Monday 18 May 2015

The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard: First Edition (Michael Joseph, 1965), Book Review

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 22/5/15.

I haven't read every single one of the eighteen novels that British cult suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard published from 1963–1979, but I have read well over half of them by this point – enough, I reckon, and given everything I've learned about the writer since Book Glutton introduced me to his work four years ago, to venture that The Holm Oaks might be the quintessential Hubbard novel.

It's also one of the scarcest in first (although readily available in print-on-demand or ebook from the Langtail Press): I fortuitously chanced upon a copy of the 1965 Michael Joseph first edition in Tunbridge Wells only very recently, but I should imagine the odds of anyone making a similarly serendipitous discovery are pretty slim, and I don't believe there are any British firsts available online at present (although fellow Hubbard enthusiast Polecat reports that he nabbed one on eBay fairly recently, plus there are one or two extant listings for the US first, published by Atheneum in 1966). Still, scarcity in first is a characteristic of all four of the Hubbard novels published by Joseph, and increasingly so of those published by Geoffrey Bles and Macmillan as well; the number of Hubbard devotees may be small, but I'd hazard the number of Hubbard first editions available to buy is smaller yet.

Happily, since I first wrote about Hubbard in 2011, a further fifteen of his novels have been reissued as ebooks by Orion imprint The Murder Room, so it's now rather easier to read him, if not collect him. And anyone interested in doing so could do a lot worse than starting with The Holm Oaks, so characteristic is it of his oeuvre. There's the preoccupation with an unsettling feature of the British countryside, in this case the eponymous oak tree wood; there's the obsessive romance, with the male lead – Jake Haddon here, who inherits a remote coastal house adjacent to the aforementioned wood and moves in with his wife, Elizabeth, and her sister, Stella – "losing his shit", as Book Glutton once put it – over Carol, the wife of the owner of the wood, Dennis Wainwright; there's the increasingly pervasive but unspecified sense of doom; and there's the dry humour and wry one-liners.

There's also a short stretch where the narrative adopts the jauntier tone of Hubbard's earliest novels (for adults), Flush as May (1963) and Picture of Millie (1964), as Jake and Elizabeth assume the joint mantle of eco-warriors, dashing about the countryside enlisting the aid of councillors and subcommittees in a bid to save the wood from destruction at the hands of Dennis Wainwright; but this doesn't last long; for the most part the book has more in common with the gloomy – but superb – A Hive of Glass (1965) or A Thirsty Evil (1974). However, in regard to that aspect of the plot the novel could almost be seen as a prototypical eco thriller; ornithologist Elizabeth's case for rescuing the wood from Dennis's nefarious designs rests on it being the roosting ground for a night heron, and even Jake argues for the survival of the wood in its own right and not merely because of what he gets up to in it with Carol.

The dust jacket of the Michael Joseph edition was designed by the wonderfully – and strangely appositely – named H. Bridgeman Grimley, and I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page. The Holm Oaks was the last Hubbard novel to be published by Joseph; his next was published by Geoffrey Bles, and I shall be writing about that book very soon.