Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Indispensable Julian Rathbone

The Indispensable Julian Rathbone is a very good introduction to the work of a gifted writer whose death at the age of 73 has just been announced. The book was published by The Do-Not Press (excellent name, yes?) in 2003; Do-Not was the brainchild of Jim Driver, with whom I worked on three crime anthologies a few years back. Jim is someone who really cares about both literature and music; sadly, he found that publishing crime didn’t really pay and now he focuses on music, so it’s now a case of Do-Not Publish. But while the business was running, Jim turned out some excellent books and I’d say that the Rathbone collection is as good as any of them.

The book contains not only a generous sampling of Julian Rathbone’s work, but also plenty of information about an interesting life. He came from the same family, apparently, as Basil Rathbone, arguably the greatest Sherlock Holmes of them all, was a Cambridge contemporary of Sylvia Plath, and was taught by F.R. Leavis. He was twice nominated for the Booker Prize – a unique achievement for someone generally associated with the crime/espionage genre. His debut novel Diamond Bid was well reviewed by Francis Iles, something he recalled with appreciation many years later. Iles, aka Anthony Berkeley, was a very different writer, with very different political leanings, but a critic smart enough to recognise real talent.

Rathbone’s left wing views influenced his attitudes, and certainly his work, but although he had a disdain for privilege, he avoided the trap of didacticism, and he had a flair for producing intelligent entertainment. Of the books published in his later years, A Very English Agent stands out as a highly successful novel of historical espionage.

Julian Rathbone and I briefly shared the same publisher; I met him two or three times, but only fleetingly, and although I found him charming (for some reason, I’d expected someone rather fierce) we never had a lengthy chat. And now we never will. A pity. I have little doubt he would have been a fascinating and incisive conversationalist.

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