Sunday, July 24, 2022

Finest Quality Old English Yarns - A Choice of Twenty

In one of Michael Innes’ very enjoyable detective novels he has a character who is, like him, the author of fairly popular thrillers and she feels rather the ill-concealed disdain for her work by fellow-writers who have more literary aspirations (though fewer readers).

I have not to hand the exact quotation, but there is a passage where we may suppose Innes was speaking on behalf of his own books too when his character says, in effect, that good yarns do have their merit, particularly as a solace for people in tricky times or as a pleasing diversion from hard realities, and so on. It is these books readers turn to when they need reading most, she avers.

I was reflecting on this, and thinking the other day which ‘yarns’ have given me the most pleasure so that I look back upon them, and indeed re-read them, with fondness. I then tried to come up quickly with as frank a list I could of such titles. Not the ones I thought I ought to include, not necessarily ones that mark particular points in my life, but those that I read, and still read, with the most enthusiasm and delight.

I have of course done various versions of this list, which changes almost every time I look at it, but here it is just now:   

The Man Who Was Thursday – G K Chesterton (1908)

Undergrowth – Francis & Eric Brett Young (1913)

The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)

The Rector of Maliseet – Leslie Reid (1925)

Cups Wands Swords – Helen Simpson (1927)

Armed With Madness – Mary Butts (1928)

War in Heaven – Charles Williams (1930)

Look to the Lady – Margery Allingham (1931)

The Place of the Lion – Charles Williams (1931)

Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham (1933)

The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L Sayers (1934)

Old King Cole – Edward Shanks (1936)

The Dark Frontier – Eric Ambler (1936)

Picture of Nobody – Philip Owens (1936)

The Secret Vanguard – Michael Innes (1940)

The Devil in Crystal – Louis Marlow (1944)

Appleby’s End – Michael Innes (1945)

The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin (1946)

Conor Sands – Elisabeth Kyle (1952)

The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham (1953)

What, no Arthur Machen? Well, no: because I prefer his short stories, and though his novels (or romances as he called them) have many fine qualities, they are not exactly yarns, except for The Three Impostors, and that is really an album of linked short stories. Perhaps I ought to include The Great Return though. And what about Sarban's The Doll-Maker? Choice of 22, anyone?

The Buchan will cause no surprise, but the Ambler is not so well-known and is an excellent chase thriller too, and with a Ruritanian dimension, much to my taste. I was surprised by how quickly the two Allinghams came to mind – she can be uneven, but one of these has a madcap Ruritanian element too, and the other concerns a Grail-like holy cup and ritual, another great interest, as do Armed With Madness and War in Heaven. I might almost have added Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke also, which has some richly bizarre scenes, but it is for me just a bit too crowded with picturesque incident.

The Chesterton is the only novel of his that I thoroughly enjoy, and also has a very extravagant plot, which continues to be great fun even when you know the secret of it, and it has a sublime final scene.

There are several other Michael Innes I might have chosen (eg The Journeying Boy) for their sheer story-telling gusto, but Appleby’s End has a darkly comic Gothic dimension which I regard with affection and The Secret Vanguard is another great chase thriller, and with eccentric characters too. There might equally be more by Edmund Crispin, but to my mind The Moving Toyshop is his classic performance, and also includes a madcap chase scene.

Naturally, since I enjoy occult and supernatural fiction so much, several choices feature this strongly. The Dark Tower might have been my Francis Brett Young choice, but Undergrowth has pagan worship and bookish elements for extra pleasure: and several other Charles Williams novels could easily be added to the two here.

There are some where I have to admit my affection may be enhanced because I think I “discovered” them. But that is never the only reason. Leslie Reid’s The Rector of Maliseet has so many ingredients I relish: a train  journey to unknown regions, a scholar visiting a remote place, an ancient secret, haunted country. The Helen Simpson has a subtly-handled Tarot theme, and is both eerie and well-crafted. 

Likewise, Old King Cole by Edward Shanks, about the survival of Roman paganism in a secluded village, also has many of the elements I like, including archaeology and an undiscovered ancient monument. Philip Owens’ Picture of Somebody, a portrait of a Shakespeare-like poet in Thirties London, starts as a neat literary conceit, but then launches into turmoil and insurrection.

The Sayers is not supernatural, but its atmosphere is very similar: and I like it for its fine evocation of the Fen country in winter.  which I think enriches her work more than those which are more plot-driven: Five Red Herrings, set in Galloway, would be another close runner. Similarly, the Elisabeth Kyle book gains from its setting in an East Anglian coastal town threatened by sea and sand.

I am not a great follower of SF generally, but I am a devotee of John Wyndham’s work, which also often has an ambience similar to that of the classic otherworldly tale. The Kraken Wakes is the one that I find has the most human qualities and the surest understanding of how things work out in a prolonged crisis. And the Louis Marlow is there for its very deft handling of a timeslip theme.

A kind colleague at work one said to me, bemused by some of my more archaic traits, “it’s always 1936 in your world, isn’t it, Mark?” And I notice that there are no less than three choices from that very year. It’s a fact that the fiction I most enjoy is from the interwar and mid-20th century period, which is near enough to us to seem modern, but sufficiently far away to have the charm of distance.

My particular preference, reflected here, is for stories that are based in our world but have an overlap from an otherworld, or glimpses of other dimensions. I am not now so much attracted to works of pure fantasy, and equally find it hard to get interested in entirely mundane matters.

From the ones I have chosen, I can see other characteristics that attract me: well-evoked landscape, a real sense of place; a mystical dimension or if not some distinct peculiarity;  a madcap or bizarre plot; eccentric, unconventional protagonists; and colourful minor characters.

Now I look again, there should be one or two by P M Hubbard. 

And . . . well, any others?

(Mark Valentine)                                               

Picture: A 1980s library campaign badge.


  1. No John Blackburn?

  2. Any from The Great Gladys, Gladys Mitchell?

    1. Thank you, I do enjoy her work and would have to think which I most prefer.

  3. A terrific list, mixing the well known and the should be well known. While I've read a half dozen or more of these favorite yarns, and look forward to reading the others, I wish one could find reasonably priced copies of the Simpson, Shanks, Reid and Kyle. Perhaps Tartarus could start a subsidary line of reprints: "A Mark Valentine Selection."

    1. Thank you, Michael. Yes, some of these are a bit elusive. The Gollancz 'Rare Works of Imaginative Literature' series is a model for such reprints. But it didn't last all that long . . .

  4. Thanks Mark, what a "choice" collection. I'm on board with Michael's above comment about Tartarus doing some reprints; "The Mark Valentine Selection."

    1. Thanks, Gary, I'm glad you enjoyed the choices.

    2. Now that you've listed your favorite yarns, Mark, some future column must do the same with your favorite nonfiction. I'm guessing that list will include A.J.A. Symons's "The Quest for Corvo" and the three volumes of Machen's autobiography.

  5. well, for me that has to include one of sax rohmer's egyptian novels

  6. Just got started today with "The Moving Toyshop" and am enjoying it very much. Thanks for the great list.

  7. Hello Mark, some authors you listed here are favourites of mine too. I recently read about 'The Rector of Maliseet' in your book 'A Wild Tumultory Library', and it sounds highly intriguing, but it seems that it can only be found as a print-on-demand book.

    1. Thank you, Lori. Yes, I'm afraid 'The Rector of Maliseet' is hard to find. I did look into whether it could be reprinted , but it is still in copyright in the UK, and the author's estate is complicated.

    2. Ah, it sounds like a good candidate for a reprinting. I would also like to tell you that I have several of your books after first buying 'The Collected Conoisseur' four years ago and greatly enjoy them and your excellent writing style and look forward to adding more. I've sort of been rationing them out, but read two this year and felt in the mood for yet another one so started 'Sphinxes & Obelisks' the other night. Thanks for producing such interesting books and tales.