Christopher Fowler, Invisible Ink (2012)
|they faded into air....|
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.
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|
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|
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?|
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 them...is 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|
"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!