Thursday, May 13, 2010

James Corbett

On paper, the people in my department at work appear to be reasonably well qualified for their jobs: I have years of experience selling books for Waterstone's, Ottakar's and the independent sector, while my staff are English graduates with firsts and upper seconds. We live and breathe books.

But the truth is that we know bugger all about most of the titles that we sell.

Much of the time, we are not selling Eliot (George or T. S.). We are dealing with the bestsellers of the mid-20th century and 90% of the names mean nothing to us. I have never heard of Sidney Horler, Primrose Cumming or Peter Cheyney and yet in their time they were incredibly popular and the title pages bear witness to this, showing that the copy I'm holding is a 17th or 18th impression.

Why are these writers now largely forgotten? The obvious answer is that their novels aren't good enough to stand the test of time. But is that true?

Two weeks ago, I found a very obscure thriller by another writer I'd never heard of: James Corbett (1887-1958). It started promisingly enough:

The dense prose style reminded me of Saramago. Perhaps I was on the verge of rediscovering a lost masterpiece. I continued reading...

Sadly, "Wednesday at Noon" is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read. It begins conventionally enough, with the mystery of a crime in a locked room, but then Corbett gradually loses the plot and the only truly criminal element in the novel is Corbett's completely implausible denouement, which seems to appear almost as an afterthought on the last couple of pages.

In Corbett's world, the butler did it, but you didn't even know that the murder victim had a butler until page 257. This makes everything else in the narrative a red herring.

In his time, James Corbett was a highly prolific writer of thrillers. Today, his books are out of print and there is almost nothing about him on the internet. I say almost, because he has acquired a cult following among a select band of readers for his remarkable writing style.

Here are a few examples of Corbett's unique talent:
  • Pritchard sat up like a full-blown geranium
  • Amazed inquiry sat on her face
  • It was like looking for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys
  • "I think your philosophy deplorable" Tessa murmured, with a sphinx-like groan
  • He was like a fish in deep water
  • They knew the anticlimax was at hand, and their satisfaction was unbounded
  • "Your steps are feline and catlike"
  • It was a morning gown of blue silk, one that stressed her grace of figure and matched her complexion
I found these examples on this website, which has a very amusing tribute to Corbett's genius.

Now that I've taken the plunge, I intend to read more forgotten writers in the hope that one day, I'll rediscover a writer of genius. Watch this space.


Caroline said...

This is absolutely hilarious!

Lucille said...

I am going to use the one about the ostriches when any of the men in the house fail to see something they are looking for when it is right under their noses.

Brett said...

I was going to ask if you'd heard of Gun in Cheek: An affectionate guide to the worst in mystery fiction , by Bill Pronzini, but I see that the sequel, Son of Gun in Cheek , is mentioned on that webpage.

Rob Spence said...

Cheyney was incredibly popular - he and Edgar Wallace would have topped the bestseller lists if such things had existed.
And wouldn't an ostrich be pretty easy to spot in a forest of monkeys?

Brian Busby said...

These past 18 months I've devoted much of my reading time to the forgotten in Canadian letters. Though I can't say any neglected genius was discovered, there were a couple of worthwhile titles. Curiously, both books had in their time received acclaim from some pretty big names. All Else is Folly (1929), a Great War novel by veteran Peregrine Acland, won praise from Bertrand Russell and Frank Harris. What's more, it features a highly complimentary preface penned by Ford Madox Ford. The second, Ralph Allen's satirical novel The Chartered Libertine (1954), features a cover blurb from Northrup Frye. It enjoyed one and only one printing.

I must add that the book that has stayed with me is The Door Between (1950) by Neil Perrin. Justly forgotten, but so very, very odd and disturbing. All over the map in terms of style, it is at times well-written and at others laughably bad. Like James Corbett, Perrin wrote many memorable lines. My favourite: "Darkness clung to the window panes like a lover to somebody else's drain-pipe."

I do hope you'll let us know when you uncover a writer of genius - we'll then corner the market and make a killing.