As the author of Chronicles of the Secret Service, Microbes of Power and The Death of Dr Whitelaw, Alexander Wilson earned critical plaudits and enjoyed excellent sales. His spy thrillers were full of espionage and derring-do, so realistic that those in the secret service recognised pen portraits of themselves – and their superiors. So why today does no one remember him, while contemporaries like John Buchan and Compton Mackenzie survive in print? And why did he die in obscurity in 1963, an undischarged bankrupt with a criminal record?
The answers, according to a new book, may stem from the fact that part of his life was orchestrated on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Services who, for reasons unexplained, then expunged him from official records. Was he, as some of his family believe, a spy who became addicted to deception, a compulsive storyteller who lost all sense of fact and fiction?
The deceit was so extensive that it was not until two years ago that, during the writing of The Secret Lives of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, the journalist and author Tim Crook was able to make some of Wilson's children aware of each other's existence – for not only was Wilson adept at crafting characters who lived daring double lives, he lived one of his own, with one legal and three bigamous marriages to his name.
Crook's book tells the remarkable story of a man remembered by his oldest surviving son, Dennis Wilson, now 89, as "charming and charismatic – when we saw him." He adds: "My father had a very complicated life."
It was a very rich one. Born in Dover, Kent, to an Irish mother and an English army officer father, Alexander Wilson spent his childhood following his father to Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ceylon. By 1925, Wilson was 32, a much-travelled former First World War officer who had become the actor-manager of a touring repertory company. It was then that he unexpectedly left his wife Gladys and three young children in England to become Professor of English Literature at the University of Punjab in Lahore, then part of the British Raj.
Crook believes Wilson was recruited into the secret world: "The academic who appointed him had known connections with the intelligence world." But why almost a decade after he last saw service on behalf of his country, and why a man with little academic achievement, apart from speaking Cantonese and French, which is hardly useful locally?
"I suspect some Army connection, possibly through his family, that led him to being either recruited or activated at this point. The British needed to combat the threat of Communist-backed insurgents in the North-West Frontier."
With academic cover, Wilson travelled around the North-West Frontier, became an honorary Major in the Indian Army Reserve and learnt Urdu and Persian. In the early 1930s, he also spent time in Ceylon, Arabia and Palestine, on likely intelligence missions.
In India, Wilson's career took another unexpected twist. After writing a book of English for Indian students, which may have been part of his cover, he wrote two spy thrillers, The Mystery of Tunnel 51 which, for the first time featured his secret-service hero, Sir Leonard Wallace, shortly followed by The Devil's Cocktail – "A thrill on every page," said The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) – both published in 1928.
Crook says: "What was remarkable about these books was their uncanny portrayal of the original 'C' – Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head of MI6, fictionalised as Sir Leonard. Only someone who knew Smith-Cumming could have written those books." The fictional Wallace, for instance, shared with the real "C" a false wooden limb, grey eyes and a wife whose forename began with "M".
Wilson returned to England in 1933, an established author. His fifth book, The Crimson Dacoit, a thriller about terrorist infiltration into Indian intelligence, was reviewed by TLS: "He evidently devotes time and thought to the working out of details... a thriller which is very good."
The reviews got better. In September 1933, TLS said Wallace of the Secret Service was "sensational... a genuine piece of forceful story-telling."
While his writing career took off, his personal circumstances were complicated. In India, he met and married Dorothy Wick, a touring actress. But when they returned to Britain, Dorothy was left in London, with baby son Michael, while Wilson resumed life with his first family in Southampton.
Dennis remembers: "My father had been this rather glamorous figure who would turn up on leave, driving a flash hired car and bringing us loads of presents before leaving again. The 18 months he lived with us after he returned from India were the only time we were a family."
After a row with a relative in 1935, Wilson went back to London, telling his wife and children he would find somewhere for them all to live. His son says: "I imagined him arriving at Waterloo with his luggage and looking for lodgings. But now I know that all he did was return to Dorothy. And we never got to live in London."
In 1940, Chronicles of the Secret Service, his 18th and final novel, the 10th to feature Sir Leonard Wallace, was published, its jacket blurb strongly implying inside knowledge: "Major Alexander Wilson probably knows as much about the Secret Service as any living novelist." Crook argues that Wilson's writing was so precise in its knowledge of intelligence life that it is almost inconceivable he did not have first-hand experience, and that he was encouraged by the services to write his books as a way of perpetuating a myth of their all-powerful nature.
Whatever the extent of his secret life up to that point, there is no doubt that in 1940 he joined MI6, eavesdropping on overseas embassies' telephones to gather what was known in the intelligence world as "special material". By now estranged from Dorothy, he met his third wife, Alison McKelvie, an MI6 secretary.
But then life took a turn for the worst. In late 1942, shortly after the birth of their first son, Gordon, he was dismissed from the Secret Intelligence Service. Wilson maintained to Alison this was for "operational reasons" and that he was now an agent in the field. He stuck to this explanation during years in poverty – he was declared bankrupt in 1944 (the year their second son Nigel was born), they were forced to repeatedly move house, four further books went unpublished and he was twice jailed for petty crimes.
Alison grew suspicious of "a vast fabrication" barely able to believe it was all just "cover". In fact, as Crook points out, a similar "fall from grace" scenario was central to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré, himself a former intelligence officer. Crook believes the prison sentences could have been designed to place him under cover with imprisoned agents and subversives in prison.
However, it was probably not cover that caused him to marry again, to Elizabeth Hill, a nurse he met while working as a hospital porter in the mid-Fifties. For two years he carried on a double life between two proximate homes. He and Elizabeth had a son, Douglas.
Alison later wrote: "I realised there was not a single thing [he] had ever told me that I could put my finger on and now say 'that is true'. Just one thing I knew – he had written intelligence stories. This indeed was the supreme irony: the only reality in a mountain of fiction was fiction itself." Crook takes the opposite view: "All of the mysteries, ambiguities and contradictions are consistent with intelligence tradecraft. What Alison perceived as fantasy and lying could also be read as the tactics and rituals of cover."
Wilson died of a heart attack in 1963, his 70th year. It was only when Alison called the Southampton house, with whom he remained on good terms, with news of his death that they learned of her existence. "We thought she was his landlady," says Dennis. Alison also discovered her late husband was not divorced from Gladys.
Four decades later, Crook began investigating Wilson at the behest of his friend Michael, who was staggered to learn that his father had not, as he was told by a bitter Dorothy, died at El Alamein in 1942, but had lived for another 22 years. The six surviving half-siblings – Adrian, his other son by Dorothy died in 1998 – subsequently learned fully of each other's existence, becoming one large, mutually accepting, extended family. Dennis says: "It is absolutely marvellous, like we have known each other all our lives."
And they have all been interesting, fulfilling ones: Dennis, an Army officer, was wounded at Normandy before becoming a businessman, while Nigel was a City investment manager and Gordon a Navy captain; Douglas, works for the Scottish government and Michael had a long career as an actor, having changed his surname to Shannon. One grandchild, Nigel's daughter, Ruth Wilson, is an actress, starring in the 2006 BBC version of Jane Eyre.
Wilson's other legacy to the nation is more opaque. Crook can only speculate why so little of his work survived beyond the war, why the records of his literary agents and publishers were missing, why many traces of Wilson seemed to have been eradicated. "It may have been an operation to sanitize the public records."
Crook was not allowed to see MI6 files. He did, however, have access to "confidential sources", unable to either confirm or deny anything. "I always stressed the negative – that Wilson was a fantasist, his books luckily perceptive rather than the work of an insider and his post-war decline his own fault," says Crook. "But when I spoke to my sources, the positive was strongly pointed out – that Wilson might well have being doing a great job for his country, an unsung hero in contrast to others from the era, like Anthony Blunt or Guy Burgess.''
For Crook, that is at least partial confirmation of the secret life of Alexander Wilson. Of course, within the wilderness of mirrors in the secret world, it might be simply expedient to let some fiction masquerade as fact. And vice versa.
'The Secret Lives of the Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson' is published by Kultura Press (£29.99). To order a copy for the special price of £26.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk