Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: Chandelier/Candle
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
It is very rare to start a book surprised but this was certainly the case when I began reading the introduction to this book, written by Martin Edwards, as it turns out that this book was not one story but two, the title on the cover The Terror (1929), is actually a novella, so a full length novel White Face (1930) has also been added. It is a nice surprise to find you have got two stories for the price of one. Edgar Wallace is not a new author to me but I haven’t read much of his work, only The Mind of J. G. Reeder (1925) and The Feathered Serpent (1925), the former a collection of short stories and the latter one of Wallace’s thriller novels. I found it interesting that both The Terror and White Face began life as plays before becoming books, with the former’s play being written in 5 days! I have decided to review both stories within one post, as I thought it would be interesting to compare them at the end.
The story opens with a gang of thieves heisting a convoy of Australian sovereigns. Yet all does not go well for the robbers. One is shot at the scene and two of them are arrested and sent to prison. But what about their leader ‘mad’ O’Shea? It seems he has managed to evade capture and hold on to the loot. The story then shifts to a decade later to Monkshall, which is run by Colonel Redmayne and his daughter Mary, whose childhood was unstable until he came into the money to buy this property. However, all is not well as the Colonel seems permanently stressed and Mary, along with some of the servants and boarders (which they take in) become increasing frightened and nervous due to all the night time noises they hear such as screams or the eerie tones of an organ.
Although it has been ten years, Superintendent Hallick is still keen to trace the money and O’Shea, but neither of the two arrested will talk, their sentences will be soon over and they too want to track down O’Shea, but for slightly less legal reasons… These events lead to an increase of visitors at Monkshall, such as Ferdie Fane, an alcoholic who is interested in Mary and a vagrant who asks a lot of curious questions about the place. The tension mounts though when a dead body is found in the lounge late at night and the action occurs at a rapid rate after this moment, leaving the residence of Monkshall in terror, well of the Terror! A gunman on the loose, sightings of a monk on the lawn and a secret passage way:
‘Underground passages! Why, that’s the last resource, or resort – I am not certain which – of the novel writer… I never pick up a book which isn’t full of ‘em!
all make this a pacey read. A sneaky aspect of this story is that as a reader you feel fairly confident you know all the ins and outs of story, especially as to why certain events are happening and who people really are. In some ways this is true, with one of the boarders putting down in black and white the theory the reader probably believes is correct. But on the other hand in some ways the reader (well me anyways) ends up being wrong as to identifying who the murderer is. Edgar Wallace in my opinion, is an expert at sudden twists and changes, you think you know what’s happening, that in fact too much information has been given to you, but then Wallace turns everything on its head. This story definitely has gothic overtones and reminded me a little of The Phantom of the Opera (1909) by Gaston Leroux.
The narrative style is one of Wallace’s greatest strengths and I liked the fact he kept me guessing and still managed to surprise me. However, a couple of things niggled with me such as I feel the ending could have been developed further as it was a little too rushed for my liking. Also, I found the character of Mary a bit annoying, as did Superintendent Hallick no doubt (she’s not the world’s easiest witness) and overall she is a character I find hard to warm to. But these are rather minor issues.
White Face begins in the more thriller romantic vein with Michael Quigley, a crime reporter dining with the woman he loves, Janice Harman, only to find out that she is interested in a man she has been corresponding with and has now arrived in England from South Africa. As the details filter through, both Michael and the reader smell a rat, but Michael’s jealousy means Janice decides she never wants to see him again. To cap off the evening, the famous jewel thief, White Face (called so because of his white mask), raids the restaurant, stealing a valuable necklace. Janice is a relatively wealthy woman who has chosen to be a nurse in a London East End clinic and a bit creepily we are also told despite being only 23 has a tendency to be motherly towards men. Though this creepiness transfers into being a twit, as it soon seems that Janice is less in love with Donald Bateman (her letter lover) than she says, being uncomfortable when he kisses her, but weirdly is happy to discuss marrying him. All a little bit odd…
Alarm bells really begin to ring in the readers’ head when it seems Janice is planning to buy a farm for Donald in South Africa, worth thousands of pounds, a man she has only actually met in person for 10 days. However, Wallace soon shifts from Janice’s weirdness to murder! A man is found stabbed outside Doctor Marford’s clinic, where Janice works and that man just so happens to be Donald. But where is the knife? How come no one saw the person who did it despite there being three witnesses? And why does a woman who arrives at the scene believe her husband did it, a statement she makes before going unconscious? In some ways the police think this case will be simple, Louis Landor was seen to punch Donald, shortly before his death and has now perhaps guiltily vanished. Tracking down Landor it seems will solve the case. Or will it?
Some of Donald’s history comes to light, proving the readers’ and Michael’s suspicions correct, but in turn this widens the field of suspects. How many other people has he tried to trick and defraud around the world? And how many of them want to get even? Around this point the creepy romance angle makes its final appearance with the power in Janice and Michael’s relationship reversing, though when it comes to a girl crying, Michael makes a speedy exit. Although a rather small part of the plot its dysfunctional nature makes it an intriguing one. However, from this point on, the plot comes across as more like an early police procedural with the focus being on the efforts of the police investigating the case, a case which becomes increasingly baffling with the police divisional surgeon disappearing and White Face weaving their way throughout events.
The solution to this case is a really good one with Wallace in my opinion using a narrative which is slippery, yet fair, in the way which is reminiscent of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which means that the revelation of the killer is a complete surprise and I did have to go back and reread the previous chapter to go and spot the narrative tricks. Something I wasn’t expecting from this novel was the moral ambiguity and complexity surrounding the killer, a person whose actions are wrong, yet you get to see what events led up to this moment and how other characters, who won’t get arrested are nearly equally as bad and contemptible.
Comparing the Two
On the surface there are a number of differences between the two stories such as the fact that The Terror, is a country house thriller, with the police having little involvement in events, whilst White Face is set within a grimy urban setting and being for the most part a police procedural of sorts. Moreover, the issue of class, poverty and criminality is much more key to White Face than it is to The Terror, and this was a feature I found interesting when reading White Face, as it was intriguing to see how the different police officers dealt with impoverished suspects and habitual criminals. In addition, in the competition for who is the greatest prat, I think Janice definitely wins hands down in comparison to Mary.
However, there are also some similarities such as the fact that in both stories there is a policeman called Elk and that both stories are structurally quite episodic, giving them their faster pace, though White Face is probably a bit more episodic. Moreover, both stories also switch the perspective of the story to get different characters’ viewpoints, enabling readers to access different bits of information, meaning there isn’t an overload of police interviews.
Overall, I enjoyed these two stories, as Wallace is good at telling a story with a quick pace and his sneakiness and ability to provide twists is very strong indeed. Harper Collins will be releasing this book later this month.