Now With Extra Weirdness!

Books

I hope you’ll forgive me for banging the drum about forgotten authors again this week, but the paperback came out a few days ago, now updated and with new material, and I feel I should do a spot of advertising. Regulars, stand down.

So, in case you’re new here, this is my most recent non-fiction book, about the forgotten authors who wrote the popular paperbacks that became touchstones in our lives. They were often hugely successful, but vanished from our bookshelves. Why? I found that they adopted false identities, switched genders, lost fortunes, became alcoholics, got censored, died of shame, lost their wits or reinvented themselves. Many had stories to tell which were as surprising than anything they wrote. Some chose their own fates, some were unlucky, all deserve to be remembered and revered by book lovers everywhere. Here are a few of my favourites.

Maryann Forrest

Her novels included the electrifying ‘Here: Away From It All’, set on a Greek island ruined by opportunistic tourism. One day all ferry contact with the island ends, so that foreign currency is suddenly rendered worthless. Hotel guests find themselves paying their bills with watches, rings and necklaces. When the material goods run out, the rules of civility shatter as the islanders start to exact revenge…

The book was critically admired, but the author vanished. One editor suggested that she had actually escaped the world by moving to the Greek island described in her novel. Some time after I started looking for her I received a letter which began; ‘My first husband came across your piece asking if anyone knows where Maryann Forrestis. I know, for I am she. Come to lunch.’ So I did, and discovered her secret…

R Austin Freeman

Sherlock Holmes spawned many imitators, including R. Austin Freeman’s charming mysteries, set in the Edwardian era. Dr Thorndyke was no mere copycat, though. He is a barrister and man of medicine who, armed with his little green case of detection aids, sets out to solve puzzles that would scarcely interest today’s police; a collapsed man who later vanishes, an ingeniously forged fingerprint, a crime scene more interesting than the act that occurred there.

The Dr. Thorndyke stories lack Holmes’ sense of atmospheric mystery, but are more thorough when it comes to technical detail. ‘The Man With The Nailed Shoes’ hinges on a study of footprints, ‘The Eye Of Osiris’ has a lengthy examination of embalming processes and the puzzle set in ‘The Magic Casket’ has an obscure metallurgical anomaly in its solution.

Alexander Baron

He’s one of the most consistently underrated British novelists of WWII. A soldier who read Jane Austen in the bomb-craters of Normandy, he was interested in the psychological aspects of war, and wrote with unusual sympathy about the lives of ordinary women as well as squaddies, portraying them as essentially good people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

Baron’sepic novel of Edwardian gangs, ‘King Dido’, remained his personal favourite. Here is a tale that outlines, with infinite care and patience, the causal link between poverty and crime. Its working-class protagonist is an anti-hero who is all too human and decent, and the final postscript carries a tragic resonance that is utterly heartbreaking. It is one of the greatest and least-read novels about London ever written, arguably an East End version of ‘Les Miserables’.

Dennis Wheatley

He was an inventive, prolific author who conjured forbidden thrills by selling the virtually non-existent ‘reality’ of black magic to aghast British readers in tasteless-looking paperbacks. His best novel is generally agreed to be ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’, in which a monstrous malevolent spider-thing taps at Toby’s bedroom window trying to get in, and can be glimpsed beneath the curtains.

The author of adventure stories like ‘They Found Atlantis’ also invented board games and created several interactive murder dossiers containing physical pieces of evidence, including a lock of human hair and a cigarette end, with a sealed last section revealing the killer.

Wheatley’s wife found him a job coordinating secret military deceptions for Winston Churchill, who asked him to suggest what the Germans were up to. It was typical of Churchill’s thinking that he would approach a fantasy writer to predict the future of the war…

Gladys Mitchell

The Mad Miss Mitchell was born at the start of the 20thcentury and wrote until the mid-1980s. One of the ‘Big Three’ female mystery novelists, judged the equal of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, she’s more like a wild combination of both.

Mitchell’s old lady detective, Mrs Brady, has little of Miss Marple’s cosiness. She’s physically repulsive, parchment-skinned and usually likened to a vulture or even a pterodactyl, thrice married and witch-like. ‘If you’re trying to be insulting…’ rails one character in ‘Tom Brown’s Body’. ‘I’m not only trying, I’m succeeding,’ replies Mrs Bradley.

Mitchell tested the constraints of the murder genre by pushing them to breaking point, and by surprising too much she sometimes disappointed – therein lies the clue to her disappearance. But a flawed gem can still sparkle brightly; better an alluring failure than an underachieving success.

Pamela Branch

It’s a crime to be talented and die young; the beautiful, glamorous mystery writer Pamela Branch succumbed at 47 after years of suffering cancer, and her work was quickly forgotten. 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 12thcentury Greek monastery.

Back in postwar London she lived a chaotic existence in tiny, dark flats with a slobbery boxer dog and a hopeless husband, Newton. Their existence was devil-may-care and full of laughter, which explains the tone of her bizarre, deliciously funny novels. ‘The Wooden Overcoat’ is unlike anything I’ve ever read, although you could describe it as PG Wodehouse meets ‘The Ladykillers’. What happens when someone is murdered in a houseful of murderers? There are four marvelous novels to track down, and a fifth which she inconveniently lost…

 

 

16 comments on “Now With Extra Weirdness!”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Dennis Wheatley wrote about 5 good books but the rest were turgid sub-Ruritanian romances that would curdle the milk in a baby’s bottle.The Devil Rides Out was his best known but most of his stuff with the Duc de Richeleu ( a sort of Nayland Smith) was dross compared to Sax Rhomer and Fu Manchu.

    He was nowhere as good as John Creasey with his Department Z stories, but fairly close to Edgar Wallace who wrote about 5 books a week and had no ‘crap filter’ to stop him writing poorly researched nonsense – usually involving hidden doors and tunnels. Wallace was involved in the creation of King Kong before he died.

    The best of these year’s output was ‘Sapper’ and Bulldog Drummond who clearly influenced The Saint. The Saint went on to become a series of American movies, a syndicated comic strip and eventually a highly successful TV series. Leslie Charteris enjoyed the life of an international playboy on the strength of his invented character.

    The 1920’s to the 60’s featured some astonishing authors who didn’t achieve much because of their personal circumstances.

    Hop across the Atlantic to read John Kennedy O’Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ and see a masterpiece that was published after the author had killed himself.

  2. Brooke says:

    From other side of Pond…A Confederacy of Dunces is now required reading in many freshman lit courses. How times change…a great read. In past year, I’ve read almost all of RA Freeman–he can be very funny. Also like Mitchell; I found her through a bookshop –now demolished–that specialized in crime/mystery paperbacks. Mitchell was fond of poison and venom–perhaps reflecting her personality. I discovered others you mentioned through same bookshop–not a fan of any of them but their writing tops stuff published now.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Always had a soft spot for John Blackburn, mad curses, devastating viruses ad some bizarre plots. I prefer Freeman’s short stories to the novels.

    Wayne.

  4. Vivienne says:

    This is apropos of nothing, but The Guardian had an article about dad jokes/puns and the comments were all favourites sent in. I loved:
    Astronaut 1: Can I drink milk in my tea up here?
    Astronaut 2: In space no-one can. Here, use cream.

  5. davem says:

    When I was a teenager I read all the Denis Wheatley books … may have to re-visit them one day.

  6. Crprod says:

    Any suggestions on where to start with Gladys Mitchell?

  7. admin says:

    Here, use cream. Go to jail, do not pass go.
    Mitchell. Somewhere near the front of the Mrs Bradys.
    A Confederacy of Dunces. It was his mother I felt sorry for. Too famous for me to include now, sadly – or happily!

  8. Brooke says:

    Mrs. Bradley, sweetie, not Brady. I’m trying to remember the title of the one with the snake (adder?) ..so bizarre but good place to start. .

  9. Roger says:

    As my first copy – got many years ago – has fallen to pieces now I’ll get another one and look for more writers missed out of earlier editions.

    Kenneth Fearing wrote some very strange satirical novels as well as The Big Clock., which everyone knows – or ought to.

  10. admin says:

    Ah yes, we also have a Mrs Brady, you see. ‘Mrs Brady Old Lady’ is the voice of old-school old ladydom, and one of the funniest cartoon strips I’ve ever seen. She’s on T-shirts and says things like ‘No tea for me, Dolly, tea’s a red rag to a bull is tea, with my bladder.’
    And:
    ‘I went to see Dr Chakraburti. He’s as black as the ace of spades but he’s got lovely hands.’
    So you can see the confusion.

  11. Brooke says:

    Found images of Mrs. Brady–can see now how one might confuse her with Mrs. Bradley. In one cartoon Mrs. Brady discovers the internet, web MD and spends 2 days entering her symptoms–priceless. On same site found tea towels with life of Christ portrayed with cats. You know what you’re getting as a holiday present?

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    I’m tempted to buy someone I know, I’m trying to work out if they’ll laugh or kill me?

    Viz is wrong in so many ways but funny and cutting at the same time.

    Wayne.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Didn’t you come up with the ‘Alien’ movie tagline, Chris? We’re not worthy!

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I have been a fan of ‘Viz’ comic since the 1980’s – yes, it’s that old. It was introduced to me by a friend who ran a comic shop; it was tiny, and hidden away on a street with, at first glance, no shops. You really had to be a fan to find it, and when you did, there was no actual shop behind the door, only black drapes, and three steps leading up… Anyway, the owner, who we’ll call Dave, because every Englishman knows a Dave, and also as it was his name, handed me this scruffy looking comic. I flicked through it, and when I handed it back, I was crying with laughter. “Do you reckon we should stock it?” He asked me. “I reckon” I replied. The reason ‘Viz’ is still about, and still funny, is that it is a stupid comic written by very intelligent people. It was started as a fanzine by two brothers in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and just got massive – at it’s peak it was outselling the then BBC TV listings magazine, ‘Radio Times’, which, for decades, was the most popular magazine in the UK. There are always mock adverts for terrible rubbish in Viz, such as: ‘Blitz Thieves, With This Electric Queen Anne Chair’ ‘Experience Sensational Sheds’, that sort of tbing. A few years ago, there was an ad. For ‘The Cuneiform Dating Agency’, which had details of different kinds of Cuneiform script. All of which were correct, meaning that the number of people who got that joke must have been miniscule. But as Ben Elton used to say: “Don’t worry, there’ll be a knob gag along in a moment”. And it being ‘Viz’, there was.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Seems to me there was a Mrs. Bradley tv series, but she wasn’t at all bizarre, just a middle ageish woman with a husband who wondered what she was doing and a young man as a sidekick. To put characters on tv you have to make them reasonably acceptable visually, apparently. Of course, would “Vera” be acceptable to an actress if she had the problems that the books’ character does?

  16. SheenaG says:

    Just bought the hardback edition and glad I did. (Sadly, for the author, Oxfam bookshop is £8.99 better off rather than the publisher.) What I’ve read so far is fascinating and I love the fact you can dip into chapters using the Contents or the Index.
    I’ve was surprised I remembered the name R.M. Ballantyne as I must have read ‘Coral Island’ as a child when author’s names didn’t stick in the mind. My English teacher once suggested a Jean Plaidy novel and ignited my love of historical fiction. I wondered if you’d considered Dorothy Dunnett for your list?

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