Saturday, June 30, 2012

Death Packs a Suitcase, Bryan Edgar Wallace

Death Packs a Suitcase is a spy thriller written by Bryan Edgar Wallace, the son of Edgar Wallace. The younger Wallace had a reasonably successful writing career but is now entirely forgotten in English-speaking countries. His books have however been the basis of many movies, almost entirely in Germany.

When the German Rialto studios started to enjoy enormous success with their adaptations  of Edgar Wallace thrillers, known as krimis, at the beginning of the 1960s other German studios wanted to get in on the act but they couldn’t always secure the rights to Edgar Wallace’s books. They came up with a brilliant solution - they’d do adaptations of his son’s novels instead. The similarities of the two writers’ names was a major attraction and as a result many of Bryan Edgar Wallace’s books were filmed.

Bryan Edgar Wallace’s novels are not easy to find these days but I did track down a copy of Death Packs a Suitcase, written in 1961.

It’s more of a straight spy thriller than his father’s books and it has a Cold War background which you won’t find in any of Edgar Wallace’s story since he died in 1932.

The Russians have developed a new multi-megaton nuclear bomb which is so small it will fit into a suitcase. In fact to demonstrate its compactness they’ve actually placed it into a suitcase. They’re feeling pretty pleased with themselves until a British spy named Tom Pringle steals their new suitcase atom bomb. Pringle also steals a twin-engined Russian bomber in which to make his getaway. He’s approaching the West German frontier when he receives a radio message changing his landing instructions. Just as he crosses the border he is shot down by a pursuing Russian MiG-19. He ejects and lands safely just inside West German territory where he is met by his contact. Pringle has a nagging feeling something is wrong, and he’s right. He is shot dead and the suitcase is stolen.

But the suitcase was not stolen by the Russians. In fact nobody knows who has stolen it. British intelligence are very upset, and so are the Russians. The suitcase has been stolen by a mysterious criminal gang. They intend to sell it back to the British, for 15 million pounds’ worth of uncut diamonds. If the British fail to meet their price they will blow up London. Eight million lives now hang in the balance!

British intelligence must find the suitcase. Their top agents, including Bill Tern, are put on the job. They also call in Scotland Yard to help them, in the person of Chief-Inspector Quil. This is one of the ways in which this is a slightly unusual spy thriller - one can’t really imagine James Bond’s boss M calling in the police to help 007 on a case.

The result is a mixture of spy thriller and police procedural. It’s rather like a cross between Edgar Wallace and Ian Fleming. This is an angle that would certainly have appealed to the German makers of krimis who always liked to have a Scotland Yard inspector as the hero.

Bill Tern soon comes across an unexpected and unwelcome lead. Anything or anyone that has been in contact with the suitcase will be slightly radioactive and he discovers that his girlfriend Susan’s cigarette lighter is in fact slightly radioactive. Could Susan be involved in this appalling conspiracy? Susan has her own problems. Her father has been roped into a shady business deal by a smooth financial operator and then her father disappears. Bill can’t see any way there could be a connection, expect for the annoying fact of that radioactive cigarette lighter.

And Susan has other worries as well since she’s been warned that Bill Tern is a secret communist. Could Bill be involved in the theft of the bomb? Or could he be working for the Russians to recover it for their side? The British authorities don’t want the bomb in the hands of an insane criminal but they don’t want the Russians to get it back either.

Chief-Inspector Quil is meanwhile conducting the case as a regular criminal investigation, but one with very high stakes. And he keeps coming up against dead ends. Literally so - everyone who might be able to provide a lead seems to end up dead. And time is running out.

I’m not going to suggest that this is one of the masterpieces of the genre but it’s an entertaining and enjoyably outrageous tale. Bryan Edgar Wallace inherited his father’s penchant for complicated plots and while he doesn’t quite have his father’s skill he can still spin an engaging yarn with plenty of twists and turns and plenty of action.

This is a book that will probably appeal most to fans of the German krimi movies but if you’re in the mood for a slightly unconventional tale that mixes crime and espionage it’s worth a look.

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