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.
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.