Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Splendid Diversity of Brian Moore

It isn't often that I feel envious of my brother in law — he is, after all, married to my sister.

However, there was certainly one occasion when I felt the unworthy stirrings of envy. It was when he attended a reception at Bloomsbury the publishers, where he was then employed, in honour of one of their star authors.

And he sipped champagne with Brian Moore.

Brian (pronounced 'Bree-ann' if you want to be a show-off) Moore was one of the finest novelists of the 20th century (he died in 1999; if he'd hung on a few more years he would also have been one of the finest novelists of the 21st century). He was an Irishman from Belfast who became a Canadian citizen after the Second World War.

One of the most striking things about Moore's work was the diversity of his output. He wrote mainstream 'literary' novels and explorations of character and relationships (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne — parodied in the title of this post — and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes are good examples). 

But he also wrote Fergus, an amiable, amusing ghost story; Black Robe and The Magician's Wife, historical novels; Cold Heaven, what I would call a tale of the supernatural but which most people would discuss in terms of Catholicism and miracles; The Great Victorian Collection, a Borgesian fantasy; Catholics, a science fiction novel (though its publishers would never have referred to it as such a thing) and a number of thrillers — one of which, Lies of Silence, provided the impulse for this posting.

Lies of Silence deals with a hotel manager in Belfast who falls foul of the IRA, although that doesn't begin to do justice to the richness of Moore's characterisations, the vividness of his writing, the utterly clear and compelling plotting or the incredible level of suspense he manages to generate. 

The book sustains a sick feeling of tension and dread which keeps you turning pages and hoping against hope that everything will turn out all right at the end for his protagonists.

It's not surprising that Moore was such an accomplished writer of suspense (though he was equally good at just about any kind of writing). He was no stranger to thrillers. Before he launched his illustrious highbrow literary career with Judith Hearne (aka The Lonely Passion of...) in 1955, he wrote seven pulp crime novels, most of them under pseudonyms. The earliest ones were published by the dodgy Canadian firm Harlequin, before they became fixated on producing romance novels. The dodginess of Harlequin is evidenced by the fact that they didn't even manage to put Moore's name on the cover of his first book Wreath for a Redhead ("Montreal Means Murder!").
Although Moore later disowned them, these books have a surprisingly high reputation and the 'pulp' label is probably unfair. Certainly the snooty and dismissive treatment they get by the literary establishment is unacceptable, uncalled for, and often unintentionally hilarious — in an otherwise carefully researched biography of Moore, Patricia Craig deals with these books so carelessly and cavalierly that she refers to Knox Burger, the renowned editor at Gold Medal books and a legendary figure in the field, as 'Mr Knoxburger'.
Moore's pulp thrillers are now expensive and sought after collector's items. I was lucky enough to recently obtain a copy of Murder in Majorca and I will report on that soon — if I can bring myself to turn those rare and delicate pages...

In the meantime, you could try Lies of Silence or Moore's The Statement, which I think is an even better thriller. Or if you'd like to dip into his mainstream fiction I'd recommend The Doctor's Wife, The Mangan Inheritance or the delightful, light hearted Temptation of Eileen Hughes.

Wonderful books, all of them.

(Image credits: the early 'pulp' covers are all from a really tremendous blog by Brian Busby called The Dusty Bookcase and you can find his various postings at: The Executioners. French for Murder. A Bullet for My Lady. This Gun for Gloria. Wreath for a Redhead. The Patricia Craig biography cover is from a German blog called Lesefieber. The minimalist Vintage Lies of Silence cover is from Love Reading. The Bloomsbury cover for Lies of Silence is from Middlemiss’s Booker Prize website — shamefully, Moore never won a Booker despite being repeatedly nominated.)

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