A Book Before Lunchtime


Recently I tried to work out how many words I’d written in the service of Bryant & May. Each time I work it out I get a different figure, but it runs into millions. You can more than double that if you add in my other writings. People are always shocked by this, but if I asked you to add up all the jobs and projects you’d worked on by, say, the age of fifty or sixty, you’ll get a figure that will surprise you.

I’m far from prolific, because for most of that time I had a day job. The Spanish writer Maria Lopez, born 1927, hammered out more than 4,000 execrable novels. She’s followed by Brazilian pulp writer and thoracic surgeon Ryoki Inoue with 1,100 books. He worked under nearly 40 identities and could knock off a chapter in the bathroom. In the time that it took the Guinness Book of Records to confirm his proficiency he had delivered a further 15 titles, so it’s safe to say that writer’s block was never much of a problem. I imagine the one thing that unites these writers is RSI.

After him comes Kathleen Lindsay, born 1903, who wrote 904 books under 11 pseudonyms. Her romances had titles that sounded like perfume brands; ‘Wind of Desire’, and ‘Harvest of Deceit’. Georgette Heyer publicly accused her of plagiarism, something I’m surprised she would have wanted to do at all.

The first name we truly recognize comes in at No.5 – Enid Blyton produced at least 600 books, although JK Rowling may have finally surpassed her in sales. Discounting dime novelists and John Creasey, the first name writer to combine quality adult fiction with high output is Georges Simenon, with more than 500 mystery novels to his credit. The only other immediately recognisable names on the list are trash-queen Barbara Cartland (280) and Alexandre Dumas (277) – this being the only time their names are likely to share a sentence.

There are other inexhaustible authors of passing interest; Kyokutei Bakin was an 18th century Japanese author who wrote one of the longest books in the world, a 106-volume story called ‘Hakkenden’ (‘Chronicle of the Eight Dog Heroes’). It took 28 years to complete and he went blind in the process, but it remains popular and has been adapted many times.

Also making the cut is Nigel Morland, born Carl Van Biene in 1905 (why change that name?) who became the secretary of the almost-as-prolific Edgar Wallace. He began as a ghost writer, or what the French then charmingly called a ‘literary negro’, and set about creating his own detectives, including Mrs Palmyra Pym, who first appeared in ‘The Phantom Gunman’ (1935). As was once the fashion, his heroine was employed by Scotland Yard, who were happy to have a busybody running around their crime scenes, and she starred in her own film.

SF writer Isaac Asimov also joins this exclusive club with well over 450 books to his credit. The list is not definitive, but now that authors are hired by copyright holders, employ their own staff writers and even generate algorithms to file articles, the days of the pulp grafter are over.

Considering John Creasey is largely out of print, the facts about him are staggering. The English thriller writer was one of the most prolific authors of all time, producing 562 books under 28 different pseudonyms. Even he had no recollection of some of his titles, and to date no comprehensive catalogue of his works has ever been completed. Although he received 743 rejection slips for his work, his sales totalled around 2.5 million copies a year and he was awarded an MBE. He created eleven different series, writing longhand, and revised each volume half a dozen times before sending it out. He wrote with a special typewriter that was equipped with three extra keys (if you know what they were, let me know), and it took him around a week to finish a book.

Creasey was married four times and went around the world twice, founded a political movement advocating all-party shared responsibility and fought four by-elections. He also lent his name to John Creasey Mystery Magazine and owned his own literary agency and paperback publishing house. Did I mention that he founded the Crime Writers’ Association, which is still in rude health? Feeling tired yet?

Creasey was born to a working class family in Southfields, Surrey in 1908, the seventh of nine children. His first book was published when he was 22. By his 29th birthday, 29 of his books were in print. He created an array of sleuths and secret service agents from The Toff to Inspector Gideon, Dr Palfrey and The Baron. ‘Gideon’s Way’ was filmed for TV with John Gregson, and was later a John Ford film, while The Baron became a series starring Steve Forrest. Creasey once said in an interview, ‘Occasionally I find that a new plot is becoming a little vague because I am concentrating on too many at once.’

So much for quantity. How was the quality? Well, let’s say that each word was not torn from Creasey’s tortured soul, but given that he produced between seven and ten thousand words a day, the writing is solidly appealing, with unpretentious characters doing a good job of work as they handle exciting situations. Creasey created the pseudonyms because booksellers complained that he dominated the ‘C’ category in bookshops. He also wrote on politics and philosophy, and there is a Creasey museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire. But there’s something that doesn’t quite come into focus about him – biographies trumpet his prolific output but rarely champion a single volume as the archetypal Creasey novel.

Finally, proving that you can write more than once about anything, Eden Philpotts turned out 127 novels with Dartmoor settings, not counting his short fiction, plays, non-fiction and poetry. But that’s not all; he also wrote under a pseudonym. He was an agnostic in Victorian Britain so he presumably had Sundays free. Funnily enough, his work can still be found in the Dartmoor area.

But who is the all-time king of the sales figures? The most successful science fiction story series ever written has sold, with its various spinoffs, over two billion copies so far, and has influenced a generation of writers. ‘Perry Rhodan’ was created in 1961 by KH Scheer and Clark Darlton, and was conceived as a thirty-volume epic with a single story arc, back in the days when you could attempt such a thing.

When it reached the end of its run, such was the appetite for the series, whose main character was space explorer Rhodan, that it has continued to the present day, heading for nearly three thousand instalments – so why have we never heard of it?

For the answer to that, you’ll have to read ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’. See what I did there?

28 comments on “A Book Before Lunchtime”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Mr F, I have just been refreshing my memory and had another look at your Book of Forgotten Authors. In particular, the entry on Edgar Wallace. I wanted to check to see if you had mentioned the old Punch cartoon. A woman is standing at a W H Smith’s bookstall on a railway station, and the caption is: “Is the lunchtime Edgar Wallace in yet?”

    Frank Richards, author of the Billy Bunter books, was also somewhat prolific and wrote under about 20 pseudonyms.

  2. Paul C says:

    Better to produce a small number of carefully written quality books instead of a mountain of quickly dashed off hackwork ?

    Stephen King complained that Donna Tartt has only issued only three novels in 30 years but they are all written with meticulous craftsmanship and will last. Is her achievement greater than King’s ? He has churned out a lot of books and some are very poor – Cujo in particular.

    Jack London and Mark Twain wrote vast amounts of potboilers to pay off their debts and seriously damaged their literary reputations. If they had written a lot less a lot more carefully they would have produced far better books.

  3. Brooke says:

    A literary negro…What is the actual French phrase, please?

  4. Peter T says:

    One of my old supervisors said that if you have a hundred ideas and ten are good, you’ll get by. If you have a thousand and only fifty are good, you’re a genius. I guess the point here is keeping the bad ones to yourself.

  5. admin says:

    Brooke, it’s ‘negre Litteraire’ (WordPress doesn’t seem to support accents.) This is from NPR on French language;

    ‘The French started calling ghost writers negres back in the 1700s, just as colonialism and the slave trade were gaining momentum. The idea was that writing under someone else’s name, erasing your own identity, was thankless servitude on a par with the labor of colonialism’s black subjects and victims. The important difference was that the chains of the negre litteraire were not made of iron. “The French are schizophrenic about that term,” a French literature professor tells me. “They call ghost writers negres, but in any other context, they would consider the word negre racist.”

  6. Jo W says:

    Five hundred and sixty two books written by John Creasey! I only have twenty of them,all Inspector Gideon stories. The role of Gideon in the feature film was played by Jack Hawkins so I think that influenced my choice. I could have listened to him reading from half the London telephone directory,with James Mason reading the rest. Mmm.
    Er,what was I saying? Oh yes, I’ve been catching up on some of your earlier works and thoroughly enjoyed Disturbia which I wolfed down in three evenings. Maggie and Arthur were an unexpected bonus. Next I turned to Spanky……honestly! Mr.Fowler,it’d make a cat blush!! (I may have to re-read it soon to make sure I didn’t miss anything.). 😉
    Best wishes, X

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    I don’t know about Creasey’s extra keys, it got me to thinking what ones I’d find useful.
    I did hear a tale that when Creasey started out he was so poor he typed on carbon paper (remember that) because he couldn’t afford typewriter ribbons. How much would these folk churn out today with voice recognition technology etc

  8. Brooke says:

    Thanks, Chris. It’s a great line for a T-shirt….yes I know I’m ill.
    On the French point of view….yes, the revolutionsaries set Haiti free but forbade women to wear pants.

  9. Paul C says:

    Creasey’s extra keys – according to a profile in Life Magazine called ‘The Man of 400 Mysteries’ dated 27 April 1962 : ‘the machine is equipped with three extra keys which facilitate dialogue writing by making it possible to produce single and double quotation marks without shifting the carriage’. I thought the extra keys would be THE, AND and YES…….

  10. Roger says:

    L. Ron Hubbard is said to have had a similar typewriter to Creasey.
    At the end of his life Sir Walter Scott wrote at an obsessive rate to pay off the debts of his bankrupt publisher. At one time, just about every early 18th century novel and memoir whose author couldn’t be identified was ascribed to Daniel Defoe, until people began to work out just how quickly it was possible to write with a quill pen and began reducing the number. In a different area of literature, the US poet and psychiatrist Merrill Moore was said to write sonnets (he wrote nothing but sonnets) waiting for traffic lights to change on his way to work.
    Kaizan Nakazato wrote an enormous unfinished serial novel, Daibosatsu toge, which was published in Japanese newspapers from 1913 to 1941. The early parts inspired several good films.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    There is certainly nothing “charming” about the French ghost writer phrase. I assumed you were being sarcastic.
    Unfortunately I do not have a citation but I have read that Alexandre Dumas paid someone for material for his books.
    I have seen a number of books in the mystery section of our library with “Gideon” in the title. Perhaps that will give me a new author.I’ve never heard of the science fiction character and thought the book would turn out to be “Dune.”

  12. Ian Luck says:

    My late father was very fond of Creasey’s ‘Toff’ novels, and was also fond of Leslie Charteris’ ‘Saint’ stories. Sadly for me, though, he got rid of them before I had a chance to read any of them. I’ve now read a lot of the ‘Saint’ books, and they are good, trashy fun, but I’ve never really looked for the ‘Toff’ books – I do seem to recall the paperbacks carrying a pictogrammatic logo akin to ‘The Saint’s’ stickman. Has anyone here read them, and, if so, are they worth seeking out?
    Jo – Jack Hawkins was my mother’s favourite actor, and he did have a superb voice – tragically lost after surgery on his throat, for cancer, which led to a permanent tracheotomy. He continued acting, but was always dubbed thereafter by the owner of yet another superlative voice, Charles Gray.

  13. Barbara Boucke says:

    Ian – my Mother read a number of John Creasey’s books while she was taking care of our Dad and enjoyed them very much. Some of them were probably “the Toff” books. I’ve read a few of the Inspector West series and liked them. So I would say, that if you come across one cheaply – charity shop, used bookshop, etc. – give it a try.

  14. Brooke says:

    Ian, I’ve read two Creasey “Toff” novels, On the Farm and Vote for… If you like Charteris, the Toff novels are of a piece. As I recall, both books were pleasant reading on an afternoon by the river. But Creasey’s writing is mediocre. No memorable characters in either book, the Honorable Richard appeals to British stereotypes, the plots are mildly testosterone fueled. Try a Toff book; they’re easy to find and don’t cost much.

  15. J F Norris says:

    Some very bad misinformation on Morland’s books up there. Nigel Morland’s detective was a legitimate policewoman. Mrs. Palmyra Pym was not “a busybody running around their crime scenes.” She was the Commissioner of Scotland Yard! She was in charge of it all. Tough as nails, merciless and utterly no nonsense. She had a Chinese manservant who died in a horrific plane crash engineered by gangsters that fueled a bloodthirsty vengeance against all organized crime in England. I’m one of the few people who’s actually read the some of these books and enjoyed them for their pulpy adventures.

    Part of Creasey’s ease in writing so many books so quickly was recycling his plots. In the Dr. Palfrey series alone there are about twelve rewrites of the same plot.

    Kathleen Lindsey ripped off many writers not just Heyer. I’ve read some of her “Hugh Desmond” books all of which use other writers’ ideas and plots. Pact with Satan is an utter ripoff of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides and also incorporates a scene directly lifted from The Haunting of Toby Jugg. She was shameless.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Barbara and Brooke – Thank you.

  17. Jan says:

    I don’t really understand how this 3 extra key thing goes…on a manual typewriter I am trying to

    think it through so he gets 3 keys to open and close speech marks that must be two ” ”

    and one ‘ OR THE REVERSE.

    These keys save him the trouble of engaging the carriage return. If he were a trained typist he would have spent so much time unnecessarily engaging the carriage return and then to return to type face this would have negated any benefits gained by the three (3) extra keys. Mr Creaseys typing must have been of the hunt + peck variety.

    See its not like me to get bogged down in the detail BUT…

  18. Jan says:

    Here do many fiction writers actually employ “ghost writers”( I am not accusing you Mr F. Sir )
    I read somewhere that the guys+ girls right at the tops of the best sellers list find it more profitable just to move into the ideas and novel plans part of the creative process and employ help to actually get the words, sentences and paragraphs onto paper. Would be a right job reading someone’s literary output in order to replicate same …. specially if you never really rated their work to start off with. Mind the pastiche type output might really appeal to such an author even more.

  19. Jan says:

    Was this Palmyra Pyn personage a sort of a pre reality imagining of Cressida Dick (herself a example of the odd mixture of complex theatrical first name balanced again a simple single syllable surname)

  20. Paul C says:

    On a quiz show recently a contestant was trying to give the answer Cressida Dick but actually said Caressa Dick to great hilarity from the audience.

    Jack London bought a lot of plots from the future Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis

  21. Peter Dixon says:

    Edgar Wallace had an amazing ability to write total ‘stinkers’, his use of secret tunnels and passageways suggested an army of criminal builders must have existed in full employ in England from about 1900 to 1940. John Creasey was a better write; his ‘Department Z’ stories must have influenced the ‘Department S’ TV series of the 1970’s and must also have been read by Ian Fleming. The precursor of The Saint was Bulldog Drummond – if you can get hold of any of the original Sapper stories (the character was later taken over by another author) they are brisk, funny and full of action.The biggest character ever to appear was Sexton Blake who had his own weekly magazine, radio show, books, annuals and comic book appearances. Largely based on Sherlock Holmes but based in the 1930’s he is probably the most coshed, beaten, chloroformed, gassed, poisoned, tied-up-and-gagged, left-in-a-vault-with-rising-Thames-water hero in all of literature.

  22. Jan says:

    Nice one Paul C. Ms Dick must thank her lucky stars her mum and Dad settled on Cressida not Clarissa!

  23. Jan says:

    Nice one Paul.

    Ms Dick must thank her lucky stars that her mum and dad settled on Cressida rather than Clarissa

  24. Tim Lees says:

    One thing that has changed, and curtailed the colossal number of books an author might produce (though not the number of words) is the present publishing trend towards big books. 80,000 words is now standard. Even back in the 70s an author could turn out a modest 40,000 and claim it was a novel. And so it was. So maybe some of these huge tomes should count twice?

  25. Nancy says:

    Sinclair Lewis – now there’s a name you hear rarely these days. His stories were great – read every one of them in high school. Wish he’d come back into favor.

  26. Andrew Holme says:

    Two wonderful Sinclair Lewis books are, of course, ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’. Well it has. My absolute favourite is ‘Elmer Gantry’, a marvellous read, made into a great film starring Burt Lancaster which is rarely shown these days, I think because whenever it’s scheduled there seems to be a big fire somewhere and they postpone it! Remember when big film stars used to take on interesting and challenging roles.

  27. Peter T says:

    Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, published in1922, is a perfect description of people today and their need for the latest tech.

  28. Keith Ravenscroft says:

    Hi Chris.
    Just finished reading the wonderful ‘Bryant & May On The Loose’. Little did I expect it to have an open ending- now I have to rush Amazon into sending me ‘On the Rails’. It was a delight to read about the Holloway Road- a place I have frequented many times in the past purposely to visit Arthur and John’s Fantasy Center- to browse their groaning shelves for Sci-fi and fantasy books. Or was it Ted & Eric who ran the place? Two welcoming and friendly chaps who loved to tell stories and it was here that I bought your debut novel ‘Roofworld’. It cost me a pretty penny but it was also signed. And thus, my time reading you began. I also found there, City Jitters and More City Jitters. These two novels I later sent to Thom Tessier (who was also a great fan of yours) in return for a copy of Dino Buzatti’s The Tartar Steppe, an extraordinary novel indeed.
    Back to Bryant and May. I hope this series never ends. I love the little quirks. That little skewing of everyday that makes a story leap of the page and become memorable. Does anyone here remember the Café sugar bowl poisoner? What book was he in? I can vividly remember him slinking in his long mac out in the rain by the steamy windows, sipping tea then poisoning the sugar and leaving. Sounds like something from one of the Bryant and May novels… My brain stumbles….

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