There's a surprising lack of new British comedy in fiction these days. There was a time when bookshop shelves groaned under the weight of rib-ticklers by Michael Frayn, Richard Gordon, Stella Gibbons, E F Benson ... but now, not so much. Or so it seems to me anyway. Mind you, finding a good bookshop isn't so easy either.
There's still a lot of good comedy writing around. However, it seems to me to have been pushed away from the mainstream into particular genres of books. There's a lot of humour in children's and young adults' books, for example. And there are a lot of very funny writers, such as Helen Fielding, Jenny Colgan, Wendy Holden, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella etc., who produce work for the female reader market. Comedy has also flourished in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, boasting such superstars as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Jasper fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin et al.
But when it comes to generalist mainstream comedy, I see little. Yes, there are authors like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Nick Hornby who write great books that have a comic edge to them. But they are few and far between.Where are the new John Mortimers and Tom Sharpes? Who is taking up the mantle of David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser and Stella Gibbons?
A couple of years ago the Daily Telegraph ran a list of the 15 best comedy books of all time (here). It's interesting to note that the most recent book in their list was 20 years old (1996's Bridget Jones' Diary).
I used to look forward to every new Reggie Perrin or Wilt or Flashman book in eager anticipation. But, with so many of the great humorists behind such books now sadly gone, I find myself struggling to find the next novel that will have me tittering out loud on the train. That's part of the reason why I decided to write A Murder To Die For and the other novels that will (hopefully) follow it; to add a much-needed smile to that commute to work when all around are reading doom and gloom in their newspapers. It's not arrogance on my part or a desire to join the hallowed ranks of my favourite comedy novelists that prompted me. It's simply the hope that I can make people laugh in the same way that the authors listed below made me laugh.
So, here is my personal - and it can only be personal - Top 5 British comedy novels. I've deliberately excluded sci-fi and fantasy here or the list would have read: Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams ... I can go back to his books time and time again and always find something new to chuckle at.
The photos are of my own beaten, bashed and well-thumbed copies.
5 - Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome
I must have read this book 20 times. It's one of only two books that I am not ashamed to admit that I've paid quite a lot for in order to own a first edition (the other being One-Upmanship by Stephen Potter, the 1952 book that inspired the Ealing comedy School for Scoundrels). Jerome's classic tale of idle chaps (and a dog) taking a short holiday on the Thames for their health will always make me smile. The humour is surprisingly modern and it really is hard sometimes to remember that this is a book from 1889. There are so many wonderful comic set pieces and it's a book that everyone should read at least once. Or, if you fancy an audio experience instead, search out either the audiobook, or the Olivier Award nominated one man show, both by Jeremy Nicholas. I don't think his interpretation can be beaten.
4 - The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
MacDonald Fraser is best known for his Flashman books, of course, in which he takes up the story of Rugby School's most notorious bully. I love them all but The Pyrates is a stand-alone gem. Long before Pirates of the Caribbean came along, MacDonald Fraser had already brilliantly lampooned the genre. He introduces us to the ridiculously square-jawed and handsome hero Long Ben Avery and his quest to gather all of the pieces of the Madagascar Crown and to win the heart of fair Lady Vanity. Along the way we meet the psychotic Firebeard, canny Calico Jack Rackham and the Gucci booted and impossibly buxom Black Sheba. He creates a fantasy alternative universe in which pirates listen to Tortuga FM and have union meetings, and where a buccaneer can't end a sentence without adding 'wi' a curse!' It's a joyous read from bow to stern and it wonderfully pays tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a hundred stories from the Boy's Own Paper.
3 - The Molesworth Saga by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
Chiz! Chiz! Why isn't Molesworth at the topp at Number 1? To be honest, all of my Top 5 are so beloved that, frankly, you could shuffle them and I'd still be happy. The four Molesworth books, illustrated energetically by the late great Ronald Searle, never stop being funny. If you've never heard of St Custard's School, think of it as the boys' equivalent of St Trinians (also a Searle creation). And even though many anachronisms of the English public school system may have gone (although many haven't) we can still revel in the childhood adventures of Molesworth, Molesworth 2, Peason, Grabber, Fotherington-Thomas and the masters. It's also worth seeking out Simon Brett's very funny tribute, Molesworth Rites Again, in which we catch up with the little rascal as an adult. Great British comedy classics all, as any fule kno.
2 - Hot Water by P G Wodehouse
How do you pick a favourite P G Wodehouse novel? He wrote 71 of them. Plus there were plays, short stories and lots more. Should I pick a story about Blandings Castle? Or Jeeves and Wooster? Or Ukridge? Or Psmith? In the end I went for the one that made me laugh the most on first reading (they've all made me laugh). Hot Water doesn't feature any of Wodehouse's more famous characters. It centres instead on one Packy Franklyn, a millionaire ex-American footballer, engaged to Lady Beatrice Bracken and staying in England. A chance meeting with a publicly booze-free Senator leads to all hell breaking loose when a letter written by the Senator to his personal bootlegger is used as a tool for blackmail. As always it's farce of the first water with incompetent safe-blowers, idiot ambassadors, confused identities and, always, Wodehouse's trademark eye for the perfect metaphor. Set in France at the seaside resort of Château Blissac, this was a book written in 1932 at the height of Plum's powers. And it shows.
1 - The Throwback by Tom Sharpe
I first encountered Tom Sharpe when I was a young police officer in the early 1980s. I was sitting on a police riot coach during the Brixton Uprising; we were often held on such coaches for hours on end as we waited to be deployed to tackle pockets of disorder. A colleague had finished reading his copy of Blott on the Landscape and offered it to me and I loved it immediately. It was savage. It was clever. It was hilarious. I laughed from start to finish. And the laughter helped me to cope with what was a dangerous and stressful time. I went on to read everything that Sharpe wrote many times over. And it was almost impossible to choose a favourite as he only wrote 16 novels and he didn't ever write a bad book. In the end, it came down to a shortlist of Ancestral Vices, Vintage Stuff and the book that won, The Throwback. If I look at things objectively, I'd probably have to say that Wilt is his best book. But The Throwback just makes me laugh more. It's the tale of Lockhart Flawse, a temporarily disinherited young nobleman sent out into the world by the grandfather who raised him and challenged to find and identify his father so that he can be thrashed to within an inch of his life. Along the way, the terrifyingly unworldly Lockhart destroys the lives of many people in a variety of increasingly terrible but hilarious ways and wins the love of his life. Throughout the book you'll find dogs on LSD, human taxidermy and IRA explosions all added into the gloriously anarchic mix. I've read this book so often that I've destroyed two different editions (both with cover illustrations by the great Paul Sample). IN fact, all of my Tom Sharpe books have been read so often that I recently treated myself to a new complete set of books and the e-books because they don't wear out. The saddest thing about them is knowing that there will be no more.
Naturally, there were plenty of also-rans that might have made this list ... 1066 and All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W E Bowman, Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, W G Grace's Last Case by Willie Rushton, Nice Work by David Lodge, The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh, The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, The Better World of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs, Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates, Towards the end of the Morning by Michael Frayn, Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Puckoon by Spike Milligan ... to name just a few.
There's no right or wrong to 'Best of' lists of course. Like art, taste in comedy is subjective. But I do advise you to read all of the books I've mentioned. They're all quite brilliant in their different ways.
And I hope that I can convince you to pledge a small amount of cash towards A Murder To Die For, my own humble attempt at writing a mainstream farce. I'm crowdfunding the book through the innovative publishing company Unbound and I'm 79% of the way there already so there isn't far to go!
And do tell me ... what would be in your Top 5?