April foolishness? Lost fictions

When is a post not a real post? When is a book not a book? When is a fiction a ‘real’ fiction?

One of the standout features of Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men is the prominence in the plot of the literary accomplishments of creepy suspect Paul Chapin, author of such (fictitious) works as ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’ – indeed, it is through a detailed analysis of Chapin’s work that Wolfe is be able to crack the case. This got me thinking about the long and (fairly) honourable history of fictitious novels and the allure of lost manuscripts in general. Henry James’ The Aspern Papers is certainly one of the most notable of such works but in the mystery genre it does seem to be particularly prevalent – this is in addition of course to all the works inspired by to the references in Arthur Conan Doyle  to unreported tales, such as in the case of the ‘Giant Rat of Sumatra’, most notably in the book of short stories by Doyle’s son Adrian and John Dickson Carr in the 1950s (published as The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes) and most recently the pastiches written for radio by Bert Coules as The Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes.

The likes of postmodernists Gilbert Adair and Paul Auster have their works littered with the detritus of published and unpublished fiction to create their meta works, very much in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote beguling reviews of non-existent books in his Ficciones.  In And Then There Was No One has his fictional alter ego write a story about Doyle’s unwritten ‘Rat’ story but his trilogy about writer/investigatorEvadne Mount Stories has references to many fictional works by her, including, from The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, ‘Death Be My Deadline’ and my favourite, ‘Oedipus vs. Rex’. Adair also pulled off this trick in his earlier suspense novel, A Closed Book, his protagonist, known only as Sir Paul, credited as the author of such non-existent works as ‘Sitting at the Feet of Ghosts’; and ‘The Lion of Beltraffico’.

One of the daftest plot devices, but which made for great reading in a pulpy way, was used by Irving Wallace’s bestselling potboiler The Word (1972), about a potential world revolution raised by the discovery of a new Gospel and which turns out to be an elaborate fake. It is great to think that civilsation could be brought to the brink of collapse by just a few ancient words on a papyrus, but to have it turn out to be just a fraud perpetrated by a bitter and twisted old man is wonderfully encouraging and deflating in reflecting on the power of fiction. Amongst my real favourites in the genre though I would have to plump for two instances of literary fabrication in particular: Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, which invents a whole library full of ‘lost’ and fictional books and then, as is typical of this kind of work, goes and destroys them. This is also the approach in my other personal favourite of this type of game, Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding, which centres around a search for William Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ play ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’, the sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

There’s a very long list of fictional books to be found at Wikipedia for those who are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_books

Happy April Fool’s (or as we say back home, Pesce d’Aprile).

This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, Gilbert Adair, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout. Bookmark the permalink.

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