The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace
In Ian Fleming’s 10th James Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), 007 foils a plot by the Germanic supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld to use biological agents to destroy a goodly part of the world’s farm crops. But as it turns out, this was not the first time that an English author had given his readers a story featuring a Prussian madman employing bacterial warfare to cut off part of the globe’s food supply! A full 44 years earlier, we find Edgar Wallace, the so-called “King of Thrillers,” coming up with a similar dastardly scheme, in his 1919 offering entitled Green Rust. Wallace’s novel was initially released by the British publisher Ward, Lock & Co. and has seen a modest number of other editions since, sometimes under its original title The Green Rust, and other times as just Green Rust. In recent years, the book has seen editions from both Pulp Fictions, in 1999, and Wildside Press, in 2008. The edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on is the 1938 hardcover from Triangle Books; an 84-year-old volume (as of this writing) complete with dust jacket, but with browning pages so brittle that they would flake and break, despite my gentleness, as I turned them. (And trust me, this book really is a page-turner!)
As for Edgar Wallace himself, he was a writer who was so very popular in his day that it was once estimated that a full ¼ of all books sold in England were by him! Wallace had been born in Greenwich in 1875 and had written his first novel, The Four Just Men, when he was 30. By the time of his passing in 1932, at age 56, Wallace had come out with a superhuman 170 novels, over 950 short stories, nonfiction, poetry, 18 stage plays, and numerous film scripts, most notably an early draft for King Kong, released the year after his death. Dozens and dozens of motion pictures would ultimately be released that were based on his novels; I have already written here of the krimi film The Dead Eyes of London (1961), based on Wallace’s 1924 thriller The Dark Eyes of London. And although he didn’t dabble in sci-fi very often, Green Rust (as my Pyramid book gives the title) is one of Wallace’s rare forays into the genre, and his use of biological warfare here may just be one of the earliest instances of the subject in fiction. Wallace’s novel deftly melds crime, thriller, espionage and sci-fi elements together in one very entertaining package that manages to hold up very well more than a century after it was first conceived.
Green Rust features such a twisty little plot that I’m not quite sure how to properly begin describing it. The book opens with the mysterious murder of the wealthy English industrialist John Millinborn, who was already dying of some unspecified heart ailment, while on vacation in western Canada, when we first encounter him. Millinborn was being attended by a medical man he’d recently met during his travels, the urbane German Dr. Van Heerden, while his oldest friend, an English lawyer named James Kitson, had stood helplessly by. After Millinborn is shockingly stabbed on his deathbed, the action jumps over the pond to London, where we encounter Van Heerden again, sometime later, sharing a small apartment building with the lovely office worker Olivia Cresswell, as well as the drunken sot Stanford Beale. A strange series of events soon upends Ms. Cresswell’s life completely: She is fired from her job with no reason given. She is accused by her former employer, the following day, of theft, and the London police raid her flat in search of the stolen money. Her apartment is broken into twice and ransacked while she is away. Mr. Beale, of all people, reveals himself to be a responsible business owner and offers her another office job … researching wheat fields all around the world. And then comes the most startling development of all, when her good friend Van Heerden kidnaps her and spirits her away to an abandoned house in the country, where he plans to inject her with the will-destroying drug “bromocine” and compel her to marry him. What in the world can possibly be going on?
Eventually, the reader learns (and these are very slight spoilers at worst; the dust jacket of my Pyramid edition gives away even more) that Beale is in actuality some kind of American detective (his true background is only revealed toward the novel’s end) who’d been hired by Kitson to safeguard Olivia, who is herself the long-lost niece of John Millinborn, and now heiress to his millions. In a subsequent investigation of Van Heerden, Beale learns that the German has been working on a secret project only referred to as “The Green Rust”; a project for which he is in desperate need of funds. Ultimately, Beale learns a lot more about Van Heerden’s schemes, and realizes that nothing less than the stability of the world’s economy, the forced starvation of millions of people, and possibly the outbreak of a new world war hang in the balance. During a daring nighttime bit of sleuthing, Beale actually witnesses the Green Rust being manufactured in an abandoned wine factory in Paddington (just north of Hyde Park). But can he possibly act in time before Van Heerden scatters the diabolical substance broadcast around the world, to spread untold havoc?
You will notice that I have been doing my darnedest to be coy here, and not mention anything regarding the properties of the mysterious Green Rust itself. And indeed, the nature of Van Heerden’s project is only revealed to the reader in small driblets as Wallace’s story progresses. Beale himself remains annoyingly closemouthed on the subject, even with the Scotland Yard officials he enlists in the cause, and the result is a sense of heightened curiosity in the reader, as well as befuddlement. Thus, we can only nod our head in agreement with Olivia when she declares early on “I am afraid I am rather bewildered by all the mystery of it,” and when Superintendent McNorton, of Scotland Yard, says, at the book’s midpoint, “Beale knows more about the matter than any of us, but he only gives us occasional glimpses of the real situation.” Fortunately, the book’s labyrinthine plot and Van Heerden’s evil machinations are all made clear eventually. Revealing the precise purpose of the Green Rust would surely constitute a major plot spoiler, so you will forgive me if I don’t touch on that here.
For the rest of it, Wallace’s novel builds slowly and soon engenders in the reader a sense of impending doom and critical emergency. The book often feels like a proto-007 affair, with its nefarious villain, grotesque henchmen, and save-the-world plotting. Wallace here evinces a great gift for well-rendered dialogue and wry touches of throwaway humor, and his story moves along briskly. In that last respect, it can be likened to what has been called “the Fleming sweep.” The 007 author used to type up his novels very quickly, only adding the copious bits of detail, for which the Bond novels were known, later on. This rapid manner of writing made the Bond books really seem to move. And Wallace, it would appear, had his own method for making his story lines propel themselves. It seems that Wallace would always laboriously handwrite the first page of his books, and then dictate the rest – into a recorder or to a secretary – to be typed up later. The method seemed to work for Wallace very well, and surely helped him to write those 170 novels, 950 short stories, and so much more, in just a 27-year period. Personally, I found his style to be immensely readable. Take, for example, this small parenthetical bit; one of the most quotable descriptions of a Monday morning that I have ever come across:
There is a menace about Monday morning which few have escaped. It is a menace which in one guise or another clouds hundreds of millions of pillows, gives to the golden sunlight which filters through a billion panes the very hues and character of jaundice. It is the menace of factory and workshop, harsh prisons which shut men and women from the green fields and the pleasant byways; the menace of new responsibilities to be faced and new difficulties to be overcome. Into the space of Monday morning drain the dregs of last week’s commitments to gather into stagnant pools upon the desks and benches of toiling and scheming humanity. It is the end of the holiday, the foot of the new hill whose crest is Saturday night and whose most pleasant outlook is the Sunday-to-come…
Whew! Not bad for a man dictating into a recorder, right?
Wallace, besides giving us the realistically drawn madman that is Van Heerden, the spunky and levelheaded Olivia, and the resourceful detective (yet hardly a superspy) Stanford Beale, also provides his readers with any number of interesting secondary characters, such as Bridgers, a chemist in Van Heerden’s employ who is seriously addicted to cocaine; Milsom, another chemist working on the Green Rust, who had done time for murdering his own nephew; Hilda Glaum, a Swiss woman who worked next to Olivia and who is madly in love with the cold-fish Van Heerden; and the unfortunately named Parson Homo, a lapsed priest turned burglar who provides Beale with some invaluable assistance. The author also gives us a bit of unsappy and not overly done romance between Olivia and Beale – including what might be the strangest wedding ceremony ever depicted – and at least three thrilling sequences: Olivia’s drugged imprisonment and attempted escape, Beale’s infiltration of the Green Rust factory, and the final showdown between Van Heerden and our heroes. And to top it all off, we do get to witness one (accidental) demonstration of the Green Rust’s capabilities, and it surely does manage to impress!
Actually, I have very few complaints to lodge against my first Edgar Wallace novel. I suppose the book might have benefited from a few more thrilling sequences, and the fact that all that manufactured Green Rust still exists by the time the novel wraps up does not leave us with an entirely comfortable feeling. Yes, Van Heerden’s plot has been foiled, but the possibility for future mischief remains very very real … and might have been explored by Wallace in a sequel, had he so chosen. Green Rust, I might add, is very much a British affair, and a good street map of London might come in handy for all those readers who are not intimately familiar with the area. But that’s about all for my nitpicking. I read Green Rust over the course of a very nasty and extended NYC heat wave, and found it to be perfect company, indeed. The book, incidentally, was turned into a British film called The Green Terror the same year it was released, 1919, and I would love to catch this hard-to-see silent movie one day, if, say, TCM would ever screen it. In the meantime, there are some 170-odd other Wallace novels out there to be experienced. I see that his 1925 collection entitled The Mind of Mr. J. G. Reeder is one of the 100 works discussed in H. R. F. Keating’s excellent overview volume Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, and that is where this reader would like to be heading next, Wallace-wise…