I saw this book reviewed somewhere not all that long ago, and knew I had to get my hands on it as soon as possible. Luckily the kind publisher got it in the post for me and it landed in my mailbox within a few days. It came at the most opportune time, as I was struck down by a horrid virus and was not in a fit state to read anything that required long periods of concentration. So what could be better than something in highly entertaining, easily manageable chunks. And I have to say that rarely has a non-fiction book given me more unadulterated pleasure. As I'm sure you know if you visit here from time to time, there's nothing I like so much as a forgotten author, and here we have 99 of them getting a chapter each to themselves, plus a whole lot more mentioned in passing in the longer, discursive chapters dotted through the book, with titles like 'The Forgotten Rivals of Holmes, Bond and Miss Marple' and 'The Forgotten Queens of Suspense' - and let's not forget 'The Justly Forgotten Authors'.
This is a highly opinionated book, and all the better for it. Needless to say I didn't always agree with Christopher Fowler's judgments of books I was already familiar with, or with some of his choices of authors to give chapters to. He kicks off with Margery Allingham, who, as he admits, has almost never been out of print and has a large following. She's included because he says 'few readers have got to grips with her novels', not my impression at all. I was a bit surprised to find Georgette Heyer in there, as I thought she still had a lot of readers, and as for the much loved and admired Barbara Pym, she would have done better in 'The Rediscovered Forgotten Authors'.
But these are quibbles. Fowler's great skill here, apart of course from finding the authors in the first place, is in the way he writes about them and their creations in the most succinct and witty way possible. I was greatly drawn to Kyril Bonfiglioli, who wrote 'joyous books' about a hero described as 'a politically incorrect combination of Bertie Wooster, Falstaff and Raffles' but who died in alcoholism and poverty. You can't help warming to a man whose party trick was removing shirt buttons with a sword. Fowler, though he covers a wide range of authors, many of them straightforwardly and conventionally talented, seems to have rather a penchant for the outlandish and bizarre. There's Virginia Andrews, for example, writer of the 'perverse fairy tale' Flowers in the Attic, whose later books are described as 'psychologically upsetting and compellingly awful'. There's Peter Barnes, whose writing 'links death and jokes to create a dark carnival atmosphere'. Alcoholism seems to have been at the root of some bizarre literary productions, such as those of the 'brandy-breathed Soho flaneur' Julien Maclaren Ross, who 'squandered his great ability, the talent to write like a dream', and of Simon Raven, 'a horrible human being', and author of 'a couple of scathing, rancorous novel cycles'. Then there are mental problems, such as those of Richard Shaver, a paranoid schizophrenic whose invented 'Cavern world' within the earth brought him immense fame and a huge number of adoring believers. Fowler has done a brilliant job of tracking down the authors and discovering their own back stories. My favourite must be that of Maryann Forrest, aka Polly Hope, who, hearing Fowler was looking for her whereabouts, wrote him a letter beginning 'I know, for I am she', which formed the beginning of a very special friendship.
There's a sort of dual pleasure in reading this book, a combination of delight in finding one of your own discoveries in there and excitement at the thought of reading someone you'd never heard of before. Books I now long to read include Brigid Brophy's In Transit, set in an airport lounge, where
Evelyn Hillary O'Rooley suddenly loses any sense of gender, and the unsuccessful, hilarious tests he/she performs to get to the truth are filled with puns, puzzles, meta-fiction moments of awareness and surreal situations that include a dyke revolution at the baggage carousels.
This one is actually back in print, as is Norman Collins' 'great city novel', London Belongs to Me, a 'sprawling 700-plus-page story in the style of Dickens'. Not so is another I'd love to get my hands on, Maryann Forrest's Here (Away From it All) 'an adult Lord of the Flies, involving holidaymakers instead of children'. Then there are the Forgotten Queens of Suspense, all due for resurrection by the British Library.
I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a brilliant book and you should buy it forthwith.