For Your Shelf Only continues! Spy Vibe recently talked with Jon Gilbert, rare book dealer and author of Ian Fleming: The Bibliography. Our chat began a new series on Spy Vibe, offering fellow collectors and fans of spy novels a chance to share their experiences and some of their prized books.
Our next guest is fellow C.O.B.R.A.S. agent, Robert Mallows. Rob is the creator and curator of the Deighton Dossier, the premiere website dedicated to the work of author Len Deighton.
Many of us grew up reading and collecting spy books, usually used paperbacks found in second hand shops. At what age did you start to collect Deighton? What books did you seek out and what was it about them that captivated you?
For Christmas one year when I was a teenager I received the box-set of Game, Set, and Match. I put it on my shelf for ages and only read it when I was home from school ill. If I recall, I read all three books in about three days. The story was compelling and real. This was the mid-eighties, when you could hear about the Cold War and Berlin in the newspapers and on the radio; spy stories were real news.
The Glasnost and Perestroika introduced by Gorbachev were making real inroads in the Soviet Union and it was changing. So here was a story that led you right inside the Cold War, that showed how people at the sharp end of intelligence - the agents in the field - acted. I recall that when the other trilogies came out - Hook, Line, and Sinker, and Faith, Hope, and Charity - I purchased them in hardback and read them straightaway this time, eager to find out how the story developed. The great thing about this series - my favourite - is that each book can be read by itself as a complete story; but then each trilogy also has a deeper story arc which stands alone. Read all nine together - plus the 'prequel', Winter - and you have an immense story arc which only reveals itself in the last book, which leaves you stunned. Everything you thought you knew from the earlier books was not the same. As Len told me: "I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera”. That's what it's like - it's Wagnerian in its complexity and its tales of betrayal and power. It was utterly compelling stuff and that was my 'gateway drug' if you will into Len Deighton's work and then other spy fiction.
I didn't seriously start collecting Len Deighton's books until perhaps my early thirties, when I read the three trilogies again and remembered how great they were. I had them by now in first edition hardback and I think I was curious then to look at other books by Len. So I purchased the four 'unnamed spy' novels and enjoyed them, and I then gradually started to pick off - in first edition - each of Len's stories. Once I had a sizeable collection, I became more interested in the more obscure titles, and the ephemera, and also articles and magazine features by and featuring Len. I'm fascinated by the stories about how the books came about and were received. [Rare 1965 Deighton issue of Town magazine below with Raymond Hawkey cover design]
As a collector, I'm focused on specifics. I collect seriously only two authors, Len Deighton and Spike Milligan. For both, I've managed to build up complete collections of everything they've done. A major book dealer has advised me that my Len Deighton book collection is one of the finest in the world. By being focused, I've had great fun seeking out the obscure things. By creating the Deighton Dossier website and blog, I am able to share my interest with other readers of Len's work - and there are a lot. My site is the only one on the Internet offering information about Deighton, so I feel I've filled a void.
Do you have favorite cover designs?
I don't think you can look beyond the first four 'unnamed spy' novels, with the black and white covers by Ray Hawkey. They're iconic, instantly recognizable, beautifully put together and provide enough symbolism to give the reader as sense of what the story they're reading will be about.
How did you become a Deighton scholar? Can you tell us about some experiences researching his work and interviewing Deighton himself?
When my collection became more substantial, it was harder to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw. I needed to do more research about what Len had written, what editions there were, what marketing ephemera was produced. As a collector, my objective is always to be focused and try and complete my collection. So, I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I had great support from book dealer James Pickard in Leicester, who's one of the foremost Bond specialists in the UK. He was able to secure one or two treasures.
As the collection grew, I felt like I should do something with it. Noticing that there are hundreds of Bond sites on the Internet, but nothing serious about Len's work, I wanted to address that. The Deighton Dossier website became a project to develop some simple web building skills. When it went up, I started getting questions and comments from other Len Deighton fans around the world. They were very helpful in filling in gaps in my knowledge and making suggestions. I sent a note to Len Deighton's agents, advising that I had the site and, essentially, checking that Len was okay with it.
One day, I got an email from Len Deighton himself, thanking me for the site and suggesting that when he was next in London, we could meet up. When we did, he proved a thoroughly nice chap and happy to talk about his work. It's fascinating to hear from an author the process by which they came up with their characters and developed the story lines. For instance, I got to chat with Len about whether he'd ever considered taking the Samson story beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, and also why he has stymied the commercial release of the ITV adaptation of the books from 1988. The interviews with him added to the conversations we had, and I'm pleased that I've managed one of the few rare interviews with Len in recent years. [Deighton portrait above by Rob, from one of his exclusive interviews with the author]
Do you have a book or two in your collection that you prize above all others? Can you describe your experience adding it to your collection?
Well, I think it's the real rarities that attract me. To be the person who tracks down and buys (often at quite a cost) something that other collectors would love to have is fun. The comb-bound pre-production copy of Only When I Larf, produced by Len to secure a film deal for the book, is horrendously rare. Only about ten copies were produced. My book dealer found a copy for me and I raided my piggy bank and purchased it.
The other one that I prize is not a book but the marketing ephemera that came with the first edition of Billion Dollar Brain. It's a letter by Len sent from Finland to book dealers and journalists, containing a facsimile of his notebook showing his notes made for the story, some theatre tickets and a plane ticket. Extremely rare, but also extremely interesting to see how the books were marketed.
The books I prize most are the first editions of Berlin Game, Mexico Set, and London Match - they are the books that got me going as a reader of Len's work.
What are you collecting now?
Truth be told, I have pretty much everything. I believe my collection's now 'world leading'. I have found some of the 'holy grails' already. But there are still more nuggets to mine. For example, I've just seen for sale a first edition of Billion Dollar Brain with a different set of ephemera used to launch the book. That would be a great thing to have. I am also looking for a copy of the poster Len Deighton designed for London Transport in the 'fifties. I have all Len's books, and can say I've read them all. The main thing for me is the books - they give me enjoyment when I read them, and I wouldn't be a collector of Len's work if I didn't enjoy the stories.
As a fan of his writing, do you see these graphics as interlinked with your own internal experience as a reader or are they more reflective of the times and advertising styles?
Well, in a sense, the covers have helped to reinforce the way my mind conjures up the characters in each of the books I've read - most particularly in the sense of the Game, Set, and Match triple trilogy, but in a negative way - that is, the covers of the first editions of Faith, Hope, and Charity, plus the subsequent paperback editions in the 2000s by Harper, had artist impressions of the main characters that were NOT how I imagined them. And having seen them, they did influence how I imagined the characters.
I think elsewhere, the key thing about the covers for the first four books, by Ray Hawkey, is understanding how revolutionary and innovative they were at the time, and in that sense how important a clue they were to the type of book and characters one was being introduced to.
Do you have foreign editions in your collection?
Yes, I have a number of American editions - the most interesting is the one below, Catch a Falling Spy, which is a different title from the UK edition as it was felt by the US publishers that the original title of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy wouldn't resonate with US thriller buyers. So, that's an interesting curio. I have also read Game Set, and Match in German first editions, which I have: Gedrillt, Gekodert und Gelinkt. Having now - I'm pretty sure - an absolutely complete set of UK first editions of everything, I do think I'll start collecting more foreign first editions. But, of course, that's a whole different board game (there's also the question of needing more shelf space - I have two full bookshelves of Deighton's works.
Tips for other collectors: how do you store and display your collection? Do you use any archiving products?
I keep my collection on two tall, narrow oak bookcase, out of direct sunlight (very, very important). It is not stored A-Z (perhaps I should), but more by size. I ensure that all first editions are wrapped in Adaptaroll, which I've used for many years and found very satisfactory. I do have a range of other products from book specialists that are helpful with removing marks from covers, and for sealing in loose pages in a way that's virtually invisible. Finally, I do keep an inventory on a database of everything I own - plus it's market value - which will be essential if, reason forbid, I do get robbed or lose things in a fire!
Thanks again to Rob for joining us and sharing his love of collecting and reading Len Deighton. Readers interested in other kids of collectibles might enjoy Rob's post about the Ipcress File board game. Scroll down for past editions of our series, For Your Shelf Only, where guests share stories about collecting and show us some of their treasures. Series links: Jon Gilbert, Raymond Benson, Jeremy Duns, Peter Lorenz, David Foster, Rob Mallows, Roger Langley, Craig Arthur, Fleming Short, Matt Sherman. You can find cold war design books and other spy treasures in Spy Vibe's secure Amazon Store.
Stay tuned for another edition of For Your Shelf Only. Check out Spy Vibe's classic 2009 article, Set For Adventure, where we joined forces with Lee Pfeiffer, Jeremy Duns, Stephen Bissette, and others to look at the best set designs from spy entertainment. More about Spy Vibe creator Agent J at Jason Whiton.