Edgar Wallace (1928)
|Born||Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace
1 April 1875
Greenwich, London, England
|Died||10 February 1932
Beverly Hills, United States
|Occupation||Crime writer, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright|
|Known for||Creation of King Kong|
Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1 April 1875 – 10 February 1932) was an English writer.
Born into poverty as an illegitimate London child, Wallace left school at 12. He joined the army at 21 and was a war correspondent during the Second Boer War for Reuters and the Daily Mail. Struggling with debt, he left South Africa, returned to London and began writing thrillers to raise income, publishing books including The Four Just Men (1905). Drawing on time as a reporter in the Congo, covering the Belgian atrocities, Wallace serialised short stories in magazines, later publishing collections such as Sanders of the River (1911). He signed with Hodder and Stoughton in 1921 and became an internationally recognised author.
After a disastrous bid to stand as Liberal MP for Blackpool in the 1931 general election, Wallace moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a script writer for RKO studios. He died suddenly from undiagnosed diabetes, during the initial drafting of King Kong (1933).
A prolific writer, one of Wallace's publishers claimed that a quarter of all books then read in England were written by him. As well as journalism, Wallace wrote screen plays, poetry, historical non-fiction, 18 stage plays, 957 short stories and over 170 novels, 12 in 1929 alone. More than 160 films have been made of Wallace's work. He is remembered for the creation of King Kong, as a writer of 'the colonial imagination', for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, and the Green Archer. He sold over 50 million copies of his combined works in various editions and The Economist describes him as "one of the most prolific thriller writers of [the 20th] century", although few of his books are still in print in the UK.
- 1 Life and work
- 2 Legacy
- 3 Writing
- 4 Literary works
- 5 Further reading
- 6 References
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
Life and work
Parents and birth
Wallace's mother was born in 1843, in Liverpool, to an Irish Catholic family. Mary's family had been in show business and she worked in the theatre working as a stagehand, usherette and bit-part actress until she married in 1867. Captain Joseph Richards was also born in Liverpool in 1838, also from an Irish Catholic family. He and his father John Richards were both Merchant Navy captains, and his mother Catherine Richards came from a mariner family. When Mary was eight months pregnant, in January 1868, her husband, Joseph Richards died at sea. After the birth, destitute, Mary took to the stage, assuming the stage name "Polly" Richards. In 1872, Polly met and joined the Marriott family theatre troupe, managed by Mrs. Alice Edgar, her husband Richard Edgar and their three adult children, Grace Edgar, Adeline Edgar and Richard Horatio Edgar. Richard Horatio Edgar and Polly ended up having a "broom cupboard" style sexual encounter during an after-show party. Discovering she was pregnant, Polly invented a fictitious obligation in Greenwich that would last at least half a year, and obtained a room in a boarding house where she lived until her son's birth on 1 April 1875. During her confinement she had asked her midwife to find a couple to foster the child. The midwife introduced Polly to her close friend, Mrs Freeman, a mother of ten children, whose husband George Freeman was a Billingsgate fishmonger. On 9 April 1875, Polly took Edgar to the semi-literate Freeman family and made arrangements to visit often.
Childhood and early career
Wallace, then known as Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman, Polly's young son, had a happy childhood, forming a close bond with 20-year-old Clara Freeman who became a second mother to him. By 1878, Polly could no longer afford the small sum she had been paying the Freemans to care for her son and instead of placing the boy in the workhouse, the Freemans adopted him. Polly never visited him again as a child. His foster-father George Freeman was determined to ensure Richard received a good education and for some time Wallace attended St. Alfege with St. Peter’s, a boarding school in Peckham, however he played truant and then left full-time education at the age of 12.
By his early teens, Wallace had held down numerous jobs such as newspaper-seller at Ludgate Circus near Fleet Street, milk-delivery boy, rubber factory worker, shoe shop assistant and ship’s cook. A plaque at Ludgate Circus commemorates Wallace's first encounter with the newspaper business. He was dismissed from his job on the milk run for stealing money. In 1894, he became engaged to a local Deptford girl, Edith Anstree, but broke the engagement, enlisting in the Infantry.
Wallace registered in the army under the adopted the name Edgar Wallace, taken from the author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace. At the time the medical records register him as having a 33 inch chest and being stunted from his childhood spent in the slums. He was posted in South Africa with the West Kent Regiment, in 1896. He disliked army life but managed to arrange a transfer to the Royal Army Medical Corps, which was less arduous but more unpleasant, and so transferred again to the Press Corps, which he found suited him better.
Wallace began publishing songs and poetry, much inspired by Rudyard Kipling, whom he met in Cape Town in 1898. Wallace's first book of ballads, The Mission that Failed! was published that same year. In 1899, he bought his way out of the forces and turned to writing full-time. Remaining in Africa, he became a war correspondent, first for Reuters and then the Daily Mail (1900) and other periodicals during the Boer War.
In 1901, while in South Africa, Wallace married Ivy Maude Caldecott (1880?–1926), although her father, a Wesleyan missionary, Reverend William Shaw Caldecott, was strongly opposed to the marriage. The couple's first child, Eleanor Clare Hellier Wallace died suddenly from meningitis in 1903 and they returned to London soon after, deep in debt. Wallace worked for the Mail in London and began writing detective stories in a bid to earn quick money. A son, Bryan, was born in 1904 followed by a daughter, Patricia in 1908. In 1903, Wallace met his birth mother Polly, whom he had never known. Terminally ill, 60 years old, and living in poverty, she came to ask for money and was turned away. Polly died in the Bradford Infirmary later that year.
Unable to find any backer for his first book, Wallace set up his own publishing company, Tallis Press, which issued the thriller The Four Just Men (1905). Despite promotion in the Mail and good sales, the project was financially mismanaged and Wallace had to be bailed out by the Mail's proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, who was anxious that the farrago would reflect badly on his newspaper. Problems were compounded when inaccuracies in Wallace's reporting led to libel cases being brought against the Mail. Wallace was dismissed in 1907, the first reporter ever to be fired from the paper, and he found no other paper would employ him, given his reputation. The family lived continuously in a state of near-bankruptcy, Ivy having to sell her jewellery for food. 
During 1907 Edgar travelled to the Congo Free State, to report on atrocities committed against the Congolese under King Leopold II of Belgium and the Belgian rubber companies, in which up to 15 million Congolese were killed. Isabel Thorne of the Weekly Tale-Teller penny magazine, invited Wallace to serialise stories inspired by his experiences. These were published as his first collection Sanders of the River (1911), a best seller, in 1935 adapted into a film with the same name, starring Paul Robeson. Wallace went on to publish 11 more similar collections (102 stories). They were tales of exotic adventure and local tribal rites, set on an African river, mostly without love interest as this held no appeal for Wallace. His first 28 books and their film rights he sold outright, with no royalties, for quick money. Critic David Pringle noted in 1987 "The Sanders Books are not frequently reprinted nowadays, perhaps because of their overt racism".
The period from 1908 to 1932 were the most prolific of Wallace's life. Initially he wrote mainly in order to satisfy creditors in the UK and South Africa. The success of his books began to rehabilitate his reputation as a journalist and he began reporting from horse racing circles. He wrote for the Week-End and the Evening News, becoming an editor for Week-End Racing Supplement and started his own racing papers Bibury's and R. E. Walton's Weekly, buying many racehorses of his own. He lost many thousands gambling and despite his success spent large sums on an extravagant lifestyle he could not afford. During 1916, Ivy had her last child, Michael Blair Wallace by Edgar and filed for divorce in 1918.
Ivy moved to Tunbridge Wells with the children and Wallace drew closer to his secretary Ethel Violet King (1896–1933), daughter of banker Frederick King. They married in 1921 and Penelope Wallace was born to them in 1923. Wallace began to take his fiction writing career more seriously and signed with publishers Hodder and Stoughton in 1921, organising his contracts, instead of selling rights to his work piecemeal in order to raise funds. This allowed him advances, royalties and full scale promotional campaigns for his books, which he had never before had. They aggressively advertised him as a celebrity writer, ‘King of Thrillers’, known for this trademark trilby, cigarette holder and yellow Rolls Royce. He was said to be able to write a 70 000 word novel in three days and plough through three novels at once and indeed the publishers agreed to publish everything he wrote as fast as he could write it. In 1928 it was estimated that one in four books being read in the UK had come from Wallace's pen. He wrote across many genres including science fiction, screen plays, a non-fiction ten-volume history of the First World War. All told, he wrote over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and 957 short stories, his works translated into 28 languages. The critic Wheeler W. Dixon suggests that Wallace became somewhat of a public joke for this prodigious output. 
Wallace served as chairman of the Press Club, which continues to present an annual 'Edgar Wallace Award' for excellence in writing.  Following the great success of his novel The Ringer, Wallace was appointed chairman of the British Lion Film Corporation in return for giving British Lion first option on all his output.  Wallace's contract gave him an annual salary, a substantial block of stock in the company, plus a large stipend from everything British Lion produced based on his work, plus 10% of British Lion's overall annual profits. Additionally, British Lion employed his elder son Bryan E. Wallace as a film editor. By 1929, Wallace's earnings were almost £50,000 per annum, (equivalent to about £2 million in current terms). He also invented at this time the 'Luncheon Club', bringing together his two greatest loves of journalism and horse-racing.
Wallace was the first British crime novelist to use policemen as his protagonists, rather than amateur sleuths as most other writers of the time did. Most of his novels are independent stand-alone stories; he seldom used series heroes, and when he did he avoided a strict story order, so that continuity was not required from book to book. On 6 June 1923, Edgar Wallace became the first British radio sports reporter, when he made a report on the Epsom Derby for the British Broadcasting Company, the newly founded predecessor of the BBC.
Wallace's ex-wife Ivy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923 and though the tumour was successfully removed, it returned terminally by 1925 and she died in 1926.
Wallace wrote a controversial article in the mid-1920s entitled "The Canker In Our Midst" about paedophilia and the show business world. Describing how some show business people unwittingly leave their children vulnerable to predators, it linked paedophilia with homosexuality and outraged many of his colleagues, publishing associates and business friends including theatre mogul Gerald du Maurier. Biographer Margaret Lane describes it as an "intolerant, blustering, kick-the-blighters-down-the-stairs" type of essay, even by standards of the day.
Politics, emigration to the U.S., and screenwriting
Wallace became active in the Liberal Party and contested Blackpool in the 1931 general election as one of a handful of Independent Liberals who rejected the National Government, and the official Liberal support for it, and strongly supported free trade. He also bought the Sunday News, and edited it for six months, writing a theatre column, before it closed. In the event, he lost the election by over 33,000 votes, and he went to America, burdened by debt, in November 1931. Around the same time, he wrote the screenplay for the first sound film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932) produced by Gainsborough Pictures.
Moving to Hollywood, he began working as a "script doctor" for RKO. His later play, The Green Pack had also opened to excellent reviews, boosting his status even further. Wallace wanted to get his own work on Hollywood celluloid, adapting books such as The Four Just Men and Mr J G Reeder. In Hollywood he met Stanley Holloway's scriptwriter, his own half-brother Marriott Edgar. Wallace's play On the Spot, written about gangster Al Capone, would prove to be the writer's greatest theatrical success. It is described as "arguably, in construction, dialogue, action, plot and resolution, still one of the finest and purest of 20th-century melodramas". (The Independent, 2000). It launched the career of Charles Laughton who played the lead Capone character Tony Perelli.
Death and aftermath
In December 1931, Wallace was assigned work on the RKO "gorilla picture" (King Kong, 1933) for producer Merian C. Cooper. By late January, however, he was beginning to suffer sudden, severe headaches, and was diagnosed with diabetes. His condition deteriorated within days. Violet booked passage on a liner out of Southampton, but received word that Edgar had slipped into a coma and died of the condition, combined with double pneumonia, on 7 February 1932 in North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills. The flags on Fleet Street's newspaper offices flew at half-mast and the bell of St. Bride's tolled in mourning. He was buried at Chalklands, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, near his UK country home.
Despite his later success, Wallace had amassed massive debts, some still remaining from his years in South Africa, many to racing bookies. The large royalties from his greatly popular work allowed the estate to be settled within two years. Violet Wallace outlived her husband by only 14 months, dying suddenly in April 1933 at the age of 33 while the estate was still deep in debt.
Violet Wallace's own will left her share of the Wallace estate to her daughter Penelope, herself an author of mystery and crime novels, who became the chief benefactor and shareholder. Penelope married George Halcrow in 1955 and they went on to run the Wallace estate, managing her father's literary legacy and starting the Edgar Wallace Society in 1969. The work is continued by Penelope's daughter, also named Penelope. The Society has members in 20 countries. The literary body is currently managed by the London agency A.P. Watt.
Wallace's eldest son Bryan (1904–1971) was also an author of mystery and crime novels. In 1934 Bryan married Margaret Lane (1907–94), a British writer. Lane published Edgar Wallace's biography in 1938.
The Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine was a monthly digest-size fiction magazine specializing in crime and detective fiction. It published 35 issues from 1964–1967. Each issue contains original works of short crime or mystery fiction as well as reprints by authors like Wallace, Chekhov, Steinbeck, and Agatha Christie.
Wallace narrated his words onto wax cylinders (the dictaphones of the day) and his secretaries typed up the text. This may be why he was able to work at such high speed and why his stories have narrative drive. Many of Wallace's critically successful books were dictated like this over two or three days, locked away with cartons of cigarettes and endless pots of sweet tea, often working pretty much uninterrupted in 72 hours. Most of his novels were serialised in segments but written in this way. The serialised stories that were instead written piecemeal have a distinctly different narrative energy, not sweeping up the reader on the story wave.
Wallace rarely edited his own work after it was dictated and typed up, but sent it straight to the publishers, intensely disliking the revision of his work with other editors. The company would do only cursory checks for factual errors before printing.
Wallace faced widespread accusations that he used ghost writers to churn out books, though there is no evidence of this, and his profligacy became something of a joke, the subject of cartoons and sketches. His 'three day books', reeled off to keep the loan sharks from the door, were unlikely to garner great critical praise and Wallace claimed not to find literary value in his own works.
Themes and critique
Wallace characters such as District Commissioner Sanders can be taken to represent the values of colonial white supremacy in Africa, and now viewed as deeply racist and paternalistic. His writing has been attacked for its conception of Africans as stupid children who need a firm hand. Sanders, for example, pledges to bring 'civilisation' to "half a million cannibal folk". George Orwell called Wallace a "bully worshipper" and "proto-fascist", though many critics conceived Wallace more as a populist writer who pandered to the market of the time.
Selling over 50 million copies of his works, including 170 novels, Wallace was very much a populist writer, and was dismissed as such. Q. D. Leavis, Arnold Bennett and Dorothy L Sayers led the attack on Wallace, suggesting he offered no social critique or subversive agenda at all and distracting the reading public from better things. Trotsky, reading a Wallace novel whilst recuperating on his sickbed in 1935, found it to be "mediocre, contemptible and crude... [with no] shade of perception, talent or imagination." Critics Steinbrunner and Penzler stated that Wallace's writing is "slapdash and cliché- ridden, characterization that is two dimensional and situations [that] are frequently trite, relying on intuition, coincidence, and much pointless, confusing movement to convey a sense of action. The heroes and villains are clearly labelled, and stock characters, humorous servants, baffled policemen, breathless heroines, could be interchanged from one book to another." The Oxford Companion to the Theatre asserts, however, that "In all his works [Wallace] showed unusual precision of detail, narrative skill, and inside knowledge of police methods and criminal psychology, the fruits of his apprenticeship as a crime reporter".
Although Wallace had a favoured method of dictation he did not use plot formulae, unlike many other thriller writers. The critic Dixon maintains that Wallace covered a wide variety of perspectives and characterisations, exploring themes such as feminist self-determination (Barbara on her Own 1926, Four-Square Jane 1929, The Girl from Scotland Yard 1926), upsetting peerage hierarchies (Chick, 1923), science fiction (The Day of Uniting, 1926), schizophrenia (The Man who Knew, 1919) and autobiography (People'', 1926).
Edgar Wallace enjoyed writing science fiction but found little financial success in the genre despite several efforts. His constant need for income always brought him back to the more mundane styles of fiction that sold more easily. Planetoid 127, first published in 1929 but reprinted as late 1962, is a short story about an Earth scientist who communicates via wireless with his counterpart on a duplicate Earth orbiting unseen because it is on the opposite side of the Sun. The idea of a mirror Earth or mirror Universe later became a standard subgenre within science fiction. The story also bears similarities to Rudyard Kipling's hard science fiction story Wireless. Wallace's other science fiction works include The Green Rust, a story of bio-terrorists who threaten to release an agent that will destroy the world's corn crops, 1925, which accurately predicted that a short peace would be followed by a German attack on England, and The Black Grippe, about a disease that renders everyone in the world blind. His last work of science fiction and the only one widely remembered today is the screenplay for King Kong.
Wallace had written the initial 110-page draft for King Kong over five weeks, from late December 1931 to January 1932. The movie was initially to be called The Beast, the name of Wallace's treatment. Wallace's own diary described the writing process for this draft as he worked with Merian C. Cooper. Cooper fed aspects of the story, which had been inspired partly by an aspiration to use as much footage of an abandoned RKO picture with a similar premise, Creation, as possible. Wallace then executed Cooper's ideas, the latter approving the developing script on a sequence-by-sequence basis. While working on the project, Cooper also screened various recent films for Wallace to put him in the right mindset, including Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were thrilled with the draft screenplay. However on Wallace's death, the 110 page script they were left with only a first rough draft, not a final and completed shooting script. the fragmentary nature of Wallace's script meant that the main, dialogue-free action of the film such as the jungle sequences would have to be shot first, as a showreel for the board of RKO. Ruth Rose, Schoedsack's wife, was brought in to work on to evolve the script. James Ashmore Creelman, who worked on The Most Dangerous Game screenplay, was also brought in to tidy up the script. The original Wallace screenplay is analysed and discussed in The Girl in the Hairy Paw (1976), edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld, and by Mark Cotta Vaz, in the preface to the Modern Library reissue of King Kong (2005).
In December 1932, his story and screenplay for King Kong were "novelised" or transcribed by Delos W. Lovelace, appearing in book form as King Kong. It is attributed to Wallace, Cooper, and Lovelace, and originally published by Grosset and Dunlap. The book was reissued in 2005 by the prestigious Modern Library, a division of Random House, with an Introduction by Greg Bear and a Preface by Mark Cotta Vaz, and by Penguin in the US. In the UK, Victor Gollancz published a hardcover version in 2005. The first paperback edition had been published by Bantam in 1965 in the US and by Corgi in 1966 in the UK. In 1976, Grosset and Dunlap republished the novel in paperback and hardcover editions. There were paperback editions by Tempo and by Futura that year as well. In 2005, Blackstone Audio released a spoken-word version of the book as an audiobook on CD with commentary by Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Ray Harryhausen, among others. There were also German and Czech versions of the novel in 2005.
In 1933, Cinema Weekly published the short story "King Kong", credited to Edgar Wallace and Draycott Montagu Dell (1888–1940). Both Wallace and Cooper had signed a contract which allowed them to develop the story in a book or short story or serial form. Walter F. Ripperger also wrote a two-part serialization of the Wallace and Cooper story in Mystery magazine titled "King Kong" in the February and March issues in 1933.
In 1959 a revival of Wallace's work occurred in West Germany, and his eldest son Bryan relocated there for some time to edit and direct many of the string of Edgar Wallace B-movies and made-for-TV movies filmed in that country. These later became a staple of late-night television. In 2004 Oliver Kalkofe produced the movie Der Wixxer, an homage to the popular black and white Wallace movies. It featured a large number of well known comedians.
There are more of Wallace's books still in print in Germany than elsewhere and his work has consistently remained popular.
Four Just Men series
Mr. J. G. Reeder series
Detective Sgt. (Insp.) Elk series
Educated Evans series
Short story collections
- King Kong, with Draycott M. Dell, (1933), 28 October 1933 Cinema Weekly
- Neil Clark Stranger than Fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, the Man Who Created King Kong, (The History Press, October 2014 (UK), February 2015 (US)) ISBN 978-0752498829
- J. R. Cox ‘Edgar Wallace’, in British mystery writers, 1860–1919, ed. B. Benstock and T. F. Staley, (1988)
- Robert Curtis Edgar Wallace Each Way by (John Long, 1932)
- Amnon Kabatchnik "Edgar Wallace" in Blood on the Stage, 1925–1950: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection (Scarecrow Press, 2010) pp. 7–16 ISBN 9780810869639
- Margaret Lane Edgar Wallace, The Biography of a Phenomenon (William Heinemann, October 1938). Revised and reprinted in 1965. An abridged version was issued in Reader's Digest, Vol. 34, No. 205, May 1939.
- W. O. G. Lofts and D. Adley The British bibliography of Edgar Wallace (1969)
- J. E. Nolan Edgar Wallace in Films in Review, 18 (1967), 71–85
- E. Wallace People: a short autobiography (1926)
- E. Wallace My Hollywood diary (1932)
- Ethel V. Wallace Edgar Wallace by His Wife by (Hutchinson, 1932)
- The Transparency of Spectacle: Meditations on the Moving Image Wheeler W. Dixon, SUNY Press, 1998 ISBN 9780791437810
- The Economist "More at home abroad" 21 August 1997
- Dixon (1998) p. 73
- Dictionary of National Biography profile online edition, January 2011
- ""Past Masters: Edgar Wallace", Shot.".
- Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, John Sutherland, Yale University Press, 2012, p.122 ISBN 9780300182439
- Teri Duerr. ""Edgar Wallace: The Man Who Wrote Too Much?" Mystery Scene Summer Issue #130.".
- Edgar Wallace: The Biography of a Phenomenon (1938) Margaret Lane, W. Heinemann, Limited, p169 University of Michigan
- "Father of King Kong", Daily Mail 24 September 2005
- Pringle, David. Imaginary People :A Who’s Who of Modern Fictional Characters. London, Grafton Books, 1987. ISBN 0-246-12968-9 (p.401).
- ""Edgar Wallace profile", Crime Time magazine".
- Dixon (1998) p. 79
- The Transparency of Spectacle: Meditations on the Moving Image Wheeler W. Dixon, SUNY Press, 1998 ISBN 9780791437810 p. 72
- "Invisible Ink", The Independent, 23 October 2011
- "A canker in our midst", The Spectator archive, 25 September 1958, originally from Daily Mail
- Dixon (1998) p. 85
- "The Press: Odds & Ends: Aug. 31, 1931", TIME Magazine
- "Obituary: Jenia Reissar" The Independent 27 October 27by 2000 | Adrian, Jack
- Dixon (1998) pp. 74–81
- Dixon (1998) pp. 74–79
- The Popular Press Companion to Popular Literature, Victor E. Neuburg, Popular Press, 1983, p196 ISBN 9780879722333
- Dixon (1998) pp. 73–79
- Dixon (1998) p. 87
- Blood on the Stage, 1925–1950: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection", "Edgar Wallace", (2010) by Amnon Kabatchnik, Scarecrow Press, p15 ISBN 9780810869639
- Phyllis Hartnoll (ed) The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983 , p.876
- Moskowitz, Sam (November 1962). "Introduction, Planetoid 127". Fantastic Stories of Imagination 11: 76.
- also directed movie
- novelised from Wallace's play by Robert George Curtis
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Edgar Wallace.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Edgar Wallace|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- The Edgar Wallace Society, founded in 1969 by his daughter, Penelope Wallace
- Edgar Wallace at the Internet Movie Database
- The Mixer (1992 TV series) at the Internet Movie Database
- Edgar Wallace at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- House where Edgar Wallace was born
- Former London home of Edgar Wallace
- Works by Edgar Wallace at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Edgar Wallace at Project Gutenberg Australia
- Works by Edgar Wallace at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)