Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus (Cassell, 1950)

No. 5 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do. NB: linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 1/4/16.

What is it?
A hardback first edition/first printing of The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus, published by Cassell in 1950. Running to nearly a thousand pages, it contains six of Hammett's Continental Op novels and stories – Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, "Dead Yellow Women", "The Golden Horseshoe", "House Dick" (a.k.a. "Bodies Piled Up") and "Who Killed Bob Teal?" – along with the Sam Spade novel The Maltese Falcon and the novels The Glass Key and The Thin Man.

Who designed the dust jacket?
Couldn't tell you – it's uncredited – but although it's a little wordy – and a little scruffy, condition-wise – it's still stylish enough, I feel, to be added to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s under "Designer Unknown".

Where and when did I buy it?
Online, last year.

Why did I buy it?
I'd never read any Hammett, and wanted to try some of his hardboiled and noir classics, and The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus seemed a good way to do that; it's an uncommon edition, especially in first/first and in its dust jacket, even a scruffy one (I can only see two or three jacketed first impressions online at present), and represents the first British publication of many of the stories within.

Have I read it yet?
Some of it...

Thursday, 24 March 2016

W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or, The British Agent (Collins 7D Novel, 1934)

No. 4 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly... except in this instance I have blogged about the novel, both properly and repeatedly. Admittedly I discussed different editions to this one – and indeed different books entirely – but even so... I've gone and made a nonsense of my rationale for this series of posts already, haven't I?

What is it?
An early edition of W. Somerset Maugham's archetypal 1928 spy novel Ashenden, or, The British Agent, published in, I believe, 1934 (the book is undated) by Collins as part of their 7D Novels range – a short-lived but fascinating initiative on the part of the publisher whereby hardbacks were issued at the bargain price of sevenpence; see the excellent Paperback Revolution site for more.

Who designed the dust jacket?
No idea, although judging by other examples of Collins 7D novel dust jackets I've found online – see here and here – I would guess the same artist was responsible for a good many of the wrappers in the range.

Where and when did I buy it?
On AbeBooks, from the History Bookshop in Bourton on the Water, just last week.

Why did I buy it?
A number of reasons. For one thing, Ashenden is by far the best book I've read over the past few years, a beautifully written, wonderfully measured yet devastatingly affecting novel, and a peerless piece of spy fiction to boot. For another, although I already own two editions of Ashenden – a 1934 Heinemann Collected Edition and a 1941 Doubleday edition, which boast slightly different versions of a preface Maugham provided especially for each – there was something about this petite Collins edition – perhaps that glorious dust jacket design (could the swooning woman be Giulia Lazzari, or even poor Mrs. Caypor from "The Traitor"...?), perhaps the edition's scarcity (I can't see any other copies online at present, although there is a London Book Co./Novel Library version with a recoloured jacket) – that captivated me.

And then upon receiving the book at the start of this week, I realised there's another aspect that made it worth acquiring (aside from the sweet little vintage sticker on the front endpaper, affixed by "R. Burlington, Bookseller, Whitehaven" – at the time that Cumbrian town's longest trading business)  – something that's absent from the Heinemann Collected Edition and the Doubleday edition: a five-line dedication, to Maugham's friend, Gerald Kelly, describing the novel, with admirable understatement, as a "narrative of some experiences during the Great War of a very insignificant member of the Intelligence Department".

Lastly, it's my birthday tomorrow, so I thought I'd treat myself. Happy birthday to me.

Have I read it yet?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Sarah Gainham, The Silent Hostage (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1960)

No. 3 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do.

What is it?
A first edition of Sarah Gainham's fifth novel, The Silent Hostage, published in hardback by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1960.

Who designed the dust jacket?
It doesn't have a dust jacket; The Silent Hostage is one of a small number of novels published by Eyre & Spottiswoode around this period that were bound under pictorial laminated boards rather than under the traditional arlin boards with dust jacket (see also from 1960 Colin Watson's Bump in the Night and David West's Wish Me Dead). But in any case, the cover design and photo are uncredited.

Where and when did I buy it?
I believe I bought it on a visit to book dealer Jamie Sturgeon's house four years ago.

Why did I buy it?
As Jamie explained to me at the time, examples of this unusual style of jacketless hardback binding – unusual, that is, for first editions of novels of this vintage – are quite uncommon (there are, at present, only one or two of those aforementioned Colin Watson and David West first editions available online, and only one British first of The Silent Hostage), so that was a factor. Mostly, however, it was because I'm interested in Sarah Gainham – she was a fascinating writer – and especially her early spy thrillersparticularly first editions thereof – and The Silent Hostage was one that I didn't have in first (it is, as already noted, pretty scarce).

Have I read it?
I have not.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

James Barlow, The Hour of Maximum Danger (Hamilton, 1962)

No. 2 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do.

What is it?
A British first edition of James Barlow's spy thriller The Hour of Maximum Danger, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton in 1962.

Who designed the dust jacket?
Val Biro.

Where and when did I buy it?
Now you're asking. I think I bought it in the Arundel branch of the Kim's chain of secondhand bookshops, although it could've been in the late lamented Dim and Distant in Heathfield. Either way it was a good two or three years ago.

Why did I buy it?
Mostly that dust jacket, a splendid Braque-like effort by Val Biro, of which Val noted when I showed it to him the year before he died: "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 the fact that the novel's a spy thriller – and an intriguing one at that – also helped sway me, plus Barlow's writing is well liked in some quarters.

Have I read it yet?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Manning Coles, Let the Tiger Die (Hodder, 1948)

No. 1 in a series of posts on books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – so this will have to do.

What is it?
A British first edition of Let the Tiger Die by Manning Coles, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1948 – the eighth in Coles' twenty-six-book series of novels starring British Intelligence agent Tommy Hambledon.

Who designed the dust jacket?
Ethel "Bip" Pares.

Where and when did I buy it?
At the Lewes Book Fair, a couple of years ago.

Why did I buy it?
Manning Coles is – or rather are; 'Manning Coles' is the nom de plume of two writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning and Cyril Henry Coles – one of a number of classic spy fiction authors whose work I'm interested in and intend to try at some point, so when I spotted this first edition on a dealer's table and then looked it up on my phone and discovered that it's rather scarce in first, and especially so in its wrapper (and still is today; I can only see a couple of – quite pricey – jacketed firsts available online at present), I couldn't resist, especially when the dealer knocked a few quid off the already-reasonable asking price.

Have I read it yet?

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Books I Haven't Got Round to Blogging About

What with a somewhat overfull slate of freelance editing and writing work and the usual demands of family and home life, I find myself rather pushed for time of late, and as a result blogging has had to take a back seat (as may be surmised by the fact that this is only the fifth post I've managed this year). I can't see any letup anytime soon either, which means that there probably won't be too many extensive posts on Existential Ennui for the foreseeable future.

However, I have begun to miss blogging – it sometimes feels like it's the only thing that keeps me sane – and so rather than abandon Existential Ennui entirely, I thought I'd keep the site ticking over with some pithy posts showcasing books I've bought but haven't got round to blogging about properly – indeed may never get round to blogging about properly – of which there are a good many sitting on my shelves. I'm not quite sure what these posts will consist of, but I imagine they'll be along the lines of a picture (or two, or three) of a book I've plucked randomly from my shelves, some bibliographical info about that book (including, naturally, dust jacket or cover designer), where I bought it (if I can remember) and, er, that's probably about it; after all, the whole point is to do something that doesn't take up much time.

How frequent these proposed posts will be remains to be seen, but I'm hoping I'll be able to knock out at least a couple a week. More soon.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

I, Spy: Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958) and Ways of Escape (1980)

For anyone interested in exploring the geneses of and backgrounds to Graham Greene's novels (not to mention his plays, screenplays and travelogues), I can highly recommend Ways of Escape (Bodley Head, 1980, dust jacket design by Michael Harvey). A kind of sequel to A Sort of Life (1971) – Greene's autobiography, which covers his life up to the age of twenty-seven and the publication of his fourth novel, Stamboul Train (1932) – Ways of Escape is part memoir, part book-by-book exploration of the author's backlist, drawing on his introductions to the 1970–1982 Bodley Head/Heinemann Collected Edition of his works along with assorted essays for assorted newspapers and magazines. I read the whole thing last year (after buying a first edition for a fiver at the Lewes Book Fair) and touched on it briefly in my review of The Ministry of Fear (1943) and my year-end books top ten; but I'm minded to dwell on it a little more in regard to another Greene book I read last year:

Our Man in Havana (Heinemann, 1958, dust jacket design by Donald Green – said wrapper also to be found, naturally, in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s). The story of a middle-aged Havana-based vacuum-cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, who winds up spying for British Intelligence – after a fashion; he fabricates all of his reports – Our Man in Havana also featured in my top ten books of the year, placing at number ten, just below the ninth placed Ways of Escape in fact. While I enjoyed it, I'd venture that it isn't as rich a piece of fiction as, say, the aforementioned The Ministry of Fear, or The Quiet American (1955), or The Human Factor (1978). However, like those novels it does deal with matters of espionage – a subject Greene had plenty of experience with, having spied for the Secret Service in Africa during the war – and in many ways is perhaps more illuminating on the realities of spying than any of them.

Greene notes in Ways of Escape that Our Man in Havana started life as an outline for a film, written shortly after the war at the request of the Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti but never developed into a full screenplay. (In the event the book was filmed – after publication – by British director Carol Reed.) "I thought I would write a Secret Service comedy based on what I had learned from my work in 1934–4 of German Abwehr activity in Portugal," Greene explains, before continuing:

I had returned from Freetown – and my futile efforts to run agents into the Vichy colonies – and been appointed to Kim Philby's sub-section of our Secret Service, which dealt with counter-espionage in the Iberian peninsula. My responsibility was Portugal. There those Abwehr officers who had not been suborned already by our own service spent much of their time sending home completely erroneous reports based on information received from imaginary agents. It was a paying game, especially when expenses and bonuses were added to the cypher's salary, and a safe one. The fortunes of the German Government were now in decline, and it is wonderful how the conception of honour alters in the atmosphere of defeat.

I had sometimes thought, in dealing with Portugal, of how easily in West Africa I could have played a similar game, if I had not been content with my modest salary. I had learned that nothing pleased the services at home more than the addition of a card to their intelligence files. For example there was a report on a Vichy airfield in French Guinea – the agent was illiterate and could not count over ten (the number of his fingers and thumbs); nor did he know any of the points of the compass except the east (he was Mohammedan). A building on the airfield which he said housed an army tank was, I believed from other evidence, a store for old boots. I had emphasised the agent's disqualifications, so that I was surprised when I earned a rating for his report of 'most valuable'. There was no rival organisation in the field, except SOE, with whose reports mine could be compared, and I had no more belief in SOE reports than in my own – they probably came from the same source. Somebody in an office in London had been enabled to add a line or two to an otherwise blank card – that seemed to be the only explanation.

So it was that experiences in my little shack in Freetown recalled in a more comfortable room off St James's gave me the idea of what twelve years later in 1958 became Our Man in Havana.

In their absurdity and especially their apparent veracity, Greene's recollections of spying in Ways of Escape and their fictionalised versions in Our Man in Havana remind me of W. Somerset Maugham's magnificent Ashenden, or, The British Agent (1928). Admittedly there's less humour in the latter, but despite the differences in tone (although less marked differences in the clarity of their prose; Greene and Maugham were both beautifully clear writers), in its own way Our Man in Havana strikes me as being as authentic a (fictional) depiction of spying as Ashenden. And regarding the lighter tenor of Our Man in Havana, as Greene reasons, "It seemed to me that either the Foreign Office or the Intelligence Service had amply merited a little ridicule."

Incidentally, the chapter on Our Man in Havana in Ways of Escape is revealing in ways entirely unrelated to espionage as well, not least when Greene recounts the episode in Cuba when he tried to score some cocaine. And equally incidentally, the copy of Our Man in Havana pictured in this post is a first edition (and first impression) I bought on eBay last year, partly because I wanted to read the book, partly because I love Donald Green's wrapper, but also because this particular copy bears the ownership signature of a Georgina Greene on the front free endpaper. I haven't been able to establish any kind of familial connection with Graham Greene, but Greene did have quite an extended family – he had five brothers and sisters – so you never know. In any case, as a collector of books himself, in particular signed editions, Graham Greene would surely have approved of the purchase.