Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: White Face by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

White Face involves more mystery than a number of Wallace's novels. Who is the titular character, a man with a nasty habit of concealing his face with a white cloth and going about robbing people, and how can a man be fatally stabbed without his assailant being seen by people close by?

The characters are a nice array from both high and low life. White Face is set in east London's Tidal Basin, so naturally it is replete with poverty and darkness. A shining light there, however, is Dr Marford. He runs a clinic for the local populace, with an unlikely assistant in the shape of Janice Harman, a rich girl loved by crime reporter Michael Quigley. Unfortunately she is more interested in well-off Donald Bateman, newly arrived from South Africa with thrilling tales of life out there and marriage on his mind. And let's not overlook Dr Rudd, an unpleasant police surgeon.

Tidal Basin residents include Lorna Weston, said to live in the Basin's only respectable flat but also described with a wink as going to the West End every night all dolled up, and the ancient cabby and notoriously honest Gregory Wicks, who lives in Gallows Court, a troublesome place separated by a brick wall from the doctor's yard.

The mystery gets under way the night Dr Marford looks out and sees two men fighting, a not uncommon occurrence in the area. One goes off and the other, in evening dress no less, proceeds in the opposite direction, only to suddenly drop to the ground further down the street. In the course of robbing him, a third man is apprehended and though the doctor hastens to the fallen man's aid, the man is dead, having been stabbed. The weapon is nowhere to be seen and none of the men saw his assailant.

But there's a lot more going on than that...

My verdict: I really enjoyed White Face, especially the short but beautifully written bit of misdirection towards the end and the subtle placement of clues. As the affable Detective-Sergeant Elk remarks "In a murder case everybody has got something to hide, and that's why it's harder to get the truth about murder than any other kind of crime" and he is absolutely correct. I rate White Face one of Wallace's best.

Etext: White Face by Edgar Wallace

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: The Joker by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

As the story opens, Stratford Harlow is on his way to meet solicitor Franklin Ellenbury in Devon. Harlow sees a convict working party returning to Dartmoor Prison and on a whim decides to go back to the hotel he has just left and summon Ellenbury to come to him. We know right away who else is on the wrong side of the law, since Harlow instructs Ellenbury to pretend they are strangers when they meet at the hotel. Ellenbury cannot refuse this or any other summons, for Harlow has helped him pay debts and replace money embezzled from clients. Indeed, Ellenbury is still receiving money from Harlow in payment for his participation in certain of Harlow's financial dealings.

By changing his plans and returning to the hotel Harlow notices and eventually scrapes up acquaintanceship with Aileen Rivers. She's on her way to visit her actor uncle Arthur Ingle, now doing a stretch in Dartmoor for forgery and fraud.

Harlow, a multi-millionaire, is an unusual rogue. He enjoys his "jokes" -- many would call them criminal -- no end, so it's not surprising the name of Sub-Inspector James Carlton of Scotland Yard comes up in conversation between Harlow and Ellenbury. Several months later, in typical Wallace fashion, Carlton meets Miss Rivers by accident (literally) on the Thames Embankment. Fortunately she is only shaken and her elbow slightly injured, but he insists on escorting her home.

Miss Rivers is looking after her uncle's flat while he's in durance vile and when it is burgled she calls Carlton for help. While he's there, Harlow shows up out of the blue to offer her a job or so he says, but suddenly faints and when recovered leaves in a hurry. Carlton has his eye on Harlow, but the latter has covered his tracks so well it looks highly unlikely Carlton will ever be able to pinch his prey.

What follows is a gallop through a plot featuring a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, burglary, a man held a prisoner in luxurious surroundings, underground rooms, a sinister housekeeper, fortunes made and lost, and strange goings-on in the House of Commons, among other shenanigans.

My verdict: Stratford Harlow is one of those engaging villains readers feel they should boo and yet there is something charming about him, as Miss Rivers freely acknowledges. Wallace engages in some wonderful misdirection and while his characters and situations are in true detective fiction fashion not always what they seem, he manages his literary sleight of hand so well readers will almost certainly be surprised when at the end of the novel they learn...well, I won't say what. Read it and find out!

The Joker by Edgar Wallace

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: Blue Hand by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

Legal clerk Jim Steele VC is horrified when told by Eunice Weldon, the girl he loves, that she has taken the post of secretary to the mother of Digby Groat and is going to live in the Groat family home in Grosvenor Square.

As well Jim might, for Digby Groat out Sir-Jaspers Sir Jasper. Among other things, he is not above menacing his kleptomaniac mother and torturing small animals. His mother will inherit a fortune from her deceased brother on a certain date if her niece Dorothy Danton cannot be found. Since Dorothy disappeared in a boating accident while still a baby and has not been seen since, it looks as if the Groats will soon be extremely wealthy. But Jim, who is interested in the Danton case, is determined they will never get their hands on the fortune.

The first night under the Groats' roof Eunice receives an unseen nocturnal visitor who leaves a card stamped with a blue hand, advising her to flee the house. Despite this ominous warning, after Jane Groat suffers a stroke Eunice stays on. Other blue hand marks appear at the house and soon the reader is in the thick of a plot featuring a mysterious veiled woman, drugs, gangs, derring-do on trains, in planes, and on the high seas, and a lot more besides. Aside: if this had been a film, no doubt the audience would cheer when they see how a minor baddie comes to a particularly spectacular end.

The plot is revealed fairly early in the book, and the last part taken up by a prolonged chase involving cars, vans, yachts, and seaplanes. Jim and Eunice are standard models of rectitude, and it is the cunning solicitor Septimus Salter and the Portuguese yacht captain who are the most interesting characters. A fairly routine book for Wallace, though fans will want to add it to their collection.

My verdict: There's somewhat less mystery in Blue Hand than in other Wallaces and parts of the plot are transparent, but still a few twists will catch the reader by surprise. The pace picks up towards the end of the book and it was refreshing to see a novel whose heroinne has backbone.

Blue Hand by Edgar Wallace

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon

by Mary

As this country house mystery opens, John Foss, following an injury to his ankle as he descends from a train at Flensham Station, is taken by fellow passenger Nadine Leveridge to Bragley Court, upon which Nadine and eleven other guests are converging for a weekend house party. Foss has to go to Bragley Court because the doctor is there to attend to the elderly mother-in-law of Lord Aveling, owner of the house. Although the imobilised Foss is a stranger he is considered a gentleman (partially on the basis of his old school tie and an uncle listed in Debrett), and so in the way these things go, he is invited to stay at the house until his ankle mends.

It is not long before he meets fellow guest county cricketer Harold Taverley, who fills Foss in about the other guests, including those who haven't yet arrived. Besides Nadine there's artist Leicester Pratt, sausage king Mr Rowe, his wife, and daughter Ruth, Liberal MP Sir James Earnshaw, writer Edyth Fermoy-Jones (concerning whom Taverley observes she would "die happy if she goes down in history as the female Edgar Wallace"), actress Zena Wilding, and waspish gossip columnist Lionel Bultin. There's also a somewhat mysterious couple named Chaters, about whom Taverley knows nothing.

Once assembled for the weekend there would have been twelve guests but as Foss points out he's the thirteenth. However, his cricketing informant claims au contraire, any bad luck that showed up would fall on the thirteenth guest who comes through the door of the house.

But all is not well at Bragley Court.

"The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets...Something's wrong...." Foss reflects. He is not wrong. Disturbing events take place. Then a stranger keeping constant watch on the railway station is found dead in a quarry. Fortunately Detective-Inspector Kendall is in the area gingering up the local constabulary so is on the spot when the police are called in.

My verdict: Published in 1936, Thirteen Guests is smoothly written, displaying little evidence of its age except for a humorous reference to Mussolini and another to Vinolia soap. The solution to the crimes is based largely on a (mercifully not extensive) timetable constructed by Detective-Inspector Kendall. I must however mention the author is not quite fair in relation to a couple of clews and one coversation, although the work-round needed to convey a major clew is subtly done and easily missed. Despite that, cosy readers as well as fans of Golden Age novels should enjoy Thirteen Guests. Martin Edwards contributes an interesting and informative introduction to this entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.