Invisible Ink: No 185 - Edward Phillips Oppenheim

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The Independent Culture

In the front of P G Wodehouse's collection of short stories, Very Good, Jeeves, you'll find a dedication to E Phillips Oppenheim. Who was he? This once-famous British writer was universally known as "the prince of storytellers".

There were an enormous number of Edwardian writers whose output was prodigious, but they tended to produce the melodramatic and patriotic type of story that George Orwell excoriated the author Warwick Deeping about – writers more interested in keeping alive the spirit of the age than creating something pleasurable. Oppenheim was one of the great exponents of escapism, and became so popular that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1927.

Born in 1866, the son of a Leicester leather merchant, he worked in his father's business for nearly two decades. During the First World War he moved to the Ministry of Information, but by that time he was already well into his writing career. His first novel, Expiation, was published when he was just 21. His literary success was such that it enabled him to buy a villa in France, and a yacht, and live a rather wonderful life of luxury and deceit, throwing endlessly lavish Gatsby-ish parties, which is probably how Wodehouse came to know him. He wrote some 116 novels and 37 collections of short stories, an output quite inconceivable to modern authors.

What was the secret of his success?

Oppenheim was the inventor of the spy novel, creating the "rogue male" school of suspense thrillers, in which the hero stays one step ahead of the law while racing around the world attempting to right a wrong. His dips into the shadowy world of diplomacy certainly caught the public's attention. His most famous novel, The Great Impersonation, was filmed three times between 1921 and 1942, lastly as a propaganda piece starring Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers. In this, an enemy agent discovers an unconscious man adrift in a boat who is his exact double, and takes his place. It's estimated that around 30 of his books were made into films.

Not a single novel of Oppenheim's is in print today, although there are some e-versions available. Are they any good? Perhaps, if considered as period pieces of charming escapism, but the prose tends to be flat, and the characters little more than sturdy. Still, anyone who invents an entire genre of fiction that's going strong over a century later deserves at least to be remembered.