A THRILLER BY ANY OTHER NAME
Unless this is your first experience with either Ramble House Publishers or our microcosm, Dancing Tuatara Press, you’ve likely come to the conclusion that, along with Wyatt Blassingame, Edmund Snell is what we would refer to as our “flagship author”, just as Harry Stephen Keeler would be considered the flagship author of the main imprint, Ramble House.
So what exactly does that mean, and why should you care? Well, for starters, when I’m looking for a “flagship author”, I’m looking for an individual who not only has a substantial body of work, but also hits that odd note of being a bit quirky or downright weird in their literary offerings. To find this sort of author, we generally have to look at the era just prior to the Second World War before the explosion of paperback originals and the development of marketing categories that came to drive the engines of publishing, as opposed to the earlier system wherein the publishers marketed authors and there were two categories for readers to be concerned with— fiction and non-fiction.
Well, in actuality, there was a bit more to it than that. There were romances, there were westerns, and the magic word for all of us: the “thriller”. “Thriller” was truly a magic word, as it could mean anything the publisher wanted it to mean. A supernatural novel such as R. R. Ryan’s classic Echo of a Curse, or a tale of ancient conspiracies continued into the present day such as Walter Owen’s More Things in Heaven, or a fusion of science-fiction, adventure and a rediscovered lost-race such as feature in Walter S. Masterman’s The Flying Beast, or of course, the remarkable variety of Asian master criminals, supernatural tales, science fiction, mystery, jungle adventure and various combinations thereof served up by the inimitable Edmund Snell. It’s this variety that makes Edmund Snell more than just a typical Dancing Tuatara Press author, and more a face of the imprint or flagship author. Edmund Snell wrote all of the varieties of fiction that we publish and, what’s more, he has a huge volume of work out there, much of which has never been reprinted. This includes dozens of short stories, most of which are of novelette length or longer, with only two collections published thus far. To give you an idea of just how much material is out there, I’ve mapped out half a dozen collections just based on his work in just one of the British story papers.
Edmund Snell was also a prolific novelist and Ramble House had begun to mine this treasure trove before I came on board, with editions of The White Owl and The Sign of the Scorpion already available. As it so happens, The White Owl is perhaps his best-known work and certainly his best-known supernatural tale. The Sign of the Scorpion is actually the middle of a three-volume set dealing with Peter Pennington as he attempts to foil the sinister plans of master-criminal Chanda-Lung; we’ll be reissuing the trilogy as a set sometime later in 2015. In the meantime we have a dozen other Snell novels to deal with.
Front board & front of jacket of the 1926 Macaulay edition
This brings us to the present volume, The Yu-Chi Stone. It’s everything that one could want as a stand-alone supernatural thriller. Originally published in 1925 in the U.K. by T. Fisher Unwin with a U.S. edition following the next year, The Yu-Chi Stone was one-half of Edmund Snell’s literary debut in book form, the other half being the adventure yarn Corrigan’s Way. Details are sketchy, but it would appear that the latter volume may have preceded The Yu-Chi Stone by a couple of months. In any event, the reading public liked what they saw and Edmund Snell became a fixture of the monthly fiction magazines, the weekly story papers and, of course, the hardbound thrillers targeted at the lending libraries.
What will become immediately apparent to the reader is the air of authenticity that pervades Snell’s work, particularly when writing of Borneo, Malaysia, and other eastern locales. In fact, the only time that this verisimilitude flags is when Snell makes the unfortunate choice of trying to capture American slang as spoken by New York or Chicago-based gangsters. Having spent considerable time living abroad in places such as Borneo, Snell has an excellent memory for detail and a profound respect for the people and customs of the region which is so often lacking in the work of his contemporaries.
While The Yu-Chi Stone features the standard Asian master criminal, as is always the case with Snell’s antagonists, they aren’t mere Fu-Manchu knock-offs, but sharply-drawn characters with believable motivations, rendered all the more convincingly by virtue of their belief in the rightness of their cause. For a villain to be truly effective in fiction, it is a matter of necessity that the character does not believe that they are the villain. Whether they are “misunderstood” or trying to right a perceived wrong is not important; what is of paramount importance is that they firmly believe that they stand on the side of right. Absent that, and we’re left with an absurd caricature twirling his mustache and cackling for no particular reason. Fortunately, there’s none of that in Edmund Snell’s work. If this is your introduction to this author’s work, then you’re in for a lot of delightful reading. If you’re merely reacquainting yourself with Edmund Snell, this is a great place to start. From this jumping-off point in 1925 the next two decades were loaded with quality thrillers of all descriptions. In fact, it wasn’t at all unusual to see three or four of the monthly fiction magazines each with an Edmund Snell piece as a lead feature.
As stated earlier, Edmund Snell provides everything that we’re looking for in a “flagship author”, so make up a free shelf or two in your library: there’s a lot more where this came from!