Being asked to curate a list of the best 10 novels of the 1930s is rather like being invited to tap-dance on a crocodile’s back: impossible to achieve and even harder to fake. But here goes. Below is my list, but there are several omissions that I think I have to be up front about. There’s no Steinbeck, no Hemingway, no Woolf – even though the 1930s saw her publish two works, The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937). Nor is there a barnstormer of the day, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936), or Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New Word or, indeed, JRR Tolkien’s fantastic The Hobbit (1937). Eric Ambler is missing, too, despite the visceral power of The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and although Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are on the list, neither Brighton Rock (1938) nor Scoop (1938) make it. Similarly, 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express is a defining work but missing – ultimately, because I feel that Marple is more telling than Poirot.
Ten is tough, so the corpus I’ve chosen I hope reflects the era: the 1930s is a big decade in world history. In Britain, arguably, it can almost be viewed as the very last decade of the long 19th century. There were the imperial conferences, the empire endured and Britannia ruled the waves. It was almost like the 1890s still. Yet, as the old order clung on, apparently immutable as ever, changes were everywhere – internationally, politically, but also in literature and society.
So my list aims to reflect the period as well to reflect what I believe are some of the most enduring and important works in the English language of that decade, omissions aside.
1. Afternoon Men by Anthony Powell
Forget what you think about know about Anthony Powell, whose 12 novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time was published from 1951 to 1975, and remains one of the outstanding works of English fiction in the 20th century. Written in his 20s, Afternoon Men was his first novel and is rather more Rachel Papers than Proustian sublimity. Light, funny, dark and licentious, it follows the drunken exploits of a young man named William Atwater, who works in a museum, and his circle friends and their various romantic mishaps.
2. Burmese Days by George Orwell
Before George Orwell was the man who deconstructed totalitarianism and Russian communism in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, he took aim at what was then a very contemporary evil – the British empire. In Burmese Days, which was published first in the US in 1934 because of fears of libel suits, Orwell brought his first-hand experience as a policeman in Burma to give the world a very important and big book about the appalling, day-to-day iniquities of colonialism. Telling the story of a British timber planter in his trials of life, love and friendship – and in particular his desire to help an Indian friend in time of need – Burmese Days exposes the very human evils of colonial rule. In this it’s rather like A Passage to India of 1924. But without the happy ending.
3. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
“That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam.” The opening lines of Irish-born Bowen’s powerful sixth novel, published in 1938, pave the way for a story of psychology complexity and perspicacity that was a bestseller of the year. When an orphaned 16-year-old girl moves in with her wealthy half-brother and his wife in prewar London, and she then falls in love with the sister-in-law’s friend, lives are turned inside out.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” With among the most famous first words in fiction, we’re off into a gothic, suspense-laden narrative that was one of the bestsellers of 1938, became a Hitchcock-directed movie in 1940s, and has survived the test of time. When a young woman in Monaco marries a rich older man and returns with him to his West Country estate, the past catches up – with everyone.
5. Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
Jeeves, who first appeared in 1915, is an Edwardian immortal who had barely got into his stride in 1934 when this second full-length Jeeves and Wooster novel appeared. Regarded by some as the best in the series, John le Carré said it was one of his favourite books, and Stephen Fry is a noted admirer. Gerald Gould, reviewing it for the Observer, described it as “one long scream from start to finish”. It has a great comedic conceit: that Wooster is fed up with friends asking Jeeves for help, so insists on solving their problems for himself. In the end, only one gentleman’s gentleman can possibly save the day. Jeeves and Bertie, of course, kept going until 1974.
6. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
Geoffrey Household’s gritty “man on the run” novel, set in 1938 and published in 1939, tells the story of an unnamed man who has just attempted to assassinate a foreign dictator – readers can assume it was Adolf Hitler – and is now on the run in Britain from his agents who are bent on killing him. Despite a nod to Richard Hannay (Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps was published in 1915), this is nonetheless a political thriller of its day like no other and has cast long shadows of its own, being cited as an influence for none other than the Rambo series.
7. Stamboul Train by Graham Greene
If you can only include on novel that features the Orient Express then it has to be Graham Greene’s first real commercial success, Stamboul Train, published in 1932, and written, he said, as “an entertainment”. And it doesn’t disappoint … though, of course, since it’s Greene, the book is so much better than that. He gives us a delicious collection of troubled souls for the three-day journey aboard the Orient Express to Istanbul with a whiff of desperation, sex, poverty, illness and, of course, buckets of danger. Possessing a contemporary liveliness, all this is interwoven with the themes of politics and criminality – which prefigures 1938’s gritty tour de force Brighton Rock.
8. Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1934, and soaked with the heat and dazzling contrasts of the Riviera sun, Tender Is the Night continues to astonish and delight with its Hardyesque tale of the expat American Dick Diver, a man who seemingly has it all, but soon has nothing. Drawn from Fitzgerald’s own experience of marriage, infidelity, Hollywood and psychological illness, Tender Is the Night is the sort of book that can make you feel uneasy.
9. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
The book that launched a thousand copycat murders – as well as one of the world’s most famous detectives. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first full-length novel to feature “that terrible Miss Marple” as she is first introduced to us. “She’s the worst cat in the village,” declares the speaker. “And she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.” The vicar is more charitable: “I rather like Miss Marple,” he says. “She has, at least, a sense of humour.” As it happened the world saw it his way. The Thirteen Problems, a collection of Miss Marple short stories, followed in 1932, with another collection in 1939. Eleven more novels followed.
Related: Top 10 books about postwar Britain
10. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
No one does satire as seriously as the British, and Waugh is more sincere than most. In Vile Bodies (1930) he eviscerated the aristocratic Bright Young Things generation of socialites of interwar Britain, developing the darker side that he’d already touched on in Decline and Fall and broadening the scope of this attack. Few books of the time say quite so much, quite so enjoyably about a certain slice of life in the 1930s – one which, though it didn’t know it, was coming to an end.
Ghosts of the West by Alec Marsh is published by Headline Accent in original paperback and ebook.