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Heroes who don't fade away

IMAGINARY PEOPLE: A Who's Who of Fictional Characters from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day by David Pringle, Scolar Press pounds 29.50
There are not many of us prepared to give the time of day to Howdy Doody. This "grinning, freckle-faced puppet cowboy", a Fifties star of television and cartoon, is best forgotten - or preferably not encountered at all. The charitable David Pringle, however, makes him at home on the range, in his new edition of Imaginary People, the Who's Who of fiction, which insists that its characters have a life beyond the original book, play, film or even soap opera in which they first appeared.

A single page shows how wide a net he casts, containing as it does potted biographies of: Evelyn Waugh's Lady Margot Metroland; Meursault, the narrator of Camus's The Outsider; Wilkins Micawber, created by Dickens and played by W C Fields, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe and Simon Callow; Mickey Mouse, scampering about since 1928; and Captain Midnight, the US hero who zoomed from radio to TV to comic strip to film.

The A-Z coverage runs from "Abbott, Judy", of the novel and film Daddy Long-Legs, to "Zorro", as in The Mark of. Chronologically, it runs from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, in the dawn of novel-writing, to the forthcoming TV version of Conrad's Nostromo, which I have heard of only because the man next door is in it. It runs from over three pages on the various reincarnations of Tarzan, to a few lines on The Rise of Silas Lapham, described as "William Dean Howells's best-known novel" (what were his least-known novels, for goodness' sake?).

It is not only catholic but Catholic: "Brown, Father" occupies his rightful place between Browns Buster (early comic strip and shoe), Charlie (later comic strip and film), Pinkie (Graham Greene's Brighton Rock), Tom (as in Schooldays), Velvet (horsey novel and film), Victor (A Kind of Loving) and William (Richmal Crompton's Outlaw). And Ms Murphy Brown, the TV character best-known after being denounced by Dan Quayle for having a baby while unmarried.

The ludicrous Republican Veep may not have realised it (after all, as the old joke has it, Mickey Mouse has a Dan Quayle watch), but he was illustrating the way in which creations of the imagination spill over into real life. Similarly, the boat carrying the latest episode of The Old Curiosity Shop to the USA was besieged while docking by tearful readers desperate to know if Little Nell had snuffed it. (A more modern response came, of course, from Oscar Wilde, who remarked that it took a heart of stone not to laugh at her deathbed scene.)

Charles Dickens was a reluctant witness to another way in which a novel's cast-list takes on an independent life. While he was still churning out the weekly instalments of The Pickwick Papers, a plagiarist had written and staged a play based on it. Other rip-off writers took his portly hero abroad or married him off. Authors would prefer it if they were allowed to write their own sequels or, failing that, if imitators waited until they had gone to the Great Publisher in the Sky.

Daniel Defoe won out both ways. Immediately after Robinson Crusoe, he himself wrote Further Adventures of and Surprizing Adventures of. By 1898 there were 277 imitations of his desert islander. Sheridan turned the story into a pantomime, Offenbach an opera, Bunuel a film and Channel 4 a definitive TV version.

The follow-ups to Pride and Prejudice are (in)famous. New to me were the sequels to Grapes of Wrath and Moby-Dick. The re-tread of A Doll's House was entitled Nora's Return; disappointingly, though, the follow- up to High Noon was not entitled A Quarter to Four. After the original author of the Conan the Barbarian had done the decent thing and committed suicide, his output was far exceeded by those following in his galumphing tracks.

Even lesser characters spin off into their own sequels by other hands. Crusoe's Man Friday was born again in a new story and language: a French writer christened him, naturally, "Vendredi". Holmes's brother Mycroft and the despised Inspector Lestrange were also set up in their own right. As for Sherlock himself, he has been reincarnated in every media - including even ballet. Bewilderingly, his reincarnations have met other characters' reincarnations: he has encountered Fu Manchu, Tarzan, Dracula, Dr Jekyll, the Phantom of the Opera and - elementary, my dear Martian - H G Wells's space invaders.

Imaginary People makes for cheerful reading. This is partly because of David Pringle's enthusiasm for his raw material. It is also because he shows that the book in general is not dead. Most of the characters summarised here started their lives not on television or cinema screens but in words on the page. They may not always have been very good words. But it is, as the Lone Ranger would have agreed when meeting Tonto, a start.