Room 13January 30, 2013
I am all set to go on an Edgar Wallace kick. It will actually be a delayed-onset Edgar Wallace kick. Thursday last week I was hunting around for something to read and found myself wishing I owned more Edgar Wallace. I eventually settled for one of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise books — and then three more — but the yen for Edgar Wallace was still there and last night I went over to Project Gutenberg Australia (is it illegal for me to download post-1923 books from there? I don’t think I want to know) and read Room 13, featuring Wallace’s series detective J.G. Reeder.
So, here’s the thing about Edgar Wallace — I’ve talked about it before — every time I try to write about one of his books in particular I end up taking about his books in general. It’s like most authors’ books are individual objects, which can be discussed and compared, but Edgar Wallace’s fiction is a fairly homogenous substance to be measured out in page-lengths. I’m going to pretend for a moment that it’s not, though, and that Room 13 stands alone and has nothing to do with any other book. And when I am done, I will have described a pretty typical Edgar Wallace thriller.
Room 13 opens in Dartmoor Prison, where Johnny Gray is serving out a sentence of a couple of years for something to do with horse racing. There’s lots of fairly self-consciously used thieves’ cant — a “screw” is a warder, forged banknotes are “slush” — and a clear picture of what the world of professional criminals in England looks like (I mean, what it looks like in this book. The connection to reality is probably pretty tenuous). There’s a sense that everyone who lives by breaking the law is acquainted with all the others, if only by reputation, and that a stretch in jail is an accepted part of their way of life. [redacted for rambling about Edgar Wallace].
There’s also a fair amount of gossip, which introduces us to old lag Emanuel Legge, who was in Dartmoor when Johnny’s sentence began, and to his son, Jeff, who is responsible for Johnny’s imprisonment. Jeff has never been in jail, and has rarely been seen, but he’s known by some to be the Big Printer, whose counterfeit notes are so good that even the police can’t tell them from the real thing.
We also hear about Peter Kane, another criminal — or former criminal — who is a friend of Johnny’s. He has a daughter, Marney, who Johnny’s in love with, but Peter would prefer that she marry someone respectable. The night before he’s released from prison, Johnny receives a letter from Peter, letting him know that Marney is engaged to be married to a Canadian, Major Floyd.
Johnny’s independently wealthy, so when he’s released from prison, his luxurious apartment and valet are waiting for him. Marney, on the other hand, isn’t — although he heads straight to the Kanes’ home the day after his release, she’s already married to Major Floyd. And Major Floyd, when Johnny comes face to face with him, is none other than Jeff Legge, impersonating a respectable Canadian in order to help his father get revenge on Peter Kane.
That sets most of the plot threads in motion. There’s the question of Jeff and Marney’s marriage — is it bigamous? — the mystery of the Big Printer — can anyone actually get proof that it’s Jeff? and where are the notes printed? — the bad blood between Peter Kane and Emanuel Legge, and the question of why a wealthy, well-educated young man like Johnny would get involved in crime anyway. Not to mention all the smaller questions that come up (who shot Jeff Legge?). [redacted for rambling about Edgar Wallace]. Having all of these different things going on at once means there’s no slow, investigative section of the book. Aside from the occasional appearance of the unassuming, middle-aged J.G. Reeder, knowing much more than anyone thinks he ought and making the most delightful insinuations, the pace is pretty breathless. Something is always happening, and it usually involves guns. [redacted for rambling about Edgar Wallace].
“Action-packed” isn’t always a recommendation, especially if you’ve passed your fourteenth birthday, and it’s not enough to make a book enjoyable all by itself. Humor is. Engaging characters are. Twists that you don’t see coming right alongside ones that you do probably aren’t, but they are pretty fun. And Room 13 has all of the above. We’re exclusively concerned with archetypes, obviously, but they’re archetypes with charm, or a sinister fascination, or an innate trustworthiness. You can see the strings above the puppets, but that doesn’t stop you from liking the characters you’re meant to like and hating the characters you’re meant to hate. And puppets are all that’s called for, really.
Room 13 doesn’t particularly want to do anything but entertain, and it does that very well. And it does it without being a half-coherent mess, which by all rights it should be. [redacted for rambling about Edgar Wallace]. Instead, every time the plot does something twisty, you can pinpoint the clues that led up to it. It’s great.
So, yeah. That’s what Edgar Wallace is like. As a writer, anyway. As a person he seems to have been pretty unpleasant. But he’s been dead a long time, so you can read his books with a clear conscience.