You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can often tell quite a lot about it by its title. And that, happily, is the case with the remarkable volume that you hold in your hands.
I first read about The Fangs of Suet Pudding in Russell Lake and Brian Ash’s marvellous compendium of literary oddities, Bizarre Books (1985). Lake and Ash are book dealers who had been collecting weird, and weirdly titled, books for years, and this book brought together the best of them – Scouts in Bondage, Fish Who Answer the Telephone and The Romance of Leprosy, to name just a few. Since the late nineties, some of the books featured in it have been displayed in the window of Ash’s shop, Jarndyce, in London. Situated across the road from the British Museum, Jarndyce specialises in nineteenth century literature, and walking into the shop, with its wood panelling and tall shelves stocked with elegant, leather-bound volumes, is a bit like travelling back in time. Whenever I am in London, I always spend a few minutes marvelling at the window display, and the book in there I most longed to own was The Fangs of Suet Pudding. After all, the humour in most of these books does not go much beyond the title (I mean, I have never read Scouts in Bondage, and for all I know it’s a laugh riot from beginning to end, but somehow I suspect it’s not). The Fangs of Suet Pudding, on the other hand, promised to be a genuinely strange reading experience. Certainly the brief passage from it quoted in Bizarre Books suggested as much.
When the internet came along and booksellers went online, one of the first titles I searched for was Suet Pudding, but as I soon discovered, it is now a very scarce item. (The copy in the window of Jarndyce, by the way, disappeared some time ago, presumably into the hands of a collector who made an offer too good to refuse.) Finally, after years of searching, I located a copy—in South Africa! I read it as soon as it arrived, eager to find out if it would fulfill the promise of its title.
Oh, it did.
The Fangs of Suet Pudding was first published by Gerald G. Swan in London in 1944. That first edition is a small hardback produced to war economy standard with cheap paper and tiny print, but with a striking and colourful dustjacket by Douglas Lovern-West depicting the pallid face of the villainous Suet Pudding, a fleet of German bombers, and the chateau in France where some of the book’s action takes place.
Gerald Swan was an enterprising fellow who began his career as a bookseller in the early thirties specialising in American comics and children’s papers. He started his publishing company in 1938 and, in a stroke of genius, printed a great quantity of material in its first year of operation which he stored in three London warehouses. When war broke out and other publishers faced chronic paper shortages, Swan slowly released this material onto the market. Over the next few years he issued a stream of books and magazines, mainly in the crime, science fiction, western and romance genres, as well as comics, children’s annuals and the like, and his cheap and cheerful productions must have brightened the lives of many during the war. His most prolific author was William J. Elliott, who specialised in American-style crime novels with titles like Freak Racket and Snatched Dame, along with a series about a charming British vigilante named Silk. Swan treated his authors squarely, paying promptly on delivery of a manuscript, and while most of his output is not known for its literary qualities, to say the least, he did publish more than a few unusual and interesting items, including some of the early works of thriller writer Elleston Trevor, and the first historical novel by Jean Plaidy. But I doubt that anything else he published comes close to The Fangs of Suet Pudding.
Adams Farr’s book contains all the elements that might be expected in a thriller—a ruggedly handsome and resourceful hero (or two), an impossibly evil villain, car chases, shoot-outs, false identities, an underground lair, a torture chamber, plenty of narrow escapes and a mad scientist who has invented the most powerful bomb in the world – but it is the way that these elements are juggled together which makes it unique. From the moment that the book’s narrator, Loreley Vance, wakes one morning during a storm to find a stranger lurking outside her bedroom window, the narrative unfolds in a way that is anything but formulaic or predictable. While the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of France is dramatic and deftly drawn, and the book does have its moments of seriousness, its overall tone is more like a screwball comedy with surreal touches.
And towering above it all is the figure of Suet Pudding himself, Carl Vipoering, that violet-scented “jelloid Nazi”, that “expert in blood and terror”, that “apostle of savage intrigue”. He’s a remarkable creation, more hallucination than human being.
A distorted vision of Suet Pudding rose like a grey balloon in front of my eyes. Balloon-fashion, he seemed to stir the atmosphere around me – sluggishly, like a pond in which mud is busy settling.
Wartime and the imperatives of propaganda invite a writer to caricature the enemy, of course, but it seems to me that passages like this go beyond caricature, creating a palpable vision of evil which is genuinely compelling.
As this suggests, while The Fangs of Suet Pudding’s innumerable oddities of plotting and characterisation would be enough to make it notable, what makes it work as a book—and as a thriller—is the wonderfully engaging voice of its narrator, who combines a certain wide-eyed innocence with plenty of that quality the British used to call ‘pluck’, and constantly surprises with her unusual turns of phrase. On seeing the body of a man stabbed to death, she declares how sickened she is at seeing “all that surplus blood out of so small a body”. Describing the chaos as the Germans invade France, she notes that “On the roads north, panic-rotted people were strangling everything.” Loreley’s way with a sentence may be a trifle odd but it is often very effective, and her enthusiasm for the wild adventure she finds herself in (“My world was widening rapidly.”), mixed with occasional bouts of terror, inevitably draw the reader along with her.
Loreley’s voice rings so true that I am sure that The Fangs of Suet Pudding was written by a woman. And this brings us to the central mystery surrounding the book—who was Adams Farr? Suet Pudding is the only book published under this name, by Swan or anyone else, but it’s such an assured—if somewhat crazed—performance that I find it hard to believe it could have been the author’s only work. Some have speculated that it was written by one of Swan’s regular authors under a pseudonym, and I suppose that there is an outside possibility it was an experiment by one of his romance authors, for it plays with the conventions of that genre as it does with those of the thriller. It also seems likely that the author spent time living in France, for the background detail seems natural and unforced. But all of this is just speculation. (Needless to say, if anyone reading this has any information about Adams Farr, I’d love to hear from you.)
Anyway, enough speculation. It’s time to go to France. It’s 1942, the Germans are invading, and there are games of snakes-and-ladders to play!
[Thanks to Gerald G. Swan enthusiast Andrew Parry for providing information about the publisher.]
 Swan continued to publish at a giddy pace until 1960. For more information about him see The Mushroom Jungle: a History of Postwar Paperback Publishing by Steve Holland (Zeon, 1993).
 For those who may not be familiar with it, suet pudding is a quintessentially English dish, usually a dessert, the chief ingredient of which is suet, the hard fat around the kidneys and loins of cattle or sheep. Mmm!