In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Edgar Wallace’s collection of detective stories about the unassuming Mr J. G. Reeder
Edgar Wallace achieved a lot before he dropped down dead, in his fifties, from complications arising from diabetes, in Hollywood in 1932. He had risen from extremely humble origins, the illegitimate and unwanted son of two actors, to become one of the most recognisable and prolific writers of the age – according to an oft-repeated claim, in 1928 it was estimated that one in four books read in England was an Edgar Wallace title – and was at work on the film that would become the 1933 classic King Kong when he died.
Wallace had made his name in 1905 with the novel The Four Just Men, thanks to a canny (if misguided) marketing campaign surrounding the book. More adventures of the ‘Four’ Just Men (in reality their number dwindled to three, and even two, for subsequent outings) followed, as did a string of thrillers. But Edgar Wallace, like many popular writers of his generation, was also influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and sought to emulate their success with a series of books about an unlikely sleuth, Mr J. G. Reeder. Wordsworth Editions put these fine stories back into print as The Casefiles of Mr J. G. Reeder (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural).
Mr J. G. Reeder is an unlikely detective. Like Holmes, he doesn’t work for the police in an official capacity, but is a consultant. In many respects, he has more in common with G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown than he does with the celebrated sleuth of 221B Baker Street, and, as with Chesterton’s detective, I get the impression that Wallace was going out of his way not to get his creation confused with the slew of Sherlock copies that appeared in the wake of Holmes mania (Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt springs to mind, as does the much better Max Carrados created by Ernest Bramah). Like Chesterton’s Catholic sleuth, J. G. Reeder is unassuming: the man least likely to be mistaken for a master detective. Here’s how he is described in the first story in the short-story collection, The Mind of J. G. Reeder:
Mr. Reeder was something over fifty, a long-faced gentleman with sandy-grey hair and a slither of side whiskers that mercifully distracted attention from his large outstanding ears. He wore half-way down his nose a pair of steel-rimmed pince-nez, through which nobody had ever seen him look – they were invariably removed when he was reading. A high and flat-crowned bowler hat matched and yet did not match a frock coat tightly buttoned across his spare chest. His boots were square-toed, his cravat – of the broad, chest-protector pattern – was ready-made and buckled into place behind a Gladstonian collar.
Reeder carries a tightly furled umbrella around with him, even when there’s no sign of rain, and one of the things which mark out his dialogue is his habit of hesitating. He seems almost shy and ill at ease, and yet when he is spurred to action – namely, to haul criminals to justice – he will lose his diffidence and become, if not fearsome, then certainly a force to be reckoned with.
One of the recurring details in the stories collected in The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is the criminal swearing vengeance on Reeder once they’ve done their ‘stretch’ in prison and are once again at large. Of course, as with Holmes, Reeder is always one step ahead of his nemeses, as the following exchange, from the story ‘The Investors’, demonstrates. A man whom Reeder put behind bars has sent a riddling letter to our detective, via a ‘gent’:
Mr Reeder looked up and their eyes met. ‘Your friend is a little mad, one thinks?’ he asked politely.
‘He ain’t a friend of mine. A gent asked me to bring it,’ said the messenger.
‘On the contrary,’ said Mr Reeder pleasantly, ‘he gave it to you in Dartmoor Prison yesterday. Your name is Mills; you have eight convictions for burglary, and will have your ninth before the year is out. You were released two days ago – I saw you reporting at Scotland Yard.’
The key words here are ‘politely’ and ‘pleasantly’. Reeder sometimes displays the same keen perception and knowledge of criminal activity which we find in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but where Holmes is direct and dramatic, Reeder is quiet and modest.
In the Wordsworth collection, The Casefiles of Mr J. G. Reeder (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural), we find not only The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder but two novellas featuring the detective, Room 13 and Terror Keep. All three are worth reading, although, as with The Complete Four Just Men, Wallace is at his best in the short story format. Mr J. G. Reeder may not ever rival Sherlock Holmes for popularity, and nor does he deserve to, but fans of Conan Doyle’s creation may find him worth a look. And, despite his unassuming demeanour, he’s been overlooked for far too long.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.