Chicago Crime and a Strange Countess: King of Thrillers Translated into Yiddish

Edgar Wallace (1875–1932) contributed to the screenplay of King Kong and was once the most widely read author in the world. He was born out of wedlock to a touring actress who put him up for adoption due to poverty and he died at the age of 56 severely in debt from a life of extravagance. But in between, he was a printer’s assistant, rubber factory worker, milk roundsman, ship’s cook, soldier, war correspondent, crime reporter, playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, film producer, and speed novelist who pumped out an impressive 170 or so novels and sold over 200 million books.

Wallace was the “King of thrillers” according to his publisher, “the third largest industry in England,” as quoted by a New York reporter, and “Das Criminal” to the Germans. In the 1920s, a joke circulated about him: a friend phoned only to be informed that Wallace was working on a new book; the caller responded, “That’s ok—I’ll wait.” With a life as riveting as his writing, he created a brand image for himself with his trademark 10-inch-long cigarette holder, jodhpurs, Stetson hat, and yellow Rolls-Royce. 

Although Wallace has largely faded into obscurity, he remains preserved in Yiddish translation. The booklet below, In kenigraykh fun banditizm (In the Kingdom of Banditry), is based on Wallace’s 1929 visit to Chicago, which in the 20s was a city that made a gruesomely beautiful literary coupling with speed crime writer Wallace. In this booklet, Wallace reports on real-life characters, including detectives, journalists, boxers, and of course, the gangsters themselves. He writes of a “death chair,” so called, not because criminals were executed in it, but because the last eight criminals interrogated in the chair were later found murdered in a variety of unusual and creative manners. Wallace describes 1920s Chicago as a place where vengeance works faster than the law. This book is naturally rich in words and phrases about the criminal underworld—the Yiddish for blackmail, to beat mercilessly, interrogation, investigation, police raid, death sentence, electric chair, bribe, blackmail, automatic gun, bullets, murder, brewer, bootlegger, smuggler, pub, and brothel, among many others, can be found in the first few pages alone. Infamous historical figures mentioned include the Genna brothers, John Torrio, Al Capone, Dean O’Banion, “Big Jim” Colosimo, and Gyp the Blood (Harry Horrowitz), leader of the Lenox Avenue Gang who was executed for murder.

The Center also possesses a copy of Dos geheymnis fun a froy (The Mystery of a Woman), a Yiddish translation of Wallace’s The Strange Countess. The Strange Countess first appeared in book form in 1925, but was previously serialized as Sins of the Mothers and then The Woman in the Shadows. Wallace is reported to have said of this novel that “a firm of publishers asked me one Thursday for a novel of 70,000 words by noon on the following Monday. Working 18 hours a day, dictating to typists, while my wife did the corrections, I delivered the book, The Strange Countess, on the Monday.” He then adds: “If anyone wants to give me a present, he might send me a copy of this book. I should like to read it.” This novel has since appeared in numerous editions and in many translations. In 1958, it was published as Harlequin Romance #428. In 1961 it was released as a film by West Germany, under the title Die seltsame Gräfin

This Yiddish edition was published by Bilike bikher (Cheap books) in Riga, Latvia in 1930 with a price of “1 lat, 2.5 gilden in Poland, or 40 American cents in other countries.” It is 182 pages, although the original English version is over 300 pages. The translator, Mark Razumny, clearly took some liberties. The following passage from English was altered in the Yiddish: “He was playing that dreamy bit from the Tales of Hoggenheim—Hoffmann is it? All these Jewish names are the same to me.” But our Yiddish-language edition simply states the correct title with the name Hoffmann (who is in fact not Jewish at all). Both the English and Yiddish books contain delightfully amusing and oftentimes archaic language. “Bonny girls” and “lassies” pepper the English and to “be potty about” someone means to be crazy about or fancy them. Equally fascinating words and expressions are incorporated into the Yiddish rendition, including everything from a swear of Slavic origin (paskudnyak) to a dudlzak (bagpipe).

—Elissa Sperling