Here is a book of ninety-nine stories and a dozen essays about authors mostly forgotten. In a preface entitled Why are Good Authors Forgotten?’ Fowler begins, Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead. He has had to whittle down four hundred possible entries, and stick to novels and short stories to get the material for this fascinating little book.
He begins with Margery Allingham, who I wouldn’t have thought was quite forgotten. Other writers like Jane Stevenson and A S Byatt have written extensively about why they love Margery Allingham . In a lengthy assessment of Allingham’s writing compared with two other queens of crime, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngiao Marsh, Byatt says,
Her own inventive energy, her own curiosity her pace are incomparable…She turned puzzles into drama, but with a conscious artificer’s grace.
Allingham aside, who has heard of Rosalind Erskine, Harry Hodge, Thomas Nigel Kneale? Not me. I had however read Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, set in a China of long ago, but I didn’t know Van Gulik had roamed the Far East as a young man and became a diplomat and an expert player of the guqin, a Chinese instrument rather like a zither.
Fowler also has an entry on Edmund Crispin, long loved by the Gerts for his humour. As Fowler says about Crispin’s detective Gervase Fen, who dives into pubs, cracks jokes and inappropriately starts singing out loud,
The character becomes such a joy to be with that you usually don’t care much about the crime, but the solutions are outrageously ingenious, entirely possible and correctly implausible.
One of our old favourites, Pamela Branch, is here, and, sadly, known by few people now. How we laughed at Lion in the Cellar and The Wooden Overcoat. Fowler describes her writing as P. G .Wodehouse meets The Ladykillers. One of the characters in The Wooden Overcoat, Mr Tooley, an alcoholic barman, had an imaginary marmoset attached to his neck, to whom he used to say ‘Op up, you. That really made us laugh. But here is what we didn’t know about her
It’s a crime to be talented and die young; the beautiful, glamorous mystery writer Pamela Branch succumbed at forty-seven after years of suffering cancer…She was born on her parent’s tea estate in Ceylon, went to RADA, married, learned Urdu, trekked the Himalayas, trained racehorses and moved to a twelfth-century Greek Monastery.
Read Fowler’s book to find authors you’ve never heard of but just have to read, and to find out the back story of some of your old favourites. You can find here everything you ever wanted to know about Gladys Mitchell, Barbara Pym, Noel Langley, Gavin Lambert, Patrick Dennis and even Virginia Andrews.
Great fun. Highly recommended.