In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Christopher Fowler’s enthralling account of the writers who time forgot
I’ve always been fond of the curious coincidence that in the 1960s there was a writer of novels about boxing who wrote under the name Frank Bruno. Or that Robert Shaw, who turned in a booming performance as Henry VIII in Fred Zinnemann’s superlative film of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, was a successful novelist as well as a fine actor. The literary associations of such names have now largely been lost, but it’s great fun to recover them and re-examine the work of the authors in question.
So I was thrilled to receive a copy of Christopher Fowler’s new book, The Book of Forgotten Authors, which bears a glorious pink cover dotted with silhouettes of now-unfamiliar literary figures, and salvages 99 names from the mists of writerly obscurity and puts them back under the spotlight. And some of the revelations on offer here are truly fascinating.
Who would have guessed that Arnold Ridley, best known for playing Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, was also a playwright, whose now-forgotten play, The Ghost Train, was inspired by Mangotsfield railway station, where Ridley was stranded one night? Or that Thomas Burke, the British author of the collection of short stories Limehouse Nights, also published a book called For Your Convenience (1937), which included a map of London’s public urinals, ‘noting in particular their sexual possibilities’? Or that Keith Waterhouse, who is now remembered solely for Billy Liar, also worked on a doomed musical of Andy Capp in which, Fowler recalls, ‘they released racing pigeons in the theatre auditorium that crapped on everyone’? The Book of Forgotten Authors is a mine of interesting and amusing literary trivia of this sort, as the title implies.
Christopher Fowler is an amiable and entertaining guide through the annals of neglected writers, and interspersed with the individual author portraits are some more general essays focusing on, among other things, forgotten nonsense writers and the ‘also-ran’ rivals of those titans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, in the world of detective fiction. Fowler is especially good at whetting the reader’s appetite for the books and authors he discusses. I’d heard of R. Austin Freeman before and have often lamented the fact that his Dr Thorndyke mystery stories are no longer in print, as they sound worth reading. But having read Fowler’s account of Freeman’s work, the fact that his stories are not available in some cheap paperback somewhere (Wordsworth Editions, if you’re reading: you have at least one reader who’d buy such an omnibus right here) seems more and more like a tragedy. Happily, some of the books Fowler dusts off are back in print, so you’re bound to come away from reading The Book of Forgotten Authors with a significantly enlarged ‘to read’ list.
Similarly, Fowler’s portrait of the forgotten mystery author John Dickson Carr (1906-77) makes me long for an affordable series of his novels, with their ‘cases that involved witchcraft, automata, eerie disappearances, snowstorms, impossible footprints, a hangman’s ghost, keys on bits of elastic, knives that pop out of ceilings, corpses that walk through walls, a victim who dives into a swimming pool and vanishes.’ Fans of detective fiction are unlikely to make it to the end of that sentence without being overcome by the desire to type Carr’s name into the Amazon search box, to see if any of his books are available (thankfully, some are).
‘Forgotten’ is always going to be a subjective term when it comes to literature. Has T. H. White been forgotten? Or Dennis Wheatley? Some are more ‘forgotten’ than others. But then Wheatley doesn’t enjoy the readership he once did, and many of his books are now out of print, so his inclusion here seems reasonable. It’s nice (if ‘nice’ is quite the right word) to see the truly disturbing M. P. Shiel – ‘disturbing’ in both his writing and in his unsettling private life – included here: I’d recommend readers track down a copy of his 1896 collection of horror stories, Shapes in the Fire (not mentioned by Fowler, though he does name-check Shiel’s ‘disaster’ novel, The Purple Cloud) for a slice of forgotten decadent Gothic.
When I began this Friday column back in the summer, I named it after my first book for the general reader, which saw me go in search of some of the lesser-known but fascinating titles to be found among the world’s library shelves. Many of the books I included in The Secret Library were by forgotten authors who are worth reading, in my opinion. The Book of Forgotten Authors is a book after my own heart, and Fowler really knows his stuff. This is a book for the bibliophile and literary historian, as well as for someone looking for some rare treats to track down in second-hand bookshops. It would also make a fine gift for that bibliophile you know (even if that happens to be yourself).
Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.