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BOOK REVIEW: THE SECRET HOUSE BY EDGAR WALLACE

Posted on: March 21, 2015

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In the first half of the 20th century Edgar Wallace was one of the most prolific and successful authors in Britain.  It was said that, at the height of his popularity in the 1920s, one in every four books sold was written by him.  And yet these days – if he’s remembered at all – it is as the creator of King Kong!  It is astonishing how an author can go from hero to zero so dramatically.  His descent into oblivion seems to have happened in the past 40 years.  In the 1960s British television was still adapting his stories for a popular series called the Edgar Wallace Mysteries.  But after that came the cult of political correctness perhaps, and suddenly Wallace was seen as horribly old-fashioned, belonging to a more simplistic age of crime fiction when characterisation was wafer-thin, there was very little introspection, the Empire ruled, and the villains were “damned forriners”.   But is it time to bring him back in from the cold?

I had barely heard of him until recently when BBC Radio 4 Extra produced a programme called Edgar Wallace – The Man Who Wrote Too Much.  I did a search for him on Kindle, and found his books were steadily being re-published, either as part of the Megapack series (where you can download bumper volumes of vintage stories for ridiculously low prices), or going free.   I began with The Secret House, thinking I’d be lucky if I managed a few pages, but found myself gradually getting enthralled with it.

I hate it when reviews give too much away about plots, particularly thrillers, so I will simply say that it starts off a bit like Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Master Blackmailer, in that a dashed scoundrel is making a comfortable living out of blackmailing members of society, that he will expose their sad little secrets unless they pay him a substantial income.  The plot moves on from that though to centre on a mysterious house deep in the English countryside, and this is where the book simply becomes a lot of fun.  The house is awash with secret passageways, hidden identities, a sinister basement, technologically-advanced spy-holes, and what seems to be a great many elevators!  There is an awful lot of dashing about goes on in this house.

The plot is stripped down to it’s bare bones.  Wallace’s style is economical.  He simply doesn’t mess about.  Like Dame Agatha Christie, he knew his audience.  He probably knew people were reading him on the train on their way to work, or in bed before dozing off.  They needed short, sharp snippets, and a plot that kept bowling along at a brisk lick.  And this is why I think he has a place now.  Our attention-spans are not brilliant these days (I usually call it my Twitter-wrecked attention-span), and yet so many thrillers seem to drag us through treacle.  We can’t have a character introduced (particularly if they’re the detective), without getting their entire interminable back-story, of how their personality is tormented by the memory of their dark childhood/broken marriage/alcohol problem/dead dog/whatever.  We get numerous flash-backs to a tragic past, of them sobbing as a child as something terrible happens.  We get prologues/preludes/prefaces, and then just as we’re getting into the plot and we’re underway, we usually get another sodding flash-back!!!! I blame The X-Factor. 

In The Secret  House there is none of that.  We know virtually nothing about the main investigating officer, T B Smith, other than that he seems to be a remarkably resourceful young man.  I liked that.  Like James Bond, it leaves us room to put our own interpretations on him.  As to the politically-correct front.  Is there anything in this book that can offend people of sensitive, delicate constitutions?  Well, if you were to go deliberately looking for something to be outraged about, I’m sure you could find it.  One of the villains is a “forriner”, but one of them is also English, so … meh.  The young girl in it, Doris, can’t claim her fortune until she gets married I suppose, but that was probably par for the course at the time this was written.   I didn’t find any offensive ideas or language, nothing that overtly jumped out at me anyway.

Wallace was sniffed at by the literary elite in his time.  Dorothy L Sayers slated him completely, but the one time I tried to read one of hers – Gaudy Night  – I found it took an absolute age for anything to happen.  For those of us who just want an unpretentious little thriller, this does the job just fine.  I hope he can be rescued from oblivion.

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