Source: Review Copy (Riverrun)
From the very first page you can tell Christopher Fowler is an author who loves books. In this book Fowler looks at 99 authors, many of which are crime writers, who he considers have been forgotten. Sci-fi, non-fiction writers, short story anthologists and playwrights are also included, giving this book a very varied content, though often Fowler makes connections from chapter to chapter.
A question Fowler answers in this opening pages is ‘How did I gauge whether a popular author had become forgotten?’ His answer is: ‘First I read them, and if their books proved difficult to obtain I considered including them. Then I tested their names on a focus group of about twenty book lovers, including agents, publishers, friends and relatives. If I drew blank looks (and some of these blank looks shocked me until I realised it was partly an age thing) I tried to uncover the reasons for their disappearance.’ Looking at the rest of the book based on Fowler’s own pre-set criteria I would say he has mixed success, as I don’t think this criteria is always strictly adhered to, with some authors in his list being relatively easy to obtain and others not being quite so obscure as I envisaged. After all the first author being discussed is Margery Allingham, which he justifies by saying that ‘very few readers seem to have got to grips with her novels.’ Equally I don’t think at times Fowler explores or discusses sufficiently the reasons why some authors have become obscure. However I think this book becomes a better read if you don’t keep that criteria in your head and just enjoy the book for what it actually is: a collection of intriguing snapshots and vignettes of a variety of authors; introducing readers to ones they have not heard of before and providing interesting titbits of information for those they know already.
Given the crime fiction focus of this blog, my review will be predominately focusing on the mystery fiction author entries. Here are a few things I learnt:
- Whilst working on The Avengers TV series, Brian Clemens confirmed Fowler’s feeling that the plots they were working on were ‘Allingham-style Golden Age plots transposed to the medium of television.’
- 30 years before Daphne Du Maurier wrote her story The Birds, Frank Baker wrote his own, with the same title. The plots of both have quite a large number of similarities, though Baker’s work has a more fantasy leaning.
- ‘The crime writer Ngaio Marsh was so influenced by Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, that she used it as a template for a novel, Death and the Dancing Footman.’
- Leslie Charteris was one of the earliest members of Mensa.
- Patrick Derris gave up his successful writing career and kept it a secret whilst he worked as a butler for the CEO of Macdonald’s.
- The writer of The Bridge Over the River Kwai also wrote the novel which was the basis for the film Planet of the Apes.
- Never really considered how odd a life Pamela Branch led until I read this: ‘she was born on her parents’ tea estate in Ceylon, went to RADA, married, learned Urdu, trekked the Himalayas, trained racehorses and moved to a twelfth-century Greek monastery. As one does.’ Equally she and her husband ‘drove about town in an old taxi while she used to mail out blood-smeared postcards and boxes of poisoned chocolates from her characters.’
- Thomas Burke, author of the short story ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole,’ which claimed the title of ‘best mystery tale of all time’ 1949, also fabricated elements of his personal history in order to perpetuate and contribute towards Yellow Peril literature.
- August Derleth created a Sherlock Holmes pastiche called Solor Pons, yet his sleuth existed in a world where Holmes existed as a separate character.
- One of the murder methods used in the work of Arthur Upfield was then later used by someone he knew in real life.
- There is a London pub named after Edgar Wallace, an author who could write up to 18 novels a year and consume between 30-40 cups of tea and 80-100 cigarettes a day.
One thing I will definitely say about this book is that Fowler voices a number of provocative or possibly controversial opinions about books, authors and particular genres. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I feel that these opinions will challenge readers to form their own ideas. The opinions which perhaps provoked the strongest reaction in me were those concerning Golden Age detective fiction authors. For instance you get the impression from this book that he is no ardent fan of Christie, whose work is compared unfavourably with the likes of Edmund Crispin and Gladys Mitchell. Her works are labelled as ‘neatly structured but skeletal,’ as well as ‘aggressively anti-intellectual and crueller for it; hers was a world where confirmed bachelors committed suicide out of shame.’ Gladys Mitchell’s novels are seen as more interesting, whilst Christie is deemed ‘safer’. Not the world’s biggest Mitchell fan, so couldn’t help but smile when Fowler writes that ‘by surprising too much she sometimes disappointed – therein lies the clue to her canonical absence.’ At this point I did feel like saying that perhaps the plots in books frequently make no sense and are often written in a very dense fashion were also a contributory factor. Oh and he certainly doesn’t seem to have anything nice to say about Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, the work of Elizabeth Daly, nor Midsummer Murders. But I think I can live with that.
One vintage mystery writer Fowler does like is Edmund Crispin, though I think in his discussion of why he is not so well known, (which is debatable in itself), he ends up contradicting himself. He writes that:
‘Why isn’t he better known? He’s certainly a lot more enjoyable than the Golden Age’s stuffier aristo detectives. Perhaps the problem, though; some prefer their whodunits to be dry, logical, serious and straightforward, like crossword puzzles.’
However he then goes on to say that for Crispin’s Fen ‘crimes are simply puzzles to be solved.’ Yet that kind of undermines his notion that people don’t like Crispin’s mysteries because they are not ‘like crossword puzzles.’ The above quote does also reveal Fowler’s tendency at times to make rather broad and sweeping statements. This is one of the downsides of the chapters being so short (2-4 pages), though of course this size limit does have its upsides as well.
For those of you wondering what Fowler makes of John Dickson Carr, you’ll be glad to know that he mentions the legions of online fans of the author. He suggests that the reason he became obscure was that ‘sometimes authors simply fall out of favour with the public because they relentlessly pursue a single theme.’ In Carr’s case this would be locked room/impossible crimes. I don’t think this idea would be too wildly disagreed with but I am interested to see what ardent Carr fans make of the following comments:
‘For Carr the plot isn’t just the thing, it’s everything, and most of the characters are ambulatory board-game figures being shunted according to the author’s master plan.’
‘Sadly we live in a time where there is no patience for barmy British sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders, and Dickson Carr wasn’t remotely interested in offering his readers realism or relevance.’
Unsurprisingly I came across a number of authors I hadn’t heard of before, but now want to try, such as E. M. Delafield, the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong and Australian suspense writer, Patricia Carlon – though I wonder if her books might be too scary for me (I’m bit of a wimp in that respect). Her heroines include an elderly stroke victim who is being plotted against and a girl whose nanny secures her in a kitchen, only for the nanny to get murdered. The killer of course soon realises he is not alone… Carlon’s entry is a good example of how Fowler provides insightful biographical details, commenting on the loneliness of the stories having roots in Carlon’s own deafness.
For all us mystery fans other crime writing authors included are: Kril Bonfiglioli, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Baroness Orczy, Caryl Brahms, Frances and Richard Lockridge, Craig Rice, Stuart Palmer, Kelley Roos, R. Austin Freeman, Robert Van Gulik, Georgette Heyer, Ronald Knox, Cornell Woolrich, James Redding Ware, Margaret Millar and Cameron McCabe, whose novel The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, is described as a ‘extremely confident, wildly messy meta-novel.’ That is putting it mildly to say the least.
One treat this book offers readers is that interspersed between the author focused chapters there are themed essays such as books connected by all being adapted by Disney, forgotten queens of suspense, forgotten nonsense writers, authors who wrote too little or too much and forgotten rivals of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Miss Marple. These themed chapters worked well in the book and I also enjoyed the personal quality of the writing throughout. In particular the more I read the book, the more I felt the literary tastes and opinions espoused were building up a picture of the author himself and at times it was rather telling in what he chose to defend, criticise or praise. Furthermore it was great to read about how one of the forgotten authors found Fowler after he sent a call out for information on them, due to so little being known about them. It was also sweet to read about how when he was tracking down a copy of a childhood book, he ended up buying the exact copy he owned when he was a child.
This book has quite considerable breadth in the writers and genres it covers and it is a great book to read from cover to cover or to dip into. I think it will cause a lot of readers to go away and found out more about certain authors. Some depth is lost but that is to be expected given the immense size of the task. The mixture of opinions I agreed and disagreed with also made this an intriguing and interesting read, causing me to think about the content much more deeply than I might have done otherwise. Thought provoking book indeed!