Martin Stanley – The Curious Case of The Missing Masterpieces

You know that feeling when you finish a book that’s so good you want to press a copy into your best friend’s hand and demand that they read it? Of course you do, you’re a reader, right? Otherwise, what the hell are you doing reading this? Well, how would it feel to know that you couldn’t do that, not easily anyway, partly because you might not be able to find a replacement copy?

It seems that an ever-increasing number of great thrillers and great writers are sliding through the gaps and disappearing from view. It’s a sad trend, because it’s depriving a lot of readers of some genuinely great reads.

The other month I finished Newton Thornburg’s Cutter And Bone (1976), savouring every beautifully written word. Its brilliance is such that it speaks as clearly about the time we live in now as it does about the early-mid Seventies when it was set.

cutter

It deals with the aftermath of an unpopular war, corporate greed, disaffected drifters, and a decade of darkness. Sounds a lot like our decade, right? And if you replaced Vietnam with Iraq/Afghanistan, the hangover from the Sixties with the hangover from the banking crash and upped the currency spent to today’s rates it would almost feel contemporary.

But forget about social context for a second and let’s think in terms of quality. The writing is superb: rich in character and setting, with scalpel sharp dialogue and spare but nicely painted prose descriptions. Few thrillers have hit me at such a gut level. It’s easily the best thing that I have read this year. And if I read anything else better then it’s going to have to be a masterpiece.

It’s that good.

Oh, and you can’t buy it on Kindle. Nor can you buy it at a book store. You can get it second-hand on Amazon, but that’s a poor state of affairs for a novel that is genuinely brilliant. It deserves much better than this…

It’s also the same state of affairs for Ted Lewis’ GBH (1980) – a dark, twisted masterpiece about a London crimelord and porn king drinking himself to death in a small coastal town with only his horrible memories for company. Superbly rendered in past- and present-tense prose, this novel goes to some pretty dark places. It’s a last-gasp masterwork from a writer who died only a couple of years later at the young age of 42. And when you consider that he hadn’t produced anything of genuine quality since The Rabbit, written five years earlier, then it makes his achievement even more admirable.

gbh

But unless you’re willing to pay over £20 for a second-hand paperback you won’t be able to read it. Forget about Kindle – if you’re lucky there might be a badly formatted e-book floating around the Internet. And Lewis’ other non-Get Carter (Jack’s Return Home) classics, such as Plender and Billy Rags, are also suffering the same fate. If it wasn’t for the film of Get Carter Lewis would probably have already been forgotten, an underground name used as code by one crime writer to another.

The same fate has also befallen Douglas Fairbairn’s brilliant Shoot, which skewers America’s obsession with guns and picks at the tattered seams of the American Dream better than many more literary and mainstream novels. It’s savage and satirical, yet tightly controlled because of the pared back prose. Shoot is one of those novels that deserve to be read more widely, and viewed as the classic that it is, but has instead disappeared into obscurity – a hidden treasure to be found by chance at the library (if you’re lucky), or hidden in a pile at a second-hand bookshop.

shoot

But the more you look around, the more you listen to recommendations, you will find that these books are just the tip of the iceberg.

I can list a number of other writers whose work has somehow fallen between the cracks, despite their obvious quality. Writers like Kem Nunn, Boston Teran, Will Christopher Baer all have little presence or a very patchy one in the Kindle market, and some of their best works are also out-of-print in Britain and only available second-hand. A real shame, because they are all superb writers who have produced timeless classics of crime fiction.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, those are only the writers on my radar, there are most likely dozens, hundreds, of really fine writers who have slipped into obscurity despite their qualities.

So how does one change this state of affairs? Well, the best thing to do is, if there’s a writer you love, or a book you love, that is disappearing from the shelves and into obscurity (or is already there), get out there on your blogs and shout about these writers and their work. Send emails to Amazon and ask about turning these books you love into Kindle editions. Who knows, maybe if enough people clamour hard enough then the rights owners might just take notice and release digital editions.

But, until that happens, and if you don’t want to press that dog-eared, much-loved copy of GBH into your friend’s hand, then the best thing you can do is the digital equivalent. Blog about the books you love, create interest that way, create a groundswell, and maybe at some point we might finally see the classics we love being enjoyed by a whole new generation of readers in print and digital.

Get clamouring.

Martin Stanley.

BONE BREAKERS available now

bone breakers

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