The Books Under the Bed

Some authors write one book, maybe revise it once or twice, and then sell it.  Sometimes that book soars up the charts, and sometimes it falls into oblivion. There seems to be no predicting which. I don’t personally know anyone who claims to have sold the first book he or she wrote–at least, not without multiple and extensive rewrites.  My first manuscript resides in a closet (mainly because getting it under and out from under the bed is awkward) and is unlikely to ever see the light of day.

WatchmanHLBut the first, previously unpublished manuscript by one of my favorite authors is now in print. The release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman got me thinking about books authors put away or set aside that are later published.

I’ve read that Watchman was written before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner, the now-classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and that it presents a very different and less optimistic version of Maycomb, AlabamaI wouldn’t know because I haven’t read it.  I don’t intend to, as the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is one of my favorite characters in all of literature, as Mockingbird  is my all-time ever favorite book, and I don’t think I’d much like the version of him in Watchman.

An author has a right to do as she likes with her characters, of course, just as readers have the right to refrain from plunking down their money.  For me, the story I’ve loved since I first read it, in tenth grade, is the version I want to hold onto, so I’ve declined to read about Scout’s return to her hometown. It’s worth noting, though, that some critics have hailed the book.

9780048231390.BI.0.mAnother of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, has had a number of books released posthumously, edited by his son Christopher.  The first of these was The Silmarillion.  I’ve heard Tolkien wanted this record of Middle Earth’s history and mythology published but died before he was able to pull it all together and that his son then finished the compilation, sometimes creating new material to bridge gaps.

Subsequent releases of the author’s materials were less complete. While many readers gobbled up these versions, others decided not to.

book-piratelatitudesI suspect publishing houses are mostly interested in the posthumous works of authors who, like Tolkien, are pretty big names.  Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes would fall into this category.  According to his website, the book was finished at his death and released shortly thereafter. Of course, finished to an author and finished to someone who just looks to see if there’s a complete story are not necessarily the same things. I would be interested to know how his fans regard this book.

DragonTatAn exception to the pretty big name theory would be Stieg Larsson, who had never published any fiction before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It roared up the charts and spawned a movie with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.  Not bad for an author who was not only just coming out of the gate but also, you know, dead. The three books Larsson completed, , according to his website, are available.  It will be interesting to see what happens with the fourth one, which he had not finished.

ThrDomJPWThen there are authors who were once big names, like Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was going great guns with Lord Peter Wimsey when her interests veered in other directions.  At her death in 1957, she left an unfinished Lord Peter novel, Thrones, Dominations. It remained incomplete (metaphorically under a bed) until 1998, when award-wining mystery author Jill Paton Walsh completed it.

With this book, too, critics were divided.  Some thought it didn’t feel quite the same and so was not for them.  Others found it a great embodiment of the spirit behind the Lord Peter series.  Since there have been three sequels, at least one based on notes Sayers left, it seems the majority welcomed this new version of the beloved characters.

I loved Lord Peter and found his evolution from the shallow, if intelligent, fop of Whose Body to the sober, romantic man of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon fascinating.  The sequels weren’t for me, but I don’t mind at all that I’m in the minority.

What about you? Have you read any of authors mentioned in this post? Have any authors you enjoyed have released old, previously unpublished works (either while they were alive or posthumously)?




  • Ki says:

    Have definitely read To Kill A Mockingbird. I was surprised when I heard she was going to publish another book let alone the supposed first book she wrote. I haven’t read it so I’m not sure what to say about it other than good for her?

    But lately I have been noticing that authors are republishing their older works revised and edited, or with added scenes. I think that awesome because some older versions are out of print and will probably never be seen by new readers so it’s great to see old books comes back. As for books under the bed being published, it’s cool to see how the author’s style change as an aspiring writer to a published and well known author. I think it’s great to see how their ideas and creativity evolved too.

  • flchen1 says:

    Like you, I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, but haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. Not sure if I will… I think that when work is released posthumously, it will likely receive mixed reviews as some people will simply be excited to have more from a beloved author while others may judge even more critically.

    • Fedora, I think you’re right about the two reactions. Some people will read and automatically love anything that has a trusted author’s name on it while others approach the books more warily.

  • Minna says:

    I did read Thrones, Dominations, but I don’t think I’ll read the other new books in the series. It just wasn’t the same…

    Did you know there’s also a new Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders written by Sophie Hannah? I think I’ll skip that one. I’ve found the hard way that at least for me, these books that have been either completed by somebody other than the original author or which are completely new books based on characters created by somebody else (like Scarlett), well, it’s just not the same.

    • “It just wasn’t the same” pretty well sums up my reaction, too, Minna. I wasn’t aware of the new Poirot. Some authors I enjoyed, toward the ends of their lives, wrote “with” someone, which I took to mean, correctly or not, that the author I so loved supplied the plot and the collaborator put the words on the pages.

      It seems more likely than not in such cases that the book’s vibe will be different. It took me a long time to grasp the concept of author voice, the idea that each author’s way of putting the words together is unique. And very hard to imitate. If the imitation isn’t perfect, the vibe will feel off to longtime readers. And I think that’s what puts me off in such cases.

      It clearly doesn’t bother everyone, and that’s fine. To each her own in the world of reading. But it’s my cue to mosey on along. There are lots of new authors to discover.

  • Minna says:

    By the way, the movie with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig isn’t the first movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The first version is the Swedish movie Män som hatar kvinnor (Men who hate women).

  • EC Spurlock says:

    I had not heard that Watchman was written first. I think in some ways it was probably a more accurate depiction of the time – and that may be why it wasn’t accepted; editors may have been wary about inflaming the already unstable race relations at the time. Mockingbird was more balanced, and less likely to polarize audiences.

    My husband and I had a standing joke that the reason they titled Tolkien’s posthumous book The Unfinished Tales was because nobody could ever slog through the whole thing. Silmarillion was similarly difficult. My understanding was that those and subsequent volumes were only Tolkien’s background notes for LOTR and were never meant to be published as books in their own right, but his family wanted to capitalize on his popularity.

    I’m a big Georgette Heyer fan; she grew tired of writing frothy Regencies toward the end of her life and wanted to write serious historical fiction. The book of her heart, My Lord John, was left unfinished at her death, and published just as it was. It ends literally in the middle of a sentence. When I read it I could hear that last word echoing off into eternity. It was the kick in the pants that started me writing; I didn’t want to die with all my worlds still inside me.

    • EC, as I understand it, Watchman is a depiction of a later time, the 1950s as opposed to the 1930s of Mockingbird. You could be right about Mockingbird being more relatable. Growing up in the South, I heard people express the attitudes detailed in Watchman. I don’t want to go there for my pleasure reading. When I got out of law school, a number of people noted that I was “taking a man’s job.” Having lived through the era when that was still an acceptable thing to say, I have no desire to revisit it when reading for pleasure–ie, escape. So I don’t watch Agent Carter and one of my favorite authors will have to have to do without my money on anything in that vein she writes.

      I also love Heyer. I haven’t read Lord John, though, and didn’t realize it was unfinished. I can’t believe they published it with an incomplete last sentence. I wonder if Heyer was searching for the right words and never got to find them. One of my favorites of hers, The Conqueror, was one of the earliest I read, and it’s darker than many of the Regencies.

      I’m glad you started writing rather than let your ideas and worlds languish, and Inwish you the best with it!

      • EC Spurlock says:

        Heyer only got about 2/3 fo the way through what she had intended for My Lord John. The book is just reaching its climax, it’s in the middle of an important chapter, and then it just – ends where she put down her pen for the last time. It’s like dropping the reader off a cliff you don’t even see coming.

  • catslady says:

    I think it makes a big difference as to whether is was primarily written by the original author and if that author would have even wanted it published. Sometimes is all about the money. I don’t always know they are dead but may not find a book to my liking and learn after the fact. There are also those collaborations which I usually find I don’t care for as much as when the original writer was the only one telling the tale.

    • Catslady, it sounds as though you and I have similar problems with collaborations. When I pick up a book by a favorite author, I want the same reading experience the author’s other books gave me. If the words aren’t put on the page the same way, the book doesn’t deliver what I’m looking for.

  • Jane says:

    Hello Nancy,
    I haven’t heard about a new Poirot book either, but I am a big Agatha Christie fan and if they ever found some unreleased stories featuring Poirot or Marple I think I would be very excited.

  • Teresa Hughes says:


    My favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. When I learned about the Watchman I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it due to all comments I had heard about it but finally decided I had to. The book to me added to Mockingbird. It shows how Scout became a strong independent woman based on how she was raised and the events that happened in Mockingbird. I truly enjoyed it and have recommended it to others. However I do know that this book would not sit well with most because it is not politically correct and would cause others not to embraced Scout as I did the first time I read Mockingbird. Mockingbird will always be my favorite book and now Watchman enhances it.

    • Teresa, thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s interesting that you like the differences in Scout. For me it isn’t the absence of political correctness so much as a reluctance to revisit a socially difficult era I already lived through. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • I slogged through the Silmarillion and actually enjoyed it the second time.

    I have not nor will I read Watchman. The book was written first and was basically Harper Lee working through her issues with her father. Atticus Finch was NOT based on her father, but on the man Harper Lee wished her father might be. She submitted Watchman and it was rejected. Editors told her it was not the story she wanted to tell, but the story she had to write to get to the story she wanted to tell. I will never be convinced Ms. Lee gave her permission for the book to be published. It was not published until AFTER her sister, who was also her attorney, passed away. Ms. Lee had already been declared incompetent in one court case. The sister’s law partner is the one who suddenly got permission to publish the novel. One can only imagine the portion of the estate she stands to inherit. Ms. Lee is 90 years old, deaf and blind. Charges of elder abuse were brought against the attorney, but not proven conclusively. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to read someone’s private issues when they have not given permission for me to read them.

    And yes, I am certain men like the one portrayed in Watchman existed. But there were also men in the South like Atticus Finch. It is not politically correct to say so, but I know they existed. I knew some of them. My father was one of them. Mockingbird has been my favorite book ever since the first time I read it. I will not read someone’s exercise in greed simply because Harper Lee’s name is on it.

    One thing I have learned – if you don’t want it published, put it in writing, have it notarized and lock that puppy up or put it in the hands of an attorney you trust. Know why snakes won’t bite some lawyers? Professional courtesy. LOL

  • Louisa, the South I grew up in contained people like Atticus Finch, people like Bob Ewell, and people in between. If it’s not PC to say there were people like Atticus, well, that’s just too bad. It’s not as though everyone in other parts of the country was all for civil rights, either. We’re a mixed bag everywhere, but the composition of the mix varies by location and era.

    The dh and I are trying to remember which famous writer had all his/her unpubbed work destroyed. He thinks there was more than one.

    • I think your dh is correct, Nancy. I know there were at least a few writers who had the foresight to order their unpublished works destroyed on their deaths. I can’t for the life of me remember who they were right now. There is currently talk in several Alabama papers about a supposedly newly discovered Harper Lee historical fiction type mystery based on real events a la her good friend Truman Capote. I am certain if there is a way for the lawyer to get it out there it will see the light of day.

      • I have manuscripts that should never go into the world as they are. I’d hate it if they were published in their current conditions–which is to say, without being totally rewritten.

  • I’m calling it a day. Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

  • Nancy –

    Edith Wharton hadn’t finished The Buccaneers in 1937 when she died. I read the book as research for Seduction of a Duke. About the 75% mark, the writing subtly changed – no more rich descriptions and the characters seemed less emotional and real. After I finished the book, I learned that a writer friend finished it for her, and I think I know exactly where she picked up. 🙂 The friend finshed using a synopsis, though she complained that Edith hadn’t really followed the synopsis. I laughed. Who does?

  • Helen says:

    Hi Nancy

    I haven’t read any of the books listed but didn’t the same happen with V C Andrews as well not that I read those either but there is also Kathleen Woodiwiss I read and loved all of her books but when she passed away there was an unfinished manuscript and her family finished it and it was published and I do have that on but have never read it and I am not sure why I am sure I will he day

    Have fun