Friday 20 December 2013, 11:53
You look in a bookshop window and there they all are, the characters who live forever on the sales charts. Currently, you’ll find it’s James Bond and Bertie Wooster.
Even the ones who are officially dead can’t be counted on to stay that way. Take Hercule Poirot. You saw him sign off on the box a few weeks ago, but that didn’t stop the Agatha Christie estate from setting up Sophie Hannah to reactivate his little grey cells in a new novel expected to come out next year.
In this weekend’s Phil the Shelf we talk to Jill Paton Walsh, who’s been continuing the career of the late Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. He’s back again in The Late Scholar, a cosy but complex mystery to see you over Boxing Day.
We also meet Felix Francis, who’s taken over the reins from his late dad Dick, probably the most successful thriller writer to come out of Wales and certainly the most widely acclaimed. Even Stephen King found much to admire in the pace and quality of the former champion jockey’s extensive output.
Keeping the family tradition alive has been an even bigger challenge for Felix, a former science teacher, because the success of all those racing thrillers was down to both his parents. It was only after her death that the importance of Mary Francis was fully revealed, with one biography even suggesting she’d done most of the actual writing.
So how convincing is Felix, who has brought back the most autobiographical of Dick’s heroes, ex-jockey Syd Halley? Are Syd and Felix natural stablemates? Find out in the programme.
I suppose what we’re really asking is if this resurrection of old heroes by new authors is any more than a damning indictment of the current lack of imagination in the popular publishing trade and its weary failure to spot the potential of new characters.
It’s not as if most of the revivals get close to the originals, James Bond being the prime example.
The first of the many post-Ian Fleming Bonds was written by the great Kingsley Amis, and even his Colonel Sun lacked some of the Fleming fizz. The most reliable of the early sequels came from the spy novelist John Gardner. Some of the others were.... well, let’s not go there.
Suffice to say that the Fleming Estate took to commissioning very big names like Sebastian Faulks (result: poor) Jeffery Deaver (too slick) and currently, William Boyd, whose Solo, while as well-written as you’d expect, lacks both atmosphere and any of those wonderful touches of the bizarre in which Fleming specialised - like having a beautiful woman die from being coated all over with pore-sealing gold paint.
And there’s something else missing, which we try to illustrate in the programme. Could it be that Fleming, despite his clunky dialogue, was a better thriller writer than any of them? Or is the spirit of Bond guarded by some West Indian voodoo curse?
Just the kind of insurance against plagiarism you can imagine Ian Fleming taking out...
Listen to Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales, Sunday 22 December from 1.30pm.