Friday, 22 August 2014

The Rainbird Pattern (Birdcage #2) by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1972): Book Review

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books.

Of the sixty-one books that Victor Canning published in his lifetime, one is widely held to be his very best:

The Rainbird Pattern, published in hardback by Heinemann in 1972, dust jacket photography by Graham Miller (whose distinctive photos also appear on the wrappers for the British first editions of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, Elmore Leonard's Fifty-Two Pickup and The Hunted – and in the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, natch). Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger in 1973, on publication the novel was reviewed in glowing fashion in The Sunday Times ("Mr Canning has never done better"), The Sunday Telegraph ("Bang-on background and characterisation"), The Times ("The sheer imaginative weight holds you like a giant electro-magnet"), The Guardian ("Unputdownable, multi-threaded thriller"), the Oxford Mail ("There hasn't been a better thriller this year"; I suspect Anthony Price was responsible for that review) and many other papers, while more recently Victor Canning authority John Higgins has called it Canning's "masterpiece" and "one of the best thrillers ever written".

Higgins has also identified The Rainbird Pattern as the second in Canning's eight-book sequence of "Birdcage" thrillers, all of which feature to a greater or lesser degree operatives of a shadowy government dirty tricks department known simply as the Department in the first book in the series, Firecrest (1971), and as Birdcage in later books (the department is based on London's Birdcage Walk). Mind you, there's nothing in The Rainbird Pattern itself to suggest that it is part of a series; though a department along the lines of and with similar functions to the one in Firecrest does play a role in proceedings, its chief – the pirate-like Grandison – and its agents – dour, driven near-divorcee Bush and Deputy Head Sangwill – are not the same as those in the prior novel (although given how Firecrest turned out that's perhaps understandable), plus it's denied a capital "D" in its title.

Moreover, it seems somehow smaller than its forerunner, and in a more concrete sense doesn't feature as heavily in the narrative. The story is driven for the most part by Blanche Tyler, alias Madame Blanche, a buxom, cheerful thirtysomething psychic who, with the aid of her underachieveing and overweight boyfriend, George Lumley, and her spirit guide, Henry, is intent on easing the guilt of wealthy spinster Miss Rainbird, and in the process hopefully feathering her own nest (Blanche has plans to build something called the Temple of Astrodel). Meanwhile a kidnapper known only as Trader has been holding a succession of prominent Members of Parliament to ransom and is building up to one last showstopping abduction – unless Bush of the department can identify him and bring him to a very rough form of justice.

The audacious manner by which Canning brings these two strands together is, I suspect, a big part of why the novel is held in such high regard – that and the author's trick of invoking a measure of sympathy for each character, no matter how underhand their actions or methods. Whether it be Blanche wanting to build her spiritual temple or George wishing to make a few bob and set himself up as a landscape gardener; or Miss Rainbird, plagued by bad dreams and reluctantly having to make peace with the past; or Grandison and Bush, trying to catch a cunning kidnapper; or even Trader, who, though clearly unhinged, is simply attempting to secure enough funds to find a remote place unsullied by his fellow man's polluting ways – in each instance Canning presents a rounded character with aims which are explicable and in many ways simpatico with those of the novel's other protagonists. Which makes the coldly ironic denouement, and its even icier postscript, a bitterly frozen pill to swallow.

Is The Rainbird Pattern truly Victor Canning's best book? I've read so little of Canning's oeuvre I'm afraid I'm in no position to comment. I only have Firecrest to compare it to and even there I'm in two minds as to which is the better work; Canning's novel conception of the Department is stronger in the first Birdcage book, whereas its (loose) sequel boasts a more daring structure. I do wonder how much of The Rainbird Pattern's higher profile is down to it having been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – as Family Plot, the director's last film – but one thing it does have over its predecessor is it's currently in print: crime writer and critic Mike Ripley republished it under his Top Notch Thrillers imprint in 2010.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Signed First Edition of The Satan Sampler (Birdcage #6) by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1979)

I remarked in last week's post on a signed (and inscribed) first edition of Victor Canning's The Kingsford Mark that books signed by Canning seem to be remarkably thin on the ground. For instance, if you discard the distracting chaff on AbeBooks – i.e. listings for Canning books which include the word "signed" preceded by the word "not" – there are at present just four Canning-signed books in any edition listed on the site. That's really not very many for an author who published sixty-one books in his lifetime and whose sales must have run into the millions. Furthermore, none of those signed editions on AbeBooks – or anywhere else online that I can see – are instalments in Canning's "Birdcage" series of spy novels – which is, after all, the reason I became interested in the author's work. Whereas this one is:

The Satan Sampler, published in hardback by Heinemann in 1979 (dust jacket design uncredited, but duly added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page) and bought by me on Amazon Marketplace the other week. The book is flat signed on the title page:

And unlike with The Kingsford Mark, where at first I wasn't sure if the inscription inside was by Canning or not – at that point there was nothing online I could compare it to – here there's little doubt in my mind that the signature is Canning's, not least because I have the one inside The Kingsford Mark to check against:

As, via Google Images, does anyone who might happen to search for Canning's John Hancock. No need to thank me.

The Satan Sampler is the sixth of Canning's eight Birdcage books, and as ever the best place to read about it is at John Higgins's Victor Canning pages, either the novel's dedicated entry or John's overview of the Birdcage series. John is a little cooler on the three novels which close out the Birdcage sequence – The Satan Sampler, Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982) and Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985) – than he is the earlier books – his favourites being Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971), The Rainbird Pattern (Heinemann, 1972) and Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978) – and this contemporaneous Kirkus Reviews review of The Satan Sampler supports that view, noting that there's "not nearly as much distinctive characterization or narrative invention" as in the preceding Birdcage novel, the aforementioned Birdcage. Still, The Satan Sampler may not be the very best of Birdcage, but given that my copy is the only signed Birdcage book in any edition that I'm aware of, it's one to cherish I reckon.

I've one last piece on Victor Canning planned for this particular run of posts on the author: a review of the second Birdcage novel, The Rainbird Pattern.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Victor Canning's Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971) and the Birdcage Series of Spy Novels

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books.

As I noted in my previous post, British author Victor Canning has become something of a preoccupation of mine in recent months, especially the novels he penned in the latter stages of his career. Canning aficionado John Higgins, in his wonderful and exhaustive Victor Canning pages, argues that Canning, after churning out "mechanical work with energetic but implausible plots and characters straight out of some central-casting stockbook" for two decades, underwent "an emotional crisis" in the late 1960s – Canning left his wife for another woman in 1968 – and that as a consequence "something abruptly changed" in the author's writing, resulting in "completely different novels, still staying within the suspense genre but with well-observed characters, elaborate but plausible plots, and themes which clearly mattered to the author in a way which had not been the case before". John identifies Queen's Pawn (1969) as the first post-crisis Canning; two years on from that book came the first in an extraordinary sequence of espionage thrillers:

Firecrest, issued in hardback by Heinemann in 1971, dust jacket illustration by Bob Lawrie. As John puts it, Firecrest was "quite unlike any of [Canning's] earlier work. For the first time Canning was creating credible and interesting female characters. For the first time he was using plots which were driven by character and had real uncertainty of outcome since one could not know in advance what choices the protagonists would make. His villains now were not foreign spies or criminal gangs but members of the British establishment, making for a real conflict of interest since punishing the wicked would also compromise the security of 'our' state. These villains were the staff of a secret government department with its headquarters in Birdcage Walk, initially referred to as The Department, and in later books as Birdcage."

Canning offers his own description of the Department early in Firecrest:

The Department was an offshoot of the Ministry of Defence. Its existence had never been officially acknowledged. Its functions – proliferating under the pressure of national security – were as old as organised society. Its work was discreet and indecent. Security and economy demanded that certain people and certain situations had to be handled, organised, dispatched or suppressed without the public being disturbed or distressed by any awareness of the mostly unmentionable stratagems that, in the interests of the national welfare, the Department was given an ambiguous mandate to employ. Murder, blackmail, fraud, theft and betrayal were the commonplaces of the Department. The Department existed, but its existence would have been denied. Its members and operators lived in the common society but acted outside it. Most had entered the Department aware of some of its extreme aspects and prepared to adjust themselves. None had had originally a complete understanding of it; and when this had come it was too late – for knowledge had by then brought acquiescence and even a measure of pride and self-satisfaction at being part of a body of work and action which first changed, then isolated them, and finally smoothly endowed them with an inhumanity that inwardly set them aside from all other people. The head of the Department was Sir John Maserfield.

Maserfield plays a key role in Firecrest but the novel's chief protagonist is John Grimster, one of the Department's agents of "inhumanity", whom Maserfield has tasked with finding the research papers of a Professor Harry Dilling, papers which Dilling has offered to the Department and then hidden until he receives his reward (Dilling is aware of the Department's methods and accords the Department the appropriate amount of trust, which is to say none whatsoever). Inconveniently Dilling then carks it, leaving the whereabouts of his papers a mystery – unless Grimster can dig their location out of his only lead, Dilling's girlfriend Lily Stevens, onetime shop assistant at Boots the chemist in Uckfield (nine miles up the road from Lewes, where I presently sit; the River Ouse and local beauty spot Barcombe Mills also get a mention in the novel).

Grimster sets about interviewing Lily at length at the Department's Devonshire retreat, but while attempting to ascertain the depth of her knowledge of Dilling's papers he is also pursuing his own agenda: to find out whether or not the Department, under Sir John's orders, murdered his wife, Valda. His suspicions about his wife's death are fed by his former schoolfriend, Harrison, now a freelance agent intent on turning Grimster for whichever power – "the Egyptians, the Russians, the Americans, the South Africans or some international industrial group" – he happens to be working; but in truth Grimster needs no encouragement: his sole purpose, he comes to understand over the course of the novel, is to learn the truth of Valda's demise and wreak his revenge – and Lily and the late Dilling's dabblings with hypnosis may provide the means to that end.

The Times Literary Supplement called Firecrest "simple and as cold as hell", which is to do a slight disservice to the plot if not the tone of the book; the structure, comprising as it does in large part Grimster's interviews with Lily, does seem quite straightforward, but the content of those interviews, the direction they take as Grimster gains Lily's trust, and the way in which Canning draws these and other strands of the novel together, are anything but. However, Firecrest is certainly a bleak read, displaying a cynicism about the machinations of government which I imagine would chime with today's NIMNies if they took the trouble to seek it out (although to be fair it is currently out of print). What drives the Department to a great degree is penny pinching – a desire to obtain Dilling's documents on the cheap, essentially, and if that means murder, then so be it. As Sir John tells one of his men, Copplestone, "If Dilling's stuff is valid, she [Lily] goes, and the country's tax-payers will be saved a half a million, maybe. I agreed it with the Minister some time ago. He made the usual Christian noises at first."

Conscienceless, morally questionable government operatives were nothing new by the time Canning introduced his Department – Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens (and Mr. Fortescue) had been around since the early 1960s, while James Mitchell's Callan and the Section made their literary debut in 1969, to name just two examples – but Firecrest strikes an especially pessimistic tenor in this regard. That might have made for an enervating experience if it weren't for Canning's graceful prose and way with a compelling character: as calculating, conniving and occasionally savage as Sir John – who reminded me of R. in W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden – and Grimster and the rest are, they're captivating creations nevertheless, probably because of rather than in spite of their natures. Even Lily, on the surface such a guileless creature, eventually reveals herself as instinctually emotionally manipulative.

Towards the end of the book Lily's friend, Mrs. Harroway, whose late husband was in politics, muses, "...a long time ago... the world was just dirty around the edges, Mr. Grimster. Now it is grey-coloured throughout." A little later Grimster reflects: "Mrs. Harroway was right. The world was grey right through. He was grey. Cold and grey, touched only with warmth and colour once truly in his life, with Valda." Those two quotes go some way towards encapsulating the attitude of Firecrest, but it's only in the final few pages that the book stands revealed for what it really is: a Greek tragedy.

Victor Canning went on to write a further seven books featuring the Department, or Birdcage as it would come to be known, as follows:

The Rainbird Pattern (Heinemann, 1972)
The Mask of Memory (Heinemann, 1974)
The Doomsday Carrier (Heinemann, 1976)
Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978)
The Satan Sampler (Heinemann, 1979)
Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982)
Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985)

Having read both Firecrest and the second novel, The Rainbird Pattern – which I'll be turning to shortly – I can report that I have every intention of making my way through the remainder of the series, and have begun collecting Heinemann first editions accordingly – not a straightforward task, as Heinemann first editions/first impressions aren't always readily available (I managed to find a handful at a very reasonable price and in very nice condition courtesy of bookseller Mike Park; hope you're on the mend, Mike!). I've added the covers of the ones I've got my hands on thus far to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page.

One or two others of the books Canning wrote in 1970s have a link to the Birdcage series too, notably The Kingsford Mark (1975), a signed first edition of which I wrote about earlier in the week, and of which John Higgins says that "the authority figures, Wardle and Grainger, have a great deal in common with the Birdcage secret department", and this book:

The Finger of Saturn, published by Heinemann in 1973, dust jacket photograph by Robert Golden. I acquired this copy of the first edition a while back when I visited Alan White and had a rummage through his wares. According to John Higgins The Finger of Saturn "also featured malign civil servants, though not from Birdcage", adding: "As it also involved an element of science fiction, it is not really a part of the same sequence." Even still, John rates it highly – it's one of fourteen Canning books he recommends in his introduction to the author's work – as, in this Mystery*File review, does David L. Vineyard, who reckons "it is unique among Canning’s novels and he brings it off beautifully as only a true master could". It may not be a Birdcage book but I must say I'm inclined to make it my next Canning read.

But not my next Canning blog post; because that will be on another signed Victor Canning first edition...

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Kingsford Mark by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1975): Signed Inscribed First Edition

Heretofore I've only ever written about Victor Canning – a prolific British author who penned sixty-one books in total, mostly novels, many of them thrillers, but also children's books and non-fiction – in tangential fashion, largely in relation to the recently departed Val Biro, who designed the wrappers for four of Canning's novels in the 1950s and '60s. But for reasons I'll go into shortly Canning has loomed larger in my thoughts of late, and so I was quite chuffed when on a visit to Badger's Books in Worthing I spied this on the shelves:

A first edition of The Kingsford Mark, Canning's 36th novel, published by Heinemann in 1975 under a photographic dust jacket credited to Peter Phipp, which I've deposited in the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, even though I'm not sure if the novel is, strictly speaking, a thriller; plainly in the styling of the wrapper – an arrangement of suitably mysterious and intriguing props; see also here, here, here, here, etc. – Heinemann were aiming the book at the thriller/crime audience. Irrespective of whether one would classify it as a thriller, however, the story, in which a young man (with his aunt) goes to stay at the country pile of squire John Kingsford, whom he believes to be his father and with whom he becomes in embroiled in an assassination plot, does sound interesting; but in fact the reason I decided to plonk down the £4.50 asking price was more to do with what's on the title page:

It's signed and inscribed, "For the marvellous Mrs. Gifford!" – possibly; I can't make out the name – "With the author's admiration! Victor Canning, Sept. 75." I suspect Badger's Books might not have grasped quite what they had on their hands, hence the low asking price; Canning's signature isn't instantly recognisable, so perhaps it was dismissed as an owner inscription rather than an author one. I must admit that at the time I too almost dismissed it as such, but then realised what it might be and decided to take a chance on it. I've since ascertained that it is indeed Canning's hand – I have something to compare it to, which I'll reveal down the line – and that signed Canning books are very uncommon: I can only see four such items on AbeBooks at present.

By far the best place on the web to read about The Kingsford Mark, and Victor Canning in general, is John Higgins's Victor Canning pages, which is the kind of exhaustive site one wishes all forgotten, overlooked or otherwise under-appreciated authors could lay claim to. John left a comment on my Val Biro/Victor Canning post back in 2012 and I've been dipping in and out of his site ever since. I've become especially interested in Canning's "Birdcage" books, a series of espionage novels Canning wrote in the latter stages of his life and career centring on the activities of a nefarious government dirty tricks department – a series which John actually answered questions on on Mastermind in 2009. The Kingsford Mark, as John notes in his entry on the novel, "is not a Birdcage book, but the authority figures, Wardle and Grainger, have a great deal in common with the Birdcage secret department which features in most of the other thrillers Canning wrote in the 1970s and '80s". And I'll be exploring some of those thrillers over the course of forthcoming posts.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Simon Harvester's Dorian Silk Spy Novel Series: Unsung Road (Jarrolds, 1960)

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books.

I delved into Simon Harvester's backlist a bit in the previous post – a full Harvester bibliography can also be found there (the first time to my knowledge one has been made available online) – but I want to concentrate here on the twelve "Road" novels he published late in his career (and life; Harvester – or rather Henry St. John Clair Rumbold-Gibbs, to give him his real name – died in 1975) starring British Intelligence operative Dorian Silk, the first of which is this:

Unsung Road, published in 1960 by Jarrolds under a dust jacket designed by Harvester himself – more on that below. Harvester's 29th novel – under that name; as Henry Gibbs he published many more – Unsung Road introduces Silk as an iconoclastic secret agent, not much enamoured of his colleagues and prone to issuing sarcastic putdowns accordingly. Silk has been assigned to Iran – a country he knows well – to assist fellow agent Woolf – whom he detests – in investigating the disappearance of one of Woolf's contacts, Ahmad Fath – "a minor job", as Silk puts it, imploring of his superior, Swann: "Why not just kill me?"

There's a deeper mystery at play here, but even the general shape of it isn't really defined until two thirds of the way into the book, by which point I must admit I'd rather lost the plot – or it had lost me; one or the other. Silk does stuff, and stuff is done to him, including the obligatory (for spy thrillers) battering and sousing – after which he's rescued by a dusky Iranian maiden who proves central to the story – but it's hard to care when for most of the novel you have no idea what Silk's purpose in all this is. Snappy comebacks and pithy rejoinders, good as some of them are – one of my favourites comes when Silk identifies himself to a stranger as "Drummond. Bulldog Drummond", while at the novel's climactic cave shootout, displaying the ruthless side of his nature he asks of an assailant, "Going on holiday?", shoots the man in the head and adds, "Quicker that way" – only get you so far in a thriller. (The oblique jacket flap copy suggests that the copywriter wasn't entirely certain what the novel was about either.) Additionally, Harvester is very much a stylist, and so your appreciation of what he does and your willingness to stay the course will depend on your response to descriptive passages like this:

Another chandelier leaped into florid malevolence. Its lustres hung thicker than lottery tickets draped on a Spanish beggar. The room was a big square well. Its dark furniture had the loveless appearance of a suburban junk-shop window. The post-uxorious Woolf had stuck photographs of his wives on a mantelpiece above an electric fire. For no reason of grief or taste each photograph was flanked by a silver candelabrum. The candles were a gruesome bluish pink. Their fat glisteny sides were tumoured with dribbles like preserved crocodile tears accumulated in orgies of public woe. Between their indecency an ormula clock recorded the enemy march. Over the sideboard a stylized print showed a thin flamingo watching a plump maiden in white gauze trousers and an indigo robe pick daisies near a frothy brook. On a ledge in one corner stood a portable radio.

Personally that kind of thing had me longing for the stripped back, bare bones descriptive prose of rather different sorts of stylists – Richard Stark, say, or Elmore Leonard – but maybe I just wasn't in the right mood; reading that paragraph again now I can better appreciate the rhythm of the writing and see the appeal of a sentence like "Their fat glisteny sides were tumoured with dribbles like preserved crocodile tears accumulated in orgies of public woe", or the later "Lethargic flies circled the abominable chandelier listless as a ballet company at six a.m. after an all-night rehearsal, out on their points." Certainly Randall Masteller of Spy Guys & Gals rates the Silk series as a whole very highly – and where I do agree with Masteller is that Harvester is excellent on locale, conjuring up a convincing Iran over the course of the book.

On balance, then, I think I will saunter a little further down Dorian Silk's "Road" – a few more yards along it anyway. Apart from anything I feel slightly obliged to now, as I've acquired first editions of the three subsequent Silks from book dealer Jamie Sturgeon. Simon Harvester firsts aren't easy to come by (even ex-library copies) so I couldn't resist when I realised Jamie had these ones, especially since two of them, Silk Road and Red Road, also sport splendid dust jackets designed by Harvester, who was evidently a talented artist and illustrator as well as writer; he designed the wrappers of quite a number of his own books (sometimes signing them as Henry Gibbs). I hope to have further examples of his dust jacket work to show soon, but for now, below are the wrappers of the aforementioned Silk Road and Red Road – plus the wrapper of the fourth Silk, Assassins Road, which was designed by Oliver Elmes – illustrating a Dorian Silk "Road" bibliography. (I've also added all three, and Unsung Road, to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page.)

Simon Harvester's Dorian Silk "Road" Novels

1. Unsung Road (Jarrolds, 1960); jacket design Simon Harvester

2. Silk Road (Jarrolds, 1962); jacket design by Simon Harvester

3. Red Road (Jarrolds, 1963); jacket design by Simon Harvester

4. Assassins Road (Jarrolds, 1965); jacket design by Oliver Elmes
5. Treacherous Road (Jarrolds, 1966)
6. Battle Road (Jarrolds, 1967)
7. Zion Road (Jarrolds, 1968)
8. Nameless Road (Jarrolds, 1969)
9. Moscow Road (Jarrolds, 1970)
10. Sahara Road (Jarrolds, 1972)
11. Forgotten Road (Hutchinson, 1974)
12. Siberian Road (Hutchinson, 1976)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Spy Novels of Simon Harvester: Bibliography; Dragon Road (Jarrolds, 1956), Malcom Kenton Series #2, Signed First Edition

I'm not sure how the name Simon Harvester popped up on my spy fiction radar. An alias of the prolific writer Henry St. John Clair Rumbold-Gibbs (29 June, 1909–26 April 1975; he also wrote general, travel and military fiction under the name Henry Gibbs and according to this source romance novels as Elizabeth Ford, although I suspect some confusion has crept in there; Ford was an alias of Marjory – some sources have it as Marjorie – Elizabeth Sarah Bidwell, who I believe also wrote as Mary Ann Gibbs), Harvester penned forty-five novels, the majority of them crime and spy thrillers, from 1942–1976; a complete Harvester bibliography – at least as complete as I can make it – can be found at the bottom of this post (the first time, to my knowledge, one has been made available online).

It was the twelve "Road" novels he published from 1960–1976, featuring British Intelligence operative Dorian Silk, which initially piqued my curiosity – more on those shortly – but once I'd had a shufti on Randall Masteller's Spy Guys & Gals site I realised Harvester had penned other espionage series prior to those, notably five books from 1955–1957 starring engineer Malcolm Kenton: The Bamboo Screen (Jarrolds, 1955), The Paradise Men (Jarrolds, 1956), The Golden Fear (Jarrolds, 1957), The Copper Butterfly (Jarrolds, 1957), and the second instalment:

Dragon Road, published by Jarrolds in 1956 under a dust jacket designed by Henry Fox (thanks to Jamie Sturgeon for helping me identify the designer and pointing me in the direction of Steve Holland's post on Fox; I've added the wrapper to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page). I had a particular reason for acquiring this copy of the novel – which like a lot of Harvesters is quite uncommon in first (although less so in paperback; Andrew Nette has a Harvester paperback or four at Pulp Curry, including Dragon Road) – which is this:

It's signed and inscribed by Harvester on the title page, to a Leonard Tucker, "In exchange for an excellent cup of coffee." There are fewer than half a dozen signed Harvester books available online at present, most of those being US editions; only one is a British first, signed on a bookplate rather than on the page and going for £150, so a signed and inscribed British first edition, especially one I only paid a tenner for, is, I reckon, a bit of a find.

The dust jacket flaps are worth spending a moment or two on – click on the image to see them larger – for the unexpected wit and style the copywriter – I wouldn't be surprised if it were Harvester himself – brings to proceedings. The first paragraph, on Harvester and his oeuvre, is splendid enough ("...poor Mata Hari! The rut she carved!"; "...intelligence agents... are ordinary fallible human beings, even when chasing 'the secret plans.' Those 'secret plans'!") but the subsequent paragraph, on the novel itself, is even better:

Dragon Road, the latest Harvester – incidentally his 21st novel – is set in Thailand and Burma. It involves the regrettable Malcolm Kenton. Mr. Kenton, you will remember from The Bamboo Screen, is a British engineer. You also remember that Mr. Kenton is a dipsomaniac and has been in gaol? Some Chinese dislike him for other reasons. In Bangkok, mildly relaxing among Budhhist Wats and sampans on the klongs, surrounded by refugees, tourists, trouble-makers, and monks, Kenton and his delightful Eurasian secretary Mei-ling are warned not to fly to Calcutta. There is a persistent and fascinating Chinese woman, an equally persistent and fascinating schoolteacher from Texas, businessmen, the engaging Carnation Pink, and a murderous oozie. Through ruined temples, teak forests, jungle, and the rains, Kenton tries to reach the Dragon Road from Mandalay to the Chinese frontier with its dacoits and snakes... All in all, we think this is Harvester's most urbane and eventful and witty novel of excitement. Like other recent visitors to Burma, Mr. Kenton is impulsive and energetic and outspoken.

No idea what an "oozie" is but that's some of the best jacket flap copy I've ever read.

In his appraisal of the Dorian Silk novels Randall Masteller makes note of the fact that the first instance of Harvester using "Road" in a book title comes with this novel, not the Silks (all twelve of which have "Road" in their titles). He does point out, however, that Malcolm Kenton and Dorian Silk are "quite different" characters, as we'll discover in the next post.

Simon Harvester Bibliography

Let Them Prey (Rich & Cowan, 1942)
Epitaph for Lemmings (Rich & Cowan, 1943)
Maybe a Trumpet (Rich & Cowan, 1945)
A Lantern for Diogenes (Rich & Cowan, 1946)
Whatsoever Things Are True (Rich & Cowan, 1947)
The Sequins Lost Their Lustre (Rich & Cowan, 1948)
(with Cyril Campion) Man About Town, Introducing "Shorty" the Taxi-Driver (Rich & Cowan, 1948)
Good Men and True: A Study in Crime (Rich & Cowan, 1949)
A Breastplate for Aaron (Rich & Cowan, 1949)
Sheep May Safely Graze: A Mark Blunden Story (Rich & Cowan, 1950)
Obols for Charon: A Mark Blunden Story (Jarrolds, 1951)
Witch Hunt (Jarrolds, 1951)
The Vessel May Carry Explosives (Jarrolds, 1951)
Cat's Cradle (Jarrolds, 1952)
Traitor's Gate (Jarrolds, 1952)
Arrival in Suspicion (Jarrolds, 1953)
Spiders' Web (Jarrolds, 1953)
Lucifer at Sunset (Jarrolds, 1953)
Delay in Danger (Jarrolds, 1954)
The Bamboo Screen (Jarrolds, 1955)
Dragon Road (Jarrolds, 1956)
The Paradise Men (Jarrolds, 1956)
The Golden Fear (Jarrolds, 1957)
The Copper Butterfly (Jarrolds, 1957)
The Golden Fear (Jarrolds, 1957)
The Yesterday Walkers (Jarrolds, 1958)
An Hour Before Zero (Jarrolds, 1959)
The Chinese Hammer (Jarrolds, 1960)
Unsung Road (Jarrolds, 1960)
Moonstone Jungle (Jarrolds, 1961)
Silk Road (Jarrolds, 1962)
Troika (Jarrolds, 1962)
Red Road (Jarrolds, 1963)
Assassins Road (Jarrolds, 1965)
Shadows in a Hidden Land (Jarrolds, 1966)
Treacherous Road (Jarrolds, 1966)
Battle Road (Jarrolds, 1967)
Zion Road (Jarrolds, 1968)
Nameless Road (Jarrolds, 1969)
Moscow Road (Jarrolds, 1970)
Sahara Road (Jarrolds, 1972)
A Corner of the Playground (Jarrolds, 1973)
Forgotten Road (Hutchinson, 1974)
Tiger in the North (Hutchinson, 1974)
Siberian Road (Hutchinson, 1976)

Monday, 4 August 2014

An Interview with Val Biro, Artist, Illustrator, Author and Book Cover Designer

NB: Val Biro passed away last month, at the age of 92 (Guardian obituary here). I've written about Val and his terrific dust jacket designs a number of times on Existential Ennui – follow this link to previous posts, or take a look at the examples of his dust wrapper work on this page – and last year had the opportunity to interview him in person about that work. The resulting article, an edited version of which appears below, was initially intended for Illustrators Quarterly, who in the wake of Val's passing will instead be running a more substantial feature on Val's life and art (drawing in part on my interview) to appear late this year/early next year. In the meantime, Illustrators have graciously given me the go-ahead to publish my original piece, which I present as my personal tribute to Val and his work, illustrated with wrappers and roughs from my own collection.

If you spend any amount of time browsing the hardback fiction shelves in secondhand bookshops – as I do, whenever I get the opportunity (and probably more than is entirely healthy) – chances are you'll have unwittingly encountered the work of Val Biro. Not as an author: for that aspect of Val's career you'd be better off heading to the children's section, where you'll doubtless find a selection of the 37 picture books he wrote and drew from 1966 to 2001, all starring Gumdrop, a vintage 1926 Austin 12/4 motorcar. No, the Biro work you'll see in the fiction department is of a different stripe. It was created both prior to and parallel with his children's titles, and the books it was made for number in their thousands.

From the early 1940s until the late 1970s Val Biro designed an estimated 3,000 dust jackets – more than any other jacket designer of the era. His artwork wrapped books by C. S. Forester and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Nevil Shute and James Hadley Chase; Iris Murdoch and Geoffrey Household – from crime thrillers to romance, literature to non-fiction, and for every major publisher. It's a remarkable body of work, encompassing not only the finished jackets but the preparatory roughs too – sometimes multiple roughs for a single wrapper – the vast majority with hand lettering painted directly onto the artwork.

His covers are instantly recognisable: a striking central image – evoking the feel of the novel overall rather than a particular scene – done in dry brush (gouache), often restricted to just two or three colours, i.e. three-colour line, "which in those days was quite popular because it was cheap to reproduce", as Val himself explained to me when I pinned him down for a chat at a book fair he was a guest at. He created his first wrapper as a freelance designer in 1942, for the Collins edition of Rex Stout's The Broken Vase (for which he was paid five guineas); at that time he was also employed as an assistant at Sylvan Press – illustrating interiors and covers – having spent three years at the Central School of Art after emigrating to the UK from Hungary in 1939. But by 1953, after a stint with John Lehmann Limited, Val was ready to take the plunge and go fully freelance.

In common with other jacket designers of the era, Val was rarely given a brief; instead he would read each novel he was designing the cover for, a practice virtually unheard of these days. "It would be: here's a manuscript, come up with a good design," he recalls. "They'd tell me whether it's full colour, or three-colour line, and the size. Then I'd do the roughs, which I put a lot of work into. Occasionally I would do two or even three roughs to give them a choice. I worked hard in those days!"

Val reckons his work rate in the very early days of his freelance wrapper designing would equate to "about four jackets a month – one a week. But when I went big time with it, I would have about fifteen commissions at any one time. At one point I did almost nothing else but book jackets." After reading a book he would produce a rough – which would take about half a day, working at the same size as the eventual wrapper so the publisher could see how the finished book would look (the final artwork would be produced at a quarter- or half-up) – in which he would "try to reflect the character of the whole story, not based on one particular scene but... encapsulating a whole book in one design". That rough and any variants Val had come up with would then be sent in to the publisher for approval – a process which was not, it seems, always straightforward...

"I remember, Mr. Walter Hutchinson himself, the eponymous publisher, he insisted on seeing a rough but it had to be twice up, full colour, everything. I was told he usually received the art editor in bed – well, he was in bed, because he liked the late mornings. The art editor would come in and say, Mr. Hutchinson, this is the cover for so-and-so, and give it to him. If he didn't like it, he would get out an indelible blue pencil, and with a 'no', put a line through it, ruining the picture."

Thankfully the pencil-wielding Mr. Hutchinson was in the minority; other publishers and art editors weren't quite so physical with their criticisms, and many of Val's roughs survive today. Indeed, Val has fond memories of most of the publishers he worked for, whether it be Michael Joseph, who commissioned him to design the wrappers for the first half-dozen Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, or Hodder & Stoughton, who not only sent plenty of dust jacket work his way but also, from the 1960s on, published his own Gumdrop books (under their Brockhampton Press children's imprint). And admirers of his work didn't just number publishers and art directors; Nevil Shute, for whose novels Val designed the wrappers for In the Wet (1953), Requiem for a Wren (1955) and others, was certainly impressed by what he saw. "We received a letter from Mr. Shute from Australia," Val recalls with pride. "He said to the publisher, 'Thank you for employing an artist who evidently knows Australia well.' I'd never been there in my life!"

Val was just one among a multitude of book jacket designers beavering away in the '40s, '50s and '60s, all offering their own take on the restricted palette style – largely unsung artists like Donald Green, Peter Probyn, John Rowland, Roy Sanford and sisters Barbara and Eileen Walton (not to mention the rather better appreciated likes of Denis McLoughlin and Brian Wildsmith). Of his contemporaries, Val singles out Hans Tisdall, perhaps best known these days as a painter but back then also a book designer (his most famous wrapper probably being for Lampedusa's The Leopard) "who worked in a style not unlike the three-colour line which was typical of me in those days. I never met him but I admired his work. To an extent my lettering is influenced by him."

A greater influence came courtesy of Val's time at Central School. A number of Val's wrappers are reminiscent of woodcut prints – his jacket for Victor Canning's 1961 novel A Delivery of Furies, say – which, it turns out, was no accident: "I started as a wood engraver. At art college my tutor was John Farleigh – great name in his day. I did some, I think, very good engravings under his influence. But when I came to book jackets I realised that the timescale – I usually would get about a couple of weeks at most from rough to finish – was very tight. An engraving would take me about a fortnight to do!"

Towards the end of the 1970s Val's time as a jacket designer "as a main activity" drew to a close. "I became so involved in children's books and my own Gumdrops that I didn't have time or, actually, the interest. The problem with a jacket is, it's basically the same, isn't it?" he muses. "To encapsulate a whole book in one design. Which is interesting. But there came a time when I was much more interested in writing my own stories and developing my own books."

Working methods in jacket design had changed too – the introduction of Letraset and greater use of separations and superimposing – and this was also a factor in Val's decision to move on to other endeavours. While he, of course, as a professional, adapted to these changes, he much preferred his original way of working, "because it was very much integrated – I mean the design and the lettering was all one piece, whereas if you superimpose it it's not quite the same thing." As for more contemporary dust jacket design, it must be said that he's not overly keen: "A lot of it is computer-generated... I can't see today the individual hand, the person who's done it. It's often done in-house rather than by a freelancer, some of it by computer, and the concept is usually the concept of a committee rather than a single mind."

Instead, Val has continued to carve out a place in publishing history as an in-demand children's book author and illustrator. Now in his nineties, his most recent project has been a series of 200-page fully illustrated hardbacks for Award Publications, retellings of Aesop's Fables and Grimm's/Hans Christian Andersen's/Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales; the latest volume, based on the Arabian Nights, was in-progress when we spoke, but Val expects that "will probably be my last book because I can't imagine taking on a big commission like that again, at 91."

Even without all of his children's titles, his astonishing body of dust jacket work must surely stand as one of the greatest achievements in book design – 3,000 covers in less than 40 years. An incredible amount of work, agrees Val, but his only explanation for this prodigious output is as matter-of-fact as one would expect of this softly spoken, unassuming man: "I was probably the busiest jacket designer at that time in the country."

Val Biro on His Dust Jacket Designs

Geoffrey Household, A Time to Kill (Michael Joseph, 1952, sequel to A Rough Shoot): "This is two-colour line, dark red and black – the white is the paper – so it's two colours. This could be reproduced on line blocks without a screen, and therefore not art paper but ordinary cartridge. Very effective."

Nevil Shute, In the Wet (Heinemann, 1953): "This isn't based on a particular scene but on the feel of the flooded landscape."

Victor Canning, The Burning Eye (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960): "I used dry brush because it had to be reproduced by line rather than halftone. You had to be careful that you worked in such a way that it reproduced well."

James Barlow, The Hour of Maximum Danger (Hamish Hamilton, 1962): "An artist keeps his eyes open to what's happening in the art world, and I was quite taken by this kind of abstraction. But after the abstract era I left the conceptualists and so on totally aside because that's not me at all."

Friday, 1 August 2014

Michael Frayn's Debut Novel, The Tin Men (Collins, 1965): Book Review

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

In his 2005 essay for The Guardian on novels about journalism, "Fleet Street's finest", Christopher Hitchens extolled the virtues of Michael Frayn's second novel, Towards the End of the Morning (1967), noting that it "used to have the status of a cult book among the hacks" and that it had "more or less everything". But Hitchens then ventured that "Admirers of Frayn's second novel are sneered at by those of us who are in the know, and who appreciate that it is his first novel about journalism that really demonstrates his genius."

The Tin Men was first published in hardback by Collins in 1965 – actually Frayn's fourth book for the publisher; Collins had previously published three collections of his columns for The Guardian and The Observer (The Day of the Dog, 1962; The Book of Fub, 1963; On the Outskirts, 1964). I bought this copy of the first edition, with its rather battered silver dust jacket (designed by Brian Russell; I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page alongside Russell's other covers), in Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road last year for a fiver – something of an impulse purchase I suppose you'd call it, based on my having read and loved Towards the End of the Morning in 2012 and knowing that The Tin Men too was about journalism (a subject that's long been of interest to me, not least because I used to be a journo – of sorts – myself).

In part anyway. Because while newspaper journalism, especially the tabloid end of the industry, does feature, the novel is actually about the activities of the employees of the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, who are endeavouring to relieve mankind of the onerous burden of having to, for instance, watch sport, or go to church, or read the newspaper – or indeed write for a newspaper: one member of staff, Goldwasser, comes up with "Unit Headline Language", a method of programming a computer so that it automatically generates headlines which will appeal to readers and then fits news stories to those headlines. And not only that:

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up


By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:


And so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:


Or the units could be used entirely at random:


Into this entirely plausible lunacy Frayn injects an impending visit by the Queen, who is slated to open the Institute's new Ethics Wing, leading to a series of farcical dress rehearsals and an equally farcical climax. As entertaining as all of this is, however, and despite Christopher Hitchens' assertions to the contrary, what's lacking in The Tin Men is the depth of characterisation that Frayn would bring to his sophomore effort. Hugh Rowe's vainglorious and doomed attempts to write the great English novel are amusing enough, but he isn't as convincing a character as Towards the End of the Morning's Bob Bell, and nor is the officious Nunn as persuasive a creation as John Dyson. That said, as someone who likes to think of himself as an open-minded sort – an attitude which can on occasion lead to vacillation – Frayn's description of Haugh, the Head of the Institute's Fashion Department, did give me pause:

...Haugh had an open mind. It was open at the front, and it was open at the back. Opinions, beliefs, philosophies entered, sojourned briefly, and were pushed out at the other end by the press of incoming convictions and systems. Lamarckism, Montanism, Leninism, Buchmanism, Kleinism, Spenglerism – they all blew in with the draught, whirled cheerfully around, and sailed out again. It depended on who had spoken to him last. On Tuesday morning he would meet a man who believed in acupuncture, cheap money, and hand-blocked Victorian wallpaper, and throughout the day he would go round with the sort of quiet, sincere devotion to these ideals that would clearly withstand torture and martyrdom. But on Tuesday evening he would meet a man who pointed out that there were certain elementary logical flaws in the idea of acupuncture, cheap money, and hand-blocked Victorian wallpaper, and on Wednesday he would be radiant with a gentle pity for all those naive and credulous souls who had been taken in by them... He was a profoundly modest man, and in his modesty he knew that since he had evidently been wrong so often in the past, he was in no position now to cast stones at any idea, however wretched, or to refuse to take it in and give it shelter.

Incidentally, I was on the train the other Friday, coming back from London – I'd been up in town for The Art of Neil Gaiman launch that evening – and sitting around the same table as me were three slightly pissed teenage girls. I was minding my own business, reading my first edition of The Tin Men, when I noticed one of the girls was blearily studying the back of the book. She looked at the quotes on the back for quite a while before muttering, "Michael Frayn. We did some of his at school." Guessing that she meant some of Frayn's later work – I think Spies (2002) went onto the syllabus in 2006 – I reported that I'd only read some of his early stuff, which I liked, and asked her what she thought of what she'd read. She gave me a small drunken smile and said, "Bit boring."