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Fowler is a great companion as he takes us on his explorations of nooks, crannies and bywaters of past literary successes. For me many of the titles were familiar quality ones on my book shelves I’d enjoyed decades ago – Brian Moore, J.G.Farrell, Barbara Pym - and it’s good to re-live them. But the best part of Fowler’s incredibly big collection are all the surprises about the people who wrote them – that Charles Hamilton’s now politically incorrect Billy Bunter books written under the name of Frank Richards were part of his 100 million (yes!) word output; that Mary Elizabeth Braddon whose 1862 penny dreadful for grown-ups Lady Audley’s Secret brims with sensational murder had six children and wrote whilst living scandalously with her married publisher whose wife was in asylum; John Creasey spent just one week on each bestseller and often had two books on the go; the writer of the 100 The Saint books Lesley Charteris was really half Chinese; mystery murder writer Pamela Branch learned Urdu, lived in Kashmir and retired to a 12th century Greek Monastery; the witty erotic comic novel The Passion Flower Hotel by 15 year-old Rosalind Irskine as ‘recently’ as 1962 was a scandal in which sixth formers (and Rosalind was supposed to be one of them in real life) set up a brothel in the basement of their private school in order the learn about sex from the boys of the neighbouring school! Actually it was really written by Roger Irskine… Fowler just keeps it all coming at speed along with brisk analyses of the books.
He covers a vast range of books from pastiches of James Bond & Agatha Christie, science fiction; Booker Prize winners; apocalyptic tales, Coral Island-type stories; Arthur Mee’s hobby books teaching pre-war children to knit a pot cosy for the Empire, or keep ants as pets; books made into films or ravaged for films… It’s all immensely entertaining, but also Fowler (who’s a crime writer himself) analyses why books disappear and how writers of gigantic bestsellers can end so quickly on the pulp-file, dismissed from readers’ memories.
It’s consistently interesting with many incidental lessons for would-be writers along the way, and Fowler is a no-nonsense, friendly reader. Above all, it’ll send you rummaging through your nearest second hand book shop or car boot sale for one of these unjustly forgotten books to enjoy.
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