Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Room 13 - Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace is perhaps best known for co-writing King Kong and for ‘The Four Just Men’. For many writers that would be enough. It would certainly have brought in a decent amount of cash. But Wallace was famously prolific. 175 novels. Collections of short stories. Screenplays. He even directed. And died in debt - but that’s a whole other story.

It might be thought that someone who can produce so many novels would be turning out rubbish. Now, it is true that his work is not high art (however you care to describe that), but that doesn’t make it bad. He wrote thrilling yarns with strong storylines and interesting (if not always believable) characters. And sometimes he produced books and characters that are on a different level.

One such is Mr J G Reeder. Although he featured in only a handful of books (three novels and two short story collections) he has deservedly found a place in popular fiction as one of those characters that seem to exist independently of the pages in which they appear. Reeder is an enigmatic character. One can easily see him as a precursor of le Carré’s George Smiley. Apparently mild mannered, yet absolutely ruthless when the situation demands; intelligent; reclusive; and relying on his wits and a propensity for understanding the criminal mind.

Room 13 on the surface is a crime thriller, a bit of hokum to enliven the daily commute or unwind with after a dull day at the office or behind the shop counter. It is clear why his work was so popular. Escapism with a strong structure, sympathetic heroes, villains who get their just deserts, and enough intelligence for the reader to feel they have accomplished something more than a bit of time-wasting. That is a great combination for a best-seller.

Revolving around a story of forged money and revenge, the book rattles along with gusto. We are taken into the criminal underworld as imagined by the writer (and probably a long way from the truth). The action is leavened by ingenuity and enough exposition to colour in an otherwise sparsely sketched world. And through it all, almost like a haunting ghost, is the presence of J G Reeder. He doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 and fades in and out of the narrative much as one would expect of someone who is several times described as on secret service.

And when the book is finished (with some unexpected twists), the character of J G Reeder remains. Despite only a few appearances, he does not fade as quickly as the other characters. There is a sense that he is still there, in the shadows, listening and watching.

This is a book (indeed the whole Reeder series) that any aspiring should read. They are instructive as to economy, plotting, characterisation, and pace. They are fun. And they have left us with one of fiction’s more intriguing characters.