You might want to stand back - I feel a rant coming on. It's all been prompted by my discovery this week that P.D. James has written a historical crime novel. How interesting, I thought, until I saw that it was a crime novel set in the world of Pride and Prejudice. The next thing I knew, I was slapping my forehead and grumbling about the lack of vision by some of our most accomplished novelists. Fan fiction used to be something you wrote as your very first book, not your 22nd. And more than that, there seems to be a veritable trend of franchise-mining going on this Christmas - Anthony Horowitz has written a Sherlock Holmes novel and Frank Cottrell Boyce has penned a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Perhaps James, now 91, has earned the chance to take a fictional retirement in the worlds that inspired her. But it saddens me that market-leading authors - who could have any book published - have resorted to stepping into the shoes of their dead forebears. I mean, I love Eoin Colfer to bits, but did the world really need another instalment of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? The series had gone stale while Douglas Adams was still alive and writing them.
That said, I'm not attacking the quality of these books. Indeed I enjoy the Young Bond series by Charlie Higson and it seems as though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is a better book than Ian Fleming's original. Writers are often the most voracious of readers, so it's no surprise that they welcome the chance to take on these well-loved characters. But I wonder if they wouldn't mind awfully writing these books and then putting them straight in a drawer. It's not like most of them need the money.
Sometimes, these sequels are written with the best of intentions. Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet was produced to raise extra funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital, one year before the character went out of copyright. But most of these officially sanctioned works are simply feathering the nest of an already very rich author's estate, or the corporations that spring up to manage them. How much, I wonder, has Thomas the Tank Engine earned since the Rev. W. Awdry's death, compared with the amount he saw in his lifetime? I do hope that Terry Pratchett has the legal wherewithal to stop someone producing more Discworld novels after the sad day that he loses the ability to do so.
I'm not criticising the literary metafiction of Jasper Fforde, nor genre mash-ups like Kim Newman's Anno Dracula or Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hell, even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gets my cautious approval as an experiment in form, conducted by a then unknown author with something to prove. But the mega famous writers of officially sanctioned fan fiction are stifling originality for the rest of us. Every time they succeed with one of these books, the market gets a little more conservative. Please, let the dead lie silent and show us something new.