Tuesday, 16 January 2018

I doubt if I'll read a more enjoyable book this year than Christopher Fowler's "The Book of Forgotten Authors"

I downloaded this 2017 compendium after clicking the "Look inside" button on Amazon and reading the list of authors covered. My wife had been talking about E.M. Delafield, whose Diary of a Provincial Lady she was reading for a book group.  Vaguely recognising the name, I did some googling and discovered that E.M. Delafield (born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture) was a prolific English writer, who produced 40 novels, plays and short story collections before her death in 1943, aged 53. A few days later, I happened upon Christopher Fowler's 2017 book on Amazon, found E.M. Delafield's name in the contents section (in among some rather surprising choices), and downloaded it. Glad I did.

Fowler is no slouch himself when it comes to churning out product, having produced 46 books so far. The only one I'd read before Forgotten Authors was Roofworld (1988), an enjoyable fantasy/horror novel set amid the rooftops of London. I've always meant to dip his Golden Age crime pastiche Bryant and May series,  but haven't got round to doing so, preferring to stick with the real thing. Given Fowler's penchant for horror and crime, I share some of his enthusiasms. My only real objection to the book - which is largely based on a weekly column for the former newspaper, The Independent, (now, as far as I can judge, an online New Left propaganda site) - is Fowler's numerous left-wing asides, e.g. "Clearly, theatre needs his angry, daring humanity more than ever" (I doubt it), and "In a post-Brexit world, this book reads more uncomfortably than ever" - an odd comment, given that we haven't even left the bloody EU yet. It's one of those books in which "right-wing" is a synonym for "evil". I don't much care what Fowler's political views are, but I can't understand why he would deliberately go out of his way to alienate conservatives - unless, of course, he would prefer that we didn't it. (I'll compromise by pledging never to so much as glance at the Bryant and May series - happy?)

As Forgotten Authors is made up of material written over several years, some of the authors mentioned by Fowler have long since been rescued from oblivion. Everything by the crime writer Margery Allingham is in print and doing rather well. Kyril Bonfiglioli's superb trilogy of novels featuring the aristocratic art dealer and assassin Charlie Mortdecai is back in fashion, thanks to the Johnny Depp film, Mortdecai. The American crime writer Cornell Woolrich , whose novels and short stories spawned numerous films and TV dramas, including Rear Window and The Bride Wore Black,  is generally revered, and his books are widely available online. Dennis Wheatley is also enjoying something of a revival: paperbacks might be hard to come by, but I just found 15 Kindle editions of his novels on the UK Amazon site. As for Fowlers's question, "how many people have actually read Edgar Wallace?" - I don't know the answer, but I certainly have.

To be fair, though, Fowler has come up with some genuinely forgotten writers. There's the French novelist, former secret agent Pierre Boulle, who wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai and the science fiction novel, Monkey Planet, on which the film Planet of the Apes was based. Caryl Brahms's eleven comic novels - written with the Observer's bridge correspondent, S.J. Simon - have sunk without trace. I'd never heard of Pamela Branch, but her four comic murder mystery novels, published in the '50s, sound well worth reading - and, as I've just discovered, they're all available as ebooks. Thomas Burke, anyone? Me neither. A London fantasy/mystery writer who practically invented the reputation of Limehouse as the sinister heart of Europe's opium and white slave trade in a whole series of stories: his collection, Limehouse Nights (1916), is available on Kindle for 99p - one of the stories was the basis for the D.W. Griffith film, Broken Blossoms.
Patricia Carlon, a New South Wales author who wrote fourteen well-regarded creepy thrillers, many of which concerned women in peril, between 1961 and1970, was published in the UK and the US before appearing in print in her native Australia. As Fowler points out, if only she'd been writing ten years earlier, these tense stories would have been ripe for adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock. It was Carlon's agent who noticed the theme of isolation running her books: he did some digging and discovered that his reclusive client had been deaf since the age of eleven. Patricia Carlon is very poorly represented online. Sounds like she deserves a renaissance.

Patrick Dennis might not be a familiar name, but his novel Auntie Mame was turned into a hit Rosalind Russell film in 1958, and a stage musical in 1966, which was in turn made into a film starring Lucille Ball. Despite all that, the writer ended up as butler to the CEO of Macdonald's.
 The decidedly forgotten British novelist Rosalind Erskine's 1962 novel, The Passion Flower Hotel - in which the adolescent inmates of a girls boarding school set up a knocking shop - provided pubescent boys in the '60s with a great deal of stimulation (I know - I was one of them). Rosalind wrote 55 novels under eight different names - and was in reality Roger Erskine Longrigg,  the creative director of an advertising agency, who came from an upper class Scottish military family.
I was delighted to find Jack Finney on Fowler's list - he wrote the book which was filmed as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. And Michael McDowell, the great writer of Southern Gothic horror (and the screenplay for Beetlejuice) is here. And the quirky cartoonist, John McGlashan. And there are mentions for Joan Sampson, who wrote the creepy novel, The Auctioneer, and Charles Maclean, whose nail-biting The Watchers I'd forgotten all about. And there's Lionel Davidson, the British writer, who produced some of the greatest thrillers of the last century, and who is a great personal favourite of mine. And M.P. Shiel, the mixed-race (Afro-Caribbean/Irish) author of a marvellous, apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Purple Cloud (1901), who was sent to prison for sexually abusing his 12-year old stepdaughter.
The funniest entry in what is a genuinely funny (and occasionally poignant) book is the one about the Tibetan monk, T. Lobsang Rampa, whose mystical works used to be available in all good bookshops - and who turned out to be Cyril Hoskin, a Devon plumber...

I could go on and on, but let's stop there. For anybody of a bookish disposition, The Book of Forgotten Authors is an absolute delight. It can be bought here.


  1. Oh dear! I read most of the books you feature in my teens and early twenties. Has this ruined any credibility I might have possessed? Actually, I really enjoyed Patrick Dennis's books, and read several of them - sorry if he ended up as a butler, but there are worse ways to end up.

    1. I'd worry about anyone who hadn;t spent years poking around the literary highways and byways - I just suspect I should have spent a bit more time on the main road. As for Patrick Dennis's butlering fate, I suppose it depends what his employer was like.

  2. My real source of embarrassment is that, as a keen Yoga enthusiast, I believed every word of "Lobsang Rampa's" first book, wondering about my 3rd eye and even speculating on the eatability of tsampa. Realisation came slowly, on reading his subsequent books. They were still a good read, but I felt let down.

  3. As someone who used to believe in all manner of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, that the Bermuda Triangle might be a vortex of evil, that Graham Hancock ("The Fingerprints of the Gods") might be on to something, and that Carlos Castaneda might have some genuine wisdom to impart, I shall definitely not be casting the first stone.