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Locked Room Reviews:
A grand adventure!
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Some mystery novels are meant to be taken seriously, and some are just pure fun and adventure! ‘The Clue of The Twisted Candle’ by the famous Edgar Wallace is clearly one of the latter. It is a grand romp of an adventure, with a pretty good locked room murder, though most fans will have this one figured out well before the grand double denouement!
Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932) was an English writer and a bigger than life figure. Wallace was born ‘illegitimate’ and raised in extreme poverty in London. His schooling ended at 12, and he later joined the army, before becoming a war correspondent for Reuters and the Daily Mail, during the Second Boer War. Badly in debt, he was eventually forced to flee South Africa and return to London, where he began to churn out penny dreadfuls as an easy way to quickly raise funds. Wallace called upon his experiences as a reporter in South Africa and the Congo, where he had covered the Belgian atrocities that killed millions of natives, as the foundation for several early works. Wallace serialized many of these novels in magazines, and later published short story collections such as ‘Sanders of the River’ (1911). He finally signed with Hodder and Stoughton in 1921 and soon became an internationally recognized author, on a par with Conan Doyle, as the biggest genre authors of the period.
After a disastrous bid to stand as a Liberal MP for Blackpool in the 1931 general election, Wallace moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a script writer for RKO studios. He died suddenly from undiagnosed diabetes, during the final draft of his most famous work, the screenplay for King Kong (1933).
Wallace was an extremely prolific writer, one of his publishers once claimed that he wrote a quarter of all books then being read in England. Wallace wrote 957 short stories and over 170 novels, 12 in 1929 alone, as well as screen plays, poetry, historical non-fiction, and 18 stage plays. More than 160 films have been made from Wallace’s work, as well as a British TV series. He is most remembered for the creation of King Kong, and for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, as well as the Green Archer. He sold over 50 million copies of his combined works in various editions and The Economist described him as one of the most prolific thriller writers of the 20th century. Most of his books are now long out of print, though a few are currently being revived in ebook editions. There are likely many Wallace locked room titles that have now been completely lost.
T. X. Meredith is a most unusual detective. I think there is a good chance J. Edgar Hoover took him as his personal blueprint, complete with secret files on the Who’s Who of English society. Meredith is certainly no brilliant Sherlock, he is not even particularly bright. Instead, he is more of a tenacious British bulldog who just keeps pushing forward. He is not even particularly attracted to women, at least until this novel, and has a slightly irritating habit of inventing words and speaking in oblique sentences. He is the ultimate bureaucratic operative who games the system to get results – just about the polar opposite of Holmes, his main rival in the day.
The plot of ‘The Clue of The Twisted Candle’ is rather thin, but well padded with good banter. The story begins as the mystery author John Lexham arrives at a train station in the midst of a downpour, a very wet twenty minute walk away from his 13th century rural home of Beston Priory. He finally arrives to find his wife, Grace, troubled by the presence of a visitor. A wealthy Greek named Remington Kara has dropped by unannounced. Before Grace had married John, she had been pursued by Kara, an experience which had left her badly frightened. Since that time, Kara has struck up an odd friendship with the mystery author, and introduced him to a money lender, Vassalaro, who bailed Lexham out after he had a bad time with ‘Roumanian gold’ – an investment recommended by Kara. Now Vassalaro has grown impatient and is threatening Lexham with violence. This vary night, Lexham receives a letter by post demanding a late meeting. At Kara’s instigation, Lexham takes a pistol he had recently received for Christmas, as Kara claims his countryman is a coward. After Kara leaves, Lexham goes to meet the loan shark, and when things start to get nasty, he finally pulls the gun. A few moments later, Vassalaro is dead, and the gun he had pulled has mysteriously disappeared. Things only get worse when the letter that arrived by post turns itself into ashes inside Lexham’s safe! The result is a murder charge, and it is only because of the efforts of another close friend, the famous Scotland Yard detective, T.X. Meredith, that he manages to escape the noose!
Meredith, a young assistant commissioner, is a bit of a law unto himself. He looks after special cases for the well connected, and it is now quite clear that Kara is about as bad as they come. The evidence gradually builds, demonstrating that he is purely evil; a nasty vicious man, who is deeply involved in international intrigue in his native Albania. Kara’s only weaknesses appears to be deadly fears of candles and assassination. To prevent the latter, he has built a fortress bedroom with the best safe money can buy, a thick bar that locks the door even against forced entrance, and it only has one inaccessible window which is wired to an alarm. He also installs a direct phone from this room to Scotland Yard, to prevent any prolonged attack. T. X. is determined to prove Lexham is innocent, and equally determined to take down Kara, but cannot find enough evidence to prevent Lexham’s conviction. Lexham is sentenced to fifteen long years in Dartmoor, and as time passes, Kara gradually works his way deeper into London society, until he finally gets a scandalous hold on Lady Bartholomew, the wife of the Minister of Justice. However, T. X. eventually manages to find Vassalaro’s pistol and collect enough proof to free Lexham, but before the pardon can be signed, Kara bribes a guard and pulls off a master escape by plane, that spirits the unwitting author away to his private yacht, where Grace is awaiting his arrival.
Two years pass without any sign of Lexham or Grace, as T. X. continues his campaign against Kara – and Kara continues to gain power. T. X. eventually visits Kara’s house in Cadogan Square, to prod the monster, and manages to get a good look at the secure bedroom, the safe, and Kara’s gorgeous new secretary, the young Miss Holland. The situation with the Bartholomew family continues to get worse, until Lady Bartholomew finally disappears. It is only after T. X. finally gets a letter from Lexham, announcing that he has returned from exile and will turn himself in, that the case finally begins to unfold. The night Lexham is supposed surrender at Scotland Yard, an odd chain of events occur. First, Kara catches Miss Holland breaking into his safe, and throws her into his dungeon like converted wine cellar, where she discovers a passage to the lower level. T. X. is quickly advised that she is missing by her landlady, who also provides a recited message that makes it clear that this lively girl is really Belinda Mary, the daughter of Lord and Lady Bartholomew. T. X. rushes to the house, but Kara, backed by his valet, Fisher, claims that she left for home at her usual time. Later that same evening, Kara is visited by an explorer he has sponsored, by the name of George Gathercole. They have a brief meeting in his secure bedroom, then the valet ushers him out, just before they both hear Kara drop the bar across his door. Shortly after, T. X is finally reunited with Lexham, who admits he has been victimized by Kara, and tells a few new tale of horror, including the news that Kara’s abuse was responsible for the death of Grace during their captivity, but he refuses to tell the whole painful story. Lexham doesn’t even get a chance to finish his story, before the special line to Kara’s bedroom rings – and only silence is heard at the other end when it is answered.
T. X. and his minion, Inspector Mansus, rush to Cadogan Square, and when the thick door is finally cut open, they find Kara completely alone, stabbed to death inside his fortress bedroom, with the phone off the hook, and the only real clues are two pieces of candle, one rather ordinary, and another small piece that is distinctly twisted! Meredith also finds the dungeon and a room that has recently been occupied on the lower level, but it is now quite empty, and to make matters worse, within minutes of their arrival the valet disappears into the wind. When it soon proves to be impossible to trace George Gathercole, that makes for three key suspects that have all vanished, which is as far as we can go without entirely ruining this good locked room read! However we can note that T. X. is now not only trying to solve an impossible murder, he is also searching for the first woman who has caught his attention in many years, the lovely Belinda Mary!
As I noted at the beginning, this is just not the type of novel where you find deep literary themes. It is a pure, unadulterated, action adventure, perhaps more like a comfortable old Sherlock tale – on steroids! Wallace does tend to get a little pulpy and carried away by the international intrigue, but that is just part of the charm of these turn of the century British writers who looked at the world as their own private oyster patch, custom designed to provide wild adventure. The only negative side of this roisterous romp is that you would need to be entirely clueless to not figure out the solution before the dramatic finale, as there is simply no other suspect left! Definitely not a great whodunnit, and the howdunnit is rather glossed over without proper explanation!
In the final analysis this book is simply great fun. Just forget about all those weak points and sit back and enjoy the ride! It does not take a lot of thinking to rate this book. It is one of Edgar Wallace’s better mysteries and barely refrains from getting entirely too fantastic! It is a light, barely four star mystery that reminds me of one of those old boy’s adventure books! Definitely not a masterpiece, but a great way to pass a few hours on a rainy evening with a nice glass of your favourite poison!
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