Invisible Ink: No 99 - Edgar Wallace


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The Independent Culture

Conceived in a cupboard, born in Greenwich in 1875, and raised through a complex set of circumstances in a theatrical troupe by his mother, Edgar Wallace ended up selling newspapers in Ludgate Circus at the age of 11, but he was to become one of the most ubiquitous authors of the early 20th century.

Now he has a society with members in more than 20 countries, and – an ultimate British accolade – there's a pub named after him off Fleet Street. But although he has hardly ever been out of print, how many people have read Edgar Wallace?

His first novel, The Four Just Men, was a prototype of the modern thriller, and concerned four handsome young vigilantes who kill in the name of justice. Ambitious and attuned to the power of marketing, the often childishly naive writer launched a "guess the murder method" competition that went horribly wrong after dozens submitted the correct answer, expecting to be paid in full. After causing two further lawsuits to befall the Daily Mail, he was fired from his job and started the "Sanders of The River" stories, which are steeped in the colonial attitudes of the times and rarely reprinted. They were, however, made into a film starring Paul Robeson.

Only months after his beloved wife died, Wallace became rich and famous. The success of a crime novel called The Ringer led to an extraordinary deal. He gave the film company British Lion a first option on all his future output. Despite suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, his energy was prodigious. He ventured into politics, then headed for Hollywood. In 1931 he began the five-week writing stint that resulted in King Kong. In this draft it was established that the ape was 30 feet tall, and was killed by a bolt of lightning hitting the Empire State Building. Wallace sadly died before seeing the completed film.

A famously fast writer, it was a standing joke that if someone telephoned Wallace and was told he was writing a book, they'd reply, "I'll wait." He produced around 175 novels, 24 plays, hundreds of articles and short stories, and about 160 films have been made from his work, including The Edgar Wallace Mysteries. I count 12 novels written in 1929 alone, but popularity doesn't always translate to longevity, and Wallace's slam-bang tales are often regarded as unsubtle and improbable. It was said that the King of Thrillers' heart was left in Fleet Street.