DOMINIC NOLAN: Reading Around the Edges

Written by Dominic Nolan


Twenty and living at home, what I scraped together from a call centre job seemed then to be enough to buy whatever I wanted, especially as whatever I wanted was a few jars down the local and as many books and CDs as I could lay my hands on. This was a different time—a small town might have an HMV and an Ottaker’s right across from one another, and they might happen to be on your journey home, providing easy browsing opportunities on the way.

If I read book reviews in the press at all, it wasn’t to garner opinions on new releases, but rather to scour them for those moments when the reviewer might draw parallels with other books or other writers. This to me was the nitty gritty—these comparisons felt like the really personal stuff, the stuff the reviewer really wanted you to listen to.

More often than not, I’d forget about whatever book was being reviewed and just latch onto the comparisons. This is how I found Newton Thornburg. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the book being reviewed was, but it must have been a 70s American crime novel, or one set in 70s America at least, as the writer found similarities in its exploration of the post-Vietnam post-Watergate American psyche to Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone.

This was new information to me, new names to scour the shelves for on the way back from work. The Stone was easy. Picador had recently put out new reprint editions of a lot of his books, and Ottaker’s had Dog Soldiers nestled there as if it had always been waiting for me. Thornburg not so much.

I searched the crime and general fiction sections for any sign of him and then searched again, because imagine asking at the counter only to find you’d missed the thing sitting there in plain sight—that way abject mortification lies. The staff at Ottaker’s were always incredibly helpful, and though they hadn’t heard of the book or of Thornburg, they gladly looked it up. Yes, Cutter and Bone, there it was. A hardback from Heinemann in 1978, no longer in print. A paperback from Simon and Schuster in 1988 as part of their Blue Murder range (a selection edited by lifelong champion of neglected crime fiction, Maxim Jakubowski, which had put out volumes from Dolores Hitchens, David Goodis, Leigh Brackett, and William McGivern among others). Unfortunately, they couldn’t source a copy.

This was worse than being told the book didn’t exist and the reviewer had been pranking their readers. It was out there in the world, but I couldn’t get it. The movie of my book-buying life would cut to a musical montage of me skipping through second-hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road as the seasons slowly turned, ending with me dashing out of the rain with a folded paper over my head to find a knowledgeable store-owner who had a hardback upstacked somewhere.

I’ve never been much of a skipper or a dasher. We were on the cusp of a new millennium and online shopping was in its nascent form, still something of a niche industry. But it was there. I don’t remember if I knew about Amazon or Abebooks at the time, but eBay was there and after periodically searching all combinations of Newton and Thornburg and Cutter and Bone over a few months, a copy was finally listed. In a bookshop in New Hampshire. That didn’t offer international delivery. They did, however, have a link to their own website, which had an email address, and after some negotiating in which I agreed to pay an embarrassing amount of postage, one copy of the Little, Brown hardback US 1st from 1977 landed on my doormat in pristine condition.

Feeling like I’d slayed a dragon, I devoured the thing in a day. Then I had to read it again immediately. At the time it was hard to determine how much my love for the book was tied up in the quest and subsequent glory of actually finding a copy, but the years since have made it clear that it is a straight up masterwork. Yes, at its heart it was a murder mystery—the dumping of a body is witnessed, a suspect is identified, a plan is hatched. It features two colourful leads—a worn out gigolo with nothing in the bank, and a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed Vietnam veteran who excesses Thornburg never allows to topple over into cartoon territory. But there are a million murder mysteries. Thornburg’s writing was elegant and fluid, and his plotting never missed an opportunity to surprise, usually in some soul-scarringly melancholy fashion. The first line is up there with Crumley’s opening to The Last Good Kiss, and Thornburg’s ending, right down to its final sentence, remains the most perfect dénouement I’ve ever read.

This was to be the first of many such quests and rabbit-hole adventures over the years, and I’ve consistently found myself drawn away from the centre of the publishing universe to the fringes and frayed edges. Sometimes, the books you find at the end of your searching might not live up to expectations (and the act of searching itself can so elevate expectations), but often the writers uncovered feel like veins of gold that should be opened up to everyone.

Some writers begin at the hems of the mainstream and forever remain there, others find themselves pushed from the middle to the outside by time and neglect (suggesting the process can be reversed and they can be restored to the popular pantheon). I’ve found many favourites there.

Jerome Charyn’s Isaac novels and George Baxt’s mysteries featuring the gay black P.I. Pharoah Love made noise in their day but are sorely overlooked now. Walter Mosley led me back to Chester Himes and into an exploration of less well-known African American crime writers like Rudolph Fisher, Julian Mayfield, Clarence Cooper Jr, and Vern E Smith.

Even geography can do it. Doris Gercke is a popular and well-received writer in her native Germany, but only one of her novels (the slender, unsettling, and very good How Many Miles to Babylon) is available in English, and even then not always cheaply or readily.  

Frederic Brown, Kay Boyle, Alexander Baron, Barbara Comyns, Owen Cameron, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Gerald Kersh, Vera Caspary, James Hadley Chase, Bette Howland, Don Carpenter, Kent Anderson, Joanna Russ, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Henry Green, Elizabeth Harrower are an unspeakably random selection from a million other names I want to shout from the rooftop, some being brought back into the light quicker than others as time goes by.

There seems no rhyme nor reason why some writers’ legacies are better protected in the mainstream than others. It certainly has nothing to do with the quality of writing. Ross Macdonald’s classic mysteries are easily available, but his wife Margaret Millar is mostly relegated to compilation editions typeset in nearly unreadable ways. She was critically and commercially successful in her lifetime and every bit the equal of Macdonald (Millar was his name—he changed it professionally because his wife was already so well known). It isn’t just older books. How is Maggie Estep’s brilliant Ruby Murphy trilogy (Hex, Gargantuan, Flamethrower) out of print only 13 years after the last one was published? My beaten up ex-library copies wear their spine labels proudly.

What makes the neglected attractive? I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an innate satisfaction in the process of discovering writers who are no longer widely read. Even though you want everyone to read them, there is also an incongruous proprietary pleasure to having them to yourself for a while. If we all read the same things, we’ll end up thinking and writing the same things.

Perhaps it is just my long-held suspicion that any book I ever managed to get published would itself probably end up in the outer reaches sooner or later, and I wanted to know my fellow denizens before I got there. 

Newton Thornburg was saved. A couple of years after I found Cutter and Bone, I could have walked into any decent bookshop in the country and found it on their shelves as Serpent’s Tail reissued it and two of his other best works (To Die in California and Dreamland). Although out of print physically, Serpent’s Tail continue their good work and have all but two of his novels available in digital.

So raise a glass with me to all searchers past, present, and future who truffle out the good stuff, and those who strive to bring it back into print. And if you’re reading this twenty years from now (it’s 2019 and Britain is on the verge of punching itself in the face again, as it no doubt is when you are too), have a search on whatever technology binds you to the world, go look for some of these books if they remain underappreciated.

Hell, go look for one of mine.      

Publisher: Headline (7 Mar. 2019) HBK: £18.99
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Dominic Nolan

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