Edgar Wallace, Literary Mercenary

By O'Malley, J. P. | The American Conservative, January-February 2016 | Go to article overview

Edgar Wallace, Literary Mercenary


O'Malley, J. P., The American Conservative


Stranger Than Fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, the Man Who Created King Kong, Neil Clark, The History Press, 256 pages

If the literary establishment ever decides to invent a prize for a 20th-century author with the greatest output of work, a portly English gentleman by the name of Edgar Wallace would be a serious contender. In terms of sheer quantity, Wallace's output was simply astounding: he wrote over 170 books that were translated into 30 languages; more films were made out of his books than any other writer in the 20th century; and, during his most successful publishing year in the 1920s, one out of every four books sold in England had his name in the title.

Wallace's daily work routine often went on for up to 17 consecutive hours. Kept going by copious amounts of caffeine and cigarettes, he wrote frantically, in furious marathon-like sessions, where time was money, and words got converted into currency by the minute.

His posthumous career was even more impressive. In Germany alone, Wallace sold over 43 million books between 1926 and 1982. By 1990, the head of the Edgar Wallace Society boasted that sales of the author's work had exceeded 200 million.

He penned almost 1,000 short stories, 23 plays, and 65 sketches. The draft screenplay he wrote for "King Kong" would give us one of the defining motion pictures of the 20th century. Yet despite his impressive output and huge cult following, Wallace remains very much an outside figure, both within the literary establishment and in popular culture, and he's little known in the United States.

A favorable biography was written about him by Margaret Lane in 1939. And a pub named in Wallace's honor on London's Fleet Street today remains a popular tourist haunt where fans still flock in their thousands. But the master of the thriller and crime genres isn't celebrated with the kind of gusto or pomp and ceremony that a writer with such a popular following truly deserves.

That's the basic argument at least that British journalist Neil Clark attempts to present in Stranger Than Fiction. Clark's thesis isn't very convincing. But the book is a real page-turner and an entertaining read nevertheless.

The biographer certainly has no shortage of material to draw from. Wallace's life story contains more action-packed adventures than most of his novels do. He was born into poverty as an illegitimate child in 1875 in South East London. Almost anyone else born into similar circumstances would have found breaking through the rigid class barriers of Victorian Britain almost impossible. But Wallace somehow managed to slip through. Clark believes it was Wallace's sheer relentless entrepreneurial spirit that enabled him to climb up the social ladder. Numerous strokes of good fortune would also play a part.

His first professional experience with the printed word began just off Fleet Street, aged 11, when he started selling newspapers at Ludgate Circus. Until he was 18, Wallace earned a living from a number of menial jobs: working in a rubber factory for a short time, a brief period employed as a milkman.

Fed up with London, and in search of adventure, he decided to enlist in the British Army. A year later, he was sent to Cape Town in South Africa. If anything was to be the making of him, ironically it was the army. During what downtime he had, Wallace began to write poetry. After publishing a poem called "Welcome To Kipling" in The Cape Times, Wallace was invited to a dinner in honor of the famous English writer. Rubbing shoulders with the literati gave the ambitious young man a taste for what life could be like outside the disciplined hierarchical structure of the army. Ambitions of moving into the world of journalism, or a career that involved writing of some description, no longer seemed like a distant dream.

When his army colleagues asked Wallace what kind of writing he had in mind to make a living, he unashamedly replied, "anything and everything that will bring in money. …

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