Reviewed by Annabel
While I can’t claim to read anywhere near the volume of old and newly reprinted novels that some of my Shiny colleagues do – perennially falling for the latest novels by the latest literary darlings – I do love browsing in second-hand bookshops and I will always make a beeline for a shelf full of old Penguins. When a ‘Shiny’ new book came out about forgotten authors, the combination of new and old was perfect for me. I hoped to discover many new old authors to look out for, but also to find some familiar to me already.
Christopher Fowler is a prolific author of novels, I know him primarily for his urban thrillers like Psychoville, although he’s more famous for his ‘Bryant and May’ detective stories, a series I’ve been meaning to read for ages. A lover of old paperbacks, he eventually started writing a column for the Independent on Sunday called ‘Invisible Ink’, about forgotten authors, and it was a big success. This book is the next step, featuring 99 of these ‘forgotten’ authors who get two or three pages each, with a dozen slightly longer thematic essays in between.
After Fowler’s introduction the authors are listed alphabetically, and he begins with a slightly controversial choice in Marjory Allingham. He acknowledges that she’s still mostly in print and hardly unknown, but that ‘very few readers seem to have got to grips with her novels.’ He continues by picking out the highlights of her particular style which include the ‘plum pudding principle’ – to include regular nuggets of plum amongst the supporting stodge. I have read one early Allingham novel, and immediately wanted to read more – proving the premise of this book by the end of the first chapter.
For every author I’d heard of, or even read, like Frank Baker and Kyril Bonfiglioi (I actually reviewed a reprint of the latter’s first Charlie Mortdecai novel for Shiny here), there would be names that were totally new to me like Alexander Baron or Lesley Blanch. For each, Fowler combines a biographical overview with capsule descriptions of their major works and writing style. He writes with wit and enthusiasm, and it’s obvious that he has devoured all the books mentioned.
We reach the first of the essays – ‘The Forgotten Disney Connection’. From The Swiss Family Robinson via The Parent Trap to Lady and the Tramp, and not forgetting all those fairy tales, book and story adaptations were Disney’s thing.
According to my reckoning, out of the eighty Walt Disney features produced over two decades (the 1950s and 1960s) only nineteen were not based on novels.
The other essays cover subjects such as Pulp Fiction, Dickens’s lesser known work, the rivals to Holmes and Bond, those Booker winners we’ve forgotten, and a fun one called The Justly Forgotten Authors which includes Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame (I can’t believe I actually read that book in the mid-1970s!). I particularly enjoyed these sections.
All the books included were written in English, except for those in the Essay ‘Lost in Translation’ which looks at world fiction. Indeed, the majority of authors in this book are British, with some Americans, Irish and just a smattering of other nationalities.
Some will quibble over Fowler’s choice of which authors to include in this book. There’s a balance to be struck, and those readers who grew up devouring the books of Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, (included here under her real name, Eleanor Hibbert), as teenaged girls may feel that these authors are still too well known and in print. We may know them, but they do deserve to find new younger audiences too. Of course, Fowler will probably not have known these authors in the same way as we do. Another small disappointment is that there is a gender imbalance in his selection too with just 28 women authors in the 99 profiles.
That aside, this is a wonderfully entertaining book that will expand any reader’s wishlist, as it has done to mine. I hope that he’ll bring out a second volume, with more female and genre authors… It is, however, an ideal Christmas gift for booklovers.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Christopher Fowler, The Book of Forgotten Authors (riverrun, 2017). 978-1786484895, 384pp., hardback.
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