Monday, 21 July 2008

Pamela Branch: A Great Unknown

Pamela Branch was a British crime novelist in the '40s and '50s, and she was great. She produced four comic crime novels, then died of cancer at the age of 47, to be forgotten by most readers. This is in itself a crime, as she was brilliant.

The best way I can think of to describe her style is that it seems like Patrick Hamilton spiced with Patricia Highsmith and P. G. Wodehouse. One of the few online pieces about her describes her work as 'zany', which is entirely wrong. The books are funny, and the plots are, on reflection, unlikely, but while you read them you're entirely absorbed into the world she describes. It's Austerity Britain, a perfectly captured London of unrepaired bombsites, watery post-war beer, rented bed-sitting-rooms, ration books, bolshy charladies, shared bathrooms and grotty pubs.

Her first novel was The Wooden Overcoat. It features an exclusive club which, to qualify for membership, requires you to have been tried for, and acquitted of, murder. It's great. Even better is Branch's second, The Lion in the Cellar. Any attempt to describe the plot will fail to do it justice. Instead, read this page, chosen pretty much at random. If this doesn't get your interest, then sadly this book is not for you. It's about Senator, a horse belonging to Mr Scales the undertaker. (Click for a bigger, more easily read version.)



Here are my Penguin editions of these two books. The Wooden Overcoat features a Romek Marber cover. I haven't included images of my copies of her other two novels (Murder Every Monday and Murder's Little Sister) as I only have jacketless old hardcovers.



The two later books, while very good indeed, are a little disappointing after the heights of the first two. I wonder what the novel she was working on when she died, and of which no trace has been found, would have been like.

I've tried unsuccessfully to lobby variouys publishers into bringing Branch back into print. I thought I was getting somewhere with Persephone Books, but no luck. However, I find that the small Rue Morgue Press in the US has republished all four, with unfortunately zany Tom Sharpe-ish covers.



Here are the original hardback covers for Lion and Sister, as published by Robert Hale.




And here are a few of the occasional Wooden Overcoat reissues, one from Penguin in the 1990s and one from Arthur Baker in 1974, along with a French version, mysteriously retitled something along the lines of 'Did I Go Down Well?'. (UPDATE: Commenter Lunerousse kindly informs me that 'L'ai-je bien descendu? translates as "Did I definitely kill him?". Those uses of the words "bien" and "descendu" are tricky idioms.' Thanks! That makes a lot more sense than my translation.)





Anyway: Pamela Branch. You need to read her.

5 comments:

Martin Edwards said...

I agree that The Wooden Overcoat is a lot of fun. I think I'm right in saying, from memory, that the Rue Morgue editions contain quite a bit of biographical info about the author

JRSM said...

Yes, their site had a lot of information about her that I did not know.

Martin Edwards, by the way, is a crime writer of some repute: see http://www.martinedwardsbooks.com/

Lunerousse said...

Thanks for enlightening me about Pamela Branch. I ordered a copy of Wooden Overcoat specially for a customer in my bookshop but didn't give it a second glance precisely because of the wacky cover. I loved the page about the horse though and will definitely seek her out again. By the way, L'ai-je bien descendu? translates as "Did I definitely kill him?". Those uses of the words "bien" and "descendu" are tricky idioms.

John Self said...

"The best way I can think of to describe her style is that it seems like Patrick Hamilton spiced with Patricia Highsmith and P. G. Wodehouse."

Hey, you're just trying to hit my hot buttons now, aren't you?

JRSM said...

Lunerousse, John: you're in for a treat! And thanks for that info on the French title. I'll fix up the post accordingly.