Saturday, March 15, 2014

Edgar Wallace's Terror Keep

Terror Keep is a 1927 Edgar Wallace thriller featuring perhaps the most memorable of all Wallace’s heroes, Mr J. G. Reeder.

In 1924 Wallace had introduced the reading public to Mr. J. G. Reeder in his novel Room 13. Reeder is at pains to point out that he is not a detective, which is technically true. He is not a policeman, and has no power to arrest suspects. He works as an investigator of banking crime, particularly forgery. He is nonetheless the terror of the criminal classes. Mr Reeder is an insignificant little middle-aged man with a decidedly old-fashioned appearance, and in fact an old-fashioned outlook on life. But appearances are deceptive. Mr Reeder is a man possessed of a keen and subtle intelligence and he understands how the criminal mind works. He is also possessed of a steely determination to see justice done. He is outwardly diffident and even timid but the reality is that criminals are far more afraid of him than he is of them.

Reeder plays a relatively minor role in the novel. Wallace however was no fool and he realised this was a character with real potential. He therefore revived the character in a 1925 collection of short stories, The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder. By this time Mr Reeder has moved on to a job with the Public Prosecutor’s Office where he can extend his war on the criminal classes to a much larger field of crimes. This collection is one of Wallace’s best works. The author was however not yet done with Mr J. G. Reeder, and he found himself the hero of Wallace’s 1927 thriller Terror Keep.

The stories in The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder are very much detective stories. The character might not have seemed quite so suitable to serve as a hero of a thriller but Mr Reeder rises to the occasion in impressive fashion.

Of all the criminals now serving prison sentences as a result of Mr Reeder’s activities few have been as brilliant or as dangerous as Crazy John Flack. Flack is not actually in prison; he has been confined for life to the asylum for criminal lunatics at Broadmoor. Flack is both a genius of crime and a madman. When he was committed to Broadmoor he vowed to have his revenge on J. G. Reeder. Now he has escaped, and intends to pursue two projects dear to his disordered but brilliant mind, the resumption of his criminal career and the destruction of Mr Reeder.

Mr Reeder is not especially concerned about the threat to his own safety. He believes he is a match for any criminal. He is however worried that Crazy John might strike at him through Miss Margaret Belman. Miss Belman is a young lady of Mr Reeder’s acquaintance of whom he is extremely fond. Mr Reeder is not a man who has ever had either the time or the inclination for romantic attachments but he has to admit to himself that he really does find Miss Belman’s company to be remarkably congenial. Even more remarkable is the fact that Miss Belman seems equally fond of his company.

Reeder decides it would be best to get Miss Belman out of London and he manages, discreetly and without her knowledge, to secure her a position in the country as a kind of secretary-manageress at Larmes Keep. Larmes Keep is an ancient castle that has been converted into a boarding house, but a very exclusive boarding house indeed.

In fact Larmes Keep proves to be very far from being a safe place to be. 

Mr Reeder’s pursuit of Crazy John Flack will eventually bring him to Larmes Keep as well as the two main strands of the plot gradually weave themselves together.

The climax of the book is a real tour-de-force on Wallace’s part, so I do not intend to offer any hints as to its nature.

The problem facing any author attempting detective stories at this time was the problem of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes had established a complete dominance of the field of fictional detectives, and in the 1920s his popularity was as great as ever. Indeed Conan Doyle was still writing Sherlock Holmes stories in that decade. Anyone trying to create a fictional detective had to find a way to avoid the accusation of merely creating a Sherlock Holmes clone. There were two possible solutions to this dilemma. One was to create a detective who was as colourless as possible, in contrast to the very colourful and eccentric Sherlock Holmes. The other was to create a detective who was just as colourful, but in a manner that was as different as possible from Holmes. 

Wallace solved the problem brilliantly by adopting both options at once. Mr J. G. Reeder is so insignificant that his insignificance becomes a major eccentricity in its own right. And Reeder is mild-mannered and socially awkward and at the same time he pursues wrong-doers with the deadly cold-bloodedness and single-mindedness of a snake stalking its prey. Mr Reeder also has a very definite if offbeat sense of humour. For a man who could easily be mistaken for an ageing and rather lowly civil servant J. G. Reeder is in fact one of the most delightfully memorable fictional detectives in the genre.

Terror Keep includes one feature you would not normally expect to find in an Edgar Wallace thriller - character development. In the course of the novel J. G. Reeder changes quite a great deal. In fact he changes so much that in some respects this had to be his final adventure, since he is by the end of the book not quite the same man he was. His character being now complete he was no longer a suitable character for any further stories although he does pop up in one or two screenplays Wallace wrote during the late 20s.

Terror Keep is an exceptionally effective and thoroughly entertaining thriller. Highly recommended.

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