Readers often ask me to cover forgotten authors from a surname or a half-remembered title. Tracking down someone who had a single modest success can be tricky, so you’d think it would be easier to find the biographical details of those with dozens of hits. Not so. Many led quiet, ordinary lives, produced satisfying bodies of work and then died.
Two factors have led to their return; the ease of producing e-books, often undertaken by relatives from reverted rights, and the soaring collectors’ market for secondhand paperbacks, especially ones with fine covers.
So, Harry Kemelman, whose excellent Rabbi Small murder mysteries achieved fame from the first; Friday The Rabbi Slept Late is now finding new fans on e-readers and through the stylish artwork on his old paperbacks.
Gabriel Chevallier wrote a damning indictment of the First World War called The Fear, but is most famous for his satirical novel, Clochemerle, about plans to build a pissoir in a small French village in the Beaujolais region. It was turned into a star-studded television series by Galton and Simpson, and is also back in print.
Arthur Reeve created “the American Sherlock Holmes” in his character Professor Craig Kennedy. There were 82 stories published between 1910 and 1918. Reeve wrote movies for Harry Houdini and, like Conan Doyle (also a friend of Houdini), investigated phony spiritualists. He later became a crusading anti-racketeer, and his books have now turned up in e-editions.
Proving that you can write more than once about anything, Eden Phillpotts turned out 127 novels with Dartmoor settings, not counting his short fiction, plays, non-fiction and poetry. But that’s not all; he also wrote under a pseudonym. He was an agnostic in Victorian Britain so he probably had Sundays free. Funnily enough, his work can still be found in the Dartmoor area.
The odd man out here is Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams, the navigator of an RAF bomber shot down on a raid over Germany in 1942. He evaded capture for three days, but was eventually caught and sent to Poland. His attempt to tunnel out failed and he was packed off to the notorious escape-proof Stalag Luft III. His escape committee came up with the idea of constructing a vaulting horse and using it to hide the digging of a tunnel. Williams’s subsequent account of the team’s bravery became The Wooden Horse, a hit memoir and a successful film. It remains in print.