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
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.