A Review of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep
Crime stories have been a staple of my childhood, long before I picked up any science fiction or fantasy books, I was most likely engrossed in some thriller. My reading started with a lot of German books that combined crime with humorous story-telling. When I started to read English language books, I had moved on from my obsession with crime stories. Now I return to one with fresh eyes in this Review of a German translation of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep, which is the first entry in the series of books about the detective J.G. Reeder. The German title is John Flack.
Really in light of current events, I feel it is even more necessary to point out, that this work should at least be read with the idea of “copaganda” in mind. Terror Keep neither accurately reflects current or historic police work, nor does it offer any worthwhile views into mental health. Any story about fighting crime in the traditional sense centres a view of crime that ignores any socio-economic factors, and makes police officers into heroes as they fight “real evil”. This book offers no different perspective. It at best entertains, but you can’t escape the ideas that fiction of its kind normalises. Crime in the real world is rarely as devoid of social context as it is here.
The Physical Book
Back to the book at hand. My copy is a 1982 paperback edition hand-me-down published by Goldmann. Of course, this book has seen better times, the paper has browned with age and feels coarse, and the jacket is showing signs of wear and tear as well, but it’s holding up reasonably well for the time it’s spent being read and being stored on various bookshelves and in numerous storage boxes. It isn’t particularly long, and about 30 pages are devoted to informing the reader of various other books in the publisher’s catalogue.
Now, Terror Keep is set in 1920s UK, predominantly in London and an imaginary town called Siltbury on the cliffed coast of southern England. Both places are treated as backdrops that only need description where it figures into the plot. Siltbury is left to the reader’s imagination and familiarity with southern English towns, and London stars as the world-famous city it is with a handful of recognisable places.
More important than Siltbury itself, however, is the mansion in which much if the second and third act of this book takes place: Lamar’s Keep. It’s a cliffside manor, with a horrifying dungeon and curious inhabitants and visitors.
Most of the characters show up at Lamar’s Keep and its surroundings over time, but that’s not the interesting thing about them. Well, the interesting thing about them is that they are not interesting in and of themselves. They are pretty flat, maybe some of them are more well rounded over the entire length of the series, but they stick closely to archetypal versions of a detective story.
We have in order of appearance the mentally insane, empathyless and driven villain, who happens to be a criminal mastermind. He, fundamentally, is just an ableist trope. We have the well-experienced investigator, who doesn’t shy away from a fight. We have a love interest for the investigator, who becomes a damsel in distress. We have multiple other policemen, who are either characterised by incompetence or as mere cannon-fodder and, finally, we have multiple henchmen of the villain, who all get a weird name pointing to earlier wrongdoings.
The most striking departure from this character template has to be Miss Bellman, ostensibly the damsel in distress and love interest, who at least for first half of this book seems to hold out pretty competently and well for herself, but the realities of 1920s ideas of womanhood will get to her soon enough.
The characters aren’t, what makes this book a gripping read though. The thing that kept me riveted to the book was the ease of how different elements of the plot flowed into each other, how the characters, setting, and plot intertwined. And lead from one page to the other.
There’s not much to be said about the plot that wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s constructed with clear intent, keeping the reader guessing without alienating them with too contrived plot-twists. Some explanations and crimes mentioned within this story fall onto the gimmicky side of plots, but they were not gimmicky enough to rip me out of the flow of reading this book. There’s a well-crafted tension that was pulling me along throughout the entirety of the book.
Edgar Wallace wrote many of his books by way of dictation, and the casualness of his writing certainly shows, the point is not to tell a story in its most beautiful manifestation, but a good thrill and a gripping story. In this vein, the writing is mostly unremarkable.
There were a few moments and passages in this book where certain word choices pulled me out of the book, but I think I have to pin those down on the translation, which certainly seemed somewhat clunky at times. Often maybe through no fault of the translator. After all, there’s at least one passage of basically untranslatable wordplay around the suites of playing cards, which the translator solved by annotating explanations of these jokes. But there might have been more passages where the translator was considering such annotations but eventually decided against them to avoid interrupting the flow of the book.
This book certainly is a gripping read and a fun one at that, but it isn’t a book that makes a good point about life or anything. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun story meant to entertain a reader, sitting in bed on a stormy night, or watching the waves on a sunny beach.
There are, without a doubt, problematic parts in this book, that suggest ideas about our world that might not be worth repeating because they’re demonstrably untrue. And these parts make me question if this book is worth reading in 2020. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Far from it, I enjoyed it myself, but I don’t want to recommend this book. It’s a well-crafted thriller from almost 100 years ago. It’s showing its age. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se, but there are also better books to search out. It’s probably a guilty pleasure for me.