Edgar Wallace – the forgotten crime writer?

The Guardian has a review of a new biography of British crime and thriller writer Edgar Wallace.

My first reaction upon reading the article – beyond heading to Amazon to check out whether the biography was available and how much it costs and cursing that I’d never known about the Edgar Wallace memorial plaque at Ludgate Circus, while I lived in London as a student – was, “Wait a minute, so Edgar Wallace is a little known and largely forgotten author? In what universe?”

Because at least here in Germany, Edgar Wallace is far from forgotten. Most of his novels are still in print some ninety to one hundred years after they were first published. And the 1960s film adaptations of his novels are classics of German postwar cinema. I suspect that no one would be more surprised about the continued popularity of his novels in Germany than Edgar Wallace himself, since he apparently didn’t like Germans very much, as evidenced by various xenophobic remarks in his works (which shocked me upon first reading, because here was another hero of mine who hated people of my nationality, because apparently being hated by Donald Duck, Captain America, Indiana Jones and the Doctor was not enough). However, Germany certainly loved Edgar Wallace.

Thus, to me Edgar Wallace is not merely the man who created King Kong (though I know that he did), but mainly the man who created the Ringer, the Squeaker, the Masked Frog, the Black Abbot, the Sinister Monk, the Green Archer, the Red Circle and a whole host of other masked and hooded villains and vigilantes.

The Guardian article reveals a few tidbits about Wallace’s life that I for one didn’t know, such as that he was an illegitimate child, which would explain the preoccupations with sinister plots involving Magdalene laundries (which I was stunned to learn really existed, since I always assumed they were a bit of weirdness that Wallace made up) and innocent orphans getting embroiled in inheritance schemes leading to murder in his work. I also didn’t know that Wallace had been a tabloid crime reporter before he turned to fiction writing, though it explains the many roving reporter characters in his work, usually played by Eddi Arent in the movies.

I’m a huge fan of the Edgar Wallace adaptations of the 1960s to the point that I’ve written an article about them for a now defunct zine (available in PDF form here) and also blogged about them several times. I also consider Edgar Wallace, as filtered through the eyes of 1960s filmmakers, a huge influence upon my own work.

However, it’s the “filtered through” that’s the important bit here, because the Edgar Wallace who is remembered and beloved by many in Germany is not so much the man who churned out crime novels by the dozens in the 1910s and 1920s, but the eerie disembodied voice (which belonged to Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar) that always said “Achtung! Hier spricht Edgar Wallace” (Attention! This is Edgar Wallace speaking) at the beginning of the adaptation of those crime novels in the 1960s. That Edgar Wallace that I love is not a product of the 1910s and 1920s, but a dark mirror of the Mad Men era of the early 1960s. The Edgar Wallace that I love is a creation of producer Horst Wendtland, directors Alfred Vohrer and Harald Reinl, cinematographers Karl Löb and Richard Angst, writers Jürgen Roland and Wolfgang Menge, composers Peter Thomas and Martin Böttcher as well as actors Joachim Fuchsberger, Heinz Drache, Karin Dor, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Siegfried Schürenberg, Ilse Paget, Ann Savo, Carl Lange, Fritz Rasp, Siegfried Lowitz and many others.

In many ways, this makes Edgar Wallace and his popularity in Germany similar to Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, who nowadays are better remembered for the film adaptations than for the original Karl May novels as well as James Bond, who is also better remembered for the various movies than for the original Ian Fleming novels. It’s probably telling that many of the same people were involved in both the Winnetou and Edgar Wallace movies. As for James Bond, I’ve long argued that the James Bond we’ve come to love is more the creation of producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, directors Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, set designer Ken Adam, composer John Barry, title designer Maurice Binder and actor Sean Connery and to a lesser degree Roger Moore. Coincidentally, there is some overlap between the Bond and Wallace movies, since actors Gerd Fröbe, Karin Dor, Ilse Steppat as well as Christopher Lee all played memorable roles in both. In fact, I strongly suspect that the former three were hired for the Bond movies on the strength of their performance in the Wallace movies (Sir Christopher Lee was of course Ian Fleming’s cousin and probably ended up in two Wallace movies due to his ability to speak almost flawless German). Particularly Ilse Steppat’s three Edgar Wallace roles in Der unheimliche Mönch (The Sinister Monk), Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (The crypt with the mystery lock) and Die Blaue Hand (The Blue Hand) are highly reminiscent of her later appearance as Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the point that she might as well be playing the same character. In fact, I’ve always assumed that Ilse Steppat’s sinister headmistresses of exclusive girls’ boarding schools with a dark twist in The Sinister Monk and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were the same person.

As for why in these three cases, the film adaptations are remembered so much better than the novels they were based on, I suspect part of the reason is that the novels are horribly dated. I already talked about how dated Karl May’s novels were even by the time I read them in the 1980s in my post commemorating the late Pierre Brice. As for Ian Fleming, I actually think the Bond novels have held up surprisingly well and I certainly enjoyed reading them, but they’re nonetheless slow by the standards of modern thrillers. What is more, I remember that when I first read the original Ian Fleming Bond novels in the 1990s, I was struck by how different from the movies they were. If anything, the Daniel Craig movies are closer to the novels (plus, Craig starred in what was finally a decent adaptation of Casino Royale) than any of the previous screen Bonds. As for Edgar Wallace, when I first read one of his novels at around the same time I read the original Bond novels (because I was a student of literature and interested in where the things I loved came from), I remember being seriously underwhelmed, not to mention put off by the casual racism, sexism and classism that somehow was so much worse than in the movies as well as by the casual ableism, that come to think of it actually made it into the movies.

So yes, I know who Inspector Elk is. However, my Inspector Elk is not “tall and thin, a slight stoop accentuated his weediness”, as Wallace describes him in The Fellowship of the Frog but the decidedly not weedy Siegfried Lowitz, the actor who played the character in the 1959 film adaptation of the novel, first and among the best of the more than thirty German Edgar Wallace films of the 1960s.

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