Five little-known novelists and the reasons they should be more famous than they are
One of our favourite sources of reference among recently published books here at Interesting Literature Towers is the gargantuan volume Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland, retired Professor of English Literature and prolific critic and biographer. Although, as the book’s subtitle reveals, Sutherland offers mini-biographies of 294 novelists, we were often most struck by those figures whose names were new (or else only vaguely known) to us. Often it turned out that these novelists had been responsible for some of the most famous and popular characters, films, and books that the last couple of centuries have produced, so what follows is our pick of the five most interesting not-so-famous authors whom Sutherland discusses in his book.
Zane Grey. Zane Grey (1872-1939) was once a household name, known for his immensely popular Westerns. He was President Eisenhower’s favourite writer. Grey’s 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage, which remained his bestselling book, effectively invented that classic opening to many western novels – and films. A lone, laconic dark stranger rides into town and rescues people being mistreated. This trope recurs in countless later westerns, particularly in Clint Eastwood films – for instance, in his 1985 film Pale Rider, itself a homage to the 1950s western Shane.
Max Brand. The American author Max Brand (1892-1944), known as ‘King of the Pulps’, has to be one of the most prolific novelists of all time. By the time of his death, he had clocked up around 900 short stories and some 600 novels, a feat which is all the more remarkable when one reflects that he was a relatively young man of 51 years of age when he died. He wrote in all sorts of genres – Westerns, romance, science fiction – under a whole host of pseudonyms. His Western novel Destry Rides Again was filmed in 1930 with Marlene Dietrich. Brand went on to invent the character of Dr Kildare, and, with it, the genre of the ‘hospital melodrama’.
Sax Rohmer. Born in Birmingham to Irish immigrant parents, Arthur Ward, who would write under the name Sax Rohmer (1883-1959), began his writing career as the ghost-writer of the autobiography of music-hall star Harry Relph, better known as ‘Little Tich’ (whose name would lend itself to small or ‘titchy’ things). He asked his wife, herself a star of the music hall and supposedly a clairvoyant, how he could make his fortune. The message on the ouija board spelled out was C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N. Thus was born Dr Fu-Manchu, Rohmer’s most successful creation – a Chinese criminal whose nemesis is Dr Nayland Smith, a British government official. The Fu-Manchu books, despite their nonsensical and far-fetched plots, sold in their millions and were turned into very popular films. Rohmer also created Morris Klaw, an ‘occult detective’, during the vogue for such Sherlock-supernatural crossover genre fiction in the early twentieth century. (Other examples include Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, the ‘Ghost-Finder’.)
Leslie Charteris. We have offered some facts about Leslie Charteris and his most famous creation, the Saint, in a previous post. Half English and half Chinese, Charteris (1907-1993) was a first-year undergraduate at Cambridge when his first novel was accepted for publication. He created Simon Templar, a sort of Robin Hood for the modern age, while still in his early twenties: ‘the Saint’ would go on to feature in many novels as well as a number of films, in addition to the classic 1960s TV series starring Roger Moore. Charteris, a highly gifted intellectual, was one of the first members of Mensa, and invented his own sign language, Paleneo.
Jacqueline Susann. The American writer Susann (1918-1974) is remembered for her 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls. The ‘dolls’ of the title are barbiturates – nicknamed ‘barbies’, hence ‘dolls’ (a slang term supposedly coined by Susann in the novel). Susann took a lot of them, as well as diet pills (when she was younger she had tried to develop the ‘perfect’ figure so as to make it big in Hollywood; she failed), and Valley of the Dolls is about the dangers of substance abuse, of treating pills as toys (dolls again). Valley of the Dolls became the biggest-selling novel of the year when it was published, but few readers may have been aware of the in-joke in the novel’s title: as Sutherland reveals, Susann liked to take pills in suppository form – so no need to dwell too long on what the ‘valley’ of the dolls might be a euphemism for. Valley of the Dolls became a film a year after its publication, starring Sharon Tate. The novel was a huge success – not bad considering that the first draft was ‘hardly written in English’, according to one of the members of her publisher’s rewrite team.
If you liked these mini-mini-biographies of these neglected and little-known authors, we thoroughly recommend John Sutherland’s book. It’ll keep you amused for hours, days, weeks, teach you a whole lot you didn’t know about the world of fiction, and give you a list of new authors to go in search of at your local second-hand bookshop. The book itself is available online: Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.
Image: Jacqueline Susann in 1951, by Bruno of Hollywood; Wikimedia Commons.