The books that never were by Quentin Bates

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Surprisingly, there’s a lot of fiction that exists only in fiction. There’s plenty out there, hidden away in novels, the fictional fiction that graces someone else’s story. It’s nothing new, and plenty of writers must have had endless enjoyment inventing the books that their characters read, refer to or even write.

Nabokov invented a whole library at one time or another, not least the books supposedly written by Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert, and Orwell came up with not only Marxism for Infants by Comrade X but also the chillingly titled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein that appears in 1984. Any idea what that title means? No, nor do I, but it tells you everything you need to know about how readable Goldstein’s fictional pseudo-Stalinist ideological tome might be.

Kurt Vonnegut had a stack of fictional books attributed to Kilgore Trout, the Harry Potter books are overflowing with fictional magical textbooks, Tolkien invented reams of ancient literature as well as entire languages to bolster his tales, AS Byatt sculpted a library of fictional material as background for Possession and Douglas Adams came up with some of the finest ever titles of imaginary books, ranging from the series by by Oolon Colluphid that includes Who Is This God Person Anyway? to the Sidereal Daily Mentioner’s Book of Popular Galactic History. All I can say is that he must have had a ball dreaming those up and I’m in awe of the man’s sheer stretch of imagination.

Crime writers aren’t immune to this, Sherlock Holmes supposedly wrote a number of scholarly works, including Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language and On the Typewriter and its Relation to Crime, while The Giant Rat of Sumatra was attributed to Dr Watson.

As well as Conan Doyle, a good few other crime and thriller writers have used the same device. Stephen King has a whole raft of fictional books dotted through his work, not least the dozen or so Misery books that are an integral part of Misery. Dorothy L Sayers invented intriguing stories ranging from The Position of Women in the Modern State by Mrs. Barton to Statistical Contributions to the Study of Infantile Paralysis in England and Wales by Sir Julian Freke and Agatha Christie attributed fictional tales to Ariadne Oliver and Salome Otterbourne.

But it’s in comic fiction that this stuff really comes into its own – and this is where we’re back with Douglas Adams and Fifty-Three More Things to do in Zero Gravity. I’d love to have a browse through The Higher Common Sense and The Pensées by the Abbé Fause-Maigre that were so important to Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, or spend an hour or two with Dropping in on Jerry: A Light-Hearted Account of the Dresden Bombings by Wing Commander “Bullseye” Fortescue mentioned in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! That cruel juxtaposition of light-hearted in the same sentence as Dresden bombings is enough to send a shiver down the spine.

And then there’s Wodehouse, always an escape from a cruel world, and while Jeeves prefers to relax with a volume of Spinoza, and the tedious works of Lady Florence Craye and Rosie M Banks are uncomfortably ubiquitous, not to mention Augustus Whiffle’s essential textbook On the Care of the Pig, Bertie Wooster is more at home with the works of Rex West; The Case of the Poisoned Doughnut, Inspector Biffen Views the Body, Murder in Mauve or The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish. It tells us much about Bertie, and it tells us plenty about how crime fiction was seen in the era Wodehouse set his stories in.

It’s difficult to not start dreaming up your own fictional titles, especially as some of us have enormous difficulty to start with in coming up with real titles. But I wonder if Blood on the Hatstand, The Beast of Barnstaple, Flash Frost, Death in the Dojo, The Stationery Store Strangler or Skewered: The Kebab Killer’s Return have already been used anywhere?

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Quentin Bates

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