The Marvellous Mr Moore


Brian Moore is my kind of writer, unplaceable, thoughtful, readable, moving. The Irish-Canadian novelist and scriptwriter wrote a number of haunting short novels (some 20 in all) often concerning life in Northern Ireland, exploring the Troubles and the Blitz. Born into a family of nine children in Belfast, 1921, he rejected Catholicism and explained his personal beliefs through the characters of torn priests and strong women.

Not that you’d know this from his early works; ‘Wreath For A Redhead’, ‘This Gun For Gloria’ and ‘A Bullet For My Lady’ aren’t exactly masterpieces. Moore wrote thrillers under two pseudonyms while perfecting his craft, and yet there were signs of what was to follow.

Then came ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’, the story of an alcoholic piano teacher subsisting in rented rooms which gains its heartbreaking power from the simplicity of clear prose. It was later filmed with Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins, but the movie is hard to see now. Five of Moore’s novels became films, and he scripted for both Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol, although he described the writing of ‘Torn Curtain’ as ‘awful, like washing floors’.

Financed by a grant from the Guggenheim, Moore moved to New York. He often returned to the subject of isolated outsiders facing the consequences of their actions, from the rabble-rousing missionary in ‘No Other Life’ and the Fascist officer awaiting discovery in ‘The Statement’ to the conflicted priest living among Canada’s Algonquin Indians in the harrowing ‘Black Robe’.

He was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist, mainly, one suspects, because he was able to explore the paradoxical dilemmas of faith, morality, redemption and loss within the structure of popular thriller writing. In ‘The Magician’s Wife’, a Parisian prestidigitator is dispatched to Algeria by Emperor Napoleon III to trick the natives into believing that a Christian Frenchman can perform miracles, but his wife is not so easily hoodwinked. It’s a typical tour-de-force from a truly international novelist who was thrice nominated for the Booker Prize (and should have won). To date he is the subject of three biographies.

Perhaps his least appreciated novel is ‘The Great Victorian Collection’, an exuberant fantasy in which a young assistant history professor dreams of an open-air market filled with a dazzling collection of priceless Victoriana, only to awake and find it standing outside his window. Now he must take care of it, and as we know, grand possessions come with a price.

Are Moore’s novels popular fictions or literature? Does it matter how they’re perceived? He stands on the dividing line. His books are effortless to read, pithy, unfashionably short, but thematically expansive. How would present-day critics regard him? I imagine that today his work would unquestionably be considered literary fiction, so that’s where I’ll put him, on the litfic shelf. Moore died in 1999.

6 comments on “The Marvellous Mr Moore”

  1. Lyn Jackson says:

    It is amazing how many excellent authors there are who are new to me. Don’t know how I missed Brian Moore
    but thanks for giving me someone else to explore while isolated.
    Hopefully take my mind off politicians like our Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert who said” my bad, I did not realise there would be a million unemployed when we closed down the businesses.” It is beyond satire.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    Read The Luck of Ginger Coffey, avoid the film – Robert Shaw hopelessly miscast

  3. Andrew Martin Holme says:

    Lovely piece. I’m re-reading ‘The Magician’s Wife’ today. It’s the sense of unease that Emmeline experiences throughout the story that resonates. Are our nearest and dearest who we think they are? You’re right about the film of ‘Judith Hearne’ being hard to see. I remember watching it at the pictures when it was released. Maggie Smith brilliant, natch, but what a fine actor Bob Hoskins was. An understated triumph, rather like the book.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Black Robe is the book we connected with most in Canada and saw as well. It’s one of those “Canadian” moments. “Oh, really! You’re talking about our Brian Moore!”

  5. Joel Stein says:

    Just started “The Emporer of Ice Cream.” Love the crisp writing and the straight forward nature of it.

  6. Lauren C says:

    Just last night I was perusing my fiction shelves for something I hadn’t read (I’m going to see whether I can make it through quarantine/lockdown without buying any books or developing a tic from not buying any books) and thought about re-reading Black Robe, one of the most haunting novels I’ve ever encountered. It struck me then that I’ve never searched out any of his other books. Thanks for this post.

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