Now With Extra Weirdness!
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.
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.
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’.
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…
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.
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…