The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Mum and Dad got me The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017) by Christopher Fowler, and I went to hear him speak about it earlier in the year – the only reason I didn’t buy a copy there was because it felt inevitable that somebody would get it for me. What could be more up my street than a collection about forgotten authors? (Based on a long-running column in The Independent, no less, which I did read occasionally.)

What makes an author forgotten? The title of Christopher Fowler’s book is inevitably a challenge to the reader – have you forgotten these authors? have you? – but it is slightly awkward to start off with Margery Allingham. Ask somebody to name five Golden Age detective novelist and, if they could get to five, I’d be very surprised if Allingham didn’t appear. Apparently Fowler’s method included checking with a circle of literary friends, and considering an author for inclusion if less than half had heard of them. It’s as good a method as any, but somehow authors like Barbara Pym, Edmund Crispin, and Georgette Heyer got through the net – I’d argue that if your books are all or mostly in print, you don’t make the grade for ‘forgotten’.

But I’ve started with the exceptions – I should say that I hadn’t heard of about half of these 99 authors, and that’s a much more impressive average than most of the ‘authors you don’t know’ lists. And I’ve read books by 15 of them – so plenty more to explore.

Somewhat coincidentally (unless Fowler requested it from the Bodleian… which I doubt) several of the authors mentioned were focuses of my DPhil thesis. E.M. Delafield, John Collier, and… Frank Baker! Yes, Baker gets a chapter, and I will love anybody who writes

Of his fifteen novels, Baker’s masterpiece is the enchanting and timeless Miss Hargreaves, which really deserves classic status.

Fingers crossed this mention brings Miss Hargreaves new fans, along with Barbara Comyns who also gets a chapter (oddly as Barbara Comyns Carr – her real name, though E.M. Delafield appears under her penname rather than Elizabeth De La Pasture).

Fowler manages to pack a lot of enticing detail into very short chapters; the punch and tautness that made them columns serves them equally well in this compendium form. And having them in alphabetical order is a nice touch – had they been thematic, it might have all got a bit samey, but this makes for a nice assortment of tantalising suggestions – Pamela Branch, Dino Buzzati, Margaret Millar, and Cynthia Seton being the ones I wrote down to explore. (Anybody read them?) And, unlike Martin Edwards’ equally tantalising The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it’s easy to find at least some works by most of these authors.

In between the chapters about specific authors are enjoyable, slightly longer essays on particular themes – rivals to Poirot, deservedly forgotten authors, authors who were rediscovered (ironically, I’d heard of none of these). His love of literature and of unearthing bygone gems is genuine and delightful.

The problem with knowing quite a lot about some of these authors is that I could see quite a few errors. Some are typographical (Julian Maclaren-Ross becomes Juliane Maclaren-Ross) but others show a dubiously casual research. He writes about E.M. Delafield’s five Provincial Lady novels (presumably being fooled by the American republishing of Straw Without Bricks as The Provincial Lady in Russia, which it emphatically isn’t); he says the film adaptation of Miss Hargreaves was cancelled because WW2 started, which would be tricky given that the novel wasn’t published until 1940. These small things did make me wonder how much Fowler had got wrong about the authors I didn’t know anything about…

But, let’s face it, I’m not going to remember all the details, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if they aren’t all completely accurate – what it has done is given me a list of authors to look out for, and a smile on my face that some of my much-loved authors have had another moment in the sun. If you love new recommendations, and reminders of more obscure favourites, then use your Christmas book vouchers to settle down with this one in the post-Christmas indulgent phase.