Edgar Wallace famously wrote 300% of all novels published between 1910 and 1930, so it was a surprise to find he only published four in 1922, this month’s focus for Crimes of the Century. Jose Ignacio has read The Crimson Circle; I downloaded The Angel of Terror.
The titular angel is Jean Briggerland, ex-fiancée of one James Meredith, who is standing trial for murder as the story opens. Her story is that he killed a love-rival in a jealous rage. His story is that he had already broken off their engagement, Jean’s father did the murder, and she framed him as an act of revenge. The jury prefers the angel’s version, as does the judge:
Nobody who saw the young girl in the box, a pathetic, and if I may say, a beautiful figure, could accept for one moment your fantastic explanation.
However, Meredith’s solicitor and friend Jack Glover is not convinced by her ‘pure soul and celestial etceteras’, and quite right too – this isn’t the first suspicious death in her portfolio. Jean has more than one suitor’s blood on her hands. Glover vows to bring her down by fair means or foul.
Meanwhile, Lydia Beale is Jean’s opposite, an honest and hard-working artist hamstrung by her father’s debts. She is selected by Jack Glover as a suitable wife for his friend: if Meredith gets married before his thirtieth birthday, his fortune is temporarily safe from the Briggerlands. One quick gaol-break later, Lydia is Mrs Meredith and rolling in money.
But if she dies without making a will, that money will go to Jean Briggerland…
After a few failed attempted murders in London, the action moves to the South of France. Jean Briggerland contrives to transplant some of London’s leading ne’er-do-wells to the Riviera, where they try plot after plot to get hold of Lydia’s new fortune.
Luckily Jack Glover and his elderly retainer Jaggs are on hand to protect her. And a good thing too: after a strong start in the first few chapters, Lydia proves to be implausibly trusting, resistant to sound legal advice (make a bloody will!), and almost wilfully ignorant of all attempts to kill her.
From what I’ve read of his work, Wallace can safely be filed under ‘harmless potboilers’, but there is a very good reason to read The Angel of Terror: the angel herself. I don’t think I have yet encountered such a strong female villain. Jean is intelligent, capable, implacable, and daring. Even Glover sees her as a wonder:
Lucretia Borgia was a child in arms compared with Jean […] but I can’t think of an exact parallel, because Jean gets no pleasure out of hurting people any more than you will get out of cutting that cantaloup. It has just got to be cut, and the fact that you are finally destroying the life of the melon doesn’t worry you.
She is driven by greed, informed by a slightly deprived upbringing and a realistic impression of a life of mild drudgery.
“I fear life without money,” she said quietly. “I fear long days of work for a callous, leering employer, and strap-hanging in a crowded tube on my way home to one miserable room and the cold mutton of yesterday. I fear getting up and making my own bed and washing my own handkerchiefs and blouses, and renovating last year’s hats to make them look like this year’s. I fear a poor husband and a procession of children, and doing the housework with an incompetent maid, or maybe without any at all.
OK, some of her tricks are painfully transparent (look out for the bit where she persuades Lydia to transcribe her ‘novel’, which just happens to include a suicide note), but she’s not short of ideas, that’s for sure.
Like all proper baddies, she has some odd kinks in her character. Here she is after putting a child with smallpox in Lydia’s bed to infect the sheets.
Miss Briggerland […] was sitting up in bed, a cigarette between her lips, a heavy volume on her knees, reading:
“Such malignant cases are almost without exception rapidly fatal, sometimes so early that no sign of the characteristic symptoms appear at all,” she read and, dropping the book on the floor, extinguished her cigarette on an alabaster tray, and settled herself to sleep. She was dozing when she remembered that she had forgotten to say her prayers.
“Oh, damn!” said Jean, getting out reluctantly to kneel on the cold floor by the side of the bed.
I just think that’s a brilliant moment.
So: a fun book, rendered remarkable by its leading lady.
The Angel of Terror
First published 1922, Hodder and Stoughton Limited
This edition: Project Gutenberg
224 pages in print