Throughout the 1960’s Evelyn Byrne, a teacher at a New York public school, wrote well known authors and asked if they would write back with the books that had the biggest impact on them as they were in their teens. She would then print these responses in the school newspaper in hopes that it would inspire some of her students. Among the authors she wrote were a number of thriller writers such as Eric Ambler and Agatha Christie.
Ambler wrote of reading Sherlock Holmes, John Buchan, H.G. Wells, and Dostoevsky but also more obscure titles like Inorganic Chemistry, The Martyrdom of Man, The Sense of Beauty. Of his teens, Ambler says:
I didn’t like my youth much, in fact I detested it, but books made it tolerable. For me, still, a book to read makes almost any adversity tolerable.
Eventually, some of these letters were gathered by Byrne and Otto Penzler, the well known bookstore owner and editor, into a book called Attacks of Taste. The book was signed by Byrne and Penzler and only 600 copies were issued and they were signed by the two editors.
It’s a great chance to learn a bit more about the early reading habits of some of our most famous writers.
Recently some of those letters came up for sale and I was able to lay my hands on one at a rather reasonable price. Interestingly, this letter had been printed in the school paper but wasn’t included in the book, even though Byrne had asked for permission.
Geoffrey Household wrote one of the most thrilling and subversive novels to come out during the early part of World War II. Rogue Male tells the tale of a big game hunter who attempts to kill Hitler and ends up on the run. It’s also a great example of an unreliable narrator. The novel was quickly made into a movie, Man Hunt, starring Peter O’Toole and the book remains a classic thriller.
So here I present Geoffrey Household’s rarely, if ever, seen letter on his early influences.
I love how he writes so engagingly and self-deprecatingly of his age compared to Byrne’s students, he would have been 66 at the time. He also quickly paints a picture of what life was like for him growing up, effortlessly contrasting it with life of a teen in the 60’s.
It’s a neat little piece of a classic thriller author’s history.