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.

12 thoughts on “The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

  • December 30, 2017 at 1:09 pm
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    Thanks for the nice review. Just to clarify your points –

    There are indeed five EM Delafield Provincial Lady books;
    Diary
    Goes Further
    America
    Russia
    Wartime

    Julian(e) is clearly a typo that all of us must have missed – given the thousands of names in the book, it’s virtually inevitable that one would get in (when I recorded the audiobook I also faced pronunciation challenges).

    About Miss Hargreaves; perhaps the phrasing is awkward – I meant that the film couldn’t happen because war had started.

    Best wishes
    Christopher Fowler

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    • December 30, 2017 at 3:51 pm
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      Thanks for your comment, and for the fab book. The Provincial Lady question is interesting – because the PL in Russia isn’t properly a PL book, as it doesn’t feature her and it’s straight non-fic; the retitling of Straw Without Bricks came from an opportunistic later American publisher who made that change.

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  • December 30, 2017 at 4:40 pm
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    Interesting review, Simon. This title keeps on popping up on my radar, though I think I would tend to argue with some of the authors chosen too! And having read PL in Russia, I can confirm that it *isn’t* a PL book but more of a propaganda exercise! (Her Wikipedia page lists the book under the original title of publication).

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  • December 30, 2017 at 10:17 pm
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    I very much enjoyed this book. For you and me and many of the people we interact with online, some of these authors are far from forgotten – but that didn’t diminish my huge enjoyment of the book. It’s one I’m sure I will go back to many times. In my blogpost on it I had fun counting up how many authors I’d read, how many I’d featured on the blog. I expect to go back and update the numbers in the future…

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  • December 31, 2017 at 12:24 am
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    I am going off to order this right NOW! So right up my street as well!

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  • December 31, 2017 at 8:44 am
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    I love bookish people indignantly saying that an author isn’t “forgotten” because they know about them when, in the real world, almost exactly zero people have actually heard of that author. We always have to remember that we are part of an exceptional sample group. :)

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  • December 31, 2017 at 11:55 am
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    Tricky re PL. I’ve only read the first one, so can’t comment! I did spot some errors too and pointed out one howler to him. This begs the question, with a nf book that is full of facts – does someone not have the job of checking?

    That said, I enjoyed it hugely, discovering many new authors to look out for, plus some old favourites who I hope will be discovered by others.

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  • January 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm
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    I too was a bit taken aback by the number of authors I knew, but then reminded myself I’m drawn to the forgotten and neglected. I’m pleased to see that you’ve taken Christopher Fowler’s suggestion regarding Margaret Millar to heart. A Millar pusher myself, I’ve been writing about her for years, and once managed to convince the editors of The Canadian Encyclopedia that she was owed an entry (wrote that, too). If you’re looking for an entry point, I suggest An Air That Kills (aka The Soft Talkers) or Vanish in an Instant, both of which are available in the third volume of Syndicate Books’ Complete Millar: The Master at Her Zenith.

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    • January 2, 2018 at 10:25 am
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      Who is forgotten, exactly? It’s the question that sparked my decision to start the book with Margery Allingham (that and the fact that it’s alphabetical). She’s known to Golden Age fans but how many general readers recall her novels? I didn’t want only unheard-of authors. It would have been annoying just to feature impossible-to-find books, and besides, the status of lost writers fluctuates all the time. One person’s forgotten author is another person’s favourite. My editor and I argued for and against almost every single entry.

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      • January 2, 2018 at 7:41 pm
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        You’re so right. As I say, I think the reason some authors were familiar is my interest in the forgotten. Indeed, it is primary reason I visit this blog and others like Furrowed Middlebrow, The Neglected Book Page, and Pretty Sinister Books. It’s also the reason I read and so appreciated Invisible Ink and look forward to reading your new book. I recognize the editorial back and forth, having experienced something similar this past year with my most recent book, which deals with Canada’s forgotten, neglected and suppressed writing (Margaret Millar figures, of course). No arguments with my editor, rather animated discussion over pints of Upper Canadian lager. Cheers!

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  • January 2, 2018 at 11:08 am
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    Ordered it as soon as I read this.

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  • January 4, 2018 at 9:58 am
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    I had this for Christmas, hooray!! So I will save this review to comment on when I’ve read it. I can’t wait, and might have to undermine my reading my TBR in acquisition order thing …

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