Colin Watson and Charles Williams
Despite the much-discussed woes of some parts of the publishing industry, there are still a good many reasons for book-lovers to be cheerful. Amongst them is the fact that rapid advances in technology in recent years have seen an increasing enthusiasm for "print on demand" books. Printing on demand makes it economically viable for a publisher to make available books that are only ever likely to sell in relatively modest quantities. So there are opportunities for new writers that did not exist in the past. And, just as pleasingly, publishers are now marketing a significant number of older books that were successful in their day, but which have been out of print for years.
In the recent past, I have enthused about the publications of Ostara Publishing, which has revived a number of interesting academic and clerical mysteries, and of Langtail Press, which has reprinted a clutch of novels by such excellent writers as Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. Both Ostara and Langtail are small businesses run by dedicated enthusiasts. But a famous name in publishing is also getting in on the act, and with equally splendid results.
Faber Finds have, in a relatively short space of time, developed a very interesting list and in this column I'd like to focus on a couple of writers whose work they have brought back to life. Both men shared the same initials, but could scarcely have been more different, and wrote books that really have nothing in common – except that they remain of interest to modern reader.
Colin Watson is a writer whose name will be familiar to many crime fans. He wrote an entertaining study of the eccentricities of Golden Age mysteries, and was the author of a long series of humorous detective novels set in the fictional town of Flaxborough. His work was much admired by no less an authority than Julian Symons, who said that in Watson's hands "fireworks of comedy go up as they're meant to do in a dazzling show of stars, instead of spluttering miserably into darkness. All of his books are genuine mysteries." He singled out for special praise Hopjoy Was Here, published in 1962 and a nice skit on Secret Service agents, as well as a neatly plotted puzzle. There is a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the other books set in Flaxborough, justifying Symons' claim that Watson was "the rarest of comic crime writers, one with the gift of originality".
In 1977, four of Watson's novels were adapted for television, in a total of seven episodes, the series being called Murder Most English. It starred Anton Rodgers and Christopher Timothy, two reliable actors, as an amiable detective duo, and the shows are now available on DVD as a boxed set. Unfortunately, the series was not a great success and the production values seem dated to a modern viewer. Five years after the TV series aired, Watson died, relatively young, and his novels have long since disappeared from the bookshop shelves. It is therefore good to see that Faber Finds have reissued all the Watson titles. They are well worth seeking out, because oddly, they do not today seem as old-fashioned as the television adaptations.
Charles Williams is remembered today as one of the Inklings, that group of Oxford-based writers and intellectuals which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. His novels have sometimes been described as "metaphysical thrillers", and Many Dimensions appeared in the old green Penguin crime series. My preliminary skirmishes with the five Williams novels which have now been revised by Faber Finds suggest that Williams did not, in fact, see himself primarily as a crime writer; his interests were more philosophical. He did, however, detective fiction enthusiastically for a number of years, and I'm looking forward to reading his work in more depth, having searched in vain for his books in countless second-hand shops. The extraordinarily wide variety of uncommon books that are now available from Faber Finds underlines the increasing significance of print on demand publishing. And it is a phenomenon that is great news for avid readers. (This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)