My next writing project is set in the 1930’s and I thought that it might be worthwhile reading a book from that period, not some literary masterpiece but something more popularist and so I happened on Edgar Wallace. In his time Wallace was a prolific writer with an estimated 50 million copies of his work in existence at one time, though sadly most of his books are now out of print. He specialised in thrillers and colonial adventures, the latter of a dubious character in the light of these more enlightened times. He should perhaps be famous for his largest creation, King Kong¸ he wrote 110 pages of the first draft of the screenplay before dying of a heart attack aged only 56!
The reason why I wanted to read someone like Edgar Wallace is because he wrote for the public and not for critical acclaim. He claimed himself to find no literary value in his own books but clearly he was able to represent a life that many English people of the period recognised and made it more exciting with the addition of murder and mystery. This is what I was looking for, the kind of thing that other authors of the time might not be so interested in.
I picked up ‘Green Rust’, a book that might be termed a ‘techno-thriller’ today. It concerns a not quite so mad genius who believes that he has discovered a means to raise Germany from the dust following the imposition of reparations imposed upon it by the allies after the end of World War I. His weapon is masterful, a bacteriological poison that will devastate the world’s wheat crops, and he has a network of agents ready to act in all the great arable areas of the globe. Only one man, the American agent Stanford Beale, has an inkling of the diabolical plans of Dr Van Heerden and sets out to stop him as the good doctor hatches his plans in an unsuspecting England.
The actual story does not concern me too much, although Wallace’s vision of a Germany rising from the dust was spot on and his prediction concerning the danger inherent in biological warfare is chilling, even more so for the times in which he wrote. I was more interested in how a popular author might represent the social customs and mores of the period in which he wrote. The differences are subtle but important I think. Class consciousness is far more prevalent than I expected but not in an overbearing fashion, as it is often represented in retrospective pieces on the early 20th century. Etiquette also matters more, along with appropriate dress, occupation and residence.
I can’t say that reading ‘Green Rust’ led to me making and great discoveries in terms of how British society between the wars functioned but that was not my aim. By far the most important element is the ‘feel’ of the times. People spoke, acted, worked and relaxed a little differently. They lacked many of the material comforts that we take for granted and also seemed to aspire to a lot less. There is little reliance on technology simply because it has yet to make the inroads that enjoy. The telegraph is the email of the day, telephones are common but not as quick or as far reaching as you might expect. The same applies to cars and aeroplanes are still exotic toys of the future for the majority of the population.
These are the kind of elements that I am looking to capture. I believe that it is in the small detail of the ephemeral that adds realistic substance to the weave of a historical fiction text. It is difficult to say if reading Edgar Wallace will give me a true feel for the period but doing so takes me closer to my objective. If I have time then I will look to read some of his contemporaries work as well but I think that I have gained a useful insight into a period that is different to our own today in far more subtle ways.