Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Victor Canning Birdcage First Edition Book Cover Gallery

Since I became interested in Victor Canning's "Birdcage" espionage series earlier this year I've been collecting first editions of the novels as and when I come across them online, and as and when I judge prices on those first editions to be reasonable. The eight titles which comprise the series were published in hardback by Heinemann in the UK from 1971–1985, and while most are reasonably readily available in first via the usual suspects – AbeBooks, Amazon Marketplace, eBay and so forth– conditions and prices vary considerably. Even still, I've managed to procure seven of the eight novels in first, and in most cases haven't had to pay as much as a tenner for 'em. (At time of writing I've yet to find an affordable non-ex-library first of the final Birdcage book, 1985's Birds of a Feather; I'll update this post as and when I do.)

There's an appealing simplicity to some of their dust jacket designs, but by and large I can't say I'm making any great claims for the wrapper designs of these books – a similar disclaimer to the one on the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page, oddly enough, where their front covers also reside. I gather these jackets together here, then, partly as a stopgap post – I haven't yet finished reading the next book I intend to blog about, plus I have some other, non-blog stuff to deal with, so I'm buying myself some time with this missive – and partly because bringing them together like this – complete with links to whatever, if anything, I've written about each book – may prove of some use to someone, somewhere, sometime. Although I struggle to imagine who/where/when.

Firecrest (Heinemann, 1971); dust jacket illustration by Bob Lawrie

The Rainbird Pattern (Heinemann, 1972); dust jacket photography by Graham Miller

The Mask of Memory (Heinemann, 1974); dust jacket photography by Bill Richmond

The Doomsday Carrier (Heinemann, 1976); dust jacket uncredited

Birdcage (Heinemann, 1978); dust jacket illustration by Alun Hood

The Satan Sampler (Heinemann, 1979); dust jacket uncredited

Vanishing Point (Heinemann, 1982); dust jacket photograph Andy Williams Photo Library

Birds of a Feather (Heinemann, 1985); dust jacket illustration by Tony Ansell

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Finger of Saturn by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1973): Book Review

NB: Proffered for Friday's Forgotten Books, 21/11/14.

The Finger of Saturn is a book I touched on during my run of posts on author Victor Canning in August, in relation to the "Birdcage" series of spy novels Canning published from 1971–1985. The Finger of Saturn isn't a Birdcage novel, but as Canning aficionado John Higgins points out in his overview of the Birdcage books, in common with them it does feature "malign civil servants", which is why I decided to make it my next Canning read after The Rainbird Pattern (1972).

Published by Heinemann in 1973 under a dust jacket bearing an evocative photo by Robert Golden (a jacket which is also to be found, naturally, in the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery), The Finger of Saturn nestles in between the second Birdcage book, the aforementioned The Rainbird Pattern, and the third one, The Mask of Memory (1974), in Canning's backlist (his adult readers backlist, that is; his "Smiler" trilogy for younger readers was also published around the same period). Unlike those novels, however, and unusually for Canning, The Finger of Saturn is narrated in the first person, in this instance by Robert Rolt, English country squire, master of stately pile Rolthead (!), and all-round colossal arse.

As a member of the landed gentry who gets mixed up in a thriller plot, Rolt is firmly in the tradition of Raymond Ingelram from Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male (1939, as well as its sequel, Rogue Justice, 1982, which is where we learn Ingelram's name) or Philip from Michael Gilbert's Be Shot for Sixpence (1956), except with less of the former's tactical cunning and rustic know-how and more of the latter's pigheaded persistence and abrasive nature. Rolt blunders and blusters his way through the book like the "stiff-necked, pugnacious, irascible, and impetuous" type he's identified as by a family friend, irritably attempting to get to the bottom of a highly personal mystery: the disappearance of his wife, and her reappearance some years later under another name and with no memory of her former life.

In this he's assisted, or, more accurately, directed by a succession of shadowy Whitehall types – not Birdcage, but not far off: their agenda is similarly underhand, they're MOD-linked, and they're based on Northumberland Avenue, a couple of streets away from Birdcage Walk. Who it is who ultimately directs these civil servants, however, and what their agenda is, lies at the heart of the mystery, and it's here that the novel may lose some (and possibly gain others), because in the explaining the story crosses over from the realms of espionage and subterfuge to that of science fiction. I shan't reveal any more, except to note that the title of the book, which refers to the shortened middle finger of Rolt's wife's left hand – a genetic quirk borne by some of the women in her line (it skips a generation) – points to the explanation (if you'll excuse the pun).

Still, even if the SF/supernatural elements prove hard to take, there's plenty to admire about the novel, not least the subtle bits of characterisation Canning deploys – for instance a nameless biscuit-munching non-governmental panjandrum who suffers from stomach ulcers, "The accolade for tireless endeavour in the struggle to keep one's head well above water," as he puts it to Rolt: "Every four hours, milk and biscuits" – the kind of small character quirk which helps to ground otherwise slightly fantastical scenarios. And then there's Rolt himself: a winningly acerbic creation, perpetually pissed-off, not especially clever, but tremendous fun nevertheless. For me Rolt makes the book (Rolthead!) – a book which novelist and biographer (of, among others, Jeffrey Bernard) Graham Lord (writing contemporaneously in The Sunday Express) called "A marvellously entertaining story of love and hate, of morality and evil, that I found impossible to abandon", and which for spy novelist Anthony Price (in his Oxford Mail reviewer guise) "Mr Canning has never written better". And who am I to dissent from those two venerable gents?

And since I'm on the subject of Victor Canning, I think I'll return to his Birdcage novels for my next post.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Killshot by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1989): Signed and Inscribed to Writer Philip Oakes; Book Review

Back in May, in this post on Patricia Highsmith's Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, I expatiated on signed editions – how signed books, in particular inscribed and association/presentation copies, have become an increasingly important aspect of my book collecting, especially books signed or inscribed by my favourite authors. Until very recently I owned five books signed by Elmore Leonard – who, it may be gleaned from the number of times I've posted about him, is indeed one of my favourite authors: a 1970 Dell paperback of The Moonshine War and a 1993 Viking first of Pronto, both flat signed; a signed and dated 1984 Allen Lane first of Stick; an inscribed 1977 Secker & Warburg first of Unknown Man No. 89; and an association copy of the 1984 Viking edition of LaBrava. All of those books I considered good deals, as in I managed to acquire each of them for less than one might ordinarily expect to pay. However, this has to be the best deal of all:

Killshot, published in hardback by Viking in 1989 (dust jacket design uncredited, but it's virtually identical to that on the US Arbor House edition, published the same year). I picked up this copy of the British first edition online for a fiversomewhat less than the going rate for an unsigned British first in near fine condition – which this copy is – and certainly a lot less than the going rate for a signed one; I can see just a single signed copy of the Viking first available online, listed at over £80. This isn't merely a flat signed copy, however:

It's an association copy, inscribed on the front free endpaper to the journalist (and poet) Philip Oakes. The inscription reads:

For Philip Oakes,

It was a pleasure talking to you. With best wishes –

Elmore Leonard

Sept. 13, 1989

Oakes was an admirer of and sometimes reviewer of Leonard's work; there's an extract from an Oakes review of Freaky Deaky on the back cover of the Viking edition of Killshot, taken from the Literary Review, for which Oakes frequently reviewed crime fiction. This copy of the book came came from Oakes's own library and was evidently presented to him by Leonard shortly after Oakes had interviewed the author, as implied by the inscription. This we can further establish thanks to the BBC's recently launched (in a test version) Genome Project: there's a listing on 31 October, 1989 at 7.05pm for a Radio 3 (the Beeb's classical music station) programme titled Third Ear, in which "Philip Oakes talks with the American crime novelist and Western screenwriter Elmore Leonard". I think it's safe to conclude that that was the conversation referred to in Leonard's inscription, which means that, remarkably, there's a BBC licence fee-funded provenance for this particular copy of Killshot readily viewable online. And potentially, if the relevant edition of Third Ear itself is ever made available online, an audio provenance too. 

Killshot is another example, in a different sort of way, of something I was banging on about in last week's post on Elmore Leonard's 1983 novel Cat Chaser: the romantic element in the writer's work. In the case of Killshot, however, the romance is a more mature one, between ironworker Wayne Colson and his wife Carmen, who fall foul of two killers: Native American hitman (working for the Canadian mob) Armand Degas, alias the Blackbird, and murderous career criminal Richie Nix. Much of the novel is concerned with Armand and Richie's repeated attempts to kill Wayne and Carmen, and throughout the novel Leonard contrasts the dynamics of the two sets of relationships (in the non-Biblical sense in Armand and Richie's case, although they do share Richie's ex-prison guard girlfriend): wary, edgy and dangerous on Armand and Richie's part, warm, genuine and occasionally argumentative on Wayne and Carmen's.

The tenderness between Wayne and Carmen and the contrast between those two and Armand and Richie is something which was raised by Anthony May in a 1991 interview with Leonard (available via Contrapasso Magazine). In that interview Leonard also notes how Wayne "was gonna be the main character in Killshot but it was so obvious that I had to change it" – to Armand, although Carmen is arguably as much the main character as the Blackbird is – and discusses something else which is applicable to Killshot: the author's approach to story. Leonard told May: "It's not a big story I do, it's just little situations and they end up. There's always a way to end them up." This is a theme that bubbles beneath the surface of Killshot, a subtext which becomes explicit late in the novel, when Richie muses, "It was weird how one thing could lead to another"; when Carmen mulls the 1975 Antonioni movie The Passenger and how in the film Jack Nicholson "lets his new life happen... lets it carry him along as a passenger to the end"; and when Armand reflects, "He had come this far, now he was along for the ride."

"Little situations", one leading to another: an apt summation of Leonard's work in general and Killshot in particular. And as Leonard said, there's always a way to end them up – usually involving violence, as here. But though the ending of Killshot may be among the tensest Leonard concocted – with Carmen menaced by the two killers and Wayne racing across country to reach her – as ever in Leonard stories, much as in life, it's not so much about the destination as about "the ride", as Armand puts it. And Killshot, with its diverting detours and engaging characters, is as hypnotically meandering a ride as you'll find in the author's canon.

Friday, 7 November 2014

A Fine Romance: Elmore Leonard's Cat Chaser (Arbor House, 1982 / Viking, 1986)

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

If you were to think of one word to describe the work of Elmore Leonard, that word probably wouldn't be "romance". "Crime", maybe, or "violence", or "murder", or "humour", or more obliquely "dialogue", or more obscurely "western". But romance...?

Thing is, romance is a feature of most, if not all, of Leonard's books. I struggle to think of an Elmore Leonard novel I've read that doesn't have a love affair if not at its heart, then pretty close to it. Often that romance will be of the lightning-strikes, bolt-out-of-the-blue order, where the eyes of the taciturn male protagonist and the sassy female protagonist meet across a crowded hotel lobby or courtroom and an instant connection is made, and in short order the two are confirmed as eternal soul-mates. I'm generalizing there, obviously, but it is a thing which you do get in Leonard novels, and it's a little-discussed* aspect of his work. Take this book:

Cat Chaser, Elmore Leonard's next published novel after Split Images (1981) – at least in America, where it was published the year after Split Images, by the same publisher, Arbor House, under a dust jacket designed by Antler & Baldwin, Inc. (who also designed the wrapper for the 1983 Arbor House edition of Leonard's next novel, Stick). Here in the UK there was a three year gap between Split Images, which was published by W H Allen in 1983, and Cat Chaser, which was finally published in 1986 (Stick, LaBrava and Glitz all appeared in the interim):

by Viking, under a dust jacket designed by Bet Ayer and sporting a photograph by Peter Chadwick. (The jacket of that Viking edition, by the way, has joined the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, where Ayer and Chadwick's wrapper for the 1987 Viking edition of City Primeval also resides.)

The romance in Cat Chaser is between onetime marine-turned-Florida motel owner George Moran – the eponymous Cat Chaser, so named after the code name for his platoon during the 1965–66 American occupation of the Dominican Republic – and Mary de Boya, wife of property magnate Andres de Boya, former general in the Dominican army and right-hand man of the late, real life, dictator Rafael Trujillo. I'm confining myself to romance in this post – for a more comprehensive review of the novel (and of the 1989 Abel Ferrara film adaptation, which I don't believe I've seen) I can recommend Sergio's one over at Tipping My Fedora – but I will just note that Cat Chaser grew out of the material on Trujillo that Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter, unearthed when looking into the playboy confidant of Trujullo, Porfiro Rubirosa, whom Leonard used as the basis for Chichi Fuentes in Split Images (see Sutter's article in Armchair Detective Volume 19 Number 1, Winter 1986); and further note that the novel boasts maybe the funniest scene I've come across in a Leonard book, where Moran is besieged in a Santo Domingo hotel lobby by over a dozen besotted nubile Dominicans and consequently mistaken for a film star by a gaggle of Chinese tourists.

Anyway, Moran and Mary's romance is interesting (to me, anyway) for the way it overtly shapes the narrative of Cat Chaser. Other Leonard novels are shaped by love affairs – Out of Sight (1996) most obviously, but also Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images, Stick (1983), LaBrava (1983), Cuba Libre (1998) and others besides – but in subtler ways; in Cat Chaser, the blossoming love between Moran and Mary drives the story, overwhelms the narrative almost to the exclusion of everything else. There's money involved, sure, a score to be taken, just as there is in many Leonard works, but it becomes almost incidental (except in regard to the gruesome shootings towards the end of the novel, where it proves rather more instrumental): what matters most to Moran and Mary – and by extension to Leonard, he being the storyteller – is that they be together. In that sense, Cat Chaser is a pointer to how recognising the romantic leanings of Leonard's novels is key to understanding his work.

Which it is, in a weird sort of way. Romance informs the distinctive lilt of his writing more so, I'd argue, than the more widely recognised violent or criminal aspects. Leonard once stated that "all of my male leads... have much the same basic attitude about their own existence, what’s important and what isn’t" (the template being Jack Ryan in The Big Bounce, 1969), and one of the characteristics that they share is that they have a tendency to fall head-over-heels when the right woman comes along (sometimes after a dalliance with the wrong one) – that woman herself tending to be of a certain type: smart, feisty, independent, but still, like her male counterpart, willing to surrender herself wholesale to this newfound love. And given that Leonard tells his tales from the perspectives of his characters, that once he decides the point of view of a scene, "that character's sound will permeate the narrative" (see Anthony May's 1991 interview with Leonard), then naturally the romantic outlooks of his leads – male or female – is going to at least in part pervade the tone of the piece.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that there is a secret soft centre to Leonard's purportedly tough crime dramas – Cat Chaser being only the most conspicuous example – one which crops up again and again in his oeuvre, and which suffuses and animates his stories more than is perhaps appreciated, lending them much of their unexpected warmth. Unexpected, that is, for anyone who hasn't read any Leonard. For those who have, well... I have a feeling they'll know what I'm on about (er, I hope).

* Addendum: The week after I posted this I happened to stumble upon and reread Donald E. Westlake's review of LaBrava, in which Westlake discusses the romantic in that novel and labels it "a mean-streets romance".

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Notes from the Small Press 18: John Porcellino's Autobiographical Comics: The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014); Graphic Novel Review

I've been following the work of American small and not-so-small press autobiographical comics creator John Porcellino for around ten years now, and trying to for longer than that. I think the first thing of his I heard about was the graphic novel Perfect Example, published by Highwater in 2000. Back then, however, for a Brit, even one living in London (at the time), getting hold of US indie comics and graphic novels wasn't always easy, and so Perfect Example sat on my wants list until 2005, when it was reissued by Drawn and Quarterly. That same year La Mano published Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, and also around that mid-2000s period, at one of my two visits to San Diego Comic-Con across consecutive years, I scored a few issues of Porcellino's self-published King-Cat Comics and Stories (issues #62–64); and then in 2007 Drawn and Quarterly published the King-Cat Classics collection... Basically, I have a fair few of Porcellino's comics, and I like them a lot, so when I spotted a single copy of his latest graphic novel:

The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014; excerpt here), in Dave's Comics in Brighton the other week (having been made aware of it via Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter) I snapped it up. At well over 200 pages I guess you could call it his longest sustained narrative... except, in common with his other comics and collections and graphic novels, it's episodic in nature, comprising three overlapping stories: "The Hospital Suite", "1998" and "True Anxiety", with a small selection of additional related minicomix under "Appendices" in the back. As the graphic novel's overarching title implies, though, what links all these bits, aside from that they, er, interlink a bit (hence "suite"), is the medical theme, namely the various ailments which have plagued Porcellino throughout his life, but especially around the late 1990s.

And it's quite the list of complaints, including, but not limited to: mysterious stomach pains; repeated bouts of anxiety and depression; obsessive-compulsive behaviour; self-harming; allergies; and lower back problems. By the time I got to the end of "True Anxiety" I felt exhausted by it all, which in a way is apt: as draining as the experience is for the reader, it must have been a hundred times so for Porcellino himself, something he frequently expresses in the narrative. And to compound his despair, half the time the medical professionals he meets haven't a clue what's wrong with him, which makes me wonder whether the American healthcare system and the British NHS are really so different.

The honesty and candidness of Porcellino's account will, I think, speak to anyone who, like me, has had repeated encounters with the healthcare systems of their respective countries. In my case the early part of The Hospital Suite – "The Hospital Suite" itself – brought to mind one memorable stay in hospital in 2010, and even though the outcomes were different – surgery in Porcellino's case, a permanent prescription for Lansoprazole in mine – and I don't share Porcellino's spirituality, the direct, sincere manner by which which he communicates his experiences – his maladies, the treatments for those maladies and how he deals with it all – lends the work a veracity, a universality which can only engender empathy.

Part of why it works, I suspect, is down to how Porcellino's comics look. The naivety of his linework and guilelessness of his storytelling make his comics feel unfiltered, as if he drew them immediately after the events depicted. Which is a method he's deployed for his comics in the past – see the True Anxiety zines at the back of The Hospital Suite – but not, I don't believe, how he drew most of The Hospital Suite; this is new work documenting historical events. Still, that's the illusion he maintains – and anyway I think you can overthink Porcellino's drawing style, which is why I've tried not to dwell on it too much here: his comics look the way they look – uncluttered, sparse, barely delineated – because that's how he draws them.

Which is not to say that they're somehow dashed off, despite initial appearances to the contrary. Porcellino spends a lot of time getting his comics right. It's no easy thing to communicate an idea, convey information or evoke a feeling in so few lines. The simplicity of his style belies the depth of The Hospital Suite. There's an art to Porcellino's artlessness.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7 by Martin Eden

Notes from the Small Press 16: Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou 

Notes from the Small Press 17: The Battle of Lewes by Peter Cole