Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Heirs of Edgar Wallace, Part 1: Robert George Curtis

After Edgar Wallace's untimely demise in 1932 at the age of 56, mystery thriller authors launched a sort of literary succession struggle, each of them claiming to be the one true heir of the Crime King-- including, as readers of this blog know, notorious truth-fudger Nigel Morland (about whom I will have yet more to say here.) 

With apologies to the self-aggrandizing Nigel, surely the first person to start with in this respect is Robert George Curtis, Wallace's longtime secretary.  Curtis typed Wallace's crime thrillers for most of the period between 1913 and Wallace's sudden death two decades later, which took place when he and Curtis and Robert Downs, Wallace's valet, were out in Hollywood, where Wallace, a lavish spender always in need of money despite his huge books sales, had contracted with RKO Studios at $2000 a week (nearly $40,000 today) to work on a variety of film treatments, most famously King Kong.  With a few exceptions, perhaps most notably The Four Just Men (1905) and Sanders of the River (1911), Curtis typed most of Wallace's novels and short story collections, transcribing them from the words Wallace dictated onto recording cylinders at his famously breakneck speed.

Robert Curtis met Edgar Wallace in 1913, when the twenty-four-year-old Curtis, was working, fatefully, for the Dictaphone Company.  In the beginning Curtis didn't know that the work he was typing was Wallace's: "All I knew of the mysterious author," he recalled in his 1933 book Edgar Wallace--Each Way, "was that his voice had a curious husky quality, that his mispronunciation of certain words made me shudder, and that he was always in a desperate hurry for the typescript.

Eventually, Curtis made a point of personally delivering the next lot of manuscript to the unknown author, and thereupon discovered the man was none other than Edgar Wallace.  (All the Edgar Wallace books at the man's house helped tip him off.) Wallace soon hired Curtis as his personal typist, and Curtis found himself working on assignments like typing a 75,000 word serial over a single weekend, as cylinders on which Wallace had recorded his words kept arriving one after another at his lodgings in Hammersmith. (Curtis later started his own typewriting agency in the West End, while still working for Wallace.) 

The Great Man and His Secretary
Robert Curtis (left) and Edgar Wallace (right)
This is one of the three published photos
from their less than three month sojourn
in Hollywood, from late November 1931
to Wallace's death on February 10, 1932.
In April 1915, Curtis joined the British armed forces, then in their second year of conflict with the Kaiser.  Wallace was first peeved at the loss of his secretary, then after a week magnanimous.  Curtis was in Egypt until 1916, when he was invalided home, and for the rest of the war he worked as personal secretary for Field-Marshal Lord French, Commander-in-Chief of the First British Expeditionary Force during the first year-and-a-half of the Great War, typing French's notorious book 1914, a war memoir denounced in one bitter postwar review as "one of the most unfortunate books ever written."

Curtis was happy to get back to typing crime yarns for Edgar Wallace, who in Curtis' absence had engaged a new secretary, a pretty young woman named Ethel Violet King, with whom Wallace commenced a relationship that helped lead to his divorce from his wife, Ivy, in 1918. 

Edgar Wallace and Violet King married three years later.  Wives might come and go, but Robert Curtis was imperishable.

"[H]e was certainly never at a loss for a plot," Curtis loyally recalled of his bestselling employer, "indeed, he crowded into some of his more thrilling novels enough material for half-a-dozen full-length books.

Curtis further explained how the Wallace writing process worked in his book Edgar Wallace--Each Way.  I thought this account quite interesting.  People often talk as if Edgar Wallace exclusively used a Dictaphone, but in fact he did some of the writing in longhand:

He invariably wrote the first few thousand words of a story in manuscript.  Almost as invariably he made two or three such starts, until he found the right one.  He devoted more attention to the opening chapters a serial than to the remainder of the book.

"Get the start right, and the story's half written," he was fond if saying.

Once the story was under way, a look of relief came into his face and he dropped his pen.

"Now we can turn to the Dictaphone," he said, and swung half left in his red leather swivel armchair to where the machine stood on a low pedestal.

From that moment everything was plain sailing with a good following wind, and one was then quite safe in promising delivery of the completed manuscript in a  few days.  It was often difficult to get Edgar to make start, sometimes even more difficult to persuade him to sustain the effort  up to the entrance of the Dictaphone; but once at that point the story "went with a bang."  Hour after hour he would sit in a flowered dressing gown, smoking innumerable cigarettes, drinking large cups of tea about twice an hour, dictating his story evenly, smoothly and almost without hesitation.

He did not make a good record; his voice had a curious, husky quality which did not add to its distinctness; he would slur his words and drop the pitch at the end of a sentence in such a way as made transcription of his cylinders impossible to the average typist.  In fact, it is safe to say that only two people in the world could transcribe Edgar's dictation accurately, the other being Mrs. Wallace, whose attainments as a typist were of a very high order.

I have taught scores of people typewriting and Dictaphone transcription, and have had them devote hours to Wallace's dictation, and have never found one who could produce anything like an intelligent manuscript.

Another circumstance that in the early years caused me a little difficulty was his mispronunciation of words.  Wallace knew to a grain the exact shade of meaning conveyed by every word he used, but some of his solecisms of pronunciation had to be heard to be believed.  Usually I manged to deduce the correct word from the context but once he beat me, and I reluctantly had to leave a gap.  When I subsequently saw him I asked him what the word was.  He seemed gratified that there was something I hadn't been able to hear, and smiled complacently.

"Ah, that got you, didn't it?  I don't suppose you know the word, Bob," he said loftily.  "Nayveet."

I was chagrined.

"I'm afraid I don't," I said.  How do you spell it and what does it mean?"

"It's spelled n-a-i-v-e-t-e," said Edgar.  "There's an accent on it somewhere, but I'm not sure where."

"Oh, naivete!" said I, sternly suppressing a dawning smile.

"Is that how
you pronounce it?" asked Edgar.  "I always call it nayveet."

He may have persisted in calling it nayveet, but I do not remember that he ever again used the word.

Here Wallace would pass away on February 10, 1032, Curtis and Downs, as well as
the actor Walter Huston, a recent Hollywood friend, at this side

Wallace was considered such a prolific writer that it is was often asserted he employed ghost writers, beginning, naturally enough, with Curtis himself.  Curtis explains:

[I]n spite of his repeatedly published denials that he was guilty of the practice, applications were regularly received from journalists of all grades, as well as from people who could not even write English, for positions as "ghosts" in what one bright gentleman described as Edgar's "literary factory."

The belief has gained currency circles in certain  that I had something more to do with the writing of his books than was connoted by secretarial duties.  It was a rumor very flattering to my ability if not to my intelligence; for if one could write stories to well enough to pass them as by Edgar Wallace, why continue as a humble secretary?"

Why indeed?  After Edgar Wallace's death, however, Robert Curtis tried his hand at writing Edgar Wallace thrillers.  However, unlike his rivals, Curtis could claim that most of his books had some actual connection to the Great Man (assuming Nigel Morland's claims cannot be taken seriously).  The last crime novel actually written by Edgar Wallace was The Frightened Lady, which was published posthumously in 1933, after serialization in late 1932.  After that the great Wallace well seemingly had run dry.  However, publishers, reluctant to let go of a good thing, will find a way, whether it's Agatha Christie today or Edgar Wallace eighty-five years ago.

Edgar Wallace and his humble secretary worked on the play The Green Pack
and the novel The Frightened Lady (based on a play) while in Hollywood

Between 1933 and 1936 Robert Curtis published six novels which carried Wallace's name as well as his own.  There are:

The Green Pack (1933)
The Man Who Changed His Name (1934)
The Mouthpiece (1935)
Smoky Cell (1935)
The Table (1936)
Sanctuary Island (1936)

The first four of these books were Curtis's novelizations of Edgar Wallace crime plays.  The first of these four, The Green Pack, was actually the last of Wallace's plays, premiering in London in 1932 as Wallace lay dying in Hollywood.  It was a hit, but the other three novels had not been successful plays (dating from 1928, 1930 and 1930 respectively).  The term "scraping the bottom of the barrel" comes to mind.  The last two books claimed a remoter connection to Wallace in that they supposedly had their origins in film treatments Wallace had written in Hollywood.  (I'll be looking at the last of these soon.)

Curtis also wrote two crime novels that were completely of his own: The Children of Light (1935) and Invitation to Murder (1936). By those years, he was starting to achieve something of the pace of Edgar Wallace, publishing three books a year, but he himself passed away on August 29, 1936, at the age of 47.  He had followed his master to the grave in less than five years.  One of Edgar Wallace's "heirs" thus already was out of the running, with only eight books to show for his name (and on six of them he shared name space with Edgar).