The First of the Sensationalists
David Stuart Davies looks at the work of Wilkie Collins - a pioneer of the detective story. ...
Edgar Richard Horatio Wallace (1875 -1932) was one of the most prolific of authors. During his lifetime he wrote at a prodigious pace, producing one hundred and seventy three books and seventeen plays. His area of excellence was mainly crime thrillers and adventure yarns, including such works as Sanders of the River, The Terror, the Mr J. G. Reeder series and The Dark Eyes of London. It is no wonder that by the time of his death he bore the sobriquet ‘The King of Thrillers’.
His early life was turbulent and perhaps the bizarre events surrounding his birth and upbringing stimulated the imagination and aided him in creating the dramatic scenarios of his fiction. He was born in Greenwich, the illegitimate son of penurious actors Marie (Polly) Richards and Richard Horatio Edgar Marriott, who kept him for a mere nine days after his birth. He was adopted by George Freeman, a fish porter, who brought him up with his other ten children. Wallace only learned the truth of his true parentage when he was eleven years old.
Wallace had very little formal schooling but he was a quick learner and, after a short spell in the army, he served as a correspondent during the Boer War for Reuters and South African and London newspapers. His journalistic work gave him a taste for writing but he realised that factual reporting restricted his prose. He had a strong desire to formulate his own plots and characters, to let his imagination fly and dabble in fiction. In 1906 his fanciful newspaper work got him into trouble. When writing an article about Lever Brothers’ threatened rise in soap prices he had grossly inflated the figures by quoting an ‘unnamed washerwoman’, a lady conjured up from his own imagination. The article prompted Lever Brothers to take the newspaper to court.
With this flair for invention it was only natural that Wallace should try his hand at writing a novel. He knew that it had to be special and promoted in a unique fashion to catch the attention of the public. And so he concocted his first mystery novel featuring four respectable but ruthless vigilantes who find pleasure in administering justice when the law is incapable or unwilling to do so.
On completing what he believed was a sure-fire bestseller, Wallace was dismayed to discover that publishers were not interested in his novel and so, undaunted by their indifference, he founded the Tallis Press and published the novel himself in 1905. He ran a vast and successful campaign to promote the novel, The Four Just Men, which involved a huge publicity gimmick: a £500 reward was offered to any reader who could guess how the murder of the British Foreign Secretary was committed in the novel. At the time, Wallace was working for the Daily Mail newspaper, which was run by Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), and it was in this paper that the story was first serialised along with the competition.
The author had advertisements placed on buses, hoardings, flyers, and so forth, running up an incredible bill of £2,000 despite being aware that he needed to sell sufficient copies to make £2,500 before he saw any profit, Wallace rather foolishly believed that this was possible within three months of the book’s publication. This was not to be the case.
The gimmick generated tremendous sales, but Wallace had over-estimated his own cleverness in creating an unsolvable murder mystery plot for there were numerous correct entries and Wallace was shocked to learn that he was legally obliged to pay the full prize amount to every person who answered correctly.
Additionally, though his advertising campaign had worked, making The Four Just Men a runaway bestseller, Wallace discovered that instead of his woefully over-optimistic three months, the novel would have to continue selling consistently with no margin of error for two full years in order for him to recoup the £2,500 he needed to break even.
However, while the publication of The Four Just Men was financially disastrous, the novel made Edgar Wallace’s name as a popular author. He narrated his words onto wax cylinders (the dictaphones of the day) and his secretaries typed up the text. This was why he was able to work at such high speed and why his stories had such narrative drive. Many of Wallace’s critically successful books were dictated in this fashion over a two or three day period. He would be locked away with cartons of cigarettes and endless pots of sweet tea, often working pretty much uninterrupted for seventy two hours.
Wallace also wrote plays and screenplays. Most notably, in December 1931, he was assigned to work on the RKO ‘gorilla picture’ King Kong. (While the script was not used in its entirety, much of it was retained for the final screenplay). However, by late January, Wallace was beginning to suffer sudden, severe headaches, and was diagnosed with diabetes. His condition deteriorated within days and he slipped into a coma and died of the condition, combined with double pneumonia, on 7 February 1932 in 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.
A great number of his titles are still in print and The Four Just Men and the J R Reeder series in particular remain extremely popular. In the Sixties The Edgar Wallace Mysteries, a British second-feature film series, was produced at Merton Park Studios for Anglo-Amalgamated. There were 47 films in all, based on the author’s prodigious output, made between 1960 and 1965.