Saturday, January 26, 2013

Books To Try For (if you can find them): A Review of Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink (2012)

"Sadly, we live in a time where there is no patience for barmy British sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders."

                   Christopher Fowler, Invisible Ink (2012)

they faded into air....
And how sad that is, isn't it, Mr. Fowler!  If you love old books, particularly mystery novels from the 1920s through the 1960s, Christopher Fowler's Invisble Ink is a book for you.

Readers of this blog will recall how I discussed Christopher Fowler's recent piece decrying what he sees as the omnipresence of police procedural gloom in modern British crime writing.  Fowler urged that more modern crime writers look back (like he does) to the past.

Maintaining as I do a blog that is to a great extent righteously devoted to keeping alive the memory of old mysteries, I naturally was pleased to see Fowler's impassioned advocacy for yesterday's crime fiction.

Looking at Fowler's blog I found that he recently published in England a short book on past writers, Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared (2012).  It's a small book of about 200 pages that collects his Independent columns on the subject of "forgotten authors" from the last several years.  Not having read most of these columns, I was interested to see Fowler's thoughts on this subject in book form.

Christopher Fowler
There are a few oddities to Invisible Ink that should be noted, some arising out of discordance with that subtitle, some perhaps out of the fact that the columns were written for an English newspaper and may not have been updated before appearing in book form (there also is no table of contents, which is rather exasperating in a list book).

For example, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde are two of Fowler's forgotten/disappeared authors, and--Wait, what?! you might be saying right now.

Ah, but you see, what Fowler means is that certain works of theirs are forgotten, or not as well known than they should be. 

Okay, I'll accept that; yet there are some questionable statements too, like when Fowler writes that one of his "disappeared" authors, Georgette Heyer, "is not entirely out of print."

I'll say she's not!  In fact, if there's anything by Heyer that's not in print, both in the U. S. and the U. K., I'm not sure what it is (maybe those early, self-suppressed mainstream novels?). There's now also a second biography of Heyer, published less than two years ago.

Heyer "has fallen into a strange and rather airless niche market," writes Fowler, meaning the fans of Heyer's beloved Regency romances, apparently.

Well, I don't know.  As a blogger who writes about old books on a regular basis, I can tell you I would love to get the sort of blizzard of comments on my blog that you see on some of those "airless" Regency literature blogs!

this lady is actually pretty popular
One of Heyer's most admired books, The Grand Sophy, is ranked #27, 923 currently on internet bookselling giant  Not bestseller status to be sure, but the tale is ranked above several million books!  In the United States, that ranking puts it ahead of, for example, reprint novels by two great Ians--Fleming and Rankin (on the other hand the Ians edge out Heyer on

Similarly, Fowler writes that the "first Judge Dee novel [by Robert van Gulik, disappeared author #68] has since been republished, but the rest are harder to find."

Not if you're looking on Amazon or its affiliates (this is starting to sound like an Amazon commercial, I know), they're not!

They've been available for years in attractive paperback editions by Harper Perennial and The University of Chicago Press.  And these editions are available in Britain too.

Similarly, Margery Allingham is a "disappeared" author?  Fowler admits "many readers know her name, even if they haven't read her."  "However," he argues, "very few of [those who have read her] have really got to grips with her novels."  Well, again, I don't know. It seems to me that people who have read Allingham (quite a few, actually, by the standard for long-dead Golden Age British mystery writers not named Agatha Christie) tend, like Fowler, to admire her writing rather intensely.

the old gel's still kicking
And if one thinks that "many of Allingham's books appear to have vanished" one had better look again.  The Campion books were reprinted by Felony & Mayhem a couple years ago (and they are available in the UK too--heck, even the non-fictional The Oaken Heart is available in the UK).  All "disappeared authors" should be so fortunate!  The same, by the way, can be said about Fowler's disappeared author #47, Eric Ambler.

So admittedly one certainly can't take everything in this book as gospel, but nevertheless one should give due credit to Invisible Ink for its being what it is: a commendable effort on Christopher Fowler's part to kindle--I'm not talking about Amazon this time!-- broader reader interest in the following worthies:

1. utterly vanished authors

2. kinda/sorta vanished authors

3. arguably not as well-remembered as they should be authors

4. remembered but really rather insufficiently appreciated authors

5. actually quite well-remembered authors who, nevertheless, have some particular books that are forgotten

Discussing these books, Fowler reveals a good sense of authorial worth.  Since this is a crime fiction blog, I'll confine myself (mostly) to the crime writers he includes:

#3 Margaret Millar
# 5 Horace McCoy
#6 Boileau and Narcejac
#14 Harry Hodge (launched the Notable British Trials series)
#18 Charlotte Armstrong
#21 Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon
 #22 Sarah Caudwell
#38 Margery Allingham
#40 Hugh Wheeler (Although if I read this correctly Fowler seems to think that Wheeler was solely responsible for all the crime fiction of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  If Fowler thinks Hugh Wheeler is forgotten, he should consider Wheeler's longtime collaborator in many of the books written under those pseudonyms, Richard Wilson Webb--now that is forgotten, to go unmentioned in a book on forgotten authors in which your collaborative partner is included!)

the product of two minds, actually

#44 John Dickson Carr (actually the last few years more of Carr's books have made it back into print in some form, including some titles from Rue Morgue, who also reprinted Dorothy Bowers, see immediately below)
#45 Dorothy Bowers (as Fowler notes, however, Bowers' small body of work has been brought back into print by Rue Morgue, so she's not really "disappeared," is she?--So add another category: once disappeared, but recently rescued from oblivion by a valiant small press)
#47 Eric Ambler (Fowler's included with Nevil Shute, so we actually have 101 authors in this book--wait, actually there are even more if we count the actual collaborators separately)
#58 Lionel Davidson
#62 HRF Keating (Fowler singles out for praise the 1965 detective novel Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal. The late HRF Keating deserves notice, to be sure, but Fowler also mistakenly asserts that Keating "produced the definitive biography of Agatha Christie." Keating himself would have demurred at this over-generous declaration; what he did do was edit a collection of essays on Christie, back in 1977)

#67 Georgette Heyer (though the piece is devoted to her Regency romances)
#68 Robert van Gulik
#69 Gavin Lyall
#72 Marjorie Bowen (Another writer who defied boundaries, best known for her supernatural fiction today; but she also was important in the field of crime fiction.  Fowler also includes William Fryer Harvey and Shirley Jackson, two other fine genre-straddlers)
#77 Edmund Crispin (yet, again, this is another "disappeared" author who was reprinted several years ago by Felony & Mayhem)
#84 Gladys Mitchell (although as much as I like her writing, was Gladys Mitchell ever really widely judged one of the "Big Three" women mystery writers, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers?  Mitchell never had the mass popularity of and, to be honest, the broad critical acclaim afforded Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Ngaio Marsh)
#89 R. Austin Freeman (Hooray for this one, the father of the "Humdrums"!  Yet though Fowler writes that Freeman's books began as "homages" to Sherlock Holmes, my impression is that Freeman was trying to debunk what he saw as Holmes' bad science!  Certainly Freeman's detective Dr. Thorndyke is a much better scientist than Holmes, though the latter is a superior showman)

"certainly worth rediscovery"

#93 Edgar Wallace
#97 Michael Gilbert
#98 SS Van Dine

So, about one quarter of the entries are on crime writers and a good lot of selections they are (there are also quite a few brilliant supernatural fiction writers, such as Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman).

Interesting observations are scattered throughout this volume.

"Her novels were concise and short, very much in the style of the 1950s," writes Fowler of Margaret Millar, "but the ideas they contained were unusually complex, so that her characters took on a life of their own.  This is a hard trick to pull off; we're used to modern mysteries clocking in at over 400 pages with everything explained and examined, often to the detriment of the book."

brevity is the soul of fright?
I feel this point cannot be emphasized enough.  People forget today that waaay back in the 1970s the great Ruth Rendell, to cite another example in addition to Margaret Millar (and Charlotte Armstrong), wrote some of the best suspense novels ever (The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in My View, for example), and they are short books.

Suspense stretched out too long can snap and become tedium, I find.

However, I have to query Fowler's argument that Millar's "books fell from fashion partly because their psychology dated."  As an example of this "dated" psychology he notes that in one of Millar's novels a "gay character kills himself after the shame of exposure."

Sadly, one might question whether Millar's psychology has really completely dated in this instance (see the Tyler Clementi suicide, for example).  For my part, I find Millar's writing and grip on character is so strong that I don't see the works primarily as "period pieces," as Fowler says.

Yet in any event, let's give Fowler credit for highlighting Millar, who indeed is one of the timeless greats.  It's barmy, to use Fowler's word, that Millar is mostly out-of-print.

Similarly, I liked this point from Fowler in the entry on Eric Ambler (and Nevil Shute):

"What links their ability to tell 20th century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care  about, linking events into larger political settings.  This basic storytelling skill lately seems to have become buried within vast self-important volumes, so it's a shock to note the brevity of most Shute and Ambler novels."

Hey, I said this point about brevity couldn't be emphasized enough, didn't I?  Hope I haven't gone on about it too long!

oddly, no murders
Concerning other authors in the book, I have to applaud Fowler for including another one of my favorites, Arthur Machen, about whom he writes, "Shockingly, a recent straw poll among young authors yielded just two recognitions of Machen's name in a group of twenty."

And I was delighted to see EM Delafield (disappeared author #1 no less), for her Provincial Lady Diary series of novels from the 1930s and 1940s (Invisible Ink emphatically is not just a boys' book of boys' books).

"The English sense of humor is almost impossible to explain," pronounces Fowler drolly; yet this American found these books charmingly amusing when he read them fifteen years ago (there's sharp social satire too).

Fowler writes forcefully here:

"[The publisher] Virago did [Delafield] no favors a few years ago by shoveling four volumes of the diaries into one dense, ugly paperback prefaced with a foreward explaining why we should not find the books funny.  In America, facsimiles were printed with the original drawings, and found a new audience that was prepared to appreciate [Delafields's] qualities of grace, endurance and quite optimism."

This describes this American to a T (I even bought and admired the same attractive facsimile editions that Fowler mentions).

Fowler also recommends Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven (Renault is disappeared author #46).  That's one of the titles from Todd Downing's personal library, I should note.  There definitely are interesting authors in the book as well who are not crime writers!

So, despite some quibbles, I believe Invisible Ink is a book that will repay a book lover who seeks it out.  And if you weren't a book lover, why would you be here, reading all this?

P.S. Don't forget the Downing Contest.  You have only today to enter!


  1. While you make some valid criticisms, I'm still amazed that Millar and Boileau-Narcejac are in this list, especially since Fowler is English and so wouldn't be expected to know about obscure American and French mystery writers. Does he know any French, I wonder, or is he basing everything on English translations?

    1. About Boileau-Narcejac, Fowler references three books made into films, Les Diabolques, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Choice Cuts, the latter of which was reprinted in UK. He also complains about the lack of English language translations.

      I do think that, whether all the writers included are truly disappeared/forgotten writers or not, it's a good group of writers and many of them won't be familiar to people. Since it's human nature that many people are more likely to read a book like this if it's written by a prominent mystery writer, it's good thing Fowler has taken on this cause. It's a nice supplement to, say, PD James' Talking about Detective Fiction, which is rather conventional in its thinking.

      I do wish there had been a little more work done transitioning the newspaper pieces into a book. And, I have to say, when doing this piece I found the lack of a table of contents or index absolutely maddening!

  2. This is a wonderful post about a very interesting book that I am going to try and get hold of. I am acquainted with many of the forgotten authors and I have even read some of them. I agree with Fowler's view that the authors are not as forgotten as some of their early works are. By the way new reprints of Heyer's books are now available in bookstores in Mumbai. The publishers have done a good job with the covers which reflect her stories and the period she wrote about. Many thanks, Curtis.

    1. Prashant,

      Yes, I've heard Heyer made quite a splash there, which is rather fascinating, I think.
      I agree this is a book you should find interesting. It's good that Fowler is so vigorously endorsing the cause of "forgotten authors." They make up a great part of this blog, where it sometimes feels like every day is forgotten book day!

  3. When Fowler's column on Boileau-Narcejac appeared I was compelled to correct his erroneous information about the dearth of English translated books. I sent him an email with a full list and he was very appreciative. I am surprised that he tends to go the lazy route when talking about an author's bibliography relying (it seems to me) on knowledge of his friends in the bookselling and publishing world. For a writer who is known for doing extensive research for his novels I am always disappointed that his "Invisible Ink" columns are often filled with misinformation about the writers covered.

    For anyone who is having difficulty finding a copy of the book you can always read the columns at The Independent's website where I found them years ago. Click here.

    1. Oh, did you, John, how interesting. Well, as I point out above there are certainly things in the book that can stand to be corrected!

      Even Wikipedia lists ten Boileau-Narcejac books that have been translated into English. In Invisible Ink, Fowler writes that "as far as I can tell" only two of their works have been translated into English. Looks like your corrections didn't make the cut!

      I've been looking at some of his new columns today (I think he's up to 154 and apparently plans another book) and in Anthony Berkeley Cox entry, for example, he states that Dorothy L. Sayers was outraged over his satirical portrayal of Lord Peter Wimsey in the Detection Club novel Ask a Policeman.

      But she was tasked with satirizing his detective Roger Sheringham. The satire was the whole idea. I doubt Sayers would have been offended about this. Sayers actually was a humorous person and a sport, it's Anthony Berkeley who was the prickly one. By the 1940s, most of the members of the Detection Club couldn't seem to stand him because of his increasingly eccentric personality. I write about this in my CADS book, Was Corinne's Murder Clued?

      I'd like to know where Fowler got this story, it sounds apocryphal to me.