Monday 19 February 2018

Voices from beyond the grave - authors whose legacies live on through posthumous publishing

Myles McWeeney looks at the Michael Crichton's rip-roaring new book, the third published since his death, and charts other authors whose legacies live on through posthumous publishing

Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton
Love Like Blood by Mark Billingham
Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
Exile by James Swallow
Ian Fleming

Michael Crichton was one of the giants of the American entertainment industry. A successful, Harvard-trained medical doctor, he wrote 18 books, 15 of which became the basis of exciting movies, developed a hit TV series and became a successful film director.

He is one of the bestselling authors of all time - 200 million books sold to date - and, at the height of his powers in the mid-1990s, was said to be earning $100m a year. In 1995, his book The Lost World was the world's bestseller, the film Congo, which he adapted from his own book and directed himself, was the biggest-grossing film of the year, and his TV series ER was the most popular television show in the world. His Jurassic Park franchise alone is said to be worth $3.5bn (€3.1bn).

Crichton's latest thriller, Dragon Teeth, is set in the last quarter of the 19th century, in 1875, when the West really was wild and at the height of the bloody Indian wars. Two of the main protagonists in the book are the real-life fossil hunters Othniel Charles Marsh and his nemesis Edwin Drinker Cope, fierce rivals who hated each other and who pillaged the Wild West for dinosaur fossils at a time when most white Americans believed the earth had been created just 5,000 years before. The third main character is the entirely fictional William Johnson, a privileged and spoiled Yale student, who joins Marsh on an expedition - and when abandoned by the palaeontologist in Cheyenne, must learn to become a man if he is to survive in the lawless, violent territories.

It is a rip-roaring adventure laced with fascinating scientific information and sociological observations. It is the book he was frantically trying to complete while unsuccessfully fighting cancer in 2008, and which has now been completed by his estate, and is the third book that has been wrenched from his extensive archives to be published posthumously.

Posthumous publishing is as old as literature itself. Virgil wanted his Aeneid destroyed on his death, but his wishes were ignored to the distress, I'm sure, of many reluctant Latin students. Publishers are understandably reluctant to let cash-cow authors' laurels rest on the works published during their lifetime, so, for instance, Scarlett O'Hara lived on in two sequels to Gone With the Wind, published long after Margaret Mitchell died in 1949.

The hugely successful American gothic horror writer VC Andrews, of Flowers in the Attic fame, died in 1963, but to date there have been 33 books published in her name, all written by Andrew Neiderman, who claims inspiration from notes and outlines she left.

But the record for posthumous publishing must be held by Ian Fleming's James Bond. During his lifetime, Fleming wrote 11 novels featuring 007, but since his death in 1964, more than 40 James Bond books have hit the bookshelves, many of which have been authored by well-known bestselling authors such as Kingsley Amis, William Boyd and New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Deaver.

Robert B Parker was one of America's most successful thriller writers, his 40-book series featuring private investigator Spenser and his lethal sidekick Hawk regularly topped the bestseller lists worldwide and spawned numerous movie adaptations.

Born in 1932, Parker died in 2010, and to date there have been three further Spenser books authored by Ace Atkins, himself a master of the hard-boiled noir crime genre. Interestingly, Parker himself authored a book in 1989 called Poodle Springs, featuring the Raymond Chandler's iconic PI Philip Marlowe, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Chandler's birth.

When he died of a heart attack in 2005, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson left three completed but still unpublished crime thrillers, including the massive hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, featuring the wild computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. There was also an unfinished fourth book in existence, The Girl in the Spider's Web, which fellow journalist David Lagercrantz completed with critical success. He has since authored a fifth addition to Larsson's Millennium series, The Girl who Takes an Eye for an Eye, and more sequels are planned.

While there are no pockets in a shroud, it is certainly true to say words from the grave can be profitable for all but the original voice.

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton is out now, published HarperCollins, €16.99

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