Gently Does It. Revealing the Alan Hunter Archive

The Archive of Alan Hunter (1922-2005) was generously gifted to UEA by his daughter Helen in 2015. Hunter was the author of a series of crime novels featuring Inspector George Gently.

004Written between 1955-1999, Hunter completed 46 novels across 45 years with punning titles like Gently Does It, Gently by the Shore, Gently Down the Stream, Gently Continental, Gently with the Ladies and so on. The popular BBC One television series George Gently and later Inspector George Gently were loosely based on Hunter’s novels.

Typically each archive collection arrives with its own set of interesting nuances, challenges and surprises and Hunter’s archive was no exception. A vast array of dusty folders and boxes arrived in need of attention and a thorough sort. There was also a heavy wooden chest.

AH Gently Down the StreamHunter’s writing process was methodical, his hand-writing meticulous and his scripts well organised in labelled boxes. While he is most well-known for his Inspector George Gently novels, Hunter was also a keen writer of poetry and drama. In 1945 at the age of 23 he published a poetry collection The Norwich Poems. His archive contains these and many unpublished poems, dramas, screenplays and short stories.

The oldest item amongst his papers is a short story The Crime Without a Clue. This eight page manuscript was completed at precisely 11.40 pm on 31 October 1935. Hunter would have been 13 years old when he created the characters of Detective Grant and his assistant who must solve the baffling circumstances surrounding the death of Sir Harry Fenton, killed by his own pistol fired from the sideboard, by apparently no one.

AH.11.11.1 (002)In a preface written by Hunter in 1963 he explains his earlier attempt in 1953 to publish some short stories. They were not sold and in disgust he turned to writing his first crime novel Gently Does It. On returning from a holiday in Wales and after ascending the Wyddfa (Snowdon), he found that his manuscript of Gently Does It had also been rejected by a number of publishers. One blunt rejection referred to Gently’s personality not coming across, and that just to give him the trade mark of eating peppermint creams was not nearly enough. He resolved to write for his own pleasure and From the Summit was written, in a degree of elation. Meanwhile his crime novel Gently Does It reached Cassell where it found acceptance. Thus began the Inspector George Gently series of novels in 1955.

Writing in a caravanette, Hunter favoured jumpers and tweed jackets and smoked a pipe; he bore a close resemblance to Inspector George Gently himself. Included in his archive are a couple of rejected Gently manuscripts: Millionaires are Murder (1957) and Nothing Holy (1969); and the expected plethora of unidentified manuscripts and fragments of writing.

Despite Hunter’s good organisation there are the inevitable areas where things appear less clear. Creative writing implies a process of branching out, of going back and forth, of re-visiting, and re-developing ideas. This doesn’t lend itself to precise order nor would we want to impose such an artificial structure. Instead, the Archive’s guide to the papers makes users aware of possible connections within the collection by a number of cross-references. We have assigned numbers to all items, making it so much easier to keep track of and identify the many manuscripts and pieces of paper.

The sorting of the papers was tricky as same characters and lines often popped up in different titles therefore making it difficult to say with certainty which script belonged to which work. For instance, Lachlan Stogumber appears in the unpublished manuscript of Nothing Holy (1969) and a couple of years later in the published work of Gently at a Gallop (1971). The line ‘There’s many an airman just finishing his time’ crops up in two unpublished novels: Just Finishing His Time (1956) and Strange Testament (1957). Some rejected novels resurfaced, sometimes more than 10 years later, with a different title and significant changes: in 1961 Hunter went back to his 1953 unpublished novel From the Summit and borrowed from it for Gently to the Summit.

Ideas sketched in notebooks and early stories were taken up years later. Thus there is not always a clear correlation between the drafts and final publications. There is evidence of him re-submitting his writing to publishers many years after the original submission; or re-working something like La Paloma, which began as a story but which was then re-written as a play.

Detective skills are indeed needed to make the links and match up the various drafts. There are plenty of connections still to be made and the expectation is that keen future users of the collection will discover for themselves the evolution of Hunter’s writing.

The notebooks are gems, filled with musings, sketches, character descriptions and detailed plots were Hunter makes his suppositions.

A poisonous prescription issued by a pharmacy, apparently in error; but the victim is the suspected mistress of the chemist’s husband. [1]

Wymondham should have a tale to tell … perhaps the death of the elderly lady who kept the ‘Busy Fingers’ establishment. [1]

He writes of his struggles in coming up with a setting.

A setting out of East Anglia I said. But East Anglia keeps haunting me. Yet I have used so much of it, feel I have spent it out. I need an outside setting. Scotland is probably my best bet. [2]

From Diss to Dunwich, Bury St Edmunds to the Broads, Gently found himself in locations across East Anglia and sometimes in London, Scotland and even Wiltshire. This is in contrast to the televised series which places Gently in Northumberland and Durham.

There are days when Hunter has no inspiration at all.

But now my mind is empty of ideas or rather will have no truck with them. Show it an idea and it plainly refuses. It won’t grasp an idea, vivify it, set it in motion, begin to enrich it, with scenes, drama. [3]

And then there are days when, in his seventies, his hand aches and pen after pen fails to alleviate the frustration.

As he is writing Bomber’s Moon in 1994 he wonders if he wants to devise another book.

I am at the age when Simenon threw in the towel and retired into autobiography. But I don’t feel that old yet. Or even old. Just grown up, experienced. [4]

Hunter completed his 46th and last Gently novel at the age of 77.


1 Notebook entry, 24/10/94 (AH/14/23).
2 Notebook entry, 30/10/87 (AH/1/36/1).
3 Notebook entry, 31/1/80 (AH/1/27/1).
4 Notebook entry, 16/5/94 (AH/14/21).


Ticketholders for Charlie Higson and Ian Rankin at Noirwich: The Crime Writing Festival enjoy a preview of an exhibition on the Alan Hunter Archive (16 September, UEA).

The exhibition then moves to UEA Library from 20 September 2016.

Accessing the archive

Enquiries on this collection may be directed to
Further details and a listing of the description is available from the Alan Hunter Archive