Stranger than fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, the Man Who Created King Kong by Neil Clark. The creator of one the best-known scenes in cinema was also the most widely read author in the world. So why is he so little known?
By Duncan Campbell
There is a plaque on Ludgate Circus, at the end of Fleet Street, that says of its dedicatee: “He knew wealth and poverty, yet had walked with Kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents, he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.” How many of the thousands of people who scurry past it each day know that Edgar Wallace, the man commemorated, was once the most widely read author in the world and had also been a newspaper seller, medical orderly, poet, war correspondent, crime reporter, editor, playwright, racehorse owner, director, parliamentary candidate and Hollywood screenwriter responsible for one of the most famous scenes in cinema history? While Wallace’s overlapping contemporaries, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, both remain in the public eye, their creations constantly on our screens, who is now familiar with Wallace or has heard of his detective inspector Elk?
Neil Clark, a journalist and former chair of the Edgar Wallace Society, has written this affectionate but not too starry-eyed biography to rescue him from – to borrow EP Thompson’s emotive phrase – the “condescension of posterity”. Certainly Wallace’s life is as rattling a yarn as any of the 170 or so novels he knocked out at breakneck speed. Born out of wedlock in 1875 to Polly Richards, and with both of his parents actors, he was adopted by a kindly Billingsgate fish porter and his wife. Asked by a journalist years later to contribute to a celebrity feature entitled “What I Owe My Parents”, Wallace replied on a postcard: “sorry, cock, I’m a bastard.”
Wallace was on Ludgate Circus by the age of 11, selling the Echo to pay for his ginger beer and theatre tickets. He left home at 15 to work on a trawler out of Grimsby, hated it, stole a pair of boots and walked the 143 miles back to London. At 18, he enlisted in the Royal West Kent regiment, transferred to the medical corps and headed off with the army to South Africa on the eve of the Boer War. As a young private, he wrote a poem to welcome his hero Rudyard Kipling to the country, which was published in the Cape Times.
When the war started in 1899, Wallace realised he would be happier writing about it than patching up the wounded. He sent shilling-a-word cables on the fighting to Reuters and caught the eye of the recently founded Daily Mail. Soon he was writing jingoistic pieces for the paper: “The Boers murder wounded men … the soldier who is stricken down on the field is no more certain that his life will be spared by brother Boer than he was that brother Fuzzy would pass him by.” He scooped his more experienced colleagues with details of the eventual peace treaty but his ability to dodge government censorship infuriated Lord Kitchener, who barred him from being a war correspondent.
Undaunted, he became the first editor of the Rand Daily Mail in 1902, a year after marrying his long-suffering South African sweetheart, Ivy. The editorship lasted only nine months and he returned to London to cover crime for the Mail. He claimed to be the first reporter to notice that, when a jury comes into court to return a guilty verdict, they never look at the prisoner in the dock, a theory that holds true-ish to this day. His novel, The Feathered Serpent, paints a flattering portrait of the crime reporter at work.
He was also dispatched on foreign assignments. In 1904, covering a kidnap by a Moroccan rebel leader, he claimed the scoop of an eloquent letter from the kidnapper himself. A previous Wallace biographer, Margaret Lane, has noted that the letter was “curiously familiar in style”. Did Wallace make it up? “We shall never know for sure,” concludes Clark. Similar question marks surround some of his other exclusives, and two dubiously researched news stories landed the Mail with heavy libel damages.
Sent to the Congo, he reported back on Belgian colonial atrocities – “the very laws of life are outraged” – but the Mail did not publish his damning reports because they did not fit its editorial line. In his 1926 autobiography, Wallace seems to misremember his own history and claims that criticisms of Belgium were due to German propaganda, which was the Mail line. “It’s disappointing,” notes Clark, “that he decided to go with the times and the establishment – and not with the truth.”
In 1905, now a father and still strapped for cash, he decided that fiction was the answer, telling Ivy that he would give his readers “crime and blood and three murders to the chapter; such is the insanity of the age that I do not doubt for one moment the success of my venture”. One of his most celebrated novels, The Four Just Men, soon followed, an ingenious tale of a quartet of vigilantes who murder the foreign secretary in a closed room.
Wallace was too old to serve in the first world war. The Kitchener ban on his frontline reporting did not stop him from churning out cringeworthy stories about conscientious objectors. For the magazine Town Topics he created the character of – ho, ho! – Private Clarence Nancy. “His portrayal of conchies as camp, embroidery-loving, scent-wearing cowards does him no credit at all,” concedes Clark, who portrays his subject as a man with a generous heart but some of the least attractive prejudices of his time.
By the 1920s, Wallace had fully embarked on his literary career. While working, he drank 30 to 40 cups of tea and smoked between 80 and 100 cigarettes a day; an elongated cigarette holder was his trademark. By 1926, he was knocking out 18 novels a year; by 1929, he was up to 34. Only Georges Simenon and John Creasey have been so prolific and neither of them managed to fit in, as did Wallace, an unsuccessful run for parliament, as the Independent Lloyd George Liberal candidate in Blackpool, in 1931. He spent lavishly, too, on a yellow Rolls-Royce, on valets, on public schools for his four children, and – disastrously – at the racecourse.
Plays were bashed out at almost the same speed. On the Spot, with Charles Laughton in the lead role as a Chicago gangster, was a hit but there were many flops. His first marriage ended and he embarked on another with his former secretary, Violet, whom he nicknamed Jim. Hollywood beckoned and there he embarked on the screenplay for King Kong, for which he contributed the epic Empire State Building scene. Despite the biography’s subtitle, this episode is dealt with only briefly near the end of the book and Clark is at pains to assert Wallace’s primacy in the film’s creation. He died in 1932 while at work on the script.
So why is someone who sold more than 200m books worldwide so little regarded today? Clark sees him as a victim of literary snobbery. As Julian Symons has pointed out, Wallace was the first crime writer to come from a working-class background and he was proud to be “a low-brow – the back of my literary neck starts at my literary eyebrows”. Another factor may be that the characters of his investigators, JG Reeder and the gloomy Inspector Elk, were not as seductive as Holmes, Poirot or Maigret; poor Elk is introduced in The Fellowship of the Frog as “tall and thin, a slight stoop accentuated his weediness”. Nor was his prose quite as rich as that of Raymond Chandler, another south London boy who ended up in Hollywood. But Clark’s aim is less to claim Wallace as a neglected genius than to “generate renewed interest in this remarkable man”. In this he succeeds admirably.