Monday, November 06, 2006

When the Gangs Came to London: Edgar Wallace

Set in the late 1920s-early 1930s (the Golden Age of Gangdom, if you will), When the Gangs Came to London (WGCL) is rated as one of Edgar Wallace’s best work by fans (I must confess I am one of the more ardent ones) of his genre of crime fiction.

A kind of crossover mob story, WGCL traces the exploits (and eventual downfall) of two gangs from Chicago, operating in London.

The book has all the elements you would expect from Edgar Wallace – an all-knowing villain (or set of villains), a hard-working intelligent set of policemen from Scotland Yard fettered by a very British set of laws, quick murders of the rich and the poor, an exceedingly pretty woman, a hint of a love interest (so wonderfully portrayed by Wallace in so many of his works), a company that acts as a cover for the mob (another Wallace staple)… Not to mention, Wallace’s sparkling oh-so-brilliant language and outstandingly dry wit – a wit that pervades through the narratives and the dialogues. Two examples stand out.

“With great presence of mind, Mr. Smethwich Gould realized that he had forgotten to note the number of the car. He realized this the moment the car number was invisible…”

“She produced a platinum card- case and a card, and sailed out, leaving behind her the exotic aroma of everybody’s favourite scent. Leslie opened the window. She liked perfumes, but preferred them one at a time.”

What makes this book different from many of Wallace’s other works is the character of Captain Jiggs Allerman, who comes from Chicago to help Scotland Yard nab the mobs. Wallace uses Jiggs delightfully to comment on the rigidity and the corresponding inadequacy of Scotland Yard in controlling the mob. The commentary is not so much on police themselves, but on the laws of the land, and the people who bring them to effect. Of course, by the end of the book, you realize that Jiggs is as English in his humour as his Yard compatriots.”

An anxious nurse bent over him.

“‘You mustn’t talk any more, Captain Allerman,’ she said.

“He scowled up at her.

“‘Not talk any more?’ he growled. ‘What’s the matter with me—dead or sump’n?’”

Extensive detailing is something you don’t expect from Edgar Wallace – may be it’s the constraint of limiting his books to 192 pages, or may be it’s just his impatience and urge to go on to his next book. But in the case of WGCL, it could have been interesting to get more background on the two mobs – green and blue (subsequently they merge into one – red) – how they grew and why they are so powerful. The only people you read of in the book – the leaders of the two mobs – seem too glibly powerful.

That notwithstanding, WGCL is a great read in the true Edgar Wallace tradition – you just sit on the sidelines and watch. You don’t sweat when you read it, you don’t lose the thread, you don’t worry about the good people – you know all will be well in the end.

23 comments:

Uriah Robinson said...

Obviously the twenties were the golden age of gangs in the USA, Capone and Prohibition etc, but I think the 1950's and 1960's were London's gang peak.

The Krays and my neighbours in Camberwell, the Richardsons were operating almost at will for many years. The Richardson's enforcer Mad Frankie Fraser [aka The Dentist] now does a tour of Gangland London for visitors.

De Scribe said...

Point, Uriah. I think Edgar Wallace possibly made it possible for the English to understand gangs much before they became big in London, perhaps.
AND YES, I have heard of the tour of Gangland London, but have never managed to do that on my various visits to London. May be next time.

Peter said...

Welcome to blogdom. I've never read Wallace, but this seems interesting; I think I'll give it a look.

Interesting that he divided his gangs into greens and blues. Green vs. blue gang warfare goes back close to 2,000 years, if not further back.
========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.
blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

You probably will enjoy it, Peter, considering what you cover in your blog. Can you throw some more light on the green vs. blue warfare of more than 2,000 years ago?

Peter said...

Thanks for the response. I've read that Wallace was phenomenally popular at one time and that more movies had been made of his books than of those by any other author. Sounds as if he's worth a look.

Re greens vs. blues, the factions at chariot races in the Roman empire were divided into colors. Eventually, only the greens and the blues were left, and by the sixth century, in Constantinople, these were full-fledged gangs, complete with Hunnish haircuts and massacres that killed thousands. They were far more bloody and violent than Crips or Bloods or anything Walter Hill showed in his movie The Warriors. Here's an account from the historian/gossip Procopius, writing in the sixth century:

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/
Texts/Procopius/Anecdota/Appendices*/1.html


Wallace definitely had a sense of history in choosing his colors. His choice gives me a sense that he viewed his themes on a grand scale.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

Oops, I just took a second look at that link. It's from an appendix to Procopius, not from Procopius himself. But Procopius is the classic source for Greens and Blues. Besides, you get the idea: Thee were bloody, violent gangs wreaking havoc at the heart of a great empire -- a good model for gangs wreaking havoc in London.

De Scribe said...

Thanks for the link, Peter. Yes, Wallace does view his themes on a grand scale. You may want to read some of his other works as well. The Four Just Men, for example, is another interesting read.

Peter said...

Thanks. I see that Four Just Men was Wallace's first novel and that is seems to have an interesting plot: Four virtuous, rich and powerful men go beyond the boundaries of the law to knock off enemies of freedom. I wonder who the four just men's targets are, and also how such a plot would play today.
========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

Interesting thought, Peter - how The Four Just Men would pan out today. It may be worth speculating how some of the other crime classics of the past would shape out in today's environment.

Peter said...

A modern version would have the four men going after Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il or, if it really got adventurous, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- unless, of course, it went after some mythical and murky power who is really behind all those guys. Who are the bad guys in thrillers these days, anyway?
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

Going after an Osama or other such would be a bit too predictable, I suppose Peter. And a bit Hollywoodish too, if I may say so. A Wallace of today is more likely to target local big names in one country, and definitely an anonymous "real" power that is really behind the public personalities, like you said. Now you are tempting me to re-read some of the other Wallaces, and speculate on modern day versions of them.

Peter said...

And you're tempting me to read The Four Just Men to see who the targets are. Is sounds as if Wallace may have been an ancestor of super-heroes, as much as or more than of crime stories.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

And you're tempting me to read The Four Just Men to see who the targets are. Is sounds as if Wallace may have been an ancestor of super-heroes, as much as or more than of crime stories.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"

De Scribe said...

I can assure you Peter - you will enjoy it. Let me know your thoughts after you read it.

Peter said...

Have you seen this: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/profiles/edgarwallace.php

========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

Looks as if that may have been chopped off, so: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/
profiles/edgarwallace.php

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De Scribe said...

I've seen this link before as well, Peter. And I generally get thrilled to note that I have read and possess most of the "key" books mentioned here.

Peter said...

I rented a couple of Alfred Hitchcock's early sound movies recently, Blackmail and Murder. In one of them, a character proposes calling in Scotland Yard, to which the response is something like: "Oh, no one would have heard of them if Edgar Wallace hadn't written about them." He was big enough in the late 1920 and early 1930s to be a pop-culture reference.
===================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

That's a really cool one, Peter. And unlike the 87th Precinct, Scotland Yard is for real. :-)

Peter said...

I have not yet read Wallace, but I just have read (and posted about) a 1938 novel that mentioned him along with Christie and Simenon: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/03/friedrich-great.html That's fast company.
========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

You still haven't read an Edgar Wallace, Peter? And yes, putting Wallace and Georges Simenon is about right. A lot of similarity there. As with Christie, I think the similarity is predominantly in the language, I reckon; not so much in the plot and characterization in my reckoning.

Peter said...

I promise I'll get around to Wallace one of these days, especially if I keep coming across references to him!

The novel that I alluded to in my comment, Friedrich Glauser's excellent The Chinaman, does not compare Wallace, Simenon and Christie. Rather, the protagonist notices books by all three writers at varions times.

The Chinaman has certain affinities with some of Simenon's books, especially as regards the detective's sympathy with certain people he investigates. I'll keep this in mind when I read Wallace.

OK, now I'll go do an online search for Wallace.
========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

If you read Italian: http://www.giallografia.com/

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/