Once Off Guard by James Harold Wallis

OnceOffGuardI first encountered Wallis’ work after Kate suggested I try The Servant of Death, one of his inverted stories. Wallis had a relatively short but prolific career as a mystery novelist, turning out at least one book a year for the better part of a decade but most of these are now extremely difficult to come by.

Once Off Guard is probably the title that the author is best remembered for. In the various articles I have read about the author it is one of the two novels that gets mentioned most often, the other being Murder by Formula, which I suspect reflects that it was adapted and turned into a Fritz Lang picture, The Woman in the Window. Following that movie’s release the book was reissued under the title, often in an abridged form.

Professor Wanley has stayed in the city for the Summer to teach some courses and earn a little extra money while his wife vacations. One night after he has dinner with a few friends at his club he decides to read a little erotic Greek poetry, sip some brandy and then take a walk to look in an art gallery window.

As he stands looking at a painting a woman who resembles the model comes up to him and propositions him. Overcome with the potent mix of poetry, alcohol and beauty, he finds himself going home with the woman and cheating on his wife for the first time. He regrets his decision later that same evening as he prepares to take a walk of shame but suddenly the woman’s boyfriend enters the apartment and seeing Wanley, attacks him. In the confrontation, Wanley is passed some scissors by the woman and stabs the man killing him.

Wanley and the woman realize that if they were to report the death that there would be no other witnesses and even if the Police didn’t charge them, Wanley’s infidelity would be revealed. Instead Wanley agrees that he will dispose of the body but an added complication is that the murdered man is one of the most prominent men in America and within hours his disappearance is noticed. A hunt gets underway to find the man’s killer and Wanley feels certain that at any moment he will be discovered…

The title for the novel comes from a discussion between Wanley and his friends at the start of the book in which they talk about how an action taken instinctively when off guard can destroy a life. What follows puts the ideas of that discussion into effect, demonstrating how someone might end up making a series of catastrophic choices that would have far worse consequences for them. This is a similar approach to the structure of Murder by Formula and it does allow the author to work with and develop a theme. Wallis’ decision to employ an inverted form works well with that choice, ensuring the reader’s focus stays on the psychological effects that Wanley’s decisions have on him.

While it turns out to be an effective way of exploring that theme however, I think the work does become rather repetitive and dreary. While Wanley’s cycle of guilt convinces psychologically, it confines the narrative and can feel overwhelming to read. This can make the novel feel like a heavy and ponderous read, particularly as the middle section of the book contains few unexpected developments.

One of the choices that I found grating was the repeated references to the foulness of the ‘harlot’ that Wanley had slept with. While Wallis does point out at one point that Wanley is being somewhat hypocritical in thinking that way as he had made the choice to cheat on his wife, it does reflect that this character is portrayed exclusively as a temptress and libertine rather than anything approaching a three dimensional character.

The heavy-handed tone of Wallis’ writing frustrates in part because it threatens to overwhelm some of the more promising aspects of the story. One of the aspects that I liked most was the way that he has Wanley realize that he can exploit some of his friendships at the club to extract information about how the case is progressing. This is potentially a dangerous game as in asking questions he is also exposing himself to scrutiny and it does lead to one of the stronger sequences in the book in which Wanley takes a car ride to see the crime scene which is the tensest moment in the whole novel.

That sequence provides a possible blueprint for an altogether more interesting take on the novel in which Wanley plays a far more active role in getting close to the investigation. Instead the character comes off as self-pitying and strangely passive at moments in the story, making it hard to feel either any great hatred or any sympathy for him.

The ending, when it arrives, seems to be contrived to produce a surprise for the reader and I do think it is cleverly engineered but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying as a repayment for the time invested in reading the piece. Still, I did appreciate its tone and thought it worked well enough to pull things together.

Though Once Off Guard is a novel which shows plenty of promise I feel that the work is simply too long and too repetitive. With a little judicious trimming I feel that the book could have felt a little less overwhelming, the character study may have benefited from providing some relief and these good ideas would have been given a little more room to breathe. It is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as The Servant of Death and while I am curious to watch the movie which is being re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US this Summer to see if any significant changes were made, my overall feeling is one of disappointment.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

4 thoughts on “Once Off Guard by James Harold Wallis

  1. When was this book published? I’m guessing it was before Henry Slesar’s Enter Murderers in 1960, but this title did spring to mind when I started reading the first part of your synopsis for the Wallis book. A shame this Wallis book didn’t live up to expectations.

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  2. 1942. Looking at your review the spark that sets things off is similar though the events that follow are quite different.

    I think the most unfortunate thing is that I would love to be able to recommend this one as it is the most easily available of his work.

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    1. The film is getting rereleased this summer on DVD and Blu-ray so I was looking forward to checking it out and seeing how it lines up. Given that the repetitive internal monologue is probably the most frustrating aspect of the book, I imagine it would translate very well to film as the story is quite visual.

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