Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Forgotten Novels of Robert Shaw

(Strap in folks, as it's a long post this week, but there's a treat at the end...)

In 2014, the name Robert Shaw is remembered, pretty much, for one thing: he's the guy who played Quint in Jaws. You might add in his roles as Red Grant, the double-hard assassin in From Russia With Love, Mr Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Lonnegan, the gangster who gets stung in The Sting, but even movie fans will struggle to name many more of his films: he made loads, but most of them have not lasted the test of time.

The same can be said, sadly, for Shaw's novels. Not through lack of quality: Shaw was a prize-winning 'literary' novelist of some note, but his reputation as a writer – which at one time far outstripped his fame as an actor – has faded into obscurity, not least because all his books are out of print, and have been for years.

Shaw's Wikipedia entry does at least give a summary of this aspect of his career:

In addition to his acting career, Shaw was also an accomplished writer of novels, plays and screenplays. His first novel, The Hiding Place, published in 1960, met with positive reviews. His next, The Sun Doctor, published the following year, was awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1962.
Shaw then embarked on a trilogy of novels – The Flag (1965), The Man in the Glass Booth (1967) and A Card from Morocco (1969); it was his adaptation for the stage of The Man in the Glass Booth which gained him the most attention for his writing. The book and play present a complex and morally ambiguous tale of a man who, at various times in the story, is either a Jewish businessman pretending to be a Nazi war criminal, or a Nazi war criminal pretending to be a Jewish businessman. The play was quite controversial when performed in the UK and the US, some critics praising Shaw's sly, deft, and complex examination of the moral issues of nationality and identity, others sharply criticising Shaw's treatment of such a sensitive subject. The Man in the Glass Booth was further developed for the screen, but Shaw disapproved of the resulting film and had his name removed from the credits.
Shaw also adapted The Hiding Place into a screenplay for the film Situation Hopeless... But Not Serious starring Alec Guinness. His play Cato Street, about the 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy, was produced for the first time in 1971 in London.

Second hand copies of all the novels are all still around in their various UK and US editions for the curious, though some are getting harder to find as first editions in 'collectable' condition – not that Shaw has become a 'collected' author. Presumably there are some signed copies out there somewhere too, though there are none online at present. I can find no evidence that the novel of The Man in the Glass Booth made it into paperback in the UK, or that A Card from Morocco had a paperback edition anywhere (and is thus his scarcest book, apart from perhaps the play text of Cato Street), but the first three novels were all Penguins, with some rather lovely covers, especially The Sun Doctor's Wicker Man-esque one. Here's a cover gallery with images from around the net, ending with those Penguin editions:

Chatto & Windus UK first edition of his first novel, which became a film starring Alec Guinness.

Possibly the US first edition, or a later UK reprint.
Ace US paperback.
Chatto & Windus UK first of the second novel, set in Africa.

US first from Shaw's American publisher, Harcourt, Brace.

UK Reprint Society edition of the third novel, the first of a trilogy.

Chatto & Windus UK first of his most famous work, though it was Shaw's own play adaptation, and subsequent film, which are better known. 

UK first of Shaw's final, and scarcest novel.

US first.

Here's the copy of the Chatto and Windus UK first of The Flag that's currently on the shelves at Withnail Books. The press quotes on the back cover show quite how highly he was regarded.

I'm not sure what the linking elements are of the 'trilogy' of novels are, if any, though the blurb of The Flag, which is based on the true story of Conrad Noel, the Red Vicar of Thaxted, announces that the trilogy is called 'The Cure of Souls', so perhaps it is just thematic. I intend to read them all eventually (having just started The Flag) so I'll report back once I've tracked down copies of the others...

But why should anyone wanting to read these well-regarded novels by a still-known 'name' have to be forced to root around second hand shops and online to find them? Why are they out of print? Shaw's chaotic lifestyle may provide a clue. Here's the blurb to The Price of Success, a biography of Shaw (which, ironically, is itself now out of print):

Internationally known for his many film roles, particularly in Jaws, The Sting, and A Man for All Seasons, Robert Shaw was well respected on stage too, working with Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Harold Pinter and the Angry Young Men at the Royal Court. Moreover, he was a writer himself, author of five award-winning novels and a play that ran in the West End and on Broadway. But Shaw was a driven man. Plagued by his father's suicide when Shaw was only eleven, he was almost insanely competitive, with more than a penchant for booze and expensive cars. He was also driven by a need for children of his own: four by his first wife, four by his second, actress Mary Ure, whom he 'stole' from John Osborne, and a ninth by his third wife. His extravagance led him into trouble with the tax man and thence into unwilling exile, living in Orson Welles's house in Spain before it 'accidentally' caught fire, damaging some of the artefacts from Citizen Kane. This biography of a troubled and talented man is made special by the unusual insights of the author - Shaw's friend and agent during the last years of his life. No other biographer is so well equipped to tell the real inside story of the working life of an international star, the deals, the tax fraud, the films that were made, the films that weren't, the parts that were offered and those that were refused - all bound up with moments of frightening intimacy, as when Shaw has to be prevented from overdosing after the death of Mary Ure on the first night of her West End comeback. Against a background of the film and theatre industries, drawn from first hand experience, John French's book offers a vivid and unique insight into the self-destructive life of a man who could have been - and very nearly was - a major talent.

Shaw died suddenly, and unexpectedly, of a heart attack aged only 51, in 1978. Given the picture painted above, it would not surprise me if his affairs were not exactly in order when this happened, and with nine children (ten actually, as he'd adopted one more) and possibly no will... well, good luck to any publisher attempting to do a deal with 'The Estate of Robert Shaw' to bring his writing back into print.

Before he died, Shaw had been working on a new novel, The Ice Floe (a reference to the Inuit tradition of senicide, where people too old to be of use are set adrift on a floe). It was never published, but a few lines were included in an entertaining interview Shaw gave to People magazine in 1977. Here's that excerpt, and the following paragraph from Robin Leach's article:

Mrs. Avery had propped a pillow under the head of her dying elderly friend and looked up through the barred windows of the old peoples' home psychopath ward...Dear God this home is filled with weeping old men and weeping old women ...They are ignored, they are a burden to everyone...Couldn't even children love them? Are they just spectres to be shut up? Dear God, why is it that Jesus Christ did not sanctify old age by living till he was 90? 

"These may be the best sentences I have ever written," says author Robert Shaw of this excerpt from his upcoming novel, The Ice Floe. He researched the book between movies and plays by inspecting the squalid conditions in old peoples' homes around New York City. "I want the truth out," he says. "If I never write anything else again, I've asked valid questions in a lovely prayer." (A compulsive writer, Shaw often helps revise his movie scripts: "Most of the material is third-rate. I try to make it second-rate.") 

Ah yes, revising movie scripts. According to this obituary, Shaw actually once said, "When they write my obituary I would like them to say, 'He was an author who wrote one book that will last and he was also a remarkable actor'." As it turns out, while he is certainly still known as a remarkable actor, the piece of writing he will be best remembered for is not one his books. Though his exact input is still noisily debated to this day, there's no doubt that Shaw had a large hand in the final draft of this speech. And what a speech, one of the most famous in all of cinema...

UPDATE: The Little Shop now has a complete set of UK first editions of Shaw's novels, and a copy of the supernaturally rare play text Cato Street, for sale (to be sold as a set only). Get in touch if you're interested...
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: This set has now sold.


  1. I adored him in a Man for all seasons and watched Jaws because he was in it! I didn't know he had written any books, I must keep an eye out :-) thank you!

  2. In the early sixties, I read a trilogy of books about the French/Algerian war, which I thought was written by RS, one of which I thought was entitled 'Snake Water'.
    I cannot locate any copies as I would like to re-read - any thoughts?

    1. Hi Tony, I'm pretty certain they're not books by Shaw... There's a novel called 'Snake Water' by Alan Williams, though it doesn't appear to be about the French/Algerian war.

  3. I've read a marvellous novel by Robert Shaw, along the lines of 'The Collector' by John Fowles, but I can't remember the title, and can't find it on lists of books. can you help?

    Margaret crutchley

  4. I've read a marvellous novel by Robert Shaw, along the lines of 'The Collector' by John Fowles, but I can't remember the title, and can't find it on lists of books. can you help?

    Margaret crutchley

    1. Hi Margaret,
      All Shaw's novels are mentioned in the post above, though none of them as far as I know (and I've not read them all) share too many plot similarities with The Collector. The closest could be his first, The Hiding Place...

  5. Are the novels still for sale? I would be interested, if the price was right.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you for the reply, I will get back to you shortly.

  7. Hi, do you still have the set for sale?



    1. I never did hear back from Morphie, so the set (and the John French biography) are still for sale, yes.

  8. Thanks. What's the condition like? Any writing inside / are any of these ex-library etc?

    1. The Instagram photos linked a hove give you a look at the outsides... None are ex-lib. Jackets unclipped apart from The Flag (which has had price carefully torn out). Hiding Place has previous owner's ink inscription, otherwise no writing inside (apart from booksellers' in pencil), slight old sticker mark to rear flap of Card from Morocco.

  9. I just finished reading “The Flag” which was intended to be the first in a trilogy called “The Cure of Souls” but this trilogy was never written and does not include any of his other published novels. Shaw had done quite a bit of work on the second, which takes Vicar Calvin into 1930s Spain, but his work was lost in a fire which discouraged him from completing the trilogy. I am even more upset that his final unfinished work was never published. Incomplete as it was, there seems more than enough to share with the world.