This week, eight stories featuring the unprepossessing Mr. John G. Reeder from the restlessly creative mind of Edgar Wallace.
Reeder is a sleuth very much in the mould of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, in that he is a man of “seeming inadequacy and unattractive appearance” who is “possessed of a certain wistful helplessness…that made people feel sorry for him”. And yet, like Father Brown, he has an acuity of insight when it comes to the criminal classes. Where Chesterton would, in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ (1927), lay his sleuth’s process out in typically voluble fashion:
“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”
Wallace, ever mindful that every additional word was delaying his dictation of another book, keeps Reeder’s methodology decidedly simpler: “I have the mind of a criminal”, that gentleman is heard to opine at regular intervals, and that will have to suffice. Reeder is “a great authority” on criminal concerns like forged banknotes, has “an extraordinary knowledge of London’s topography” and history, and has humanity enough to understand “human emotions and the ravages they make upon the human countenance” (though — Holmes-like — he has kept such considerations at arm’s length: “Love is a very beautiful experience — I have frequently read about it.”). Interesting, too, is the fact that he sees no crusade in what he does in uncovering crime; the ability to see the evil in everything is simply a “curious perversion”, and when targeted for retribution by one criminal against whom he testifies we’re told how “he disliked fuss of all kinds, and resented, in so far as he could resent anything, the injustice of being made personally responsible for the performance of a public duty”.
Of course, Wallace then goes on to expand Reeder’s skill set as the stories demand, which goes a little way to diluting the beautiful simplicity of his creation (Chesterton, for all his flaws as a writer, understood the value of Brown’s harmlessness). While possessed of “that ineffable air of apology and diffidence which gave the uninitiated such an altogether wrong idea of his calibre”, in ‘The Treasure Hunt’ (1924) he turns out to be an expert pistol shot, reveals a surprisingly playful sense of humour along with expert pickpocketing skills in ‘The Troupe’, a.k.a. ‘A Place on the River’ (1924), and that ever-present umbrella takes on a John Steed-esque additional role in the final showdown of ‘The Stealer of Marble’ (1924). It’s telling that criminals seem to hold Reeder in awe not purely because of his knowledge and insight, but also on account of the blank-faced morality they feel his physical threat represents…
“[H]e’s hell and poison, and if you don’t know it you’re deaf! Scared him? You big stiff! He’d cut your throat and write a hymn about it.”
And while his boss at the Public Prosecutor’s Office sees the hidden depths behind the dim facade — “That man is a genial mamba! Never seen a mamba? He’s a nice black snake, and you’re dead two seconds after he strikes!” — it appears that others are quick to judge him on appearances and learn the folly of this at their peril. In essence, Reeder is Father Brown by way of Albert Campion — though the latter wouldn’t appear for another four years, and wouldn’t take on this level on complexity for a while, so in fact Campion is the distillation of Reeder.
The cases in which he gets involved in this collection are a mixed bag. Some — ‘The Troupe’, ‘The Investors’ (1925) — never quite come together, and end up loose Adventure tales that resolve suddenly through ludicrous coincidence or oversight on behalf of the foolish villains (I wonder if there’s an element of Wallace poking fun at the Super Villain trope in some of these mistakes, but I’ve not yet read enough of him to know). The delightfully-titled ‘Sheer Melodrama’, a.k.a. ‘The Man from the East’ (1925) leans into this by having a character declare to Reeder how unlikely it is for masked men to appear and spirit you away only for that exact event to befall them both, but apart from touching on the matter of corrupt police officers it’s otherwise not an interesting example of the short form.
Others have points to recommend them — the eventual murder scheme in ‘The Stealer of Marble’ is fiendishly ingenious, and once ‘The Green Mamba’, a.k.a. ‘The Dangerous Reptile’ (1925) settles on a direction (you do wish Wallace was willing to redraft some of these) it boils down to a great idea weirdly and beautifully utilised. Best of the lot is possibly ‘The Strange Case’, a.k.a. ‘The Weak Spot’ (1925), a thoroughly involved theft that is spoiled only because Wallace was rather more of a Shocker writer than he was a detective novelist, and so his declaration of clues and developments is…sketchy at best. The revelation in this story would have been so much more enjoyable, and probably equally obvious, if you’d been shown the clue that sets Reeder on the right track, but you’re not and so you just go ‘Oh, yeah, that would have been good’ and it sort of takes the wind from the sails of the insight. ‘The Treasure Hunt‘, too, does great work in winding two distinct threads together, but does so by not revealing what Reeder knows.
Particular praise must be reserved for ‘The Poetical Policeman’, a.k.a. ‘The Strange Case of the Night Watchman’ (1924), which turns on an unlikely enough idea and shows, again, some superb light touches with plotting. There’s an irony at the heart of this opening story that would have done well to show its face more often throughout the collection as a whole, though quite who sees a horseshoe and comes to that conclusion — and, apparently, it’s a common enough response for Reeder to intuit what happened — will be up to the individual to decide.
Irony may be lacking, but there’s no small amount of Wallace’s trenchant wit in the reflections of the criminous classes that, since “even the humblest of detective officers is a man of wealth and substance, and that his secret hoard was secured by thieving, bribery and blackmail…[t]he one satisfactory aspect of [Reeder’s] affluence…was that, being an old man — he was over 50 — he couldn’t take his money with him, for gold melts at a certain temperature and gilt-edged stock is seldom printed on asbestos paper”. That humour is especially helpful in navigating these stories, throwing in delightful asides that explain the apparent relationship status of Miss Margaret Bellman, with whom Reeder develops an acquaintance of sorts over the second half of this collection:
She might have explained in a sentence if she had said that Roy’s mother held an exalted opinion of her only son’s qualities, physical and mental, and that Roy thoroughly endorsed his mother’s judgment, but she did not.
Elsewhere there’s the career criminal who “was rescued from a London gutter and a career of crime and sent to Canada, the charitable authorities being under the impression that Canada was rather short on juvenile criminals”, and — a delightful description with claws out and teeth at the ready — the dupe at the centre of the otherwise-uninteresting ‘The Troupe’ whose “father was rich beyond the dreams of actresses”. While some of the events on the page might test the patience of the 2021 reader, Wallace’s manner of delivery is never less than very readable.
Additionally, you don’t write as many words as Edgar Wallace did without being able to stir up the occasional magnificent turn of phrase. From the criminal “on the way to amassing a considerable fortune when a square-toed Nemesis took him by the arm and led him to the seat of justice” and the crime lord with the unshakeable “faith that all men had their price, whether it was paid in cash or terror” to Reeder opting not to aggravate a man holding him at gunpoint over his quaint misuse of English because “[t]he gun in the man’s hand spoke all languages without error, and could be as fatal in the hands of an unconscious humorist as if it were handled by the most savage of purists”, there is much here to spring out and delight you when you least expect. And check out this opening paragraph to ‘The Investors’:
There are seven million people in Greater London and each one of those seven millions is in theory and practice equal under the law and commonly precious to the community. So that, if one is wilfully wronged, another must be punished; and if one dies of premeditated violence, his slayer must hang by the neck until he be dead.
Overall, then, my first encounter with Mr. Reeder leaves me a little uncertain. Wallace’s invention is there on the page — smallpox! investment syndicates supplying weapons to insurgents! — and Reeder is in principle a fascinating hanger for all manner of stories and situations. I do wonder, though, is this fascinating man — whose practice it is “to brighten the dull patches of occupation by finding a seat in a magistrate’s court and listening, absorbed, to cases which bored even the court reporter”, who watches only the most lurid melodrama at the theatre because he sees in it the violence and unpleasantness so commonplace in his occupation, who invites a young woman to accompany him to such a show feeling “torn from the smooth if treacherous currents of life and drawing nearer and nearer to the horrid vortex of unusualness” — deserved an author who wasn’t trying to squeeze out ten books a month and so could give him the attention he warranted.
I’m aware there is more Reeder available, but I’m also aware there are 100+ Edgar Wallace books and I would like to sample as fair a sprinkling of the man’s career as is possible. The Crimson Circle (1922) showed that he can write the sort of thing I (occasionally) like to read, the simple matter is: what next?