Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Deeper Into Wallace


I have only gotten worse with estimations of time as time has rolled on, but I must have started reading and collecting Edgar Wallace novels about 15 years ago. After reading a few of them, I thought I had sized him up as a practitioner of his genre; I liked his criminal universe, but his style didn't do that much for me. When it came to terror and mystery fiction of his era, I much preferred Gaston Leroux, Sax Rohmer and Maurice Leblanc, not to mention the Fantômas novels of Souvestre-Allain. 

However, in recent weeks, I've found myself returning to Wallace and adding prodigiously to my collection. Lofts and Adley's indispensable THE BRITISH BIBLOGRAPHY OF EDGAR WALLACE has helped me to order my collection, which presents amounts to 99 (!) different hardcovers. (When the mail comes today, it's possible I'll be adding my 100th.) On the day I finally put my collection into some kind of chronology and could see how much remained to be found, how did I celebrate? By reading one of the Wallace books I didn't have - on my Kindle.  

As someone who approached Wallace from the standpoint of someone who loves the German thrillers based on his books, I have always tended to see more than one Wallace. There is the author of the mysteries (THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG, THE SQUEAKER, THE TERROR, THE AVENGER), and then there is the one who writes about the Great War (WRIT IN BARRACKS), about British colonialism (SANDERS OF THE RIVER), about aviation (TAM O' THE SCOOTS) and race horses (GREY TIMOTHY). Does a collector of Wallace need to collect the non-mysteries, if those other subjects don't interest him? 

Of course I had to complicate things by finding out.

As I added to my collection such titles as THE MIND OF MR. REEDER, THE GOLDEN HADES and THE DEVIL MAN, I suddenly found myself feeling curious, for the first time, about his SANDERS books. After all, they were probably his most popular books at the time of their publication; they provoked quite a sensation. These are short story collections centered around Commissioner Sanders, a representative of the British government who is sent to police a territory in Africa - to subjugate native superstitions, to inspire fear and and respect for the law, and loyalty for the cause of civilization, while at the same time being careful to preserve what is unique and special about the country, its language and its heritage. These books - nine of them, published between 1911 and 1923 - tend to be little-read these days because people assume them to be racist. There was a famous filming of one back in the thirties, starring Leslie Banks and Paul Robeson, which Robeson is said to have later regretted making. I haven't seen the film, but as of the wee hours of this morning, I have read SANDERS OF THE RIVER.


I started out expecting not to read much more than the first story, because adventure fiction is not really my thing, and I thought I could imagine - from the mysteries I'd read - what strange cocktail might result with Wallace donning a pith helmet. But the surprise was on me: I think SANDERS may be my favorite Wallace book of the dozen or so I've read; it is better written than those of his mysteries I know. Each story has a fable-like simplicity that is steered, in almost every case, toward complex ironic stalemates. I found myself reading two, three, four stories in a sitting - unusual for me, who usually reads one and sets the book aside. This first collection was published in 1911 and there are instances of racist language, which I was initially disappointed to find... however, I became quite intrigued by what I noticed was the extreme specificity of its use. 

There is one racist remark that is hard to ignore because it is expressed by the author himself, when he observes that "the average black woman is ugly of face, but beautiful of figure" - but Wallace relays this opinion before introducing an African woman of rare and surpassing, indeed bewitching, beauty. The N word is never used in hate or anger in these stories, but rather in contempt of falsity or pretense - it's almost always expressed by an African looking down his nose at a rival from another tribe. It's also used once or twice by Sanders himself, as a reprimand - when one of the Kings or warriors in his territory try to charm or BS him by speaking broken English, because it is his job (besides keeping the peace and discouraging murder) to preserve the African way of life, which extends to encouraging these charges to communicate with him in the full eloquence of their native language. His authority extends to whippings and hangings, but these demonstrations of his lawful authority pale beside the evils he is actively curbing - massacres staged to abduct women for wives, the practicing of juju, cannibalism. What most impressed me about these stories is that there is no sense of caricature in them; all the characters seem profoundly human and distinct - sometimes eccentric, sometimes mysterious and even mystic, sometimes formidable, sometimes inexplicably evil or charming or both. Wallace writes about them, about their vanity, their innocence, their coyness and bravado, about their psychologies and their strange capacity to learn new things telepathically, with remarkable and persuasive acuity. 

Sanders himself is a forerunner of the sort of hero we see a lot today - he's a man with a front row seat to the slow death of the world's last vestiges of innocence as it becomes infected by inevitable exposure to the supposed civilization he at once represents and deeply disdains.

And to my surprise, SANDERS OF THE RIVER actually does encompass some fantastic content. One story is about witchcraft, one is about a voodoo curse, and another is about the way members of a certain tribe seem to "know" things that happen within their tribe, even when they happen many miles away. But all of these subjects are treated in a disarming, down to earth, practical manner, without the usual hyperbole that usually asserts and underscores their strangeness. Here, they are all another bizarre chapter in Sanders' experience. 

In related news, I think I have now finally acquired all six books that Wallace's son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, published - at least in English.  I think it's probably time I read one of those.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


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