Thursday, June 27, 2019

back in my mystery happy place once again with an Edgar Wallace double feature

Two books, both written by the same author in the same year, 1922.   An iffy proposition, running the risk of getting something same old same old with the second after reading the first.  Luckily, that was not the case here.

Edgar Wallace was a highly-prolific author; he wrote so much in fact that I didn't even bother to count the total number of works in his bibliography to give here because there are so many.  And given my penchant for crime/mystery fiction, one would think that I would have read one of his books by now, but no.  The Angel of Terror and The Crimson Circle are the only two of Wallace's novels I've read, although his books take up nearly one entire shelf in my British reading room.  

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
209 pp

Also known as The Destroying Angel,  The Angel of Terror begins in the courtroom at the end of the Berkeley Street Murder Trial as the judge is about to pass sentence on one James Meredith, who had been convicted of murder.   The jurors and the judge could not but believe the story told by Meredith's ex-fiancée and cousin Jean Briggerland, and ultimately the judge sentences him to death.  His sentence is commuted to a long prison stay, but his attorney and friend Jack Glover knows that Briggerland gave false testimony for what she would consider good reason.  As his cousin,  she will inherit the bulk of James' fortune, since according to Meredith's father's will, if James had not married by age thirty, the money  would go to his aunt and her "heirs and successsors," aka  Jean Briggerland and her father.  His 30th birthday is coming up quickly and   Glover comes up with a bizarre plan to keep the money out of Briggerland's hands:  he has selected a young woman named Lydia Beale,  who is deeply in debt and is struggling to survive to become Meredith's bride.  Seventy-five summons of judgment against her for her father's debts have overwhelmed her;  she will get a huge sum of  money up front, and never has to have any sort of dealings with Meredith.  As the book's back blurb notes, "it is a proposal she cannot afford to ignore."   Glover temporarily springs Meredith via a medical excuse allowing him to escape long enough for the nuptials to be performed.  Lydia becomes not only Mrs. Meredith but also the widow  Meredith all within a matter of moments.  Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, James had written his own will prior to the marriage, so on his death, Lydia receives his estate.  But now that she has Meredith's fortune, the Briggerlands become her heirs, and as Jack Glover so rightfully states, "--there's going to be hell!"   Truer words were never spoken.
In this story, there is absolutely no question of the identity of the "Angel of Terror."   We know from the outset that Jean Briggerland is  one of the most cold-blooded, evil-minded and absolutely mercenary women villains who has ever graced the pages of a crime novel. She is a woman who openly states that what she fears more than death is a "life without money."  However, because of her beauty and her great acting abilities, no one but Jack Glover believes she could possibly be guilty of anything, that she has no qualms about killing, and he will do what it takes to keep Lydia out of her clutches. 

The Angel of Terror was fun, but a bit farfetched considering that Lydia remains clueless for the duration of the novel.  I was looking at what readers said and time and time again they come back to Lydia being either hopelessly naive or absolutely stupid, and in all honesty her character can become a bit exasperating.  However,  I found the story to be more about whether or not justice will ever be served, a point on which the reader will have to make up his/her own mind at the end.

House of Stratus, 2001
originally published 1922
220 pp

    Of the two, The Crimson Circle was much more to my liking because it has that pulpy feel to it that I love so much.  Who wouldn't love a book about a secret crime organization and a detective that uses "psychometrics" to help his clients?  It also happens to have one of the most twisty endings, where not one but two surprises await the reader.   This one also got the silent "bravo" in my head after I'd finished it.

Private detective Derrick Yale is called into the home of James Beardmore, who has received four letters from "The Crimson Circle" demanding one hundred thousand pounds.  Beardmore has no fear of the Crimson Circle, but perhaps he should have heeded that fourth letter, since he later turns up dead.  But Beardmore is only one of many victims of this shady organization:  it seems that many members of the upper class have been blackmailed with the threat of death looming if they do not pay.  In each occurrence, something is left behind with the sign of a red circle, and the victims take the warning seriously enough to give the Crimson Circle exactly what is demanded.   Exactly who is the mastermind here is what Chief Inspector Parr has been tasked with discovering, but so far, his efforts have yielded few, if any, results.  Now his bosses have thrown down the gauntlet:  "if he cannot run the organization to earth he must send in his resignation."

Parr knows that the Crimson Circle  "had agents in all branches of life and in all classes."  None of them, however, knew the identities of the others nor their "chief," and each had his own "function to perform."  We, the readers know who some of these people are, including the beautiful Thalia Drummond, a known thief who eventually becomes Yale's secretary.   Time is ticking for Parr, so  he joins forces with Parr  to unmask the ringleader, while one man already knows who he is.  To say more is to spoil but jeez Louise, this was a lot of fun.

from IMDB
I liked it so much, in fact, that I watched the English-dubbed film from 1960 after finishing the novel.   The movie, of course, is not quite as good as the novel, but still manages to get the basics correct, although the shockers from the book don't play out as well on screen.  Of course, it could be that I already knew the ending, so there's that.

Overall, both books were fun reads, but I enjoyed The Crimson Circle a whole lot more than I did The Angel of Terror. One thing they both have in common besides the year in which they were written are strong women who take center stage.     Readers of old pulp fiction would certainly enjoy The Crimson Circle, or anyone who is exploring the work of Edgar Wallace certainly could not go wrong starting with this book which is definitely the better of these two.  I'm sure I'll be back for more Wallace novels in the future.

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