Forgotten Authors: No 3: Peter Van Greenaway

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The Independent Culture

No, not the director of The Draughtsman's Contract. 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.

I first came across him in The Destiny Man, which tells the tale of a washed-up actor who discovers a hitherto unheard-of Shakespeare folio on a tube train. There is a crime involved, but the novel's impetus derives from seeing if the hero – who has wangled sole rights to the play's performance – can redeem himself by rising to the role's challenge. Van Greenaway even has the nerve to create chunks of the bard's missing play from scratch, and does it with panache.

More seriously, attempts by individuals to alter world events and end terrorism were a recurring theme in Van Greenaway's political thrillers. Suffer! Little Children, published in 1976, concerns efforts to stop the unrest in Northern Ireland, but Take the War to Washington took the subject to an uncomfortably prescient level, as it involves a group of Vietnam veterans who crash a passenger airliner into the Pentagon and launch a series of terrorist attacks on tall buildings in the US. Conversely, The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing, (1968), is about a very British Victorian coup, and is played lightly for laughs.

Van Greenaway was popular enough to see his books packaged as lurid mass-market paperbacks, and his style would have been well-suited to movie adaptations, but just one film version of his work made it into cinemas. In his suspense novel The Medusa Touch (1973), an author with a "gift for disaster" hovers in a state between life and death, while flashbacks reveal that he can remove people who stand in his way with the power of thought alone. Van Greenaway turns his hero's ability to cause telekinetic catastrophes into a powerful moral tool that reflects the anti-establishment mood of the times. The overwrought film version starred Richard Burton (pictured above), and has become a forgotten minor classic.

Van Greenaway's peculiar talents were suited to the period in which he wrote, but transcended them, so that the books still read very enjoyably, if you can find them.