Thursday, July 26, 2018

Good bad books

The Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell.
A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the ‘good bad book’: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously out standing books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept their place when innumerable ‘problem novels’, ‘human documents’ and ‘terrible indictments’ of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion. (Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?) Almost in the same class as these I put R. Austin Freeman’s earlier stories – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘The Eye of Osiris’ and others – Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, and, dropping the standard a bit, Guy Boothby’s Tibetan thriller, Dr Nikola, a sort of schoolboy version of Huc’s Travels in Tartary which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a dismal anticlimax.

But apart from thrillers, there were the minor humorous writers of the period. For example, Pett Ridge – but I admit his full-length books no longer seem readable – E. Nesbit (The Treasure Seekers), George Birmingham, who was good so long as he kept off politics, the pornographic Binstead (‘Pitcher’ of the Pink ’Un), and, if American books can be included, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories. A cut above most of these was Barry Pain. Some of Pain’s humorous writings are, I suppose, still in print, but to anyone who comes across it I recommend what must now be a very rare book – The Octave of Claudius, a brilliant exercise in the macabre. Somewhat later in time there was Peter Blundell, who wrote in the W. W. Jacobs vein about Far Eastern seaport towns, and who seems to be rather unaccountably forgotten, in spite of having been praised in print by H. G. Wells.

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