamented Dim and Distant in Heathfield (now Tome in Eastbourne), one bought... for the life of me I can't remember where – so if anyone reading this is looking for one, drop me a line.

I have just the one copy of the Hamilton first of the next Callan novel, however, as it's in even shorter supply:

Smear Job, published by Hamilton in 1975, dust jacket design by Ken Reilly (incorporating the same promotional image from the Callan movie as Death and Bright Water). This one sees Callan and Lonely pursuing, according to the jacket flap copy, "quieter, if less lucrative careers in the world of personal security", an enterprise which takes them to Sicily, Las Vegas and Mexico.

Smear Job was published on the eve of arguably Mitchell's greatest success, the TV drama When the Boat Comes In (starring fellow north easterner James Bolam), which was broadcast on BBC1 to huge audiences from January 1976 to April 1981. This and various other TV endeavours – Goodbye Darling (1981), Spyship (1983) – and around a dozen standalone novels kept him preoccupied for the next twenty-five years or so, but he made a belated return to Callan just before his death in 2002 with a fifth novel, Bonfire Night, published by Severn House. I haven't yet secured a copy of that one – I'll doubtless post it when I do – but I have secured a number of the spy novels Mitchell published in the 1960s, pre-Callan, written under the nom de plume James Munro and starring gunrunner-turned-secret agent John Craig...