Gig Review: Christopher Fowler in Bath

This year I spent Halloween at Waterstones bookshop in Bath where Christopher Fowler was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and obvious fan of his amiable guest. The event was the final stop on a tour for The Book of Forgotten Authors which I review here. Although I am only familiar with this and a handful of the author’s more recent Bryant and May series of crime novels, Christopher has published over forty books that cross several genres. As well as books, his other works include screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio and stage plays. He writes a weekly column in The Independent on Sunday where the idea for this most recent publication germinated.

Steve described The Book of Forgotten Authors as a cornucopia of author delights including excellent digressive essays. He read out the names of a number of the authors included, many of which the audience were familiar with. Christopher commented that although their names may still be recalled, few of the readers he has asked could list these authors’ books. I got the impression that he was addressing a well read audience in Bath, perfect for the discussion that ensued.

In whittling down his list of hundreds of forgotten authors to the ninety-nine featured, Christopher was not interested in the obscure but rather recognisable writers whose books have been eclipsed. After mentioning them in his newspaper column, he received letters, often from author’s families. They subsequently corresponded and set up meetings, thereby enabling Christopher to gather the fascinating snippets of data he cites in his book. He made the decision not to include anyone living in case of upset by being listed as forgotten.

Christopher is obviously well connected within the arts. There were references to films he has been involved with and mentions of writers who are acquaintances and personal friends. Most of the discussion though was of his interest in books, how they are valued and how this changes over time.

He talked of pulp fiction from the sixties found in paperback fairs, some of which were written by well known names under pseudonyms, with artwork from highly regarded sources. Having grown up in a house containing few works of literature he spent much of his childhood in a library, frequenting second hand bookshops when he had money to spend. He now takes an interest not just in titles considered collectable but in the treasures that can be found tucked away between their pages – letters, notes and similar ephemera.

Christopher talked of the peaks and troughs in book fashion, how an experimental novel from the sixties is now being sold as a mass market paperback. He applauded the small presses such as Persephone who are republishing works that do not deserve to remain forgotten. He is a fan of ebooks as they enable out of print books to be more widely shared which may help prove there is demand for them in hard copy.

He also mentioned the books that deserve to be forgotten. He believes some authors whose work has remained popular had contemporaries who were even better yet disappeared from retail shelves. As he talked of books I was not familiar with, although Steve and several in the audience were agreeing with his words, I pondered how much book appreciation is a matter of personal taste.

In his Bryant and May books Christopher told us that the weirdest things are often based on fact, toned down because readers would find them too unrealistic. He does not like writing gore, preferring to create unease and trust reader’s imagination – disturbing rather than distressing. His books have been optioned by the BBC although he believes the scripts may not have captured the essential quirkiness of his elderly detectives. He mentioned that he bought back the rights of one book he was unhappy with after publication.

Christopher’s next book, due out in 2018, is based around the theme of a country house murder. The one after that will explore the theme of loneliness. His many fans will be happy that there are plenty more books in the offing. He has also written a fantasy epic but has yet to have it accepted for publication.

Steve had ensured that there was a good stock of a variety of Christopher’s books available to purchase. Those queuing to acquire his signature each presented sizeable piles of his works. It was good to see Christopher taking the time to chat as he signed. All seemed to have enjoyed the event.

As well as the pleasure of meeting Christopher I was able to introduce myself to his publicist, Elizabeth Masters. It is always lovely to meet those who kindly send me the books I review.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and is available to buy now.

   

Book Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten Authors, by Christopher Fowler, is a book for bibliophiles. It offers the reader details and anecdotes on ninety-nine authors who were once hugely popular and are now no longer in print. It is a very personal selection. The author admits that some of those chosen produced work that was predictable and not particularly well written, yet it has a charm that he finds appealing. Others he dismisses. Of Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert he opines that they wrote novels packaged in

“the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up.”

Really?

Each author listed is necessarily given just a few pages. Although superficial this is enough to provide a flavour of why they became popular before sinking into obscurity. Interspersed with the listings are commentaries such as ‘The Forgotten Books of Charles Dickens’ and ‘The Forgotten Booker Winners’. Although esoteric in places these make for interesting reading.

From some of the quotes provided I would suggest many of these authors deserve to stay forgotten, yet this reaction demonstrates just how personal individual reading experiences can be. In talking of the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong:

“sometimes you want to wring the necks of her protagonists for picking the one option that will get them into deeper trouble. But hey, bad choices make good stories.”

I’m not sure that I agree.

The book is written with a deft and humorous touch. It is also moving in places. The chapter on Polly Hope was a particular favourite.

It is not so much the quality of the literature produced by these forgotten authors as their passing popularity that warrants their inclusion. Tastes change over time as do readers’ offence radars; authors can be sidelined when their evocative voice grates modern sensibilities.

I did not always agree with the conclusions the author reaches. The Forgotten Queens of Suspense opens with

“Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”

This sounded familiar. The author is more generous suggesting

“Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved.”

If only this were truly the case.

The output of many of the authors listed was prodigious, especially compared to current expectations. Like today some was also abtruse. Thomas Love Peacock is described as an acquired taste, seemingly for good reason. In writing of his tome Nightmare Abbey:

“it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words”

“the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order.”

Do authors such as this deserve a reprint?

There are scathing comments about readers who are described as ‘intellectually inert’. As an example, the author clearly dislikes the once popular little book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When a teenager I found this uplifting. Perhaps my more jaded, aged eye would not agree but at the time of reading it did its job and connected.

The author writes kinder words on the renowned Dan Brown:

“The real sin of bad writing is being boring, and Mr Brown is certainly never that.”

Well, he bored me.

Of course, agreeing with the author’s point of view is not the point. What this book offers is a window into the vagaries of the publishing world and its readership, the changing tastes and fickle loyalties. It is packaged in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into and refering back to over time.

I welcomed the insights into the ever evolving literary world, its discoveries and appropriations, pretensions and fads. So much has changed and yet much remains the same. As a great author, who has not been forgotten, once wrote: a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. For these ninety-nine, Mr Fowler could be a lifesaver.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author, riverrun.

This post is a stop on The Book of Forgotten Authors Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: London’s Glory

londonsglory

London’s Glory, by Christopher Fowler, is a collection of short stories featuring the fictional detectives, Bryant and May. There are eleven stories in all, ten of them original to this book. These are sandwiched between additional content which is as interesting as the stories themselves.

The book opens with an introduction by the author, discussing the enduring appeal of crime fiction. He mentions writers who have inspired him. Amongst the well known names are several who wrote prolifically and were popular in their day but have since been largely forgotten. I enjoyed his musings on the current desire for realism in the genre, despite the fact that murder rates are falling and most murderers are not particularly bright. He points out that the subtle clues and clever planning which add depth to a good crime novel are the real fiction, and that much of what seems unbelievable to the reader may well be based on an author’s experience or forgotten facts.

Each of the stories opens with an additional, short introduction highlighting the inspiration for that particular case. Although they work standalone, many of these cases have been mentioned in previous works – there are currently twelve Bryant and May novels – making them a treasure trove for the duo’s many fans.

Bryant and May stories have an old fashioned feel. The author admits to playing with types: a locked room mystery; a country house murder; precinct stories. In solving cases from the clues to hand, their import only revealed at the denouement, the works of Conan Doyle and Christie come to mind.

The tales are written with a playfulness (it is not often that a work of crime fiction has me laughing out loud) which, interspersed with the random facts about the environments in which the detectives work, adds to the sense of fun. When some of the action appears ludicrous, coincidences hard to believe, an aside will be thrown in that these cases are taken from Bryant’s memoirs so a little embellishment is to be expected. As any good pub raconteur will know, insistence on too much realism can detract from a good story. By making his detectives work in the Peculiar Crimes Unit the author has granted himself freedom from run of the mill.

The book concludes with a potted history of the twelve Bryant and May novels already published, the cases they cover and their inspiration. The background provided in all the additional content gives this book a personal feel, a gift from author to reader, and provides an insight into how these detectives were brought to life.

A must for existing fans, a taster for the uninitiated, or a brief study in crime fiction writing, this book is an enjoyable book to read; as quirky as the detectives it contains. I suspect that it also contains a few teasers for future works but, as with the clues to any decent whodunnit, readers can only guess at their significance until the reveal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

 

 

Book Review: The Burning Man

bryant and may

The Burning Man, by Christopher Fowler, is a highly entertaining crime thriller set in contemporary London. It is the latest in the Bryant and May series but can easily be enjoyed without having read any previous installments. I was unfamiliar with this duo and their sidekicks but am glad to have discovered them through this book.

It is Halloween and London is in the grip of riots sparked by the latest bank failure due to insider dealing. As a mob descends on the financial square mile a Molotov cocktail is thrown into a doorway where a homeless man is sleeping. He does not survive.

What looked like a macabre accident soon proves to be the start of something more sinister as further fire related deaths occur in subsequent days. The elderly Arthur Bryant and his partner John May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are drawn to investigate despite the misgivings of their bosses at the City of London Police.

The story is told with humour but still provides a challenging whodunnit. There are twists and turns aplenty as suspects are investigated and links between characters are uncovered. Alongside the crime puzzle the reader is treated to fascinating detail on the history of the city. There is thought provoking social commentary that segues with the plot.

It was pleasing to find a crime thriller that manages to avoid many of the cliches of the genre. The writing has lightness but also depth and I did not manage to guess the denouement. A finely woven tale that offers up serious issues for consideration without demanding that it be taken too seriously. This was a cracking good read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.