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."