Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Avenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Somewhere between Conan Doyle and Hitchcock
In a career that spanned from the 1880s to the 1940s, English author E. Phillips Oppenheim produced over 100 novels and dozens of volumes of short stories. His novel The Avenger was originally published in England in 1907 under the title of Conspirators before being released in America the following year under its present title. The Avenger is the first of Oppenheim’s books that I have read, and if the quality of this novel is an accurate indication of his overall body of work, I look forward to exploring more of his prolific literary output.

The Avenger is presumably set during the early 20th century, an era when one would see both hansom cabs and electric broughams plying the streets of London. Herbert Wrayson returns to his apartment one evening to find an intruder rummaging through his desk. His shock and indignation are relieved a bit when he realizes said intruder is a beautiful woman. It turns out she has the wrong apartment. She had meant to break into the flat of Wrayson’s upstairs neighbor, Morris Barnes, a man with whom Wrayson is acquainted but does not count among his friends. After some inconclusive grilling, Wrayson is distracted by a phone call while the woman slips away. Later that night, Wrayson finds Morris Barnes’s dead body in a cab out in front of his building. When questioned by the police, Wrayson leaves out any mention of the woman he met that evening. Even he is not really sure why he does so. Perhaps as a gentleman, he simply feels honor-bound to protect a woman he suspects may be in some distress, or maybe he has fallen in love with her? Either way, Wrayson decides to find this mystery woman and get to the bottom of Barnes’s murder.

Oppenheim was an immensely popular novelist during his lifetime, and after reading this book it is easy to see why. The Avenger may be intended as popular entertainment for the masses, but it is very intelligently written. Oppenheim’s storytelling style (in 1907, anyway) reads like a cross between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the early thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. The narrative retains some Victorian propriety in its somewhat antiquated belief in a rigid class structure. Gentlemen are born a breed above the riff-raff and live by a gentlemanly code. Women of the upper classes are presumed eminently virtuous while those of the lower classes are prone to vice. Nevertheless, the story reads as surprisingly modern in its lack of prudishness concerning murder, infidelity, women of ill repute, and philandering cads. Like Hitchcock’s earlier films, it delivers danger and suspense while stopping shy of the more hard-boiled and violent film noirs. Though there is a murder mystery here, it is not a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes; deciphering clues is not the main concern. It is a sophisticated adventure in which classy characters find themselves involved in international intrigue. The storytelling is always dignified but never boring. Oppenheim constructs a complex and engaging plot that always keeps the reader guessing.

I read a lot of classic literature and vintage pulp fiction, and it is rare that I encounter a “new” (to me) author that really impresses me. Oppenheim is one such fortuitous discovery. His work bears similarities to that of Edgar Wallace and John Buchan, but I found The Avenger superior to novels I’ve read by either of those writers. Though no longer a household name, Oppenheim is a 100-hit wonder that definitely deserves further consideration.

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