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.)

22 comments on “A Sheffield Talk 2”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Disappeared books/authors is one unfortunate phenomenon — but more worrying are the disappearing readers, which can only serve to accelerate this past as a prologue for writers and their work, especially considering the already constrained publishing industries. Books require a degree of active attention and engagement — not usually needed with today’s electronically delivered instant gratification and its coincident shorter attention spans.

    Research has shown, ironically, that because of the very glut of information being pumped out via the Internet 24/7, attention spans have measurably narrowed and to the point, dangerously, among the young. The ubiquity and use characteristics of the electronic media however, is only the most obvious bugbear. Other reasons advanced include, household economic instability, educational disparities and the reduction in community libraries. It is certainly cold comfort that this decline in readership is not wholly because of technology. Whatever the individual explanation, it is disturbing to find that almost half of adults in the UK aren’t reading books, with this percentage roughly the same in the US. In the US, a 10 point drop in this percentage over 20 years is estimated to represent a loss of some 20m potential readers. In the UK, the National Literacy Trust reported a concerning decline in the percentage of children and young people (at just under 26 %) both reading for enjoyment daily and actually enjoying it (slight more than half). And what is more, this reading rate tends to decline as children age.

    The one ray of hope (if you can ignore the circumstances) is that the pandemic and its restrictions arrested these unfortunate trends in reading, with something like just over 40% of UK adults saying they were reading more books and spending more time with them. Whilst crime and thrillers are the fiction of choice, dystopian novels rank well down the ‘comfort’ list, as might be expected. Will these numbers hold up or increase post-pandemic ? Those of us who selfishly want a robust publishing industry to feed our need for expertly assembled parts and figures of speech certainly hope so.

    (Note: And yes, to those of you too polite to ask, I am being paid by CF to provide benumbing comments to make his posts look even better.

  2. Paul C says:

    Who were the other forgotten authors you couldn’t include in your book please ?

  3. Helen+Martin says:

    Paul, you make a good point. As soon as you say this but not that you are censoring the material. There is very little wrong with that unless you don’t want people to makae any sort of value judgment on what they are reading. Have you heard about York County, Pennsylvania and the school board there? (Brooke, take a calming cup of something before reading further.) They have a list of books that are not to be used in the district schools until they have passed some sort of evaluation. The tv host (my husband has CNN on just now) interviewed the author of “I am Rosa Parks”, a picture book for primaries and in a series Mr. Meltzer has written. He said that just in case anyone wondered the books on the list were either about or written by black authors. What could be damaging in a children’s book about Rosa Park? Oh, that’s right, she decided she didn’t have to go to the back of the bus. The school board is apparently white and all male. I have a number of stories about parents’ ideas on how school libraries should be run but this one takes the cake.
    I know Chris never uses the word censorship when he’s talking about publishing but “fashionable” is a cover word for it. On the other hand it is scarcely reasonable to compel publishers to put out a book that will not sell. Jody Wilson-Raybould is a first Nations lawyer who was a Member of Parliament and until she quit, the Minister of Justice for Canada. She wrote a memoir that came out a week ago (planned before our election was called) and in stores now. Indigo advertised it and I am assuming they figured it would sell, especially to people opposed to the Liberal government, in this last week of electioneering. It is already being remaindered, at least in Indigo. How many of those decisions were sales oriented and how much were racial profiling. (I hope she does well with the book because I think she’s what we need in public life.)

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    Reading that back I can almost hear the sputtering. Sorry about that.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Apart from the many reasons why an author and their work may be forgotten (or ‘misplaced’ for a considerable time), the idea of being somehow ‘gone but not forgotten’ raises an interesting question (at least to me…). This may be more in the metaphysical realm of that ‘tree falling in the forest with no one around’ — but does the situation where another author completes an unfinished manuscript or. adds to a series with original contributions using the same characters and style, put the original author in the ‘forgotten’ canon? For example, there have been instances where a living author simply walked away from unfinished work which was subsequently completed by another — copyright ownership not being an issue.And in scriptwriting for films, in particular, the question of ultimate authorship or screen credit very often has to be arrived at tediously draft by draft by ‘polish.’

    Related, is the matter of whether an author, especially in this day of unnervingly detailed open book lives, has an obligation to their reading public beyond good writing and perhaps consistency. Very much like whether a professional athlete owes their fans any more than a best effort on the pitch, field or court.

  6. Richard says:

    Thanks to your Book of Forgotten Authors, Chris, I’ve become a big fan of Gladys Mitchell’s quirky Mrs Bradley novels. Fortunately these have been given a second life as ebooks.

  7. Roger Allen says:

    It isn’t quite accurate to say that “Simon Raven never learned how to deal with sudden success and succumbed to a variety of hideous fates.”
    He was expelled from school (homosexuality), sent down from Cambridge (drunkenness and idleness) and had to resign his commission in the army (unable to pay his gambling debts) and he still did pretty well for himself after that start. The only hideous fate was lasting as long as he did considering his life-style, which consisted of drinking what is now more than a week’s recommended alcohol intake every day
    Oh yes, and he did write some good books – his talent (or interest) gave out after The Alms for Oblivion series but some of his books are still interesting and readable,

  8. Brooke says:

    I can’t recall how I stumbled upon Gladys Mitchell’s delightul Mrs. Bradley, probably through the influence a philosophy professor. I adore Mrs. Bradley, a qualified MD with a psychiatric specialty, surrounded by lesser intelligences. That includes her assistant, a female equivalent of Poirot’s dim-witted but well meaning Captain Hastings. Her assistant’s husband is an intelligence officer, a character who makes one fearful for UK national security.
    A total bitch you say? At 73, I strive to emulate Mrs. Bradley.

  9. Brooke says:

    Hello, Helen. Banning books is what school boards do in the USA. It happens all the time and it’s laughable. E.g. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is always on the WM board member list. Here’s Harper Lee’s response (1966) to one such group.
    “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink. I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board (virginia) in any first grade of its choice.”

  10. Peter+T says:

    Now, I’ll be brave and recommend a young, unknown author, who happens to be my neighbor. His name is Vijay Hare. Vijay started writing when beset by ill health. His first book is titled ‘Legion that was.’ As you might guess it’s historical fiction set in the time of Augustus – not the sort of thing I usually favour. In spite of that, I found it a great read, unputdownable, brilliant – especially for a first book from a twenty-something year old. The only downside is that it’s self-published and Amazon are the only supplier. I guess I should give them credit for supporting it.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T As much as I may rail at the digital media for fostering instant gratification and its coincident short attention spans, it may well be the ultimate saviour of literature — your young neighbor/author self-publishing on Amazon as an example. Whilst holding and reading a book is still fortunately viscerally satisfying for a great many, I fear it is too quickly becoming a cultural artefact. But then again, I’m not 18 years old (at least the last time I checked…). I’ll selfishly force myself to ‘go with the flow’ if it means publishing can remain reasonably healthy.

  12. Liz+Thompson says:

    Brooke, I’m with you all the way on Mrs (later Dame) Bradley. Her being a bitch, unsentimental, hardhearted, and a law unto herself is what makes her so readable. And I’m 73 too, and aim to emulate her. (My offspring think I’ve already got there).

  13. Peter+T says:

    Stu-I-Am, With you. Fortunately, Amazon also provide a traditional paperback, otherwise I’m not sure that I would have read it, certainly not so quickly. I imagine that it’s some sort of print on demand. The paper quality is very good. The ‘blackness’ of the print varies between pages, but not unacceptably.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @ Brooke & @Liz +Thompson Ladies, ladies. I’d prefer to think of you, like Mrs. Bradley, as wearing your eccentricity as a badge of honor —‘eccentricity’ being more encompassing (and pleasant) than ‘bitch’, don’t you think ?’ I blush to say that my introduction to  Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley was through the eponymous BBC ‘Mrs. Bradley Mysteries’ series. And whilst I subsequently was amused to learn that the literary Mrs. Bradley looked nothing remotely like Diana Rigg, as her TV character — apart from Gladys Mitchell’s penchant for asides and occasionally excessive (in my opinion) detail, I found her plots in the three ‘Mrs. Bradley’ books I did read to be ‘worth the price of admission.’

  15. Brooke says:

    Peter, can’t find Vijay’s book in USA. Read sample on-line at amazon.co.uk and liked it. Thanks for the tip.

  16. Jo W says:

    Brooke and Liz+Thompson,
    I was 73 last weekend. Can I join the bitchy club now, please? 😉

    Hi Chris, I’m still trying to track down a couple of books by Norman Collins. No luck so far but in the meantime I can always re-read Three Friends and wonder what happened next.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jo W As I suggested to Brooke and Liz Thompson — ‘eccentric’ is far more encompassing than ‘bitch.’ But, of course, this is a personal choice… You might want to check Waterstones for the Norman Collins books. Here is a link:https://www.waterstones.com/author/norman-collins/171839

  18. Joel says:

    @ brooke, liz and jo…for whatever it is worth…i heartily applaud anyone who wants to take a once derogatory word, and turn it into something positive and fabulous…i identify as queer, and a fag…because i am, and so i can…there is something about taking words usually used by straight white men to demean and degrade and make them more…i thoroughly enjoy the word eccentric…but sometimes, a bitch just gotta call a bitch a bitch…as far as this pages post, i find this fascinating and am looking forward to reading the author book

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Joel You raise something that continues to bother me. Being neither gay nor Black, it may well be presumptuous of me to say that hearing the ‘n-word,’ even uttered by Black folk and ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ tossed around by gays (though I know the use of ‘queer’ is now widely accepted in the LGBTQ+ community) sets my teeth on edge. I find it hard to accept the theory that continuously using what is a pejorative or slur somehow lessens the ‘power’ it has over us. And I have yet to be convinced as well, that use of these terms by those at whom these terms, as blatant slurs, are usually directed by others, are somehow ‘reclaiming’ them from this bigotry.

    While this may be liberating for some, I can’t help but feel they are still hurtful to many others and using them may also unwittingly give license to those outside of these communities to do likewise. That bothers me — although, of course, as I said, not being part of either community, it’s not for me to say what their members choose to call themselves or each other. I just have a problem with any negative characterisation, be it racial, ethnic or related to sexual/gender orientation, whatever the intent. Overly sensitive? Perhaps.

  20. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu, you’ve said it beautifully. The logical end to groups using slurs about themselves is that they are used by the general population and they return to being slurs. Ugly words remain ugly.

  21. Joel says:

    @Stu- not sure if you will see this as i’m not sure how often people remember who they “tagged” and from which post…but i did want to thank you for your thoughtful and considered post regarding derogatory words…a rule i follow is that unless i have had the experience of being a (fill in the blank-ie:woman) and been called a (fill in the blank ie:c**t), i can certainly be bothered by it happening and make sure that i don’t use it to hurt someone, but i have no right to judge another persons experience or tell them how they should act or deal with it…i am only responsible for my actions and reactions, not anyone else

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Joel I applaud you for that. And I couldn’t agree more about ‘bitch,’ by the way; you get to pick your preferred handle. As I said, it’s none of my business if members of a community of which I am not a part decide to casually use certain words and expressions among themselves. It may be a generational thing, but I have watched (with perhaps token help) both of these communities, in particular, fight for a very long time — and continue fighting — for simply a place at the table and I tend to view any related matters through that lens.

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