Home/Articles/Arts & Letters/Edgar Wallace, Literary Mercenary

Edgar Wallace, Literary Mercenary

If the literary establishment ever decides to invent a prize for a 20th-century author with the greatest output of work, a portly English gentleman by the name of Edgar Wallace would be a serious contender. In terms of sheer quantity, Wallace’s output was simply astounding: he wrote over 170 books that were translated into 30 languages; more films were made out of his books than any other writer in the 20th century; and, during his most successful publishing year in the 1920s, one out of every four books sold in England had his name in the title.

Wallace’s daily work routine often went on for up to 17 consecutive hours. Kept going by copious amounts of caffeine and cigarettes, he wrote frantically, in furious marathon-like sessions, where time was money, and words got converted into currency by the minute.

His posthumous career was even more impressive. In Germany alone, Wallace sold over 43 million books between 1926 and 1982. By 1990, the head of the Edgar Wallace Society boasted that sales of the author’s work had exceeded 200 million.

He penned almost 1,000 short stories, 23 plays, and 65 sketches. The draft screenplay he wrote for “King Kong” would give us one of the defining motion pictures of the 20th century. Yet despite his impressive output and huge cult following, Wallace remains very much an outside figure, both within the literary establishment and in popular culture, and he’s little known in the United States.

A favorable biography was written about him by Margaret Lane in 1939. And a pub named in Wallace’s honor on London’s Fleet Street today remains a popular tourist haunt where fans still flock in their thousands. But the master of the thriller and crime genres isn’t celebrated with the kind of gusto or pomp and ceremony that a writer with such a popular following truly deserves.

That’s the basic argument at least that British journalist Neil Clark attempts to present in Stranger Than Fiction. Clark’s thesis isn’t very convincing. But the book is a real page-turner and an entertaining read nevertheless.

The biographer certainly has no shortage of material to draw from. Wallace’s life story contains more action-packed adventures than most of his novels do. He was born into poverty as an illegitimate child in 1875 in South East London. Almost anyone else born into similar circumstances would have found breaking through the rigid class barriers of Victorian Britain almost impossible. But Wallace somehow managed to slip through. Clark believes it was Wallace’s sheer relentless entrepreneurial spirit that enabled him to climb up the social ladder. Numerous strokes of good fortune would also play a part.

His first professional experience with the printed word began just off Fleet Street, aged 11, when he started selling newspapers at Ludgate Circus. Until he was 18, Wallace earned a living from a number of menial jobs: working in a rubber factory for a short time, a brief period employed as a milkman.

Fed up with London, and in search of adventure, he decided to enlist in the British Army. A year later, he was sent to Cape Town in South Africa. If anything was to be the making of him, ironically it was the army. During what downtime he had, Wallace began to write poetry. After publishing a poem called “Welcome To Kipling” in The Cape Times, Wallace was invited to a dinner in honor of the famous English writer. Rubbing shoulders with the literati gave the ambitious young man a taste for what life could be like outside the disciplined hierarchical structure of the army. Ambitions of moving into the world of journalism, or a career that involved writing of some description, no longer seemed like a distant dream.

When his army colleagues asked Wallace what kind of writing he had in mind to make a living, he unashamedly replied, “anything and everything that will bring in money.” This was to become the raison d’être behind Wallace’s entire writing career. Clark spends most of the narrative reiterating this point. Wallace had a penchant for living beyond his means, spending his money extravagantly wherever he went. When he wasn’t decorating a new house he could barely afford with expensive furniture, Wallace was placing bets at the racetrack, a hobby that cost him dearly.

The early 20th century was a golden age of journalism, and Wallace was paid handsomely for working as a hack before he eventually became a full-time author. His big journalistic coups included highly paid reporting gigs during the Boer War and in the Congo. In June 1901, Wallace’s reporting dragged him into a conflict with the British government’s War Office, for accusing the Boers of shooting wounded men in the conflict. Soon afterwards, Wallace broke a story that revealed a secret peace treaty between Britain and the Boers, which finally brought the conflict to its conclusion. Having violated the censorship rules put in place for wartime correspondences at the time, the story caused a huge scandal, and Wallace was immediately removed from his job.

When he returned to London, Wallace was a different figure from the barely known army private who left a few years earlier. He was now a man about town on Fleet Street with a serious reputation. Clark writes of Wallace that:

there was no journalist better at beating the censor and getting an important story out to his editor. This man of working class origins, who had left school at the age of 12, was showing that he could run rings round his better-educated press colleagues.  He took pleasure in the fact that he was outscoring unfriendly upper-middle class journalists who looked down their noses at him.   

In his opening chapter, Clark contends that while the phrase “rags to riches” may be overused, there is simply no better cliché to describe Edgar Wallace’s life story. In fact, Clark reduces Wallace to a cartoon-like fictional hero who can do no wrong in the eyes of his author. For example, Clark constantly refers to Wallace as “our hero,” a label that I found highly irritating and slightly patronizing, to say the least.

It’s hard to know if Clark has simply read a little too much Charles Dickens in his research for this book or whether he’s just getting caught up in nostalgia for old Britannia as he writes. Either way, the tone he employs as a narrator is closer to a Victorian paternalist than a writer living in the second decade of the 21st century.

Clark’s main bone of contention is that the literary establishment have turned their noses at Wallace’s work—for several decades now—due to class snobbery. Presenting an argument such as this is fine. After all, forms of popular culture and entertainment that appeal to a mass audience have their place in society, just as high art does. But in this case the argument—which attempts to defend Wallace’s work at all costs—is far from convincing.

Nor does Clark present a convincing case for Wallace being a man with strong moral convictions, or a consistent set of principles. For example, we read about Wallace’s attempt to get elected as a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party, in Blackpool, in the general election of 1931. Clark writes that: “Wallace sat up all night drinking champagne, cursing the government”; adding that: “the defeat was a crushing blow to Wallace’s pride.”

It’s hardly surprising that Wallace never won the seat though. He once boasted that “I have no politics.” And when he was asked by a journalist what his opinions were on the Liberal Party, Wallace replied, “I have yet to generate any wild enthusiasm for any party.”

Such a lack of principle is reflected in Wallace’s journalism too. In short, he worshiped power, especially when it could benefit his self-interest. For example, Wallace wrote in 1907 about Belgian atrocities in the Congo—under King Leopold II, where 10 million people were slaughtered—as “a bad dream of death and suffering.” Twenty years later, however, Wallace dismissed the entire episode as a German propaganda campaign.

After his unsuccessful foray into politics, Wallace left Britain for the United States, where he became a script doctor for RKO. The screenplay that became “King Kong” was one of the last projects he worked on, developing ideas supplied by director and producer Merian C. Cooper. Wallace did not live to see his work make it to the screen—he died in 1932, a year before “King Kong” debuted. 

As entertaining as Clark’s book is in parts, I found myself feeling little sympathy or admiration for Wallace, who always put his own ego before any kind of moral integrity. And Clark, despite his best efforts, has a hard job convincing the reader that Wallace’s writing contained any kind of emotional depth beneath its very shallow foundations. Perhaps, then, we should give the last word on this to George Orwell, who after reading Margaret Lane’s biography wrote that:

Wallace thought nothing of composing a full-length book in less than a week. But it was all fairy gold. The curious thing is that this utterly wasted life—a life of sitting almost continuously in a stuffy room and covering acres of paper with slightly pernicious nonsense—is what is called, or would have been called a few years ago, ‘an inspiring story.’ … the world gave him the kind of rewards he would have asked for, after his death as well as in life.

J.P. O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.

leave a comment

Latest Articles