Last year, bored and looking for something to read, I was browsing through Project Gutenberg. Out of curiosity, I decided to hit the “random” button on the book search tab and read something at least more than 100 years old. I wanted to know what the real pop fiction of the early 1900s or late 1800s was like — not the classics, just what ordinary people read and wrote in their free time.
I stumbled across “The Malefactor,” published in 1906, written by E. Phillips Oppenheim.
After reading it in its entirety, I definitely can tell why this didn’t become a classic.
Who is E. Phillips Oppenheim? I had to Google him, which tells you something about how much he didn’t achieve over the course of his life. Perhaps I’ll cut him some slack; Wikipedia tells me he was a very successful genre fiction writer. He produced more than 100 novels over the course of his writing career, often writing two or more per year.
So it’s no surprise “The Malefactor” feels like a romantic teenager’s absinthe-fueled first draft.
This is usually where I’d put a little warning: spoilers beware. But honestly, I’d rather warn you against reading this book. I’m going to fill this review up with as many spoilers as I can so that you won’t waste your precious time reading 129 pages of an edgy old man (who turns out to not be that edgy) eventually getting married to a girl who’s a fraction of his age. To put this in context, they first meet when she’s 13 and he’s at least 38.
There. That’s the endgame. I would like to say that the ending has shock value, or that it’s funny at least — but no. It’s boring, predictable (I could have guessed that the Ubermensch persona was fake ever since chapter three. The hebephilic relationship was subtly foreshadowed, which made reading this uncomfortable as well), and upon finishing “The Malefactor” my greatest emotion was relief at not having to force myself to read any more.
The whole book revolves around Sir (or Mr.) Wingrave, a former British convict who’s just been released from prison and is subsequently on a mission to punish humanity simply because he has suffered and so everyone else has to as well. He talks at length about his mission to anyone who’ll listen. Too many people are willing to listen to him, sadly, so I had to read through the same basic speech at least five or more times. In a dash of realism, his misanthropic ambitions means Wingrave will have to manipulate the stock market and rebrand himself as an American millionaire.
Following him is a writer, Aynesworth, who decides to work as Wingrave’s secretary so that he can chart Wingrave’s return to normalcy. They meet some other characters, like Juliet, Lady Ruth, Lady Ruth’s husband (He has a name. I just can’t be bothered to remember it), the Marchioness and some man Lady Ruth (in disguise) sends to kill Wingrave.
It starts off interestingly, with the promise of drama, action, intrigue. Will Wingrave really screw over everyone he comes into contact with? How will other characters react to his return to London? Will he die?
Three-quarters through the book, the assassin who fails to kill Wingrave while he’s sailing to America comes back again. I was really rooting for him to succeed in offing Wingrave this time, not because I condone murder, but because I was so tired of Wingrave being an donkeyhole but still having four women fawning over him. And no, the reveal that he secretly loves to donate large sums of money to various unfortunates does not make him much more likable.
One might say that I’m being too harsh on, what is, after all, a piece of genre fiction. But I don’t even know what genre this is supposed to be, let alone the target audience. Besides, I know what reading good genre fiction is like. When I read another issue of Detective Conan, I feel entertained and satisfied. When I read “The Malefactor” I just felt like I was wasting my time. Being “genre” is not an excuse for being straight-up bad.
Perhaps the tedium of this novel can simply be chalked up to the fact that it is more than a hundred years old (and it shows). I cannot relate to the gripping financial struggles of two aristocrats who have plenty of money and property to spare anyways, or the drama of which woman will marry the frankly grumpy and rude Wingrave.
I shouldn’t end this review with an endless stream of negatives. This book is more progressive in its treatment of women (who do have agency) than, say, “Lord of the Flies.” The dialogue is not horrible, and the characters do clearly have different personalities. The scene where Wingrave finds himself nearly killed is a pleasure to read; thrilling, exciting.
And there are rather detailed descriptions of the habits of English aristocrats. Simply based on what technologies are and are not shown, you can get a sense of the state of modernization in Oppenheim’s country and time period. In fact, you could say that reading this book let me experience what the real pop fiction of the early 1900s or late 1800s was like — not the classics, just what ordinary people read and wrote in their free time…
I got exactly what I wanted, after all. I just didn’t enjoy a second of it.
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org .