NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 4/9/15.
It may not have been a banner year thus far for book blogging chez Louis XIV/Existential Ennui – and certainly not at The Violent World of Parker, where, this post included, I've managed just two posts this year; some co-blogger, huh? – but it's been a bloody good year for book collecting. I've had three books at the top of my wants list for the past four years (and more like five or six years in the case of two of them), and one by one, over the past few months, I've managed to cross them all off. First came a 1957 Cresset Press edition of Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr. Ripley (albeit sans dust jacket, compensated for by the addition of a facsimile jacket); then a 1965 Michael Joseph edition of perhaps P. M. Hubbard's finest novel, A Hive of Glass (albeit an ex-library copy, compensated for the additional acquisition of an uncorrected proof of said); and now this:
Pity Him Afterwards, published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1965 (the year after the US Random House edition). The fifth of Donald E. Westlake's novels to be published under his own name, until a fortnight ago (when I won this copy on eBay, for seventeen quid), Pity Him Afterwards was the only one of the eight Westlakes in total published by Boardman that I didn't own. Doubtless that will mean little to most folk, even those with an enthusiasm for Westlake, but book collectors with an interest in crime fiction (or indeed longtime readers of Existential Ennui) will surely understand how collectable – and how uncommon and elusive – the Boardman Bloodhound Mysteries (of which Pity Him Afterwards is no. 499) can be.
A big part of that collectability is their dust jackets, almost all of which were designed by Denis McLoughlin, a body of work which comprises around 550 wrappers. (The Bloodhound wrappers are just one strand of McLoughlin's wider body of work; he designed another two or three hundred covers for Boardman besides and drew countless comics both for that publisher and for IPC and DC Thomson.) And of the seven jackets he designed for Westlake novels (the wrapper design for the final Westlake published by Boardman, The Spy in the Ointment, was taken from the US edition), Pity Him Afterwards is, I think, the best: arresting, dramatic, darkly evocative.
That the novel itself doesn't match up to its terrific cover is bit of a shame, because in truth it's not a patch on the earlier likes of The Mercenaries, Killing Time, Killy and especially 361. Parts of it are quite good – it's set in and around a summer stock theatre (a favourite motif of Westlake's; see also the pseudonymous sleaze novel Backstage Love and its two sequels and the Parker character Alan Grofield, whose background is in summer stock), and the passages dealing with the day-to-day running of said are surprisingly interesting and convincingly done. The problems come in the ludicrous characterisation of "the madman", the murderous escapee from a mental institution who drives the plot and who, preposterously, manages to get a job as an actor at the theatre (and then starts killing his coworkers). He's an utterly unbelievable creation, and the novel suffers whenever he assumes the role of point-of-view character.
Still, there's some decent characterisation elsewhere in the novel, notably in the shape of Eric Sondgard, captain of the Cartier Isle (where the theatre is located) police department during the summer months and humanities professor at a Connecticut college for the remainder of the year – a believably unassuming chap whose self-doubt almost causes him to hand off the case to the state police more than once but who through diligence and dogged determination eventually wins through. And then there's the whodunnit aspect of the book – Westlake deliberately obfuscates which of the actors the madman has assumed the identity of – which despite my general disinterest in such guessing games I must admit did, well, keep me guessing.
More importantly from my perspective, however, this copy of the Boardman edition of Pity Him Afterwards completes my set of Westlake Boardmans, so in that regards it's a thing to be prized. And particularly so in that dust jacket, which, though a little shabby, is presentable enough to take its rightful place in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s.