Thursday, 27 October 2011

Reading Habit’s Five Best Selling Historical Naval Fiction Authors

On a recent book purchasing spree I was lucky enough to purchase a whole stack of different nautical fiction titles to boost our online second hand bookstore catalogue. It got me thinking about how a niche genre had maintained such a fanatically dedicated reader base for over a century. The naval fiction genre is littered with writing superstars who show unusual longevity and are incredibly prolific in terms of the number of titles they have penned. With my interest peaked I set out to find an online list of the top 10 best selling naval fiction authors of all time, but came up empty. I contemplated putting together a list of my own, but thought my selections might get crucified by the die-hard fans. Let’s face it! With such a rich catalogue of authors and works to choose from, I’ve no doubt naval fiction fans could argue forever about who the top ten authors of all time are. What I can write about with authority are the authors that sell the most consistently through our online bookstore. Accordingly, this piece will shine a brief light on five of Reading Habit’s best selling naval adventure fiction authors.

Let’s start with one of the definite front runners for best nautical author, Patrick O’Brian, an English novelist who is best remembered for his 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series set in the Napoleonic wars. O’Brian was born in Buckinghamshire in 1914, the eighth of nine children. He lived a sheltered life with only sporadic education, but began writing from the age of 12. After the war, O’Brian lived a quiet life in the Wales countryside living off the small income he earned from his fledgling writing career and his work translating French texts into English. His early writings were published under his birth name, Richard Patrick Russ, before he changed his surname to O’Brian in 1945. O’Brian hit the big time in the early 1970s when the first books in the Aubrey-Maturin series were published. O’Brian’s work in this series was well researched showing an attention to detail and historical authenticity that still holds his work in high regard today. So much so, that the series was re-released in the 1990s to popular reception, and in 1995 O’Brian was awarded the inaugural Heywood Hill Literary Prize for his life work. O’Brian lived to the age of 86, passing away in Dublin in the year 2000 with a 21st instalment in the series partially finished. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his Aubrey-Maturin characters come to life on the big screen in Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe, released in 2003. Click here to view our current catalogue of Patrick O'Brian titles.

Did someone say Hornblower? Horatio Hornblower is quite possibly one of the most beloved of all naval fiction characters and we have none other than C. S. Forester (and British ITV) to thank for that. Born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith in Cairo, Egypt, in 1899, C.S. Forester was an English novelist who wrote many nautical novels, but was most noted for his 11-book Horatio Hornblower series, set once again in that golden age of sail, the Napoleonic era. Forester was writing from an early age and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his two novels A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours in 1938. Throughout his career Forester also wrote many novels of the non-nautical kind several of which were made into movies. The best known of these was The African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Forester lived most of his life in England before moving to the United States during World War II. While living in Washington he met a young Roald Dahl and is said to be the person who encouraged Dahl to write his first book. Forester died in California in 1966.  Thirty seven years later a lost Forester manuscript titled The Pursued was sold at auction. Just recently Penguin Books announced they would be publishing the book in early 2012 much to the delight of Forester fans everywhere. Click here to view our current catalogue of C S Forester titles.

Given that Dudley Pope was inspired by the works of C S Forester and has often been compared to Patrick O’Brian, it seems fitting that he is next on the list. Pope was born in Kent in 1925 and though he wrote many history texts, he was most famous for his nautical series featuring Lord Ramage as the central hero. Like many naval writers, Pope gained first-hand knowledge of his genre when he faked his age to join the Home Guard at 14 then joined the merchant navy at age 16. After just one year at sea, Pope’s ship was torpedoed in 1942 and he was lucky to come away with his life, spending two weeks in a lifeboat with a small group of other survivors. On being rescued he was discharged and went to work in newspapers as a naval correspondent. Writing naval history was his first love and he published his first title, Flag 4, in 1954. He tired away at this subject for almost 20 years before moving into nautical fiction after some encouragement from his mentor, C S Forester. And so it was that in 1965 the world was introduced to Pope’s first instalment in the 18-novel series featuring Lord Ramage, aptly titled Ramage. Pope spent most of his later life living onboard vessels where he did most of his writing. He was taken from us in April 1997, but has left an incredible legacy of both fiction and non-fiction titles. Click here to view our current catalogue of Dudley Pope titles.

On the home front, J. E. MacDonnell flies the flag as Australia’s most prolific and best loved novelist of the sea. As a boy, MacDonnell dreamed of becoming a seafarer and entered the Royal Australian Navy at age 17 where he spent 14 years. MacDonnell began writing in 1942 whilst still on active service and his first novel, Fleet Destroyer, was published in 1945 by The Book Depot. MacDonnell was also a staff member for The Bulletin between 1948 and 1956 for whom he wrote short stories. In 1956, MacDonnell began writing for Horwitz full-time and often churned out upwards of 10 novels a year. In total, MacDonnell wrote over 200 novels in at least 7 different series under various pen names. His most popular fictional characters were Captain ‘’Dutchy” Holland, Captain Peter Bentley, Captain Bruce Sainsbury, and Jim Brady. The Horwitz Naval series is what MacDonnell was most famous for but he also dabbled in the crime, medical, juvenile and espionage genres as well. MacDonnell passed away in Queensland in 2002, aged 84. Click here to view our current catalogue of J E MacDonnell titles.

Until I began trading in used books I’d never heard of Douglas Reeman, nor had I heard of Alexander Kent. I’m a little ashamed to say that even after becoming familiar with their work it took me quite a while to discover they were both one in the same. Douglas Reeman is another of those British naval authors. Born in 1924 he joined the Royal Navy at just 16, serving in both World War II and the Korean War. Not surprisingly, Reeman drew on his first-hand naval experience to write historical nautical fiction set mainly in World War II and the Napoleonic era. Reeman’s debut novel A Prayer for the Ship was published in 1958, but it is Reeman’s Napoleonic series featuring the central character of Richard Bolitho, written under the pseudonym of Alexander Kent, that is his most popular. It is interesting to note that the pen name of Alexander Kent was actually the name of Reeman’s fellow naval officer and friend who was killed in World War II. There are currently 30 novels in the Bolitho series including the most recent published in 2011, In the King’s Name. With Reeman still writing novels at age 87, Bolitho fans will be sated for some time to come. Click here to view our current catalogue of Douglas Reeman titles. Click here to view our current catalogue of Alexander Kent titles.

There are, of course, many other historical naval fiction authors, both past and present, that could have been included, but these five represent the bulk of purchases our customers make within the genre. There are also many popular authors who I haven’t touched on, like Tom Clancy and Patrick Robinson, who straddle many different genres. Suffice to say, the naval fiction genre is in a healthy state.

If you are interested in browsing through our online catalogues of second hand naval fiction books just click through here to our bookstore search page and look under Action/Adventure Fiction.


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  2. I came across your post while preparing the introduction for the Nautical Fiction Author's Forum at the Historical Novel Society Convention in London, England; Sept. 28-30, 2012.

    I write historical nautical fiction with a female protagonist and my historical interest is women on ships in the age of sail. Barbados Bound and Surgeon's Mate; book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series are based on my first historical novel Star-Crossed (Knopf; 2006)which the New York Public Library chose to be among the Books for the Teen Age -- 2007.

    Thanks for posting about the Nautical Historical fiction genre.

  3. I've read all except MacDonnell (the period is too recent). While I certainly enjoyed O'Brian, Kent's Bolitho series has become a bit too formulaic. I would highly recommend David Donachie's John Pearce and everyone's bad boy, Alan Lewerie by Dewey Lambdin. From a U.S. perspective the fiction works by James Nelson are outstanding and only exceeded by his non-fiction.

    1. Read them all, as you mentioned... Dudley Pope (Ramage series is quite good) but after spending years reading Naval adventures, Dewey Lambdin's " Alan Lewrie" series is the most entertaining and provocative" out there by far ! One of those, Can't wait to see what happens next series...


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