June 1, 2010
“It was Tuesday, February on the deathbed of its final day, eking out its last breath in an unhealthy pallor of grey sky and a hint of fog that would thicken as evening came. It was dismally cold, the clammy cold of a toad’s belly. Chilled to the bone, London moved reluctantly about its business and wished it had been born somewhere along the equator; monsoons, hurricanes, earthquakes and all.
In the buffet of Cannon Street Station it was just a little warmer, though the breath of the dying month showed itself on the wide windows, was spread across them like a close, grey curtain. Beyond the windows was the dull throb of waiting electric trains, the sound of drills and urgent voices as the station’s great and ugly hulk was slowly demolished to make room for the ideas of this decade’s drawing-office.”
I was prompted to re-read this one by my friend Clive, who recently asked if anyone could recommend him some “good British crime fiction” adding that he was looking for the “British equivalent to the US hard-boiled stuff (no cosy manor houses where the butler did it); spivs and grim boarding rooms and B&Bs.” So I rummaged through my books, and came across The Sheep and the Wolves by George Burnett, which I hadn’t read for ages anyway — I couldn’t remember what happened in it, but thought it would be just what Clive was after.
And you know what? It’s just the sort of thing Clive was after, showing London in the early 1960s as it slowly wakes up to the burgeoning delights of the decade of glamour and love, after the extended down-trodden existence of enforced austerity in the post-war decades. We’re shown this contrast of the old and new through the eyes of two families, the Smiths and the Brummles.
Smith junior, a ne’er-do-well called Wilf, is made in the same mould as Pinkie Brown, only not as wily. Brummle junior is Ron, a dippy day-dreamer. His sister Doris is an ambitious but naive starlet-in-waiting, who gets herself on the ladder to fame by working in a strip club. These three are all, in their own way, attempting to become the wolves who succeed amongst the masses of sheep in London, but none of them really do, and only one of them has anything like a happy ending.
The story nicely intertwines between the fortunes of its cast, with a gripping plot, albeit a predictable finale. But where it really shines is in the dialogue and the descriptions of a city packed full of people all dreaming of becoming wolves, but living like sheep.
The cover illustration is by Pat Owen, who painted many of the covers of Pan Books, but it’s hard to find much information about him online. I’ve been unable to find anything at all about author George Burnett online, but this comment on the Flickr page describes his author photo quite aptly and amusingly: “George Burnett looks more like a cross eyed Wurlitzer player from the Croydon Gaumont, or a flirtacious pork butcher, than a writer of gripping fiction.”
Regardless of how he looked, he certainly had a flair for words, and if his descriptions of London in this book are anything to go by, it’s a shame that he remains unknown and unsung, like so many other sheep.
a 1991 interview with Pat Owen (and Sam Peffer who painted lots of Pan Books covers as well)
May 30, 2010
As readers may be aware, author Peter O’Donnell died a few weeks ago, and the profusion of obituary posts about him prompted me to dig out the three Modesty Blaise paperbacks I have in my posession, and re-read them. You can see from the pictures in this post that they’re a little battered, but rather attractive-looking for all that — probably much like Ms. Blaise herself.
Lots has already been written about the origins of Modesty Blaise, so rather than re-hash it here, I’ll just point you in the direction of Crime Time, where the story comes direct from Peter O’Donnell himself.
Since I first read these a few years ago, I’ve always considered Modesty Blaise an inspiring role model. She’s strong, sexy, intelligent, independent and utterly capable; a woman who successfully takes on the world entirely on her own terms, but retains her integrity and remains lacking in any hubris. It’s hard not to be impressed with a woman who is described like this:
“In the past fourty-eight hours a poison capsule had been cut out of her body; she had thought Willie dead, found he was alive and fought a carefully faked duel; she had made a four-hour swim, paddled a canoe for six hours, slept for ten, tested her shoulder in combat, made complex plans and preparations. And now…”
When you read it like that, it all seems highly improbable, which is sort of the point. Reading it in context, however, it doesn’t seem quite so implausible, which is down to O’Donnell’s exquisite attention to ensuring every detail is accurate, and his uncanny knack of creating one scary, cold-blooded villain after another.
I’ve never seen any of the cinema adaptations that currently exist, but I’ve often though that Modesty Blaise was a character just crying out for a proper cinematic adaptation: a truly strong independent woman who could give a sexy high-kick along with the best of them, and guarantee more action than that boring old chauvanist James Bond (of whom I will be writing about in future posts, of course).
(One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the online tributes to O’Donnell mention that Modesty Blaise is known as the High Priestess of Pulp, which is why I used it as the post-title, but I’ve been unable to discover who first coined that epithet — does anyone know?)
May 29, 2010
John D. MacDonald was one of those prolific novel writers, who seemed to publish at least one or two novels a year. They’re often graced with a Robert McGinnis cover featuring buxom broads and dashing young men in tight slacks. I’m not sure if this one is by McGinnis or one of the many cover artists who were influenced by him, but it’s a pity that someone at Pan Books decided to crop most of the original painting out of this particular cover design. I suppose it does make it uniform with the rest of this reprint series, and it’s a striking cover design nonetheless.
Deadly Welcome is an entertaining read set in MacDonald’s adopted home of Florida, a place he seemed to simultaneously love and hate, at least if the voice of his protagonist(s) is anything to go by. The main protagonist in this book, Alex Doyle, returns home to a small town he swore never to go back to, and finds himself embroiled in a hunt for a murderer and some hidden money. There’s a bad cop, a capable woman with a secret, a lot of small town attitudes and a whole lot of subtext about abuse. A Deadly Welcome, indeed.
“He went over the edge six months ago. And this whole town is to blame. You lawful people didn’t care if he whipped heads just so long as he whipped the heads on people who had no way of fighting back. You were even kind of sneaky proud of him. Toughest deputy on the west coast of Florida. And you thought that Old West outfit of his was amusing. You folks grew yourself a paranoid. Nobody has told me, but I can tell you just how he lives. He has a small place somewhere. With a lot of privacy. And he keeps it as bare and neat as a monk’s cell. He’ll have a gun rack and he’ll keep those guns in perfect shape. He’ll scrub the floor on his hands and knees. After he makes the bed, you can bounce a coin on it. No books, no television, no hobby except the guns and hunting. When he wants a woman he’ll go after one that’s drab and humble and scared, and it will be as close to rape as the law allows.”