Forgotten Authors: The Addiction That Can’t Be Cured


BenightedReaders sometimes ask, ‘Do your characters live with you 24 hours a day?’ to which I (and I suspect most regularly published authors) answer, ‘No, they live in my computer.’ When I turn my mind to stories I do so seated at a desk, although ideas sometimes run in the background if I’m particularly stuck and trying to think of a way out. Being a crime writer is a bit like being an escapologist.

hargreaves396The ‘Forgotten Authors’ book is different somehow. It grew out of me reading them for pleasure in the first place, a habit that has continued after the hardback has appeared. This week I’m reading Cyril Hare, who beats Christie for style and atmosphere. He’s a new discovery, working in the 1930s, but other authors like JB Priestley, Margaret Millar and Norman Collins, all of whose books I knew well, have recently had more of their backlists published. Having read (and written about) Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’, I now find myself reading his ‘Stories of the Strange & Sinister’.

But I’m also currently reading Priestley’s ‘Benighted’, which was the basis for James Whale’s strange film ‘The Old Dark House’, plus Margaret Millar’s early detective novels and Norman Collins’ ‘The Three Friends’, an utter delight. Latest finds include Anne Rivers Siddons’ ‘The House Next Door’, Bari Wood’s ‘The Tribe’, Ken Greenhall’s ‘Hell Hound’ and ‘Elizabeth’, Jack Finney’s ‘Five Against the House’ and E Arnot Robinson’s ‘Four Frightened People’.

51xjpTQyyLL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_One of the things you have to accept is the thing most Amazon reviewers complain about; books can often have old-fashioned attitudes. But in many cases this has no real effect on the stories themselves, but you need a little imagination negotiate this and not be too quick to take offence. As books get republished their covers are re-imagined for different times, as with ‘The House Next Door’, and also inform the mindset of the reader.scan0008

I started reading backwards, exploring experimental works from Ballard, Brophy and BS Johnson when I should have been starting with the classics. I thought I had to love all canonical literature because of its status. I preferred ‘War and Peace’ to ‘Pride and Prejudice’, loved Mervyn Peake and Dickens, but saw no demarcation line between comics and classics. I abandoned too many canonical works, trying them at different times of my life (step forward ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ – both of which I’ve finally given up on). And I return to the margins where the forgotten authors live.

Part of the problem is a sense of time wasted and time running out. Even if I was twenty now, I still own too many books to read in one lifetime, but last weekend I attended a book fair and bought a ridiculous number of authors I’d vaguely heard of but never read. Christianna Brand’s ‘Nanny Matilda’ stories, anyone? Modern novels suffer by comparison, too. So many are prosaically written, over-explanatory plods. Find me a book as succinct as say, Horace McCoy’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ and I’ll show you why no publisher would touch it now.

The moral; when present-day books disappoint, delve into past glories.


5 comments on “Forgotten Authors: The Addiction That Can’t Be Cured”

  1. Brooke says:

    Love Cyril Hare!!! Discovered him about 10 years ago (recommended by owner of our city’s only mystery/hard cor sci-fi bookstore, now defunct.) along with other “classic” mystery/crime authors, some discussed in your forgotten author posts. It’s fun and worthwhile discovering writers, like Sue Grafton’s father, C.W., another lawyer who wrote with tongue in cheek. As a result, I can no longer read today’s popular mystery/ crime fiction.

    I too have returned to the “classics,” with focus on works where the author is trying to describe seismic shifts in society and probably struggling with how to do it. That’s why the 11 minute rule doesn’t work for me.

  2. Debra Matheney says:

    I just discovered Cyril Hare and have read 3, all of which I enjoyed. Also Just read “Bats in the Belfry” by E C R Lorac. Great fun.
    I recently cleaned out my bookshelves and gave 150 to the library for their sale. Did not really make a dent.There is never enough time to just read as life tasks get in the way. I recently retired and thought there would be more time to read. Ha!

  3. Susanna Carroll says:

    I’ve just finished your ‘Forgotten Authors’ and I’m now watching the second hand and charity shops for more books to add to the teetering pile of books that I’ll never get to read. Like Debra (above), I try to clear out some books to charity shops, but invariably come back with some different ones.

    BTW in ‘Forgotten Authors’ you mention ‘Toby Twirl’, it gave me a ‘madeleine moment’. I had one of those books, it probably came from a great-aunt who was teacher, when I was three or four, and it sent me off thinking about Christmases past.

  4. Mike Campbell says:

    Another Cyril Hare fan here! I’ve got 9 novels and a book of short stories, in the Faber editions they published in the mid-1980s, and have re-re-read them often. “The Wind Blows Death” is probably my favourite, set in an amateur orchestra. What’s so good about him is that as well as great plots he creates a wonderful and witty atmosphere for each of the various settings – the bitchiness of the afore-mentioned music world, the boredom of the office politics in a war-time admin outpost (“With a Bare Bodkin”), the law (Hare was a lawyer in his ‘day job’) (“Tragedy at Law” and others). They’re Golden Age crime in style to some extent, but without some of the attitudes which can grate nowadays sometimes – he comes across as a very nice sort of chap, and as a writer has a light touch which makes him still very readable.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Covers can be misleading. The cover on The House Next Door is fine in the old form but if you have the new edition that house would imply a modern situation so there had better not be any outmoded attitudes. Not everyone reads the copyright info the way some of us do.

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