Tuesday, 29 April 2014

P. M. Hubbard's Debut Novel, Flush as May: True First Edition (Michael Joseph, 1963)

Longtime readers of Existential Ennui – of which I have little doubt there are an ever-dwindling number – may experience a distinct sense of déjà vu upon reading the title of this post. After all, it was only a year ago that I blogged about this very book:

The 1963 Michael Joseph first edition of suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard's debut, Flush as May, dust jacket design by Kenneth Farnhill. Except the book I'm showcasing here, as part of a short run of posts on Hubbard, isn't the same one; it's a different copy, for sure, but more importantly from a book collecting perspective – which is why we – which is to say me – are gathered here today – it's a different printing. The copy of the Joseph edition of Flush of May I showcased and reviewed in, appropriately enough, May of 2013 – having won it on eBay after a fierce tussle with fellow Hubbard enthusiast John from Pretty Sinister Books – was the second impression, printed in April 1963, three months on from the first impression:

And it was ex-library to boot – note the hole punch stamp identifying the Cambridge Union Society library on the left hand side of the indicia page. Even so, I was jolly pleased to get my hands on it because it was, and remains, a very scarce edition: at present I can see just one copy listed for sale online, and I'm pretty sure that's a 'phantom' listing, i.e. a book listed by an Amazon Marketplace seller, or more accurately drop-shipper – in this case the ubiquitous southend-books-and-dvds – which runs software that identifies empty or nearly-empty Amazon catalogue pages and lists those books with the intention of purchasing another seller's copy to supply to any potential customer. Which is all well and good, except that when there's no other seller with a copy of the book, as seems to be the case with the Joseph edition of Flush of May, one wonders how that drop-shipper hopes to fulfil that order.

Anyway, I've drifted off the point, which is that having won that second impression on eBay a year ago, six months later another copy of the first edition popped up online, this time on AbeBooks; and after making some enquiries I established that it was a first impression and promptly snapped it up (it does have an inch-long tear in its dust jacket, but as it's in otherwise lovely condition, I can live with that). As is frequently the case with impressions of editions, the differences between the two printings are relatively minor. As one would expect, the indicia page of the first printing makes no mention of impression:

Nor indeed month of publication, while on the dust jacket front flap, there's a precis of the plot as opposed to the second impression's review snippets:

Still, even though to the untrained eye the two impressions are virtually identical, it's nice to own a true first edition of the debut novel by Hubbard, a writer I'm becoming increasingly enamoured of the further into his backlist I venture. Take, for instance, the next Hubbard book I'll be blogging about...

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Whisper in the Glen by P. M. Hubbard: Signed US First Edition (Atheneum, 1972), Book Review

NB: Proffered as part of Friday's Forgotten Books, 25/4/14.

The desire to own that which is rare is in my experience part and parcel of the rapacious disease that is collecting – books, comics, records, salt and pepper shakers – whatever. British suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard dealt with this urge, notably its uglier aspects, in convincing – if murderous – fashion in his 1965 novel A Hive of Glass, so it's apt that the author's own backlist should itself have come to exemplify scarcity, at least in one regard: signed books. In my ceaseless prowling of the web and whichever secondhand bookshops and charity shops and the like that I've visited since Hubbard's work was brought to my attention three years ago, I've only ever come across two signed copies of any of the eighteen novels he published. One of those, a 1974 US Atheneum edition of A Thirsty Evil, inscribed to fellow author Alan Kennington (and accompanied by a handwritten letter), I acquired and blogged about in late 2011. The other is this:

The Atheneum edition of The Whisper in the Glen, Hubbard's twelfth novel (including his two novels for younger readers), published in hardback in America in 1972 (the same year as the British Macmillan edition) under a restrained yet evocative dust jacket designed by James and Ruth McCrea. I convinced my sister to buy this copy for me as a birthday present (as she did a couple of years ago with a signed Boardman edition of Donald E. Westlake's The Mercenaries) having spotted it online a good six months ago. It's signed on the front free endpaper and inscribed:

to a Walter King-Welston (I think – it might be King-Welsh), who, given that the book came from The Bookshop in Wigtownshire, was probably a resident of that south-west Scottish county – as was Hubbard himself from 1973 (when he moved there from Dorset) until his death in 1980 (see Tom Jenkins's Mystery*File article on the author). I've not been able to find out anything about King-Welston (or King-Welsh), but the inscription is dated 1975, which means Hubbard would have been living in Wigtownshire for two years by that point, so it would be reasonable to assume he and King-Welston were acquaintances – and furthermore, since the inscription is in an American edition rather than a British one, that the book was one of Hubbard's own copies which he gave to King-Welston (as he did with A Thirsty Evil to Alan Kennington, and indeed as spy novelist Anthony Price did with a US edition of Our Man in Camelot to me).

If that is the case, a book set in Scotland – albeit the north rather than the south-west – would be a fine thing for an author to inscribe to a fellow resident of Scotland, especially a book as beguiling as The Whisper in the Glen. That said, it's a curious work in Hubbard's canon – not so much a novel of suspense as the dust jacket has it – and as the majority of Hubbard's novels arguably are; more a kind of gothic romance, although still characterised by the author's abiding preoccupation with the rural and the wild, in this case the by turns breathtaking and forbidding Highlands. It's here, to a house in the grounds of a private boarding school, that the novel's protagonist, Kate Wychett, is transported by her teacher husband, Richard; and it's here that Kate finds herself entwined in the local bush telegraph – the "whisper in the glen" of the title – and entranced by the laird of the manor, James Macalister.

Hubbard's sense of place, of a very particular locale, is as strong here as in any others of his works that I've read; as Kate, at something of a loose end while her husband teaches, stalks across the glens on her long walks – sometimes with James waiting at her destination – Hubbard summons a shifting landscape where mists descend unexpectedly and burns – watercourses – afford the only means of navigation:

Mostly she kept her eyes down on the rough going, but every now and then she looked up ahead of her, hoping to see the rock. She had still not seen it when she saw whisps of mist on the path ahead and the outline of the hilltops already blurred. It was very dark, as dark as it could be at that time of day. She was a little desperate now, and almost running, so that when it happened she could hardly stop herself. The light changed suddenly from a leaden dusk to a luminous phosphorescent grey, but now there was nothing to see. The world contracted in an instant to a few yards of broken ground under her feet. Beyond that and everywhere above it there was nothing but the seething mist. The voice of the burn went on. It seemed louder than ever, but she could not see where it came from. It was not only the shadow of the cloud-bank that had caught up with her now. It was the cloud itself.

All this seems somehow haunted by the death of Kate and Richard's only child, Julia, some years past, a shattering event mentioned matter-of-factly at the beginning and the end of the novel, perhaps symbolized by the totemic black rock (shades there of the sinister submerged rock in A Thirsty Evil) set into the hillside where Kate encounters James, which in turn is central to the burning passion which threatens to engulf the two of them; it's no accident that the sole act of violence in the novel occurs in the shadow of that rock.

The Whisper in the Glen is a quietly remarkable novel, as good in its own way as A Thirsty Evil or A Hive of Glass. The more I read of Hubbard the more astonished I am that he isn't better known; he has something of Geoffrey Household about him in the way he steadily builds suspense in his novels and in his rustic fixation, but he's also (like Household) quite unique – an original. Accordingly, inveterate collector that I am, it's immensely satisfying to own two signed Hubbard books – the only two I'm aware of – even though I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of fellow Hubbard enthusiasts who might appreciate such a thing (hello, Book Glutton, John and Polecat).

Since I'm on the subject of P. M. Hubbard, I believe I'll take a break from the signed books I've been blogging about of late and turn instead to some of the other Hubbard books I've collected since I last wrote about him, starting with an incredibly scarce edition of his debut novel.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie Novel #3) by Kate Atkinson: Signed First Edition (Doubleday, 2008)

It was my birthday a few weeks ago. I make mention of this not because I expect anyone reading this to care, nor, in the unlikely event that anyone reading this should care, to elicit belated birthday wishes or, more appositely, expressions of sympathy at my obtruding state of decrepitude, but because by dint of managing to stay alive for another year I received two signed books – one a present from my sister (who has form in this regard), the other a present from, er, myself. And since I'm in the midst of a run of posts on signed books, what better time to unveil them, beginning with the book I bought for myself, which I spotted on eBay for under a fiver and figured that I deserved as a modest birthday treat:

A first edition/first impression of When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, published in hardback by Doubleday in 2008, dust jacket photograph by Tim Kahane. The third novel in Atkinson's four-book (thus far) series featuring dour middle-aged private investigator Jackson Brodie, I have actually blogged about this edition before: I bought a secondhand copy in Oxfam Books in Brighton in 2011 and shortly after posted this missive, in which I made some snide remarks about the dust jacket copywriter (and assembled a Jackson Brodie first edition cover gallery, but that's by the by). As it turned out, those remarks were not only snide but ill-informed and wide of the mark: having since read the novel I've discovered that it does indeed shed "new light on to the nature of fate, and on to the human condition itself", and it has since become my favourite of the Jackson Brodie series: a warm, wise, witty, deeply affecting novel about love, loss and, as Neil Hannon once put it, the certainty of chance.

I'm not sure why When Will There Be Good News? struck more of a nerve with me than the other Jackson Brodie novels – Case Histories (2004), One Good Turn (2006) and Started Early, Took My Dog (20010) – all of which I like a lot; certainly the tangled web of human interaction which drives the story, and which greatly appeals to me, is no more tangled – nor indeed web-like – here than in the other books. But the twists and turns do, I think, in this instance pack an additional punch, even for an emotional cripple like myself – no more so than at the midpoint, where Jackson makes a revelatory post-traumatic recovery, and in the penultimate chapter, where a cathartic reveal, also involving Jackson, neatly bookends the horrific prologue in the wheat field.

Anyway, whatever the reason, this signed first edition, bearing on the title page Atkinson's initials – as opposed to her full signature; see my first of her most recent novel, Life After Life – is a nice addition to my collection, and now nestles alongside my similarly signed first of the preceding Brodie novel, One Good Turn.

Signed editions of Kate Atkinson's various novels are in fairly plentiful supply – there are over 150 on AbeBooks alone, ten of which being the Doubleday first of When Will There Be Good News? – but signed books by the next author I'll be blogging about about are somewhat thinner on the ground. In fact there are just two signed copies that I know of among the eighteen novels in his backlist; and with my most recent birthday present from my sister, I now own both of them.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Assassination Run by Jack Gerson (BBC Books, 1980): Signed Association First Edition, Inscribed to Mary Tamm

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 18/4/14.

The next signed book I'm showcasing was given to me by my friend Adam, proprietor of Withnail Books in Penrith, to sweeten the deal on the signed 1970 Dell paperback of Elmore Leonard's The Moonshine War I blogged about earlier in the week:

The Assassination Run, by Jack Gerson, published in hardback by BBC Books in 1980, with a dust jacket – which I've naturally added to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s – which sports a photograph by Graham Ross. For those who don't know – and I numbered myself among them until I looked it up online – The Assassination Run was a three-part BBC TV spy thriller which aired in 1980, reportedly a kind of loose sequel to 1979 serial Running Blind (which was based on a Desmond Bagley novel). Starring Malcolm Stoddard as British agent Mark Fraser and the late Mary Tamm – perhaps best known for her role as Time Lord Romana, playing opposite Tom Baker in Doctor Who from 1978–1979 – as his kidnapped wife Jill, it was penned, like its predecessor (and like its 1981 three-part sequel, The Treachery Game), by Gerson, a television scriptwriter who, according to his Herald obituary, "cut his teeth writing episodes of Z Cars and went on to work on some of the most popular TV drama series of the time including Sutherland's Law and This Man Craig" – although IMDB suggests a rather different order of events.

His best-remembered telly work these days is probably The Omega Factor, which he created (and which guest-starred his daughter, Natasha, who would go on to feature as Brenda in Gregory's Girl). But Gerson also published around a dozen novels, many of them based on his various television endeavours – The Regiment (Pan, 1973), The Omega Factor (BBC Books, 1979), The Whitehall Sanction (WH Allen, 1983) and so forth – The Assassination Run being a case in point.

Gerson's inscription on the front free endpaper of this copy of The Assassination Run reads "To Mary who is Jill and Lauren who was there too!" You can see Adam's pencilled bookseller note above this, identifying the inscription as "by the author to his inspiration for one of the characters". But I did a spot of idle googling when the book arrived in the post, and having learned that the TV series of The Assassination Run starred Mary Tamm, I began to strongly suspect that the "Mary who is Jill" that the book was inscribed to wasn't merely the inspiration for one of the characters in the show, but actually played that character – i.e. that this was at one time Mary Tamm's copy of the book. Gerson included Tamm, under her first name, in the dedication opposite the prologue:

Alongside Stoddard and the cast and crew of the television series; but what sealed it for me was discovering that Tamm had a daughter, Lauren, who was born in November 1979 – which means if The Assassination Run was filmed the year before its 1980 broadcast, Tamm would have been pregnant during filming – hence the slightly oddly worded "Lauren who was there too!"

It's a fascinating provenance for the book, not just for anyone – like myself and, to an even greater extent, Adam – with an interest in Doctor Who, but anyone – me again (and probably Adam too) – with an interest in inscribed editions, especially association ones; witness, for example, these posts on books bearing inscriptions by Patricia Highsmith, Donald E. Westlake, P. M. Hubbard (with attendant letter), Andrew MacKenzie, Elmore Leonard, Colin Forbes, Gavin Lyall, Joe Gores and Anthony Price. That said, if a book counts as one of your favourites in a series, as the next book I'll be blogging about does, sometimes just a flat signature is enough – even if that signature consists of merely the author's initials.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard (Dell Paperback, 1970): Signed Edition, Book Review

The Moonshine War has for me, for a little while now, been an intriguing novel in Elmore Leonard's backlist. In a sense it's a bridge between two phases or eras of his career – between the westerns he wrote in the 1950s and the contemporaneously-set stories he wrote (with the odd western interspersed) from the late-1960s on, beginning with The Big Bounce. As such, it was a book I was keen to read, but it was also a problematic book for me, in that decent copies of both the American first edition, published by Doubleday in 1969, and the British first edition, published by Robert Hale in 1970, run into the hundreds of pounds, and are thus beyond my increasingly slender means. However, in a fortunate turn of events, my good friend Adam, proprietor of Withnail Books in Penrith, solved my problem when he recently got his hands on a stack of collectible Elmore Leonard books, among them this:

A first printing of the first American paperback edition of The Moonshine War, published by Dell in July 1970 (cover art uncredited). While not as scarce as the UK Hale edition, the Dell paperback is much more uncommon than the Doubleday first – half a dozen copies versus two dozen online; but more importantly, at least from my perspective, the Dell edition tends to be considerably cheaper than the Doubleday edition – even if your copy happens to bear Elmore Leonard's signature:

As mine does, making it very rare indeed: there are about fifteen or so signed copies of The Moonshine War for sale online across all editions, but only two of those are 1970 Dell paperbacks.

Anyway, having now read The Moonshine War, I wouldn't say it's a transitional book in terms of style or tone; with its (seemingly) naturalistic dialogue, lightly sketched but convincing characters and bare bones plot, it's very much an Elmore Leonard novel of the second phase of the writer's career, in the mould of, say, Mr. Majestyk (1974) or Valdez is Coming (1970): a story about a man – in this case deep south bootlegger Son Martin – who takes a stand partly because it's the right thing to do, partly on principle, but mostly just because. That streak of obstinacy is even wider in Son Martin than in Vincent Majestyk or Bob Valdez, however; Son manages to alienate – and even make enemies of some members of – an entire community, including his lover, hotel owner Kay Lyons, all to protect his late father's buried stash of booze from a horde of hoodlums, led initially by Son's former army buddy-turned prohibition enforcer Frank Long.

It's more in the setting that the novel can be seen as a bridge between eras: Kentucky, in the grip of the Great Depression, 1931 – not the wild west (not even geographically), but not quite the modern world either; a place and a time where a family's moonshine still was their only means of support – a situation genially tolerated by the local law, in the shape of septuagenarian sheriff Mr. Baylor. Mind you, if Justified, the TV spin-off from Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens novels, is anything to go by, not much has changed down south in the intervening years, except that drugs have replaced booze as the local currency. And The Moonshine War is a kind of precursor to "Fire in the Hole" and the Givens television mythology – and attendant novel – that that short story begat, from the playful, probing conversations between Son and Kay, anticipating those between Raylan and Winona, to a mention of Harlan County and even a character with the name of Boyd Caswell – markedly close to Boyd Crowder.

I noted above that copies of the 1970 Dell paperback of The Moonshine War are nowhere near as pricey as either the US or UK hardback first editions; that said, I should point out that I still paid a fair amount for my one: not only is it signed, which automatically increases the price, but it's also not a common edition to come across here in the UK. But to sweeten the deal, Adam kindly threw in another signed book – a 1980 first edition of an obscure television tie-in thriller bearing an inscription which, it transpired, boasted a unique association.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Swag by Elmore Leonard: British First Edition (Penguin Paperback, 1984)

I read, and wrote about, Elmore Leonard a lot last year, both prior to and following the author's death in August, my reading and blogging fuelled, as is frequently the case, by a book collecting spree. One strand of my collecting/reading/blogging was the novels Leonard published in the 1970s, especially those issued in the UK by Secker & Warburg. Secker published almost all of Leonard's 1970s contemporaneously-set novels – i.e., not westerns – in hardback in this country: Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), The Hunted (1978; originally 1977 in the US) and The Switch (1979; originally 1978 in the US); in the latter two's cases, it was the first time they'd appeared in hardback (both were issued as paperback originals in the States). But there was one novel missing from that short run: Swag. Published in the US in hardback by Delacorte in 1976, Swag (alias Ryan's Rules) was for some reason – possibly simply caution at overpublishing the still relatively unknown Leonard in the UK market – passed over by Secker, with the result that the first edition published in the UK was this:

The 1984 Penguin paperback, with a cover – which I've added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page – bearing a photograph by Peter Chadwick. I picked this first printing up in Oxfam Books in Brighton a couple of months back for the princely sum of:

ninety-nine pence. Which admittedly isn't much less than you'd probably have to pay, including postage, on, say, Amazon Marketplace; but then, who knows whether you'd be getting a first printing, or even the correct edition at all – a point made by fellow book blogger Ray Garraty in the comments of my post on Donald E. Westlake's Two Much on Wednesday.

Of course, why a body would want a first printing of the Penguin paperback of Swag, especially when said body already owns a 1987 Viking edition of the Elmore Leonard omnibus Dutch Treat, which includes Swag, and in which edition that body read the novel last year and subsequently reviewed it on his daft blog, is a question for minds far more acute than mine; but given that that body also owns two editions of Stick – a 1983 US Arbor House first edition and a 1984 UK Allen Lane signed first edition – which is one of the body's favourite Leonard novels, and which is ostensibly the sequel to Swag, featuring, as it does, Ernest Stickley, Jr., erstwhile partner in crime of Frank Ryan (no relation to Jack Ryan), his co-star in Swag, the acquisition of a Penguin paperback edition of Swag on top of Dutch Treat becomes, perhaps, marginally more explicable.*


I've another Elmore Leonard paperback lined up for my next missive – a signed one, no less, marking the start of an intermittent run of posts on signed editions, featuring authors both familiar and new to Existential Ennui.

* Postscript, 20/2/17: On the other hand, the fact that three years later that same body bought a (admittedly inexpensive) US first edition/first impression of Swag (jacket design by Lawrence Ratzkin) purely so he could own the book in hardback is entirely indefensible.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Westlake Score: Two Much! by Donald E. Westlake; British First Edition (Hodder & Stoughton, 1976)

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

My (cross-)posting of this particular Westlake Score was prompted by a newspaper article I noticed last month. I actually bought the book in question – the British first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Two Much!, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1976, the year after the US M. Evans edition – on a whim on Amazon Marketplace at the tail end of 2012 and have had it sitting on my to-be-blogged-about shelves ever since; the Hodder edition is incredibly scarce, and it's hard for me to resist scarce books – especially Westlake ones – when I encounter them. That said, Two Much! doesn't number among Westlake's more celebrated works; pretty much the only reputable reviews of the novel readily available online are this glib Kirkus Reviews one and Ethan Iverson's capsule review as part of his "A Storyteller That Got the Details Right" essay (Ethan places it in Westlake's canon as "probably the darkest of all the humorous crime novels"). It's perhaps better known for its 1995 Hollywood film adaptation – which in turn is arguably better known for the on-set romance which developed between co-stars Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith – and for its 1984 French film adaptation, Le Jumeau (The Twin).

All of which was why I was quite surprised when it cropped up in a Guardian article in March. Written by author Stephen May and titled "The Top 10 Imposters in Fiction", the article caught my eye principally due to a mention of Tom Ripley in its standfirst. Being, as I am, a Ripley obsessive, naturally I took a look to see which of Patricia Highsmith's five Tom Ripley novels had been included (the first, The Talented Mr. Ripley, unsurprisingly; you could make just as strong a case for Ripley Under Ground, but May does at least nod to the greater Ripliad), and there, in the number two position (appropriately enough), was Two Much! It's difficult to tell whether May has read any other Westlake works besides Two Much! – or indeed Two Much! itself; he does little more than recount the plot – but he's obviously aware of Westlake's wider oeuvre, noting that the author "published books under at least 16 names".

To my knowledge this (cross-)post marks the online debut of the Hodder hardback's dust jacket; I'd certainly not seen it prior to getting my hands on the book, not even on either AbeBooks – not least because at present there isn't a single copy for sale there (and only one other copy that I can see for sale online anywhere, making it possibly the rarest of all the Hodder hardback editions of Westlake's novels) – nor at the official Donald E. Westlake website. The jacket design isn't credited, but the designer evidently took a cue from the M. Evans wrapper (image borrowed from the official Westlake site):

Except to my mind the Hodder jacket isn't as well executed. Because while the Evans jacket clearly shows a risque greetings card – the writing of which being the narrator of the novel's profession – it's much less obvious, at least to my eye, that that's what we're supposed to be seeing on the Hodder cover. Still, given how uncommon the Hodder first is – as opposed to the Evans first, of which there are getting on for fifty copies on AbeBooks alone – I know which I'd rather have in my collection.

UPDATE, 11/4/14: The front of the jacket of the Hodder edition of Two Much! has now been added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery.

Monday, 7 April 2014

James Mitchell, alias James Munro: First Editions of Bonfire Night (Callan Spy Novel #5, 2002) and The Money That Money Can't Buy (John Craig Spy Novel #3, 1967)

Television writer and producer James Mitchell penned two series of spy novels of note in his near-fifty year career. The first, a four-book series starring gunrunner-turned-secret agent John Craig, written under the pen name James Munro, ran from 1964–1969; the second, a five-book series starring British Intelligence assassin David Callan, spinning out of the Mitchell-created Callan TV show, ran from 1969–2002. I profiled both series last year, reviewing the first book in each – respectively The Man Who Sold Death and A Magnum for Schneider, alias A Red File for Callan – and showcasing first editions of almost all of the other novels – almost all, because there were two I hadn't at that point got my clammy hands on. Fortunately, in the interim, I have; and so, seeing as I reviewed the second Callan book, Russian Roulette (1973), last week, I figured now's as good a time as any to showcase them. Oldest first, I think:

The Money That Money Can't Buy by James Munro, published in hardback by Hammond in 1967 (dust jacket design uncredited). The third John Craig spy thriller, Kirkus Reviews describe it as "Just so much spy schmaltz", which seems a little harsh to me; of the Craig novels, I've only read The Man Who Sold Death thus far, and though I wasn't as keen on it as I was A Magnum for Schneider, it wasn't that bad, and given the kind of writer Mitchell was, I can't imagine the quality of the series plummets too dramatically – a supposition supported by Existential Ennui reader Darryl Crawford, who commented on my John Craig post that the later books have "some of the coolest villains this side of Modesty Blaise", and Randall Mastellar at Spy Guys & Gals, for whom "the stories are good reads and the character does come up with a couple of the greatest one-liners I've ever read".

I found this first edition on an all-too-rare-these-days trip up to London (I moved down to Lewes from London nearly six years ago), in the basement of Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road. (On the same trip I also secured a vinyl copy of my album of the year from last year, Everything Everything's Arc, in Sister Ray on Berwick Street, which I was immensely pleased about because it's incredibly hard to come by on vinyl.) I think I paid about a fiver for it, which isn't bad considering the Hammond first isn't exactly in abundant supply – there are at present only half a dozen copies for sale online – and especially not in the UK, where I can currently only see one jacketless (I believe) copy for sale online (offered, coincidentally enough, by fellow Lewes exile, and fellow blogger, Steerforth).

Even scarcer, however, unless you're prepared to put up with an ex-library copy, is the Callan novel I secured:

Bonfire Night by James Mitchell, published by Severn House in 2002 (shortly before Mitchell's death that same year), jacket photograph by Ute Klaphake. The fifth and final Callan novel, there was a near-thirty year gap between this and the previous one, 1975's Smear Job, and according to reports from Existential Ennui commenters it's either "a bit weird" (Stuart Radmore), "confusing, and reads more like a script than a book" (Saz), or is "Mitchell... operating at the very top of his game in this dense narrative" (the aforementioned Darryl Crawford). Given which, the best thing to do, I imagine, is to read the book oneself and make one's own mind up, which ordinarily would mean stumping up at least twenty-five quid for an ex-library copy of the Severn House edition – the sole edition of the novel to date. Seems the vast majority of the print run of the Severn House edition went to public lending libraries, and even my copy, which I won on eBay (in the end for less than twenty quid), while it isn't ex-library, was evidently intended for libraries:

The book's case replicates the jacket front and back as a PLC (printed laminated cover), rather than the more usual Arlin over boards, suggesting it was bound with libraries in mind. Where it actually ended up, though, was with Mitchell's agent, as evidenced by this stamp on the front free endpaper:

All of which makes one wonder if the entire print run was bound for libraries. Anybody own a copy of the Severn House edition which doesn't sport a PLC...?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Russian Roulette (Callan Novel #2) by James Mitchell (Hamish Hamilton, 1973 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2013): Book Review

NB: Linked in Patti Nase Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, which this week is celebrating its sixth anniversary.

I made a mental note last October, when I finished reading A Magnum for Schneider, the excellent first book in James Mitchell's five-book Callan spy thriller series – which span out of the Mitchell-created Callan TV series – not to leave it too long before trying the second one, Russian Roulette. Mostly that was because I hugely enjoyed A Magnum for Schneider (alias A Red File for Callan) – it wound up taking the number two spot in my 2013 year-end top ten – but also because I knew that Mike Ripley had reissued both books that October under his Top Notch Thrillers imprint, and I like to lend a hand – in however minor a capacity – in Mike's tireless efforts to resurrect overlooked old thrillers whenever I can. In the event, it's taken me five months to get round to Russian Roulette, which probably isn't of much use to Mike in promoting his new edition of the novel – I'd have been better off reviewing the third Callan book, Death and Bright Water, which I believe Mike is reissuing sometime over the next month – but actually isn't bad for me: I've been known to let years elapse between reading instalments in a series of novels.

Russian Roulette was first published in hardback in 1973 – under a dust jacket sporting a gloriously '70s photograph of Edward Woodward as Callan, taken by glamour snapper and one-time Existential Ennui obsession Beverley le Barrow (here credited in the traditional Hamilton fashion as Beverly Lebarrow) – by Hamish Hamilton – a change of publisher from the first book, which was issued by Herbert Jenkins in 1969. Accordingly, Hamilton make very little of this being a sequel – there's a mention of A Red File for Callan on the jacket back flap and under "Other books by James Mitchell" in the prelims, but that's about it. Mind you, neither does Mitchell: as the novel opens, working class assassin David Callan is once more happily ensconced in the bosom of British Intelligence dirty tricks department the Section, with nary a mention of his being temporarily booted out by his boss, the supercilious Hunter, in A Magnum for Schneider.

It's ironic, then, that Russian Roulette once more sees Callan being kicked out of the Section, this time because Hunter has offered him up to the Russians in exchange for British Intelligence's "top man in Russia", who's been nabbed by the Soviets. To compound Callan's problems, not only does he have a specially imported KGB death squad on his tail, and not only has Hunter blocked any means of his obtaining a gun – right down to freezing his current account and even stealing his most valuable model soldiers (Callan is an enthusiastic wargamer) so that he can't sell them – but Callan's eyesight is failing too. All of which means he's forced to turn for assistance to his only friend, the odoriferous thief Lonely.

Whereas in A Magnum for Schneider the relationship between Lonely and Callan was mostly based on the former's fear of the latter, here it seems to have developed into a genuine friendship. Lonely is still scared of Callan, but then Lonely is scared of pretty much everything; he's happy to call Callan a proper mate, which is a change from his professed hatred of his erstwhile prison cellmate in the first book. And that bond is certainly tested in Russian Roulette: Callan asks things of Lonely that even the firmest of friends would balk at, and Lonely pays a terrible price for standing by him, as Callan is beset by a trio of KGB killers and betrayed by Hunter, by his fellow Section assassin Meres – in fact by almost everyone he gets close to.

Mitchell's characterisation is as surefooted as that in A Magnum for Schneider – not just Callan, who remains a convincingly common-as-muck lead, owing a small debt to Len Deighton's nameless operative but otherwise quite an original creation, but also the put-upon Lonely, the various criminals they encounter (some related to Lonely) and Hunter and Meres, representing the Establishment/old boys network, from which Callan will forever be excluded. As in the first book Mitchell grounds the espionage action in a recognisable milieu of London cafes, boozers, building sites and grubby little flats, and if the hunter/hunted story isn't quite as compelling as that in the more confined, more focused, and thus more intense, A Magnum for Schneider, Russian Roulette still rates as a very good vintage spy thriller indeed.

I showcased first editions of almost all of the Callan novels in my series of posts on Mitchell last year, as well as firsts of almost all of the John Craig spy novels Mitchell wrote under the alias James Munro. Back then, however, in both cases I was missing one book from each series. No longer: in the interim I've come into possession of first editions of those absent titles – so I thought I'd take a look at them in the next post.