A Sheffield Talk 2
(This article is continued)
Arthur Upfield inspired a killer to copy his fictional perfect murder.
Kathleen Winsor became the subject of a sex scandal.
Other authors like Simon Raven never learned how to deal with sudden success and succumbed to a variety of hideous fates. Some were simply unlucky, some shied from the spotlight and hid themselves behind false identities. Many became unfashionable. One author I looked for was so mortified by poor reviews that she never wrote another word. Alexander Baron was so shy that when he did had a successful book he could barely bring himself to publicise it. Hans Fallada wrote Berlin novels subtly criticizing the Nazis, and the success of one nearly ended his life. It was made into a Hollywood film that came to the attention of Goebbels.
But other successful writers lived long and happy lives. One died on an Egyptian cruise, still cheerfully working in her late eighties. ‘Never regret,’ she said. ‘If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.’
Shortly after Keith Waterhouse died virtually every one of his novels, excepting the immortal ‘Billy Liar’, which I’ve always regarded as Britain’s answer to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, came off the shelves within a year. Perhaps as our lives improved beyond recognition, they took an entire literary school with them. Well, times and tastes change. It doesn’t mean we should forget our heroes.
The project of unearthing these writers became a labour of love that made me new friends around the world, as I tracked them down and heard their stories. I discovered how Walt Disney saved banned European writers, how a bestselling Tibetan monk turned out to be a plumber from Devon and how Alfred Hitchcock discovered female suspense novelists. I describe what happened when one successful author went mad and started mailing his readers rocks, and why another was so badly behaved that his publisher had a restraining order placed on him. I tracked some writers to their homes, where they told me the truth about what had happened to them. But I also look at the novels they wrote, and show why they’re worth seeking out.
So, from a ten-year mission to collect missing authors I and my editor selected 99 of the best, and added a dozen essays about others. The result tells the stories of the authors who deserve to be remembered and rediscovered by book lovers everywhere. The selection is designed to inspire, to offer new reading ideas and let you take another look at authors you only thought you knew.
People ask me if there’s one forgotten author readers should be reading right now. I’d suggest Norman Collins. He’s like a less cynical Evelyn Waugh. His novels are very human and deserve to be rediscovered. The least known, ‘The Three Friends’, is about travelling salesmen and their wives, and is unexpectedly profound.
The project feels as if it’s far from over. I’m still discovering lost authors every day and adding to a growing list. To inspire you to launch your own investigations – your own journey to the back of the shelf – here are some of little facts I discovered about forgotten authors.
Some authors continue writing after they’re dead. Virginia Andrews was so successful that the Inland Revenue continued to tax her earnings beyond the grave.
Charlotte Armstrong’s suspense novel ‘Mischief’ unfolds in real time – the events take place in the length of time it takes to read it.
Two authors wrote very similar stories called ‘The Birds’ at the same time, but one of them is forgotten. The question is; did Alfred Hitchcock make the right version?
Books can reappear in surprising ways. RM Ballantyne wrote adventures for Victorian schoolchildren, but one of his volumes was reimagined as a rock opera by Deep Purple.
Alexander Baron’s epic novel of Edwardian Jewish gangs, ‘King Dido’, is in some ways the British ‘Les Misérables’ and remains a personal favourite; here is a tale that outlines the causal link between poverty and crime, and its final pages are heartbreaking. It’s one of the greatest and least read novels about London ever written. Baron was too shy to attend his own launch parties.
Some authors write too much; it’s estimated that Charles Hamilton wrote 100 million words, but he’s now out of print, and remembered only for a TV show.
I knew that Thomas Tryon had been a handsome, successful actor. Then I discovered that he only started writing because Marilyn Monroe died – he had been about to star opposite her in her final film. After her death he gave up acting and switched to writing novels, finding even greater success.
When secretary Winifred Watson gave up knitting in the office and starting writing, the resulting novel she produced caused controversy and excitement – until the bombing of Pearl Harbour killed her career.
Dennis Wheatley went from crime and historical novels to tales of the supernatural before Churchill asked him to use his imagination and work out what the Germans were up to…just as he was developing the Bond books.
Luis Van Rooten wrote the only book that’s a practical joke; it looks like a volume of obscure French poetry, complete with mediaeval woodcuts. But it’s a trick book. It’s not until you read it aloud that you get the joke.
In Richard Hughes’s ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’, some British children living in the Caribbean survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. It’s an adventure about children, but certainly not aimed at them. Because in a turnabout, it’s the pirates who have to worry…it’s a haunting book you can’t easily forget.
Maryann Forrest wrote three novels, including the terrifying ‘Here: Away From It All’, then vanished. She was writing under a false identity, and gave it up because she was busy designing the Globe Theatre with her husband.
James Hadley Chase supposedly wrote the whole of ‘No Orchids For Miss Blandish’ on a transatlantic flight. It was a tale of kidnap and rape that caused outrage and became a smashing success.
Gladys Mitchell’s investigator Mrs Bradley was a wizened crone who tested the constraints of the murder novel by pushing them to breaking point. Like the more successful Miss Marple she provided insights into the cases the police overlooked. Unlike Miss Marple she could be a total bitch.
Sébastien Japrisot wrote ‘The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun’. Was there ever a better title for a crime novel? All six of his novels were filmed many times over, but he vanished.
Pamela Branch was beautiful and glamorous and died young. She was born on her parents’ tea estate in Ceylon, trained as an actress, married, learned Urdu, trekked the Himalayas, trained racehorses and moved to a 12th century Greek monastery to write brilliant novels. As you do.
And one final story – once upon a time, there was a book that was considered ideal for every young child’s bedroom. It was called ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’ and in it, one terrifying illustration showed a tiny girl being yanked into a shadowy forest by imps with razor-sharp claws. The author was Clifford Mills, a woman who had written the book as a Christmas entertainment under her husband’s name. For the next 40 years ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’ was as big a hit as ‘Peter Pan’ – it had everything; heroes, goblins, elves, a magic carpet, a battle between good and evil, a dragon and a cuddly pet lion cub. I looked for the edition I’d owned as a child, and after much hunting I found a copy for sale in Kent. A very nice lady said she’d send it to me for the princely sum of £7. When it arrived, it was exactly the version I’d owned. I opened the front cover and found my name written inside, Christopher Fowler, aged 7.
(One of the biggest problems I had writing a history of forgotten popular authors was finding any BAME writers. The handful of black authors who arrived in postwar Britain had university degrees and wrote literature.)