THE TERROR (1930) by Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace was still a big name when I was growing up in Italy in the 1970s, his iconic signature and profile emblazoned on dozens of yellow paperbacks and linked to a long list of rather lurid movies usually set in London but often made in Germany to create a curious cultural mishmash that is as distinctive as it is dislocating. Since those heady days of my youth I don’t think I’ve read any of his books, with the possible exception of The Four Just Men, his ingenious debut.  I decided however to get re-aquainted (so to speak) following a comment by Curtis, the host of the magnificent and well-informed The Passing Tramp blog, about my review of the Hammer film Paranoiac, a loose adaptation of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, which he thought might have more than a passing similarity to Wallace’s The Terror. As luck would have it, I came across a slightly battered copy only a few days later, so …

“Edgar Wallace became a habit. It was with some not a point of honour but a plain need to read every story that he wrote.” – Leader in The Times, 11 February 1932

In the teens and twenties Wallace was a genuine one-man industry, a world-renowned brand and a multimedia phenomenon in the realm of popular fiction. Hugely prolific as both a novelist and a stage dramatist, he also got heavily involved in film production at an early stage, to the extent of even directing a couple of movies himself.

The 1967 movie version of 'The Terror', retitled ... 'The College Girl Murders'.

Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace first came to prominence as a novelist with The Four Just Men (1905), which was published with the ending removed as part of a promotional campaign which offered a £500 prize to readers who submitted the right conclusion. As many guessed correctly, this nearly bankrupted Wallace, but he made up for it subsequently with his prodigious output, producing over 170 books and two dozen plays. In 1927 he joined the board of British Lion to whom he sold the rights to all his works and in 1930 directed an adaptation of The Squeaker (1930), a prototypical Wallace thriller with the identities of both policeman and villain only being revealed at the end. The Terror is a case in point – a typical story of cops and rbbers and secret identities, it was originally performed in 1927 as a stage play. Apparetly it was written (according to his biographer Margaret Lane) in just five days but was a popular success none the less. It was filmed the following year in Hollywood to become even more successful as the second Warner Bros. ‘all-talking’ motion picture (even the credits were spoken rather than written on screen). Wallace then wrote (which probably meant dictated by this stage) a prose version, which was published in 1930. And this is what I have in my hands … How does it stand up?

The story begins with a daring gold bullion robbery during the First World War perpetrated by mysterious mastermind O’Shea. No one has ever seen his face and it is said that he is only sane 22 hours out of every 24 … Although the heist is a success, the cache goes missing after two of the henchmen, Connor and ‘Soapy’ Marks, make off with the delivery truck to negotiate a larger cut of the haul. O’Brien sells them out and they spend the next 10 years in prison, vowing revenge. The action now switches to Monkshall, a supposedly haunted house out in the country owned by Colonel Redmayne. Despite claims that the ghost of a hooded monk is regularly seen prowling the grounds at night, the Colonel and his spirited daughter Mary remain in situ. In addition the Colonel has a variety of regular paying guests even though he doesn’t need the money. These include the elderly gent Goodman, who is in love with Mary, the frequently inebriated and rather irritating young gent Ferdinand ‘Ferdie’ Fane, the shady Butler Cotton, the crime-mad Mrs Elvery and her daughter Veronica and the Reverend Partridge, who clearly knows more than he is telling and claims ot be an expert on spiritualism … Connor eventually turns up at the house, clearly convinced that he will find a clue to where the gold is hidden. Despite being warned off by Fane, he keeps digging and soon is found shot dead in the house. Inspector Haldick and Sergeant Dobie soon arrive on the scene, but who can the culprit be? Is it the person who goes wandering around the grounds hidden in a black robe, screeching maniacally and playing the organ? Who is O’Shea masquerading as, and will his nemesis Inspector Bradley of Scotland Yard reveal himself? In a word, yes!

This is a truly ripe piece of melodrama with the hooded villain leaping out from behind curtains to strangle a few people before making off with the odd damsel in distress or two and taking them to his underground layer via a trapdoor. In fact Paranoiac really does have some similarities to the plot, which was probably pretty hoary even in the 1920s (and not just the bits cribbed from Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera either). And Wallace was certainly aware of it – at one point one of the investigators complains that,

“Underground passages … that’s the last resource, or resort – I am not certain which – of the novel writer … I never pick up a book that isn’t full of ‘em!”

This is in fact part of the appeal of this not unentertaining concoction – Wallace always told his stories with plenty of gusto and good humour and there is plenty of lively dialogue along with the cardboard characters and staid situations. Plus, it has to be said, seeing something that is quite so old-fashioned more or less for real rather than a pastiche or a lampoon is actually quite refreshing in a perverse way, especially as it is clear that the author is having a very good time giving amused audiences exactly what they want. So, not Wallace at his best, since he is clearly trading on his own image and reputation here, but an enjoyable amusement and one that, in its final scenes as the ‘surprise’ villain is unmasked (Wallace doesn’t try very hard to keep the identity hidden, with even the pseudonym proving too ironically transparent), does evoke a genuine sense of strangeness as the extent of the villain’s insanity is also revealed. This kind of material is probably too familiar in conception to recapture any freshness it might have once had, though there is no denying the simple enjoyment that can be derived from it. My ‘Detective club’ edition is also particularly amusing for the full-blooded illustrations it contains, showing Mary perpetually in peril from the hooded villain. They definitely don’t make ‘em like this any more!

Of the various film adaptations, the most entertaining may well be the 1938 remake co-starring the irrepressible Alastair Sim as ‘Soapy’ and which is very easy to find in its entirety all over the Interweb. It is conventional but very well put together with a decent cast (Bernard Lee, more familiar in later years as ‘M’ from the James Bond movies of the 60s and 70s, is the hero) and good production design – a really entertaining British cime melodrama from the 30s with the accent on humour. Better than the book in lots of ways in fact.

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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21 Responses to THE TERROR (1930) by Edgar Wallace

  1. curtis evans says:

    I’ve never actually read the book, but I have seen the 1938 film, which I too thought was rather fun (I loved the “crime-mad” matron and the set designs really are good). This clearly seems Wallace’s riff on the now extremely cliched sitation, as you say, of the old dark house thriller. The Bat and The Cat and Canary were both filmed around the same time as The Terror appeared and were both I believe based on American slightly earlier stage plays (The Bat was an adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s classic mystery novel The Circular Staircase). Edgar never missed a good opportunity to rake in some more cash.

    Thanks for the interesting entry. I do like to see some attention being paid to Wallace. I think people still would find some of his books enjoyable today, rather similar as they are to Christie’s thrillers (in fact Christie was imitating him with her thrillers–it took her a while to enjoy sales comparable to his–many detective fiction writers were very jealous of his sales).

    • Hi Curtis, thanks for the comments. The stage version of The Terror was, according to Lane’s fairly authoritative biography, greeted as a very populist work even in his day. Wallace had long-term arrangements for his stage plays so did in fact need to produce work at a fairly regular rate or otherwise he would not be able to pay the rent on the venue. He made huge amounts of cash but spent even more – apparently, in an effort to avoid paying extra tax, he incorporated himself and made his childres the trustees, but then borrowed so heavily against the company that his premature death in 1932 meant that his own company was the main creditor at his bankruptcy hearing!

      The play, and the ‘novelisation’ (for lack of a better word) was, as you say, cashing in on the vogue set in the US by the likes of the 1913 Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers (and adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan no less) and John Willard’s even more popular 1922 trend-setter The Cat and the Canary. The argot of the gangsters is full of American slang and initially I wasn’t even dure we were meant to be in the UK. I remember liking several of his impossible crime novels, like The Clue of the Twisted Candle, but want to track down some of his other better-regarded books (the prose version of The Terror is not even referenced in the Lane book) like The Crimson Circle, which I have only read in Italian translation. I think they are getting easier to find on Kindle, but I am for the moment paper-bound so will have to see what turns up online at a reasonable price.

  2. Colin says:

    Highly appropriate in light of the upcoming release of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries on DVD in the UK. I have maybe a half dozen of his books but, to date, the only one I’ve actually read is The Door With Seven Locks – and that was quite a while back. I should give some of the others a go.

    • Hi Colin – haven’t read that one actually so I’ll have to track it down. Some of the them are a bit slapdash, which is inevitable when he become so prolific and would literally churn a novel out in just a few days by dictating at top speed and then having his squad of secretaries type themn up. Julian Symons points to his often confusing the toxic carbon monoxide and the decidedly benign carbon dioxide in the red hot heat of his composition. I definitely plan to read some more of his books if I come across some decent and inexpensive editions.

      Yes, the release of the Merton Park series promises to be great fun!! I have very fond memories of TV screenings in the 1980s and it will be instructive to compare these with the Rialto films made in Germany at the same time. I recently got a box set with four of these German films, which have been beautifully transferred in pin sharp prints in Scope (I got Volume 4 from Amazon in Germany as it is the only one that is completely English-language friendly in terms of dubbing options). Have you seen any of these? I’m tempted to review one though I’m not sure if anyone out there will be at all familiar with them …

      • Colin says:

        I’ve never seen the German Wallace pictures, though I am aware of them and have thought of sampling them – I *think* some of them have had US releases too, so they may offer alternative English language options.

        As for the books, House of Stratus published a number of them a few years back – that’s how I got my copies – so they are available, not dirt cheap though.

        • The Rialto series was put out as a uniform collection and can be had single or in box sets of 4 titles each – the trouble is that Volume 4 is the only one of the box sets in which all of the included films have English dubs – in all the others some only have German language options / subtitles – but then I suspect they weren’t all released in Anglophone countries … I shall do a review of one and includes some screen grabs too, you’ve inspired me! There is a pretty detailed site devoted to these films here: Krimi Corner

  3. John says:

    Well lookie there! It’s a youngish Inspector Cockerill playing a cohort of a master criminal. I love Alastair Sim. He has a voice that thrills and such an eccentric performance style. “When I meet him he’ll look into my eyes and at the knife I’ll have at his throat and I’ll say….” He was great! Too bad Colin doesn’t live in the US. Over here you can find the original editions (and countless hardcover reprint editions) of Edgar Wallace’s books all over the place for dirt cheap. In all these years I’ve only read one. I’ll have to remedy that this year.

    • Sim is virtually impossible to resist isn’t he, even in drag for the St Trinian films – and quite a subtle performer for such an inveterate scene-stealer! As always I get all envious when you talk about the bounty of books on your side of the pond John as philistinism is now rampant in the UK (I mean here in London the vneerable Foyles is less chaotic than it used to be but Marks and Co., of 84 Charing Cross Road fame, is a restraurant now without a book in sight) – so me and Colin both!

      • Colin says:

        I’d say philistinism is pretty rampant in a lot of places. As a teacher, I can’t tell you how depressing it is to hear my teenage students telling me they won’t read books. Apparently, they’re just too boring (Christ how I’ve come to loathe that word) and eat up time that would otherwise be spent on the Playstation. Sigh.

        • Oh god, how sad – it would be great if the limits of our current philistinism were the mere inability to get cheap editions of Edgar Wallace books – I could live with that! Things do seem so bad in general right now when it comes to culture and any interest in the world at large – but it can’t go on like this, can it? We shall have to do something about it, brothers and sisters and get on the cultural barricades! Well, OK, it’s probably not the 70s yet either (sic), but things have to get better …

          • Colin says:

            Personally, I do try to raise cultural awareness among the kids when the opportunity arises – I recently managed to get one guy stoked about watching Hitchcock – but, all too often, it’s akin to banging your head against a brick wall.

          • I know exactly what you mean – my area is media and education and you wouldn’t believe how obtuse the support staff can be sometimes, let alone the students. It’s too easy to generalise, but after the massive investment in health and education that came in with Labour, the next generation in the UK (but not just there) is going to be horrible disadvantaged and truly under-resourced. But back to Wallace – just picked up a copy of his Room 13 and I plan to review the book and the Rialto movie version from 1963 shortly! In the meantime, the frankly bizarre trailer can be found here – I mean … murder by ‘shaving cream’?.

    • Curt Evans says:

      Yes, Sims is always memorable, though here he’s pretty low on the totem pole.

      • Sims is definitely one of the supporting ‘artistes here’, but he does get to play nemesis to the villain of the piece at the climax – there’s that great shot when he crawls out of of the tunnel all scratched and bleeding and into the crypt to fight the villain that has just the right tinge of over-the-top-ness!

  4. Colin says:

    Sergio, that trailer for the Rialto version of Room 13 looks borderline deranged, but in a good, cheesy way. I’ll be intersested to hear what you make of the film when you get round to it. Should be fun.

    • Frankly I was dubious just liking to it! It’s hard to imagine it has much to do with the Wallace novel, though you never know, it may turn out to be a smart updating like the Moffat and Gatiss Sherlock … well, maybe not that good … Should post this one in about a week – coming up next is The Nanny, which I just re-watched and was superb, even better than I remembered – how often does that happen?

      • Colin says:

        I look forward to it.
        As for The Nanny and liking things better on a subsequent viewing, I usually find it’s the stuff that didn’t overly impress me first time round that causes that reaction. Not always though.

        • It can be even more satisfying to be more impressed the second time round – bit like eating re-heated pasta in my household which my Dad always says is better that way! In my case, this was probably the first time I’d seen the film all the way through in English rather than in the dubbed Italian version so that have had something to do with it – though dubbing in Italy is generally of a very high standard in the cinema, nothing like the atrocious 70s Euro flicks that we got used to dubbed unconvincingly with squeaky American voices

  5. Bill says:

    Until recently I had not idea that Wallace was so prolific or popular. I haven’t read any of his books yet but I have The Four Just Men scheduled for a reading challenge.

    • Hiya Bill – in Europe, especially on the Continent, he is still very much in print (especially popular in Germany). Four Just Men is I think by common consent absolutely the right place to start. I’m going to be reading Room 13 shortly too having just got myself a copy of the book and the German movie version from the 1960s. Be interesting to see what we make of him – The Terror was fun without being much of a novel really, but it was an unusual publication, very much a movie tie-in. If you look at anything that is even remotely a comprehensive bibliography, his output is just staggering, especially when you consider that only about half of it belong to the thriller genre!

      Really looking forward to reading your review.

  6. Pingback: The Phantom Light (1935) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

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