It’s 1928, Do You Know Where the Ringer is??
One of the goals when I started this column was not just to hit the newest books out there, but also to highlight older works that may have been forgotten, neglected, or just plain needing to be read still. Works that merit attention whether still in print or not. In the pre-eBay days I was an avid haunter of used bookstores. High school. College. My main place of addiction was the Brand in Glendale. It took up two store fronts on Brand Boulevard. One side was essentially non-fiction; I remember they had an immense film history book collection. It’s where I found texts on Fuller and Ray and Fassbinder. But the other side, the fiction side, that’s where I really went at it. It was rare I didn’t come out with at least two paper grocery bags full of paperbacks. Ace Double westerns from the far back wall where they had a huge western section. Spinrad’s THE IRON DREAM from the science fiction section. And the mystery section – Chandler, Spillane, those 60s Fleming Bonds. COLONEL SUN for crying out loud. Sadly, the Brand closed down last summer. I’ve been too depressed to go and confirm the articles in the paper. There are few used bookstores left. There are some good hybrids left, that mix of new and used, like Half Off Books in Whittier.
It’s there that I picked up a copy of Edgar Wallace’s THE RINGER last summer. I had never read Wallace. I knew his name from books on the history of pulps. And I knew him as the author of the original treatment for 1933’s KING KONG, who died before the film had been completed. He has a reputation for wild and fast plotting, and not much else. Until last year, I don’t think I’d ever even seen a copy of any of his books. None that I remembered certainly. But it was a few weeks before my first cousin’s high school graduation in Michigan. I needed some books for the plane. Half Off has a $1 rack in the front of the store I’m a horrible sucker when it comes to book covers. I’ve bought my fair share of some really bad 40s potboilers because of some wonderful painted covers. Trenchcoats. Menacing faces. Domino masks. Lurid colors. Those all go in the bag. They may not read well, but they sure look nice. It’s an addiction, I admit it. Which makes THE RINGER all that more elusive to my brain. A 1928 paperback, plain faded manila cover. About as anonymous a type face as humanely possible. The Tauchnitz Edition. With the odd tantalizing legend across the bottom: “Not to be introduced into the British Empire.” No art. No frills. Nada. Just the title.
But I had to have it. Had to. The reputation I’d heard was true. It barely lasted one four hour flight from LAX to Detroit Metro. The language was compulsive, ragged, and insatiable. There was no let up from page 1 to page 272 when the Ringer is finally revealed. Or not revealed. It really doesn’t matter whether the Ringer has been revealed at that moment. It’s only like a gasp coming up for air after being at the bottom of the ocean. The twilight world that Wallace creates, that dank insular place, nears little resemblance to any London or England of anyone else. It is indeed like the undersea world of Luc Besson’s THE BIG BLUE – unknowable, unfathomable, and completely alien. There are characters: our nominal hero, a junior policeman of some renown, the woman of the junior policeman’s desire, a lawyer of ill repute also in love with the lady and who may or may not have caused the suicide of the Ringer’s sister, a great detective back from the United States, and the nebulous spectre of the Ringer hanging over the entire proceeding. While the ménage a trois draws each other out, it is the Ringer that haunts every scene. Is he alive? Is he even real? Who is he? What disguise is he wearing? Is he hidden in plain sight? Is he even there at all?
In some sense it travels the same road as Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in FANTOMAS with its malignant underbelly, its undercurrent of terror. But Wallace comes off as more ripe, more bestial, than Fantômas. There is always a veneer to Fantômas novels it seems, the brutality intellectualized, that give an aura of respectability. Wallace seems much more base. Perhaps a lot is a product of the unceasing pace of the work. When I think early-century English pulp writes, I usually think of H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer who can have an almost glacial pace, painting baroque worlds with a languid, yet deadly, pace. Not so for Wallace. The pace is frenetic. Words explode across the page. If one character seems to be coming to a quiet moment, Wallace switches over to the next, and that one’s predicaments. What it develops in the reader’s mind is a disconcerting world, where nothing, no one, is ever at ease. All the way down the line.
I found THE RINGER much more interesting, and affecting, then I thought I would. It’s not world class literature, but it is world class pulp. It is a strange romp into an unknown London populated with some oddly desperate characters. It made me want to read more Edgar Wallace, spend more time in the worlds he has created. Dig the shelves, readers. Avail yourself of some Wallace.