Invisible Ink (The Independent)

“Invisible Ink,” a series by Christopher Fowler, published in The Independent

Christopher FowlerStarting in August 2008, the Independent has been publishing a series of short pieces by Christopher Fowler, thriller writer and dramatist, devoted to the subject of “forgotten authors.” As Fowler himself admits, “Nobody wants to be thought of as vanished, but shelf-life is fleeting. With stock in chain stores governed by computers, the only way of finding certain books is to head for independents or to search online.”

Looking through his articles, I’m surprised, as a veteran browser of shelves of used books, to find names like Mazo de la Roche, Mary Renault, Georgette Heyer, and John Dickson Carr. But on reflection, that probably says more about my age than the awareness of today’s readers.

Unfortunately, The Independent has not made it easier to go through the archives of this series, so I have included the full set (thus far) below. It does appear that either The Independent or Fowler does have a bit of trouble keeping track of things, as there are two #4s, #7s, and #10s in the series but no #5, #6, #17 or #52. #30 was not about a particular author but a bit of a call for suggestions.

1. E. M. Delafield

“Delafield’s reasonable voice is currently out of favour, but thankfully she survives in the nation’s second-hand bookshops, awaiting rediscovery.”

2. Geoffrey Willans

“… it was Willans’s collaboration with the rococo artist Ronald Searle that was to propel him into the blazer pocket of every British schoolboy. Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custard’s (pictured below), rocketed to fame in four lunatic children’s books, starting with ‘Down With Skool!’ With chapters on how to avoid lessons and how to torture parents, it mainly caused outrage because of its deliberately awful spelling, and was regarded as a bad example to set before children.”

3. Peter Greenaway

“This author was a lawyer-turned-novelist who wrote popular fiction in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, producing at least 20 thrillers and volumes of short stories that were by turns topical, political, satirical, hilarious and rather mysterious. When he died in 1988 it seemed that his books died with him, which is a shame because, at his best, he wrote popular fiction with a rare passion and erudition.”

4. R. Austin Freeman

“Freeman … treats criminals in a more balanced manner than Conan Doyle. His working-class characters – particularly in Mr Polton Explains – are decent, skilled and hard-working, but are still crushed by the system. His 30-odd books are certainly worth rediscovery.”

4. Lady Cynthia Asquith

“Asquith was a storyteller in her own right, and produced a series of fantasies with the ring of truth, collected in a number of volumes, the best being ‘This Mortal Coil’ – nine tales of spectral vengeance and unease in high Victorian style. Her stories conjure up a world of things unnamed and half in shadow, where the past is never far from the present.”

7. Victoria Holt

“After signing books as Elbur Ford (a contraction of her birth name), she used pseudonyms including Jean Plaidy (a name taken from a Cornish beach), Philippa Carr, Kathleen Kellow and others, and wrote around 200 historical novels. She sold staggering amounts, in the region of 100 million copies. Lately, there have been some excellent reissues of the Plaidy titles, so it’s a good time to rediscover Britain’s most popular historical novelist.”

7. Peter Tinniswood

“Reading Tinniswood is like skimming any recent book on fast-forward, such is his ability to drag the reader through a colourful story. At his best, he’s capable of reminding you that reading should always be a pleasure, never a chore.”

8. William Sansom

“William Sansom was once described as London’s closest equivalent to Franz Kafka. He wrote in hallucinatory detail, bringing every image into pin-sharp focus. It was his strength and weakness; it made his stories hauntingly memorable, but his technique often left his characters feeling under-developed.”

9. T. Lobsang Rampa

“By the time the memoir of a Tibetan monk entitled The Third Eye turned up on the desk of Secker & Warburg, it had been turned down by most leading houses. S&W took a punt and published it in 1956, and the book shot into the bestseller lists, with the esteemed Times Literary Supplement suggesting it was close to being a work of art. Doubts were quickly raised by Tibetan scholars; after all, the book included trepanation as a standard procedure for induction into priesthood, neophyte monks zipping about on giant kites, and Rampa’s meetings with both his mummified former incarnation and an abominable snowman. The press scented a story and exposed Rampa as a Devon plumber called Cyril Hoskin, who had never been near Tibet.”

10. Edmund Crispin

“He was also an important critic and editor, but best of all he wrote the Gervase Fen books, 11 dazzling, joyous volumes, all but one of which were produced between 1945 and 1951.”

10. Gladys Mitchell

“Born in 1901, she was one of the “Big Three” female mystery novelists, judged the equal of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, but that’s not quite accurate – she’s more like a mad combination of both.

11. Ronald Firbank

“His prose condensed entire worlds while leaving much unsaid, in a way that is finally fashionable. Asked for his opinion of literature, he admitted that he adored italics; a typically oblique Firbankian remark. His books contain party chatter consisting of disconnected words and phrases, much as we actually perceive them. Infamously, one chapter consisted of the exclamation “Mabel!” repeated eight times.

12. A. P. Herbert

“”… interest in the absurdities of the legal system caused him to write Misleading Cases, six volumes that operate on a wonderfully simple premise: a judge and a defendant square off against one another in a series of skirmishes designed to test the limits of the law.”

13. Dodie Smith

“I’d like to think that Dodie Smith is not forgotten by new generations of readers, but her curse is to have been eclipsed by Disney, for Ms Smith wrote The Hundred And One Dalmations. It would be a shame if she was remembered only for the films, for there was far more to her career.

14. Richard Bach

“ach’s books are fictional versions of moments in his life that illustrate his philosophy. Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to think that his books fell from popularity because students became too sophisticated not to see through this kind of tendentious new-age sputum.

15. Thomas Tryon

“Tryon’s style was American expansive: grand themes and resonant plots, set in Connecticut or New England. Anyone planning to hold a seminar on writing popular fiction could use him as an example of how to get it right.

16. Margery Sharp

“When accurately displayed, human emotions never date; Sharp’s novels, written across half a century, feel fresh despite the vernacular of the times. Her imagery is carefully chosen and always a delight.

18. Osacr Wilde

“Hang on. Hang on. Dear Oscar? Never off the London stage, Dame Judi, a handbag, that Oscar? There’s another type of forgetfulness that occurs when we choose to remember authors by their most famous books or plays. Their lesser works get lost or sidelined. Few readers of Oliver Twist recall Dickens’ round-robin collections such as The Haunted House. Tennessee Williams is treasured for A Streetcar Named Desire but not for “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio”, one of around 50 exquisite short stories he penned. The collected fairy tales of Oscar Wilde are almost unknown. Although still available, they are rarely bought and read aloud any more, as they were designed to be.

19. Shirley Jackson

“Jackson’s best book was her last. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 10 best novels of 1962. In it, two sisters and an ancient uncle huddle in psychotic solitude, and the girls create a set of rules for survival that make the hero of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory seem entirely normal.

“I’ve lost count of how many times this heartbreaking book has been announced as a film, but no one has yet managed to recreate its twisted world. It is perhaps the ultimate Gothic novel, and is finally being marketed as such instead of being allowed to languish in obscurity.”

20. Dino Buzzati

“Buzzati completed five novels, comics, a number of plays and a still-popular children’s book about bears in Sicily, but discerning editors can cherry-pick from his six volumes of powerful short stories, and the reprints find their way into present-day collections. Buzzati’s greatest strength lay here, in a kind of Italian magical realism that heightened the simple and practical with seemingly fantastic elements.”

21. Bill Tidy

“Tidy’s epic and peculiarly English strip The Cloggies gently ribbed northern customs through the adventures of a championship clog-dancing team, and ran in Private Eye for years. However, his magnum opus was The Fosdyke Saga, which appeared in the Daily Mirror and was eventually published in 13 volumes, in a once-popular oblong paperback format which has now disappeared.”

22. Marjorie Bowen

“Despite the apparent wretchedness of her life, she wrote more than 150 volumes under half a dozen pseudonyms, and tackled larger-than-life subjects in historical dramas, supernatural tales and mournful gothic romances. Critics have long considered her storytelling to be clear-eyed and efficient, her detail and description masterful, her understanding of human nature filled with compassion and sorrow.”

23. Robert Klane

“So far, many of our neglected writers have been sensitive souls whose graceful prose has fallen from fashion. Robert Klane is the opposite: loud, lewd, offensive and hilarious, his books kicked black comedy back into style with a mix of taboo-busting farce and broad Jewish schtick. … The books are oddly endearing because they capture the sheer unfairness of life, particularly as it was lived in the early 1970s. Like great farceurs before him, Klane tackled sex, family, madness and death, roughly in that order.”

24. Maryann Forrest

“Anthony Burgess picked up on her first and only major novel, describing it as “deeply disturbing” but “a keen literary pleasure”. Here (Away From it All) is an adult Lord of the Flies involving wealthy holidaymakers instead of schoolchildren. … Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is probably the only book that comes close in its bleak subject matter.”

25. Gavin Lyall

“Although his characters were pretty thinly defined, his pacy plots had the kind of clear through-lines rarely found in modern thrillers. Lyall knew what to include and when to stop. Taken in the context of the times in which he wrote, he’s an attractive addition to any library.”

26. Robert van Gulik

“There are headless corpses, corrupt monks, nail murders, attacks by brigands. But all these events are informed by the decency of the clear-eyed judge, whose understanding of human nature extends beyond thoughts of formal retribution.”

27. Georgette Heyer

“Georgette Heyer is not entirely out of print but, for someone who was one of the most popular writers in the country, she has fallen into a strange and rather airless niche market. Heyer was a literary phenomenon who wrote bestsellers throughout her career, without ever giving an interview or making any kind of public appearance. A recluse in her private life, she was driven to communicate with her readers through a series of light Regency romances for which she had scant regard, saying only that “I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense”. Her novels received no critical acclaim, but sold so well that her name alone was enough to guarantee success.”

28. M. P. Shiel

“Around the turn of the century he created the first future-history series in science fiction (although, more fairly, the books offer three unconnected alternative futures) with a trilogy that began with The Last Miracle. This was followed by The Lord of the Sea, based on a critique of the private ownership of land, but Shiel’s reputation rests mainly on the third part of the sequence, The Purple Cloud. It’s an apocalyptic novel that brushes off casual readers with a series of false starts, but settles down to become a truly extraordinary work of fiction.”

29. Peter Barnes

“His intense, rarely performed plays are available as books. To read them now is to appreciate how much the theatre of ideas has lately lost its nerve.”

31. Dorothy Whipple

“Once again, Persephone Books has done an excellent job of rescuing these lost books, which have committed no greater sin than being unsensationally written and beautifully constructed.”

32. William Haggard

“His writing requires attention, but there are rewards for modern readers, especially in the scenes that explore the sleazy private lives of 1960s civil servants. His books are out of print but not unavailable.”

33. H. R. F. Keating

“In the same way that you can watch a 1960s film and be less fascinated by the plot than the art direction, so Keating’s early whodunits work well as social documents – although that’s not to dismiss their plots, which often feature good twists.”

34. John Collier

“Collier was his own harshest critic, and once said “I sometimes marvel that a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer”, but there is no one quite like him. In 1972, The John Collier Reader, a collection of almost 50 first-rate stories selected by the author, was published to acclaim. How could you not love an author who writes a story entitled “Night! Youth! Paris! and the Moon!”

35. Mazo de la Roche

“When her third novel, Jalna, won a valuable Atlantic Monthly literary prize, she realised her dream (at the age of 48) and began to expand upon her fantasy world of rural aristocracy. Jalna became one of the greatest romantic bestsellers of its time, and was extended into a set of 16 novels also known as The Whiteoak Chronicles, which covered a century of family life.”

36. Michael McDowell

“”I am a commercial writer and I’m proud of that,” said Alabama-born Michael McDowell, “I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages.” His gothic deep-South novels appeared mainly as paperbacks in the golden age of the throwaway read, the early 1980s, but there’s something about them that remains to haunt the reader.”

37. Lionel Davidson

“A Yorkshireman who spent years as a freelance reporter, Davidson’s versatile, pacy novels propelled him into the forefront of thriller writing. Although they are now back in print, mentioning his name to younger readers produces blank looks. Let’s put that right; he’s a terrific writer.”

38. Bram Stoker

“Of course he wrote that book, but Abraham Stoker (1847-1912) wrote 15 others besides. Nearly all of his output appears to have vanished, eclipsed by the novel with which he will forever be associated.”

39. Francis Durbridge

“There’s a warm glow of nostalgia around his middle-class mysteries, which usually turn on the elaborate planning and solution of a murder, with plenty of cliffhangers. He was less interested in the whodunit so much as the will-he-get-away-with-it, because he knew this was a better way to create suspense. But are the stories any good? Actually, yes; I think of him as the English Cornell Woolrich, a pulp-fiction writer whose energetic style contrasted with the enervating period in which he wrote.”

40. B. S. Johnson

“BS Johnson is the ultimate forgotten author, born in 1933, dead at 40, beloved by critics, overlooked by the public. He didn’t write much – seven slender novels of increasing peculiarity, a handful of plays and short stories – but enough to set him at the forefront of the British avant-garde.”

41. Julia O’Faolain

“O’Faolain is a wonderful stylist and an exciting writer, which makes it all the more surprising that she is often overlooked. Her work is joyous, urbane and intensely Irish. Although she has a new book in print, the rest are – you guessed it – hard to find now.”

42. William Fryer Harvey

“Harvey was fêted for saving lives in an ambulance unit in the First World War, but the Leeds-born Quaker should be remembered as one of Britain’s finest ghost-story writers. Many literary giants have turned their hands to this genre, and as a consequence it’s difficult to make a mark in a crowded field, but Harvey’s style feels like a dark shadow-image to the tales of Saki, and deserves to be celebrated.”

43. Richard Hughes

“A High Wind in Jamaica was published to great acclaim in 1929, and is unique. It is an adventure about children, but is not aimed at them. The prose sweeps away a century of Victorian sentimentality and replaces it with something darker, more clear-eyed and modern.”

44. Luis van Rooten

“he should be remembered for creating a slim volume in 1967 that has become a perennial classic: the unique trick book Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d’Antin Manuscript. To the untutored eye, it appears to be a dry annotated volume of obscure French poetry, complete with medieval woodcuts. The best way to give it to someone is not to tell them anything about it, and wait for the penny to drop…. Because of course, the book’s phonetic title is “Mother Goose Rhymes” …”

45. Winifred Watson

“Her third book horrified Methuen. Instead of being serious, it was fun, and she was writing on subjects she knew nothing about. The book was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, about a frumpy governess who is accidentally sent by her agency to work for a louche actress and nightclub singer running a complicated love life. Watson said: “I didn’t know anyone like Miss Pettigrew. I just made it all up. I haven’t the faintest idea what governesses really do. I’ve never been to a nightclub and I certainly didn’t know anyone who took cocaine.”

46. Gary Indiana

“He belongs to a special breed of American urban writers who take cool pleasure in dissecting the lives of the rich and ugly, and is possibly the most jaded chronicler of them all. On a good day, he makes Bret Easton Ellis look like Enid Blyton, yet many, myself included, think he might already have written the Great American Novel(s).”

47. Nevil Shute and Eric Ambler

“I sometimes wonder if this column’s title is entirely right; perhaps it should be called ‘Invisible Ink’ because, while neither Nevil Shute nor Eric Ambler is truly forgotten, their words have faded to a faintness only discerned by loyal fans. Reprints are available and second-hand copies lie in Oxfam shops, but both authors have been caught out by the passage of time.”

48. Mary Renault

“Ironically, Renault’s dedication to the politics of love was misinterpreted; feeling that passion had little to do with sexual orientation, she lost fans after expressing an antipathy with the nascent gay pride movement. She also managed to upset feminists by choosing to write about the world of powerful men. This is a tragedy, because her books have stood the test of time and deserve better treatment. Happily, they can still be found in print.”

49. Dorothy Bowers

“Bowers’ plots are intricate and her prose is thoughtfully crafted, with a certain amount of careful, eloquent wordplay integral to the solutions.”

50. John Dickson Carr

“Although he is regarded as a pulp writer, most of Carr’s output possesses the graceful reliability of crafted clockwork. His writing is exotic, antiquarian, gruesome and steeped in gothic imagery, yet filled with a sense of Wodehousian slapstick.”

51. Dr. Christopher Evans

“Evans was a British computer scientist, experimental psychologist and writer – but to my mind his greatest claim to fame lies in two astonishing anthologies he constructed with a highly unlikely assembly of authors.”

53. Michael Green

“While Green is remembered as a fairly eccentric newspaperman – who once started the printing presses to run off his own edition only to find that he couldn’t stop them – nothing in his mild-mannered volumes quite prepares you for his 1975 classic Squire Haggard’s Journals, which, along with WE Bowman’s The Ascent of the Rum Doodle, is a one-of-a-kind volume that requires nothing more than a little knowledge of history and a sense of humour to appreciate.”

54. Richmal Crompton

“Crompton wrote for adults too, but her lasting claim to fame is this William Brown, whose adventures were populated with a gang of rebels called the Outlaws, including Ginger, Henry, Douglas and the awful, frilly, lisping Violet Elizabeth (catchphrase; “‘I’m going to thcream and thcream until I’m thick!”)…”

55. Hugh Wheeler

“Wheeler is remembered for his brilliant partnership with Stephen Sondheim, having produced adaptations and books for A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. He also produced the book for Leonard Bernstein’s hard-to-stage Candide.”

56. Kyril Bonfiglioli

“His novels aren’t ordinary enough to be simple crime capers; they’re scabrous, witty and rude in the very best sense.”

57. Margery Allingham

“What I discovered, and what I suspect everyone who becomes an Allingham fan discovers, is the extraordinary richness of her writing. It is allusive, colloquial, witty, bravura stuff – a window to a London mindset that is now so completely lost that it is sometimes best to have a copy of Brewer’s Phrase & Fable beside your reading copy.”

58. Elizabeth Jane Howard

“Howard knows that there are mysterious pools of darkness in human nature, and leaves them in her elegant prose. These gaps allow room for argument and return you to her fiction. Now she has stepped out from behind the lights of male authors to encourage fresh readers to her own individual work.”

59. Rex Warner

“”… there is something quietly and stubbornly confrontational in Warner, which helps explain why he must periodically be rediscovered.”

60. Stacy Aumonier

“John Galsworthy and Alfred Hitchcock were admirers of his style, his way with suspense, his wit, humanity and lightness of touch. He was described as “never heavy, never boring, never really trivial”.

61. V. C. Andrews

“Her own books are psychologically unsettling and compellingly awful, whereas the pseudonymous volumes which were designed to keep the brand alive are merely awful.”

62. Thomas Love Peacock

“His tales have no structure, thin characters, little human interest, and usually consist of people sitting around tables discussing the intellectual topics of the day. Yet there’s something here that can keep you reading. Peacock’s books are a window to the past, and we feel we are eavesdropping on the kind of drunken, heady conversations that English intellectuals have had in pubs for centuries.”

63. Rosalind Erskine

“Rosalind was Roger Erskine Longrigg, the creative director of an advertising agency, who recognised that the time had come for a smartly written erotic comic novel. The book is a joyful and oddly innocent romp, but would probably have risked opprobrium had it been published under a male name.”

64. John Burke

“It seems that the time has come for Burke to step out from behind his books and receive proper recognition for his work. Ironically, an author once employed for his ability to be the film industry’s chameleon is finally being rediscovered as a prose stylist in his own right.”

65. Peter Nichols

“Nichols’s most subversive play was ‘Poppy,’ which re-imagined the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars as a Christmas pantomime complete with panto cow, dame and cross-dressed principal boy. At one point, the audience was encouraged to rise and join in a sing-along about the disgraceful behaviour of British troops, while Dick Whittington’s sister ends up a junkie. That this was installed at the Adelphi in a spectacular RSC production says a lot about theatreland’s present low ambitions.”

66. Frank Baker

“Of his 15 novels, his masterpiece is the enchanting Miss Hargreaves, in which two friends on holiday in Ireland are required to invent the titular 83-year-old woman. Later, forced to explain how they met her, they slowly add details to her life, embellishing her back story with the information that she always travels with a cockatoo, a harp and her own bath. The lark gets out of hand when they receive a telegram from Miss Hargreaves herself, informing them that she is coming to stay for an indefinite period – how can they explain who she is when they can’t even understand why she exists?”

67. Robert Louis Stevenson

“Yes, we know you had a tattered copy of Treasure Island in your schoolbag when you were 10, you’re aware of Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but did you know that the best part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s career is now the least remembered? The range and complexity of his short fiction is extraordinary. Although he is known for the graceful construction of his plots, he was also a champion of literary style throughout his life..”

68. Barbara Pym

“Some writers return to popularity, but none in such a spectacular manner as Barbara Pym, a quintessentially English novelist whose 12 miniaturist novels can now be described as both popular and timeless.”

69. Brian Moore

“He was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist, mainly, one suspects, because he was able to explore the paradoxical dilemmas of faith, morality, redemption and loss within the structure of popular thriller writing.”

70. Maurice Richardson

“A classic example of a talented man with too many interests, most of Richardson’s writings and books, such as Little Victims, Fits and Starts and The Fascination of Reptiles have left no trace. His great success was unexpected; a compendium of linked pieces that has remained in print through the decades. The Exploits of Engelbrecht was loved by JG Ballard, and is certainly one of the most unusual books ever published.

Engelbrecht is a dwarf surrealist boxer who goes 10 rounds with a grandfather clock (needless to say, his opponent gets punched in the dial) but he’s an all-round sportsman who’ll tackle any game, no matter how peculiar it gets.”

71. One Hit Wonders

“Beware the book that bears the legend “Soon to Be a Major Film”, for the film won’t be made and the book is bound to vanish. Such was the fate of The Auctioneer by Joan Samson, a novel that took America by storm and became a best-seller. Hollywood came calling, and then – nothing. Samson completed only this one novel in her lifetime, although she was working on a second at the time of her death.”

72. Gavin Lambert

“For this author of seven novels and half a dozen screen biographies, Hollywood’s paradox never changed: how could so many men and women attempt to prove their individuality in a place that actively discourages individual thinking? It’s an idea that raises the dramatic stakes between success and failure…. Lambert tracked his characters’ aimless lives across decades in a “Hollywood Quartet” of novels.”

73. Sarah Caudwell

“Sarah Cockburn was the pipe-smoking daughter of the left-wing journalist Claude Cockburn…. She became a barrister and under the name Caudwell – adopted to provide some distance from her profession – wrote a series of legal thrillers set on the top floor of 62 New Square in Lincoln’s Inn, where four barristers have their chambers. Presiding over them is the narrator and professor of medieval law, Hilary Tamar, the only detective I can think of whose sex is never determined. Tamar uses the barristers as a kind of ironic, adult Enid Blyton gang to help solve crimes, and they in turn keep Tamar in touch with what’s going on through absurdly long letters and telexes.”

74. Caryl Brahms and S J Simon

“How did the English cheer themselves up during wartime?

One of the ways was by turning to the sprightly comic novels of this unlikely duo….

A Bullet in the Ballet (1937) was the result of a delayed meeting and a conversation over a cup of tea. Brahms did the ballet bits and Skid wrote the parts that involved detection…. The novel’s first line is: “Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is.”

The duo also wrote excellent historical farces, the best being No Bed for Bacon, which was very obviously an inspiration for Shakespeare in Love, and Don’t, Mr Disraeli, which includes virtually every clean Victorian joke you can think of, plus a cameo by the Marx Brothers.”

1 thought on “Invisible Ink (The Independent)

  1. I’d like to know about “Giro” (a pseudonym) who wrote While He Lies Sleeping (Simon and Schuster, 1964). Can you help?

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