My TBR pile, like Norm Lindsay’s Magic Pudding, is an apparently self-aware, endlessly self-replicating source of nourishment that I will never, ever finish. I daren’t even let it out of my sight sometimes, because who knows what sort of nonsense it gets up to when I’m not looking?
It can, therefore, often take me a while to get round to a particular book — The Crimson Circle (1922) by Edgar Wallace being a salutary example. This was suggested to me by Sergio at the excellent and much-missed Tipping My Fedora as good example of Wallace’s non-Just Men writing at least three years ago, and it was at least 18 months later that I found it in a secondhand bookshop. The handful of Just Men books I’d read did little to dispel the reputation for “thud and blunder” thrillers that Wallace has accrued over the years, and had Baroness Orczy, G.K. Chesterton, and their pre-GAD trailblazers not been on my mind so incessantly these last few months I’d doubtless have continued to pass over the lovely House of Stratus edition you see above in favour of more refined examples of genre craft. But, after giving up on four books in a row, it seemed that an experiment with a blunt instrument might be in order.
At 221 pages split into 43 chapters, this makes no pretension to art, and is all the better for it. On the fifth page, when the mysterious leader of a criminal organisation — who conducts meetings in his motor car while wearing a veil and a bullet-proof vest — advises the newest initiate against attempts to uncover his identity because “the man who knows me carries his knowledge to hell” I was sold. Every single chapter has at least one equally magnificent turn of phrase, and as you lurch from cliffhanger to revelation to reversal to questionable action and back again it becomes almost impossible to keep up with the gloriously gaudy pulp trapping Wallace hurls at you for page after page after page. I know that I’m going to struggle to give a coherent impression of my response to this, because it was so magnificently breathless that I’m not even sure how to get my thoughts in order. All I do know is that I had a wonderful time, possibly even more so on account of the flaws the narrative possesses.
So, where to begin?
In essence, The Crimson Circle is about the attempts by two very different detectives — stolid, slow, unimpressive Scotland Yard man Inspector Parr in whose face “every indication of intelligence and refinement was absent”, and the almost supernaturally talented private investigator Derrick Yale whose psychic detection is borne out in his “grave mystery of his eyes, the very gesture of his long, sensitive hands” — to find out who is responsible for a series of blackmail demands which, when not met, result in murder. Wallace is, however, writing in a late Edwardian style that also stirs the pot with all manner of thrilling developments and mysterious actions: what is Thalia Drummond doing in the woods with a revolver? Why does she steal a valuable idol from Harvey Froyant and pawn it for a fraction of its value? Why does Felix Marl suddenly have an attack of the frights? You’ll follow about six people at various stages of this journey, never entirely sure who you can trust and who the main character is, and it’s every bit as messy as this review is already turning out to be. But, good heavens, it’s also a lot of fun.
“We…were not expecting that.”
At various stages we find ourselves in the company of the skinflint millionaire Harvey Froyant who “was a stickler for the conventions, where their observations benefited himself” who “would have had his own mother arrested” were she to steal from him, and businessman Felix Marl “who could crowd into a day the terrors of an aeon” and for whom “blind panic and reasoning confidence succeed[ed] one another almost as a natural reaction”. The aforementioned Thalia Drummond will come into the orbit of both men — the employment of the first, and the squireship of the second — and view both as they are yet with an added piquancy of savage appraisal that marks her out as much more than the subservient beauty the men would wish to make her. For instance, when taken to dinner by the self-important Marl, she appraises him as:
[A] blonde, red-faced man with suspiciously brown hair, [and] suspiciously even teeth [who] for this evening had acquired a waist that seemed wholly unreal.
Thalia is in so many ways the most interesting character in the book, possessed of an agency that it’s refreshing to see in this era that’s all the more impactful because of how the various men around her seek to vilipend her purely on account of her gender and lissome charms. Morally she’s fascinating, too, feeling no need to explain herself to anyone, fully content to do as she pleases despite the difficulties it might land her in — witness the nonchalance with which she treats being turfed out by her landlady, or how when confronted by Derrick Yale over her tendency to steal things she casually rebuts “Why should kleptomania be confined to the ruling classes?” without it ringing of empty posturing. When she enters the orbit of the Crimson Circle, as an acolyte rather than a target, and thus finds her way into the purview of Parr and Yale, she becomes only more fascinating for the double game she’s clearly known to be playing, knowing that the playing is known. Given how things end it’s unlikely Wallace ever wrote another book featuring Thalia Drummond, but I’d read ten of them right now if he had.
The majority of the narrative belongs to Parr and Yale — the first ever-falling from favour on account of his inability to stop the murders…
He asked for an additional two days’ leave, and headquarters, which would have willingly dispensed with him for the remainder of his lifetime, agreed.
…the second ever-rising on account of his “psychometrical” powers of deduction, with which Wallace has a lot of fun:
“[D]on’t sneer at Yale. That man has unusual and peculiar gifts. The fact that you don’t understand them does not make them any less peculiar.”
“Do you mean to say, sir,” said Parr, stirred into protest, “that a man can take a cartridge in his hand and tell you from that the appearance of the person who last handled it and what he was thinking about? Why, it is absurd!”
“Nothing is absurd,” said the Commissioner quietly. “The science of psychometry has been practised for years. Some people, unusually sensitive to impression, are able to tell the most remarkable things, and Yale is one of these.”
In many ways Yale’s borderline-supernatural abilities have little bearing on the plot, so anyone put off by the notion of an Other Side Detective need not fear. It’s entertaining to watch him declare the appearance and character of an assassin by holding the bullet they fired, or diagnose unhappiness on the part of the member of household staff who laid the table for breakfast, but the overall direction of the plot leans into this only to account for the wild and marked differences between our two investigators. And there is still some — only a small amount, but some — legitimate detection by observation (the mud on Marl’s boots, for one), even if the most crucial strand of ‘detection’ is hilariously hand-waved away because, well, Wallace had three days to write this and wanted to get it done, dammit. Seriously, if you can follow the chain of reasoning that takes a character to Toulouse…answers on a postcard, please.
“We eat postcards.”
This does mean that there are issues with declaration, because Wallace isn’t even pretending to play fair, and yet…there’s a lot here for the attentive reader to be able to join up. No, you’re never going to follow all of it, there are too many lines like He picked up the phone and called a number, exchanging urgent information with the man who answered for a good five minutes — there’s your Edwardian laziness coming through, see — but in a couple of instances it’s also surprisingly open-handed. I mean, by today’s standards it’s hilariously obvious what’s going on, but there are some key moments that still retain their subtlety: a Chestertonian oversight, shall we say, being among the best of them. And while the characters often behave as if they know they’re being read about, I rather enjoyed how almost everyone appears for at least some of the time to be a blackguard of one stripe or another. Give me moral dubiousness over saintly law abidance any day of the week.
Wallace’s constant, driving need for incident and excitement, too, results in some blunt force moments of utter delight: a Mills bomb turns up most unexpectedly and is making me smile as I type this, and about a third of he way in we get a locked room murder — resolved in the very next chapter, I believe — of a quite ruthless ingenuity. It’s a shame not to linger on these more successful element, but that seems to be the price one pays with Wallace: the good and the bad are given about as much time to rest on the brain before you’re swept on, the man simply an ideas machine cranking the handle so that nothing truly displeasing ever hangs around long enough to frustrate, and some sparkle of brilliance might always be the flip of a page away.
Pleasingly, too, Wallace retains his dislike of the Establishment that was so strongly evinced in the Just Men books. When the Crimson Circle’s threats escalate to the point of the Government becoming involved, Parr and Yale are called to a Cabinet meeting which begins thus:
The Cabinet meeting was held in the Secretary of State’s office; all the recipients of the Crimson Circle’s memo were present from the beginning, but it was some time before outsiders were called in. Yale was summoned first, and a quarter of an hour later the messenger beckoned the inspector.
Inspector Parr knew most of the illustrious gathering by sight, and being on the opposite side in politics, had no particular respect for any. He felt an air of hostility as he came into the big room, and the chilly nod which the white-bearded Prime Minister gave him in response to his bow, confirmed this impression.
Later on, from a different perspective, we get the reflection that “in every service men had reached near to the top with no other merit than their seniority” and these two observations strike me as remarkably modern — certainly we know people have been displeased with politicians and other such bodies for as long as they have existed, but, certainly in light of what Wallace’s contemporaries ventured about the denizens of the Houses of Parliament in this genre (c.f., oh, I dunno, the recently reprinted Below the Clock (1936) by J.V. Turner, say), it does seem to me that he’s delightfully overstepping a bound of era taboo. And more power to him, frankly.
“No-one has gone to eat your shoes, Jim.”
I could go on — I haven’t even mentioned Jack and Jim Beardmore — but hopefully you get the idea. No doubt Wallace has written a bunch of terrible nonsense (he did put out 170+ books after all), but this was a delight, full of wonderfully tough writing, some gloriously dubious morals, and capable of keeping this reader up late into the night nearly a century after it first hit the streets. I think the final line spoken by our criminal might just sum up Wallace perfectly, and those of you who are as taken with that as me will have doubtless thoroughly enjoyed the experience of getting to that point. House of Stratus have a bunch of his titles in print, so expect much more Edgar Wallace on The Invisible Event in future — any recommendations gratefully received.
One question: can anyone explain the joke in the following exchange between Thalia and Marl?
“I want to have a little talk with you about your boss. I can do you a lot of good in that firm — at the bank, Thalia. Who called you Thalia?”
“My godfathers and godmothers, M or N,” said Thalia solemnly, and Mr. Marl squeaked his delight at her humour.
Maybe you had to be there…
Jose @ A Crime is Afoot: The story is quite ingenious and entertaining, even at today’s eyes; but it is also extremely naive, what makes it more appropriate for a juvenile audience. For the history of the genre, perhaps it should be highlighted that Edgar Wallace was one of the first, if not the first one, in giving the leading role to a professional detective. His writing style can be described as cinematographic, as confirmed by the multiple adaptations of his books to the cinema.
Bev @ My Reader’s Block: This is a fast-paced, detective-adventure not a sedate, Golden Age puzzle plot with clues strewn about for the quick-witted reader to gather and try to solve the mystery before the detective. Edgar Wallace was one of the most prolific crime writers with 130 novels (18 written in 1926). Writing at such a clip, it isn’t a surprise that he didn’t spend a lot of time on red herrings and clues with double-meanings. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an enjoyable read. Wallace’s fast-pace carries over into the story and the reader is carried along, swallowing the various improbable events along with the more normal ones until she is brought to a screeching halt at the solution.