Thursday 15 May 2014

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (Michael Joseph, 1954): British First Edition, Review

NB: Proffered as part of Friday's Forgotten Books, 16 May, 2014.

For this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup, host Patti Nase Abbott has requested books which fall under the subject header "crime fiction of the 1950s" – i.e. crime fiction originally published in the '50s (not crime fiction simply set in the '50s). I could have plucked any number of books from my shelves that fit that bill, but I've plumped for this one:

Ira Levin's debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying, seen here in British first edition/first impression, published by Michael Joseph in 1954. The simple but striking dust jacket design is credited to Beytagh, who I believe to be Dennis Beytagh; another example of his jacket work can be found wrapping the 1957 Pegasus Press first edition of New Zealand author Janet Frame's celebrated debut novel Owls Do Cry, but he's perhaps more widely admired for a New Zealand tourism poster he created in 1960 and for his illustrations in the Reed first edition of The Silver Fern: A Journey in Search of New Zealand by Temple Sutherland from the same year – all of which leads me to suspect he was either a New Zealander himself or emigrated there. Nevertheless, his jacket for A Kiss Before Dying wraps a British edition of the novel, so I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page.

A Kiss Before Dying has been on my radar for a while, for a number of reasons. I'd read and enjoyed one of Levin's later novels, The Boys from Brazil (1976), in 2012, and around the same time had seen a copy of the Joseph edition of A Kiss Before Dying in a later impression – it went through four impressions (printings) that I know of before being reset in 1956 – in Camilla's secondhand bookshop in Eastbourne and been mildly tempted (I elected in the end to hold out for a first impression). And then to cap it all a friend of mine, novelist Nina de la Mer, started raving about Levin's work in general and A Kiss Before Dying in particular on Twitter and the like, and as a consequence my curiosity about the book reached critical mass and I actively sought out a British first edition/first impression, by chance finding one right on my doorstep courtesy of Brighton-based book dealer Alan White at the tail end of last year.

And I bought it, and read it, and liked it just fine; the writing is more melodramatic than the calmer stylings of The Boys from Brazil, but many of the things that I found compelling about that later book are present and correct here too, notably the pace and the high concept – the latter being something Levin excelled at; he only wrote seven novels, and yet they begat a clutch of classic Hollywood movies (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, etc.). What's really interesting is how in this instance the high concept informs the structure of the novel. The story centres on a male student – initially unnamed so as to allow Levin to indulge in some deftly handled misdirection regarding the killer's identity – who works his way through three sisters, one by one, in murderous fashion, with the ultimate aim of getting his hands on their inheritance; accordingly the book is broken up into three parts, each named after one of the sisters: Dorothy, Ellen, and Marion.

In the way in which the protagonist attempts to elevate himself from humble origins utilising murderous methods, A Kiss Before Dying reminded me of another 1950s crime novel: Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). For me, though, Levin's tale lacks the psychological heft of Highsmith's. As motivation for the killer's money-grubbing actions Levin sketches in a deprived but golden childhood where success in adulthood seems assured; but that bright future is derailed by the draft, and an episode in the Pacific at the fag end of World War II kindles his homicidal urges. Building character isn't necessarily all about providing backstory, however; we know very little of Tom Ripley's background, and yet Highsmith makes him a vivid creation – a more fascinating one, I'd argue, than Levin's lead – via the things he thinks and says and does.

In fact the net result of my reading A Kiss Before Dying was to leave me hankering after some more Highsmith – her dispassionate eye, her abiding amorality. So it's just as well I've made a few new Highsmith acquisitions – some unique and remarkable items which I'll be unveiling as part of my sporadic series of posts on signed books.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Guest Post: An Interview with Jeffery Deaver

I've posted a handful of interviews on Existential Ennui over the years – with Jeremy Duns, Christopher Nicole, Jeff Lindsay and Anthony Price – and I've hosted a further handful of guest posts; but I've never combined the two and hosted a guest post which is also an author interview. In a first for Existential Ennui, then, I'm immensely pleased to present a guest post by Paul Simpson (of Sci-Fi Bulletin fame; Paul was responsible for another Existential Ennui guest post back in 2011 on the Big Finish Sherlock Holmes audio plays): a brand new interview with bestselling crime and thriller writer Jeffery Deaver. It's a brief(ish) but illuminating chat, not merely for those looking for insights into Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series especially, but for anyone interested in the wider process, in how writers write; Deaver is forthcoming on where he gets his ideas (at least some of them), how and why he maintains an emotional distance when writing, the expectations of his readers – and his expectations of them in return – and how he's settled into a rhythm with Rhyme.

Over to Paul.

An Interview with Jeffery Deaver, by Paul Simpson

Multiple award-winning American novelist Jeffery Deaver has written over thirty novels, many featuring his quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme, who, assisted by his partner Amelia Sachs, solves seemingly impossible crimes from his New York apartment. In recent times, he's introduced Kathryn Dance, one of America's leading experts in interrogation and kinesics (body language to you or me) who has spun off into her own series of stories. The pattern of Rhyme/Dance alternating was interrupted by his contribution to the 007 continuation saga, Carte Blanche, in 2011, and this month sees the arrival of his latest novel, The Skin Collector. Deaver visited the UK to promote the book, and sat down with me at publishers Hodder & Stoughton to discuss the series so far...

PAUL SIMPSON: The Skin Collector is another Lincoln Rhyme story; I was expecting a Kathryn Dance story next...

JEFFERY DEAVER: In theory, yes; my theory is to alternate books and characters and Kathryn's turn had come around. However I was getting some information from fans saying they were curious about certain plot elements that I had built into the [Lincoln Rhyme] books, and I thought it was probably time to resolve those.

The story sort of presented itself. I had plenty of ideas; inspiration is not really a problem for me. I thought as long as it was there, I would write it. Fans tend to like Lincoln Rhyme of all my characters the best, so out came The Skin Collector.

Kathryn is under way; I was actually writing it for a couple of hours this morning before I went to a signing at Waterstones.

You've taken inspiration for your stories from real crimes; is there any specific thing that inspired this one?

A waitress. I knew I wanted to write a true sequel to The Bone Collector, I wanted the themes that I intentionally left open in The Bone Collector, and some characters I originally left open in The Bone Collector to come back. I was not quite sure how to do it, and I wanted a theme that echoed The Bone Collector.

I remain a bit like a sponge. I was having lunch with my assistant, and a waitress came up to us. We knew her – she's a very charming young lady – and she had a tattoo on her bicep with a rather cryptic message in some Asian characters that I was not familiar with. Interesting... That gave me the idea: "Tattoo: message on victims". I got involved with the tattoo world: I have to learn a little bit about that as Lincoln Rhyme has to put together the message. The next step then, the logical extension of that idea was "rather than using ink he uses poison". Then I sat down and wrote the book.

You make it sound so easy...

There was a little more to it than that, I will admit!

When you're researching something like the tattoo world, do you keep a note of things which may assist with later projects, or do they go to the back of your mind and percolate?

Probably both. I tend not to write things ripped from the headlines. For instance, my book of last year, The Kill Room, was inspired in large part by the drone killing by the CIA of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, who had fled the country and was preaching jihad from Yemen. He was killed in a drone strike along with his associate, also an American citizen. That happened some years ago, and I always had it in mind that I would write a political book about some of the moral issues, and some of the technical issues, of a government extra-judicially taking the life of someone in a quasi-combat circumstance. We are not at war with Yemen, but it could be argued that we are at war with al-Qaeda, and he was an al-Qaeda affiliate, so there was some legitimacy to that. But it's not my job to make a point; my job is simply to ask the question, to make the book more resonant. That came from the headlines certainly.

My book The Burning Wire, about a man who uses the energy grid to kill people, started when I thought, 'If I touch the wrong switch in my fuse box on my circuit breaker, I'm going to die... I like that idea.'

So to answer your question, some yes, and some no.

In every book there is a gross moment, perhaps something which Amelia finds when walking the room; do you ever find, like Stephen King, that you gross yourself out?

In terms of viscera?

Or in terms of character, a revelation of "evil"?

In a more general sense then. First of all, I'm extremely unemotional when I write. I like Wordsworth's comment that poetry is emotion but it's emotion recollected in tranquility. Your heart really cannot be too invested in the story because you need to keep a distant view, a dispassionate view, so that the readers will be engaged.

It's my job to create scenarios that will scare the hell out of my readers, and will shock them, but I need to be pretty aloof from that so I can have my hand on the control. It's like when a pilot can see a thunderstorm; he doesn't care about them. He's flown through a thousand of them. There's no danger – even though we are terrified in the back. he just has to be a bit more vigilant, that's all.

I take that approach so no, I'm fairly detached when I write the books, and I'm very suspicious of scenes that I write and feel emotional about. I tend not to put those in. I think that's inartful, a weakness on my part, to be too engaged in the story.

So you're almost a conduit for the story in that respect?

Exactly. I might say more of a craftsperson, a builder, a joiner. That's the analogy I like to use.

The Lincoln and Kathryn books deal to an extent with the same sorts of ideas, although obviously the approaches are very different. Are there stories that you find you would only tell as Lincoln or Kathyrn, or you'd have to write as a short story?

Exactly – a very good observation. The books which tend to be more scientific in nature tend to be Lincoln's story, because he's of course a scientific individual. The books which are purely psychological, or in which the psychology of evil or psychology of the crimes takes precedence over the technical aspects, those would be Kathryn books.

Of course you can never divorce either of those from any type of crime now, but psychology is marginalised in Lincoln, and forensics is marginalised in Kathryn. The book which I'm working on now – the Kathryn book which I don't want to talk about – there's very little scientific information. There will be fingerprints, there will be fibre evidence, but relatively little of that. Mostly it's the mind of the villain that Kathryn has to get into.

The new Lincoln book which I'm working on for 2016, there will be some sick and twisted psychology on the part of the bad guy but basically it's really about a number of what I find quite interesting, and what I hope the readers find utterly terrifying, aspects of technology. That's what Lincoln has to deal with to solve the crime.

As far as short stories go, they are appropriate when there is basically a twist – usually one surprise, maybe two surprises – which take precedence over the characters so that the surprise at the ending can be revealed in the fact that our hero, the person we've been in love with the whole time, is utterly despicable. I can't get away with that in a novel; some authors do, but I don't like to do that. I want my readers to like the characters that I create and to have a connection with them. In a short story, forty pages, who cares? I'm not going to be spending any more time with this person. They can be utterly reprehensible.

Lincoln is changing: he's worked with Kathryn, he had the operation at the end of The Kill Room. How much of that change derives from the people around him, and how much of it is through what's happening physically?

He certainly has mellowed a bit. People like his curmudgeonliness but he is a bit less edgy than he was in the early books. For one thing he has regained some facility, some physical mobility, which is about as far as the state of the art medicines can go now; there can be no miracles here. The fact is, he has also had some really interesting cases, and he is never so happy as when he's dealing with an intractable criminal situation.

What I find is I've settled into a rhythm with Lincoln where I have to prove him less and less. He's less the centrepiece than he is a traditional Sam Spade detective: we love Sam Spade's personality, we love Philip Marlowe's personality in the Raymond Chandler novels, John D. MacDonald has his character of course, but we focus a little less on the arc of those characters. Now that I know that Lincoln is going to be a long time character, I'm a little less worried about that.

I'll make him real: there will be tragedies. He and Amelia may not be together forever; there certainly is that possibility. Amelia's ex-boyfriend will be returning in one of the future books, and that stirs the pot quite a bit. But I've settled him into a certain place physically and I'm happy to really concentrate on getting a long series of knockdown, drag out thrillers.

Many years ago I read the Nero Wolfe books, and occasionally there's a Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin vibe to Lincoln and Amelia which makes me recall William "Cannon" Conrad as Nero. Do you have anyone in mind now when you're thinking of Lincoln, or is he such a fully formed character in your mind that you know who he is?

It's helpful for authors to envision an actor, so long before the book was bought by Universal Studios, I saw Harrison Ford, the physical archetype of Harrison Ford. Not necessarily his personality, as that does change from movie to movie. The personality was, and always has been, Jeremy Brett from the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series, who was cranky, impatient, brilliant; he did, in that series, use cocaine – Lincoln drinks too much – he has a temper, and does forge a difficult and complex relationship with individuals round about him. So that's the personality I continue to look back at.

For Kathryn Dance, Cate Blanchett has always been one of my all-time favourite actresses. She can do anything; she can be funny, austere, sever, and a bit ruthless depending on the role. I'd always pictured her as Kathryn. Perhaps Americanized a bit: she takes the kids to soccer, she stops for fast food. I can't see Cate Blanchett stopping by McDonald's. (And I apologise on behalf of my country since I see them all the time over here, and Burger King, not to mention Starbucks! You have such good pub food here with the gastropubs. And Costa Coffee is excellent – I get no kickback from this, it's a genuine honest feeling.)

I imagined a younger Kate Mulgrew perhaps?

I don't know her, but I will look her up.

And for Amelia?

My era, hands down Julia Roberts. Now Lincoln does not at all look like Denzel Washington, but Angelina Jolie was not a bad Amelia [in The Bone Collector movie], I have to say. More vulnerable, at least at first, than Angelina Jolie, but remember the books were created sixteen/seventeen years ago, Julia Roberts was the one I had in mind. There are any number of really strong women characters nowadays. Sandra Bullock if they wanted to make a fun version of it...

Thanks to Ellie Cheele and Kerry Hood for their assistance in arranging this interview at short notice.

Monday 12 May 2014

Peter Cheyney's Dark Series Book Cover Gallery: From Dark Duet (1942) to Dark Bahama (1950)

From 1942 until 1950 (the year before his death), British hard-boiled crime writer Peter Cheyney published an eight-book series of spy novels – the "Dark" Series. The novels detail the exploits – both wartime and postwar – of a rotating cast of counter-espionage agents of British Intelligence, notably Michael Kane and Ernie Guelvada, along with their boss, Peter Quayle. All were first published in hardback by Collins in the UK, as follows:

1. Dark Duet (1942)
2. The Stars are Dark (1943)
3. The Dark Street (1944)
4. Sinister Errand (1945)
5. Dark Hero (1946)
6. Dark Interlude (1947)
7. Dark Wanton (1948)
8. Dark Bahama (1950)

I blogged about a signed limited first edition of the fifth one, Dark Hero, last week, as part of a periodic run of posts on signed books, but I've also been picking up first and other editions of some of the other instalments in the series here and there over the past couple of years. I'm still missing two of them – The Stars are Dark and Dark Interlude – but since I'm not in any special hurry to plug those gaps in my collection, and seeing as I'm on the subject of Cheyney, I thought I'd gather the ones I do own together in a "Dark" Series gallery post, with links in each instance to the relevant pages on the Official Peter Cheyney Website. Like so:

Dark Duet, Collins hardback, 1942
The Collins first edition/first impression of the debut "Dark" novel is quite a rare book; I nabbed this copy on eBay a couple of years ago, but there are at present fewer than half a dozen copies of the Collins first edition/first impression available online. The dust jacket design is uncredited, in common with all the Collins editions of the Cheyney novels I own, but that's a great photo of Cheyney and, I believe, his second wife, Kathleen Nora Walter (nee Taberer), on the back.

The Dark Street, Pan paperback, 1963 (originally Collins, 1944)
This is the first Pan Books paperback edition of the third "Dark" novel, cover art by J. Oval (alias Ben Ostrick); I found this copy in a stack of paperbacks in Lewes (the picturesque East Sussex town in which I live and work) secondhand bookshop A & Y Cumming, paying, I think, a pound for it.

Sinister Errand, Collins hardback, 1947 (originally 1945)
I have a feeling I was under the impression when I bought this copy of the fourth "Dark" novel a few years ago online that it was a 1945 first edition. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be a 1947 edition (printed in the Netherlands); note the reviews of the novel itself on the jacket flaps – always a giveaway that a book is a later impression.

Dark Hero, Collins hardback, 1946 / Collins paperback, 1950
Dark Hero I blogged about last week, but as well as the wrapper of the Collins first edition I've also included here the cover of the 1950 Collins paperback, published as part of their White Circle "pocket" range. Splendid Bravington Rings advert on the back cover there.

Dark Wanton, Collins hardback, 1948
This copy of the Collins first of the seventh "Dark" novel came from Badger's Books in Worthing – a fine secondhand bookshop to spend an hour or two in, if you're ever that way. The jacket has seen better days, but then I don't think I paid more than three or four quid for the book.

Dark Bahama, Collins hardback, 1950
Finally, there's this, my most recent Cheyney acquisition: a first edition of Dark Bahama, which I bought last year in Othello's in Essex at the start of the Jones–Day family holiday; follow this link for the first in an interminable series of increasingly daft posts about that holiday.