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Wallace, (Richard Horatio) Edgarlocked

(1875–1932)
  • David Glover

(Richard Horatio) Edgar Wallace (1875–1932)

by Howard Coster, 1930

Wallace, (Richard Horatio) Edgar (1875–1932), writer, was born on 1 April 1875 at 7 Ashburnham Grove, Greenwich, London, and was legally registered as the son of Walter Wallace, comedian, and Mary Jane (Polly) Wallace, previously Richards, née Blair (1843–1903). He was in fact, however, the illegitimate son of Polly and Richard Horatio Edgar, both of whom were minor players in a touring theatre company based in London. His mother arranged for him to be fostered by the family of George Freeman, Billingsgate fish-porter, who adopted Wallace when she was no longer able to pay for his keep. The Freeman household was largely semi-literate with a rough-edged respectability in which hard work, hard drinking, and piety were closely interwoven. Wallace left school at twelve, though he had already begun to play truant in order to sell newspapers in Ludgate Circus, where a bronze commemorative plaque was erected after his death to mark the beginning of his long association with the press. A variety of jobs followed: as a printer's boy, a shoe shop assistant, a worker in a mackintosh cloth factory, a milk roundsman, a builder's labourer and road maker, and, most unhappily of all, a very brief spell on a Grimsby trawler. In 1894 he enlisted as a private in the Royal West Kent regiment, quickly transferring to the medical staff corps when picket duty and infantry training proved too unpalatable.

It is difficult to date Wallace's decision to become a writer with any precision; but at the beginning of his time in the army he was bold enough to send a song that he had written to the music-hall comedian Arthur Roberts, who performed it on the London stage. In 1896 Wallace was posted to South Africa and there he set about writing in earnest, supplementing his army pay by contributing occasional columns on local events and politics to the Cape Colony press. He also began to publish poetry, much of it inspired by Kipling, whom he was to meet on a visit to Cape Town in 1898. Wallace's first book, a collection of his ballads with the Kiplingesque title The Mission that Failed!, appeared later that same year. His growing ambition, combined with his senior officers' disapproval of his unofficial career, led him to buy himself out of the army in 1899. During the South African War he worked briefly for Reuters before becoming the Daily Mail's war correspondent in 1900. His assiduous intelligence-gathering and flagrant evasion of the military censors enabled the Mail to scoop the signing of the peace treaty twenty-four hours ahead of the official announcement, a violation which prompted an outraged Lord Kitchener to rescind Wallace's war correspondent's pass. He was appointed the first editor of the Rand Daily Mail in 1902, but the following year, after a quarrel with its proprietor, he returned to England where he resumed working for the Daily Mail as a general reporter. Badly in debt and eager for a quick windfall, he also began work on what was to be the first of his many thrillers.

The Four Just Men (1905) proved to be both a financial disaster and one of Wallace's most enduring novels. It was conceived as a locked-room mystery with a difference: readers were invited to send in their own solutions as to how Britain's foreign secretary had been murdered by a band of mysterious anarchists in his study in Downing Street, and those with the correct answer would receive cash prizes. Unable to find a publisher, Wallace set up his own company and brought out the book himself, but his lavish spending on promotion and advertising left hardly any money with which to pay the lucky winners, despite brisk sales. He was bailed out by the owner of the Daily Mail, Alfred Harmsworth, who was worried that any adverse publicity would damage the paper's reputation. Never a very judicious reporter, Wallace's relations with Harmsworth went from bad to worse when inaccuracies in one of his stories were used against the Mail in an embarrassing and costly libel action. A second libel suit led to his dismissal in 1907. At this point in his career Wallace's standing in Fleet Street was so low that no editor would employ him.

By this time Wallace had a family to support. In April 1901, while in South Africa, he had married Ivy Maude Caldecott (1880?–1926), the daughter of a Wesleyan minister in Simonstown. The Wallaces' first child, Eleanor, died from meningitis in March 1903, but a son, Bryan, was born in April 1904 and early in 1908 Ivy gave birth to a second daughter, named Patricia. In a perpetual state of near-bankruptcy, Wallace continued to write, but it was not until the end of 1909 that he hit upon a successful popular formula. As his last assignment for the Mail, Wallace had been sent to the Congo to investigate the horrific reports of atrocities committed against the indigenous population by the Belgian rubber companies, and a chance meeting with the editor of a penny magazine called the Weekly Tale-Teller suggested that he might turn his African experiences into a series of short stories. These adventures of empire, with their resolute district commissioner, gullible missionaries, child-like natives, and wily Arabs, quickly found an enthusiastic audience, and Sanders of the River (1911), the first of eleven books of stories, became a best-seller.

Wallace's change of fortune helped to rehabilitate his name as a journalist and he began to develop a new sideline as a tipster and horse-racing correspondent on the Week-End and the Evening News. A keen though decidedly maladroit gambler, he became shareholding editor of the Week-End Racing Supplement and started two racing papers of his own, Bibury's and R. E. Walton's Weekly. In September 1916 Ivy gave birth to another son, Michael, but the couple were divorced in 1919. To cope with his growing volume of work, Wallace relied upon a Dictaphone and hired a succession of typists and personal assistants. On 17 May 1921 he married one of his secretaries, Ethel Violet King (1896/7–1933), daughter of Frederick King, financier. Their daughter Penelope was born on 30 May 1923.

The last decade of Wallace's life was undoubtedly his most prolific. Represented by the literary agent Alexander Strahan Watt, of A. P. Watt & Son Ltd, he stopped selling his books outright for relatively small fixed sums and in 1921 signed a contract with the publishers Hodder and Stoughton, which for the first time provided him with generous advances and a sliding scale of royalties. Hodder and Stoughton concentrated on promoting a handful of celebrity authors, selling large print runs through aggressive marketing campaigns. Wallace was crowned the ‘King of Thrillers’ and dust jackets and posters carried the slogan 'It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace'. Each book was adorned with a distinctive trademark: a crimson circle (based on Wallace's first Hodder and Stoughton title) embossed with the author's signature. His output was extraordinary. He could work on three different stories at once, switching from one to the other, and could polish off a 70,000-word novel in three days. It has been estimated that by 1928 one in four of all the books printed and sold in England, apart from the Bible, was written by him.

Wallace perfected the modern thriller. Exploiting the crisp demotic style pioneered by the Daily Mail, he wrote sensational, fast-paced suspense stories in which anything could happen, no matter how improbable: a shop girl might awaken from a drugged sleep to learn that she is really a millionaire's daughter (Green Rust, 1919), or a criminal genius might use an army of tramps to hold the country to ransom (The Fellowship of the Frog, 1925). But Wallace was the master of many genres. His books ranged from low-life comedies, to science fiction, to imperial romance, and his non-fiction included a ten-volume history of the First World War. In May 1926 he had his first West End theatrical success with The Ringer, starring Gerald Du Maurier, and over the next six years a further seventeen of his plays were staged. His stories were also eagerly sought by the film industry, and in 1927 he was invited to serve as chairman of the new British Lion Film Corporation, for whom he directed several of his own productions.

During these years Wallace was an ostentatiously public figure who enjoyed living in the grand style: he was a box holder at Ascot, owned a stable of lacklustre racehorses, ran a flamboyant yellow Rolls-Royce, and lost vast sums on the turf. In 1923 he was elected chairman of the Press Club, where he inaugurated a fund for impoverished journalists in 1928. Yet his popularity had its limits: an ill-judged foray into politics ended in humiliating defeat when he stood as the Liberal candidate for Blackpool in the 1931 general election, losing by over 33,000 votes. The following November Wallace accepted a job in the United States as a scriptwriter with RKO Studios in Hollywood, where he died suddenly from diabetes and double pneumonia at North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, California, on 10 February 1932 while working on the film subsequently released as King Kong (1933). He was buried close to his country home, Chalklands, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. Although he left behind massive debts, the enormous demand for his work produced enough royalties to permit settlement of his estate in full just two years later.

Wallace's daughter Penelope (1923–1997) married George Halcrow in 1955, and ran what became the Edgar Wallace industry from their north Oxford home. She managed her father's literary estate from 1960, founded the internationally subscribed Edgar Wallace Society, edited the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, and lectured on her father's life.

Sources

  • M. Lane, Edgar Wallace: the biography of a phenomenon, rev. 2nd edn (1964)
  • J. R. Cox, ‘Edgar Wallace’, British mystery writers, 1860–1919, ed. B. Benstock and T. F. Staley, DLitB, 70 (1988)
  • J. Attenborough, A living memory: Hodder & Stoughton publishers, 1868–1975 (1975)
  • E. Wallace, People: a short autobiography (1926)
  • E. Wallace, My Hollywood diary (1932)
  • E. V. Wallace, Edgar Wallace by his wife (1932)
  • R. Curtis, Edgar Wallace: each way (1932)
  • W. O. G. Lofts and D. Adley, The British bibliography of Edgar Wallace (1969)
  • J. E. Nolan, ‘Edgar Wallace’, Films in Review, 18 (1967), 71–85
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.

Archives

  • BL, letters
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters
  • Mitchell L., Glas., letters
  • New York University, letters
  • NRA, corresp. and literary papers
  • U. Leeds, letters
  • U. Reading, letters
  • U. Sussex, letters
  • Wellcome L., letters
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56840

Film

  • BFINA, news footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recording

Likenesses

  • H. Coster, photographs, 1930, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Kapp, four drawings, 1931–40, U. Birm.
  • T. Cole, oils, Press Club, London
  • J. Davidson, bust
  • R. S. Sherrifs, ink caricature, NPG
  • cigarette card, NPG
  • relief portrait on bronze plaque, Ludgate Circus, London

Wealth at Death

£18,335 5s. 0d.: probate, 5 May 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Dictionary of Literary Biography