Forgotten Authors No.39: Francis Durbridge
Sunday 27 September 2009
I suspect there are readers who not only remember Francis Durbridge's work but who can also whistle his theme tune, which was either 'Coronation Scot' by Vivian Ellis, or Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, depending on your age.
The Hull-born author and playwright was born in 1912 and died in 1998. His output was prodigious: I count at least 35 novels, 22 TV series, seven theatrical plays and around 30 radio plays and serials. He sold his first play to the BBC at 21, and created his most enduring character, the crime novelist and detective Paul Temple, at 26. In many ways he was the first of the popular multimedia writers, with simultaneous hits on radio, TV, film and in print. In later life he turned to the theatre with similar success.
Typically, the critics sneered and the public adored him. Now, his books have completely vanished and only some of his radio plays survive, kept alive by the BBC's desire to turn a buck and make up for wiping much of their archives.
Durbridge also used the pen name of Paul Temple, thus becoming his own character. There's a warm glow of nostalgia around his middle-class mysteries, which usually turn on the elaborate planning and solution of a murder, with plenty of cliffhangers. He was less interested in the whodunit so much as the will-he-get-away-with-it, because he knew this was a better way to create suspense. But are the stories any good? Actually, yes; I think of him as the English Cornell Woolrich, a pulp-fiction writer whose energetic style contrasted with the enervating period in which he wrote.
Paul Temple is absurdly British, rather too solid and square-jawed for my liking, but he proved instantly popular and went on to become one of the most successful characters ever created for broadcasting, which makes his disappearance strange. Our detectives are more complex and beset with personal problems now. Temple's world is filled with lost images; it's a world of telephone exchanges, manor houses, glamorous cabaret artists, Mayfair flats, mysterious piano tuners, diamond robberies, kidnaps, clergymen and calling cards, where carrier pigeons are used to smuggle gems and the only clue to a crime is a cocktail stick. It's easy to make fun of such plots – and why not? The Thirty Nine Steps has become a huge West End hit again, doing just that – but it's a shame that Durbridge's thrillers have disappeared so completely.
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