Monday, March 17, 2014

The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace

Too cute for its own good
In the period between the two World Wars, Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular and prolific writers in England, though American audiences probably remember him best as the co-creator of King Kong. Upon reading his 1919 novel The Green Rust, it’s easy to understand why Wallace was so popular in his day, yet today’s readers are unlikely to find this book as satisfying as their counterparts of almost a century ago.

The novel opens with the murder of a millionaire, the ramifications of which will be felt throughout the book. So far so good. In chapter two, we meet the heroine of the tale, Oliva Cresswell. She lives in a London apartment building, sandwiched between two mysterious floormates, one an American drunkard, Mr. Beale, the other an unconvincingly Dutch physician, Dr. Van Heerden. It becomes obvious very quickly that Van Heerden is more Deutsch than Dutch. Given that this book was written shortly after the end of World War I, who do you think the bad guy will be, the “Yank” or the “Hun”? The book is anything but subtle with its German stereotypes and anti-Kaiser rhetoric.

The story revolves around a terrorist plot—which is admirably prescient of Wallace—but the book is oddly devoid of terror. The best thing that can be said about The Green Rust is that it is clever, but its very cleverness undermines any possible suspense. It’s like a collection of all the cheesy, dated flirting that goes on in between the important scenes of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The three principles and the ensemble cast of supporting characters are intertwined in a web as tangled as The Count of Monte Cristo. They are always being brought together by incredible coincidences and showing up on each other’s doorsteps at just the right moment. All these fortuitous encounters are necessary to move the plot forward, but believability is at a minimum. The heroes don’t demonstrate a great deal of competence at crimefighting, and the villains are frequent bunglers. At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Ms. Cresswell sees her two neighbors as potential suitors, even though they are both obviously stalking her. A silly plot device that involves forcing a woman to get married hardly seems possible. An evil mastermind is wanted for various crimes, yet he still returns to his own apartment almost every night. At least two-thirds of the book goes by before anyone explains what the Green Rust is, though the reader has already figured it out long before. The hero uncovers a plot for world domination that will kill millions and likely start World War 1.5, yet he keeps it to himself rather than inform his friends in law enforcement, simply so he can maintain his air of mystery.

I have no doubt this book was immensely entertaining to the 1920s audience for which it was written. Given the residual animosity toward Germany from the recent Great War, British audiences would have eaten this stuff up. To the 21st century reader, however, the book is predictable and cliché-ridden. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that Wallace is not a bad writer. To his credit, his prose is effortless, his dialogue is snappy, and it does take some skill to weave so many far-fetched plot threads into some semblance of coherence. Wallace wrote almost 200 novels and almost 1,000 short stories. I’m sure there’s a good book in there somewhere, but this isn’t it.

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