Ostara Publishing Colourfon

Ostara Publishing

03 Jan 2010

Big Thrill Magazine


    Reviving Classic British Thrillers, by Mike Ripley

snake-water.jpgAs a writer I am known - if known at all - for my light, fairly gentle, comic crime novels, whilst as a critic I have reviewed almost 1,000 mysteries for various British newspapers over the past twenty years. But as a reader, my first love was always the thriller.

My teenage reading was dominated not by police or private detectives (the one exception being Chandler's Philip Marlowe) but by the heroes of adventure thrillers or spy stories, virtually all by British writers. In fact the 1960s and early '70s were something of a Golden Age for British thriller writing, much as the 1920s and '30s were for the English "whodunit?" puzzle, with a closed circle of suspects and invariably a country house staffed by a platoon of servants and a butler (who very rarely "did it").

The names on the bestseller lists in my youth - and the names on the spines of the paperbacks piled in my bedroom - were invariably British: Hammond Innes, Alistair Maclean, Ian Fleming, Desmond Bagley, Geoffrey Household, Berkeley Mather, Francis Clifford, P. M. Hubbard, Alan Williams, Brian Callison, Duncan Kyle, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, John Gardner, Elleston Trevor/Adam Hall, John le Carre, James Mayo, Desmond Cory, Simon Harvester and William Haggard. The one non-British name was Geoffrey Jenkins, the South African.

 My personal library then, was very much a 'boy's own' collection of tales of spies, double-agents, soldiers and adventurers, usually operating in exotic locations or unusual settings: on ships, in nuclear submarines, in the Arctic (or Antarctic), up the Andes or in the Namibian desert, fighting not only the bad guys but often the elements themselves. Many had plots with themes which harked back to the Second World War if not an actual wartime setting (such as Where Eagles Dare) and very few, if any, were written by women. To be honest, I can only remember Helen MacInnes as the token female from those fondly-remembered, and oddly innocent, days.

Of course, things have changed, not the least being the American take-over of the thriller genre, something I personally date from my own discovery of Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, Brian Garfield, Charles McCarry and Robert Littell around the mid-1970s.

the-terrible-door.jpgYet those low-tech action thrillers from my youth still retained a fond place in my memory, even if many of the actual well-thumbed paperback copies have long since disappeared from my bookshelves to be replaced with more modern fare. The niggling at the back of my mind, though, has always been that much of the more modern fare, whilst exciting enough and now definitely high tech, is somehow perhaps not so well written as thrillers of the old school, sacrificing character and distinctive narrative style to the demands of ever-more convoluted plotting and breakneck pace.

Where had those writers gone? The ones who created un-heroic characters forced to do heroic things, like Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley, or the ones who could summon up huge amounts of suspense and menace from the seemingly peaceful English countryside, like Geoffrey Household or P.M. Hubbard, or the ones who could create a new type of hero in the crowded world of spy fiction - be it a wise-cracking class warrior of Len Deighton or the compulsive perfectionist lone wolf like Quiller, from Adam Hall?

Was I just indulging a shaky memory with the aid of some rose-tinted spectacles by even daring to imagine such as Golden Age of thriller writing had even existed? I knew that not every British thriller from that period glittered with gold, for Golden Ages tend to produce just as much dross (if not more) than they do pure nuggets. But surely, I felt, there were thriller writers from that era who did not deserve to be forgotten.

In July 2009, I discovered I was not alone. I was having lunch with Lee Child on one of his too-rare visits to London and it was Lee who sparked things off  by mentioning how appalled he was to have found that many of the thrillers of one of his personal heroes - and surely a talismanic name in thriller-writing - Alistair Maclean, were no longer in print in the UK. I could do nothing but share Lee's anger and frustration, reeling off a list of my favourite writers who had been disgracefully discarded, some of which had not been in print in Britain for over 30 years.

Then less than a week later, in one of those unlikely plot-twists which only real life can throw up, I was given the chance to test my theories - or dispel my memories - when I was asked by Ostara Publishing, a new Print-On-Demand publishing outfit, if I fancied creating an imprint of British thriller reissues and did I by any chance know of some writers who didn't deserve to be forgotten?

night-of-glass.jpgI could hardly resist - and did not, immediately starting to track down authors, agents, publishers, widows, sons and daughters as well as embarking on a crash course of re-reading old favourites and searching out spare copies which could be scanned and computerised into Print-on-Demand format.

Initially the project went under the working title of "True Brit" but that was soon replaced following the suggestion of Richard Reynolds of Heffer's in Cambridge (one of the leading sellers of crime fiction in the UK), who came up with "Top Notch Thrillers". As Richard had seen exactly that phrase used by me when I reviewed an Ian Rankin title some years ago, I could hardly argue that it was anything except very apt.

I very quickly identified a "wish list" of authors whose writing styles were, I thought, distinctive and atmospheric or who had invented particular characters or ingenious plots and then it became a question of selecting individual titles. Unlike other attempts at Print-On-Demand (in the UK), Top Notch Thrillers had no intention of buying up entire backlists of an author and simply hoping for the best. The Top Notch philosophy would be to try and show the range and diversity of writing and plotting in British thrillers of the past by publishing in groups of four titles by different authors.

The first job was to find those authors, or the inheritors or guardians of their literary estates. One publisher admitted, rather shame-faced, that they had not heard of one of their authors for 29 years, adding 'it's frighteningly easy to lose track of good writers' and one agent demanded a huge advance for a title which had been out-of-print for 30 years by an author who had been dead for 20 years.

But where we could actually talk to people who knew the books or the authors, things were different. The first title to be signed up was The Terrible Door by the late George Sims, a long-time favourite of mine for its quirky style and wonderfully conjured atmosphere of a seedy London on the eve of the "Swing Sixties". Sims, a well-known antiquarian bookseller and who was to be elected to the famous Detection Club, died in 1999 but his widow Beryl (to whom the book is dedicated) was very much alive and delighted to see George's debut thriller back in print.

a-clear-road-to-archangel.jpgI found Geoffrey Rose, now 77, living in happy retirement on England's south coast. A professional actor for forty years, Geoffrey wrote only three thrillers in the early '70s but in a unique, almost surreal style the like of which I have never come across before or since. He was willing to let us republish his 1917 Russian Revolution chase thriller A Clear Road to Archangel on condition that we incorporated an illustration done by his artist wife Jacqueline back in 1973 but never used by the original publisher. (We did.)

Alan Williams, now 74, a former foreign correspondent and bestselling spy writer (with a fund of stories about other spy writers!), was more than enthusiastic to see one of his early "treasure hunt" thrillers, Snake Water set in South America, back in print. So enthusiastic in fact that in a case of 'the world turned upside down' he became possibly the only author to take his publisher out to lunch!

Our fourth author was someone I knew already, Philip Purser - the husband of mystery writer Ann. Best known as a distinguished television critic (and authority on the history of the medium), Philip's 1968 thriller Night of Glass, set in 1938 with war clouds looming over Europe, is an overlooked gem and was, in my opinion, long overdue for reissue.

And so Top Notch Thrillers had the first four titles - all distinctively different in style, plot and pacing - in its showcase and by November, less than four months after the idea was first mooted, they were launched, thanks to the internet, on an unsuspecting world.

The next four TNT titles are now lined up for February. There will be another Alan Williams title, his heist thriller with the Vietnam War backdrop, The Tale of the Lazy Dog; Francis Clifford's deceptively gentle suspense thriller set in Franco's Spain, Time Is An Ambush; Adam Hall's second 'Quiller' thriller The Ninth Directive; and Brian Callison's famous wartime thriller A Flock of Ships, described when it first appeared as "The best war story I have ever read" by no less than Alistair Maclean.

If the second wave of TNT titles are received as well as the first, then more will follow in the summer of 2010, proving - I hope - that good thriller writing doesn't die, it just gets forgotten for a while.


Mike Ripley is the author of 15 comic thrillers in the 'Angel' series (www.thatangellook.co.uk) which have twice won the Last Laugh Award from the British Crime Writers' Association. For 20 years he was the crime fiction reviewer for the newspapers the Daily Telegraph and the Birmingham Post and now writes the monthly Getting Away With Murder column on www.shotsmag.co.uk. He also teaches a course in Creative Crime Writing for Cambridge University.


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