With this debut collection of witty and irreverent short stories about life in the ranks, most of them previously published in popular magazines, Maclaren-Ross cemented his place as the rising star of wartime British fiction. The tone of these stories ranges from bar-room banter to cool reportage, yet they’re all pervaded by his unmistakable voice, its mordant cynicism offset by a smirking relish for human absurdity.
‘Along with Waugh’s trilogy, [his stories are] the best and most accurate rendering of the military existence of the day we possess.’
‘He presents the military-medical bureaucracy as something out of Kafka rewritten by the Marx brothers.’
His second collection of autobiographical stories comprises work from the mid-Forties right back to the mid-Thirties. These depict everything from his boozy adventures in Soho to poignant episodes from his childhood.
Better than a Kick in the Pants features ‘sharp descriptive writing, accurate dialogue, nicely paced development, and a keen sense of the absurd.’
Despite its title, the settings for his next collection weren’t restricted to the seedy Soho haunts with which he was so familiar. The book also featured pieces such as The Swag, the Spy and the Soldier, his justly celebrated black comedy about a former fairground-worker facing a court
Drawing on memories of his raffish life on the Riviera, Bitten By The Tarantula was written as a distraction from the mundane realities of army routine. It follows a pair of young friends who, anxious to escape from the midsummer heat, spend the summer staying in a remote mountainside guest-house, run by a sinister drug-addict. Courtesy of its escapist and, by the standards of the day, risqué subject matter, it scored the first commercial success for its publisher, André Deutsch.
‘A high-spirited and rather naughty little affair… highly diverting.’
The Sunday Times
His exploits as a door-to-door salesman during the depths of the Depression provided the basis for this brilliant, tragi-comic romance. Told in a slangy, conversational style, allied to cinematic story-telling, it’s a landmark novel whose pervasive influence remains unacknowledged.
‘Funny, unsentimental and narrated in a laconic, demotic prose, Of Love and Hunger is one of the most evocative works of the Depression.’
‘I regard [it] as one of the few modern novels at the top of the first-class.’
Keen to extend his literary range, he turned his attention from autobiographical fiction to straightforward autobiography. In portraying his unconventional childhood, he created a book that deserves to be recognised as one of the classics of the genre, its tender lyricism and gentle humour distinguishing it from his previous work.
‘An exceptionally civilised and amusing book.’
To generate the cash necessary to bankroll his profligate way of life, Maclaren-Ross assembled this entertaining collection of essays, parodies and stories, mainly culled from his work for Punch. His deft send-up of H.E. Bates’s writing led to the aggrieved Bates initiating a High Court libel action against him.
‘In The Funny Bone, Mr Julian Maclaren-Ross, that amiable agent provocateur of literary London, tries out some of his cleverest disguise. His parody of, for example, Elizabeth Bowen, is so good that one wonders what would happen if he wrote a complete novel in her idiom. Would the effort involved take the edge off his mimickry, or is he already the Van Meegren of letters, churning out masterpieces to order?’
The Sunday Times
As a long-standing addict of crime novels, it was inevitable that he should eventually try his hand at writing one. The result was this psychological thriller inspired by his own murderous erotic fixation with George Orwell’s widow.
‘If Mr Alfred Hitchcock were ever to turn his attention to the sinister possibilities of North Oxford, we might see something like a film version of Until the Day She Dies.’
The Times Literary Supplement
In common with its predecessor, The Doomsday Book was little more than a novelisation of one of his popular radio serials. This time the Maclaren-Ross figure at the centre.
Written in circumstances of dire poverty, his disappointing last novel was fuelled by memories of his fixation with Sonia Orwell. Its transparently autobiographical plot, set against a colourful Soho backdrop, traces his alter ego’s amorous pursuit of the beautiful widow of a famous writer.
‘A pathetically botched job, quite unworthy of the author of The Swag, the Spy and the Soldier.’
‘This synthetic story of an obsession… conveys nothing of the stylistic economy and tragic wit of the author’s earlier books.’
The Times Literary Supplement
Just when it appeared that his enormous talent had been dissipated, Maclaren-Ross completed the first third of his great, posthumously published paean to the bohemian scene that flourished in Soho during the war. It has since been accepted as the definitive evocation of the period. Not only that, but its vivid pen-portraits of his boozy pals, among them Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene, have made it a favourite source-book for biographers.
‘He wrote with an economy and a formal elegance that marvellously suited his detached attitude to whatever in his surroundings seemed odd, ridiculous or wild; down it all went in curt graphic dialogue and deadpan description. There is nothing else that more conveys the atmosphere of bohemian and fringe-literary London under the impact of war and its immediate hangover. The book is comic, nostalgic and at times even.’