The King Kong of the thriller: the phenomenal output of Edgar Wallace, once the world’s most popular author

A review of Stranger than Fiction by Neil Clark explores the  turbulent life of King Kong’s creator

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

Stranger than Fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, the Man Who Created King Kong Neil Clark

The History Press, pp.256, £17.99, ISBN: 9780752498829

At the time of his death in 1932 Edgar Wallace had published some 200 books, 25 plays, 45 collections of short stories, several volumes of verse, countless newspaper and magazine articles, movie scripts, radio plays and more. His work was dictated, transcribed and sent directly to the publisher. In one year alone (1929) he wrote a dozen books. People joked about getting ‘the weekly Wallace’.

Despite their speed of creation, Wallace’s stories were, said The Spectator, written in plain, clear English and ‘read by everyone, from bishops to barmen’. His influence on the thriller genre was extensive, profound and continuous. He inspired a thousand imitators with The Four Just Men, Mr J.G. Reeder, Sanders of the River and Educated Evans. He wrote humour and thrillers, SF and reportage. With instincts for a good publicity stunt, he created a brand image: long cigarette holder, stetson, jodhpurs, riding boots.

A quarter of the English public read his books. One of his many publishers alone sold 30 million copies. He led an extravagant life, gambled heavily, bought race-horses and stood for Parliament. His generosity was famous. At his death he owed millions. His enormous debts were settled in a couple of years.

Born illegitimately to a touring actress and fostered by a good-hearted
Billingsgate porter and his wife, the young Wallace saw his natural mother frequently and developed a warm relationship with his foster family. Starting by selling newspapers in Ludgate Hill, he left school at the age of 12 to try several jobs before joining the army and being posted as a medical orderly to South Africa, where he came in contact with a local literary circle.
They encouraged him to send out his Kiplingesque poetry. He began to earn a reputation as a ‘soldier poet’ and wrote verses welcoming Kipling to Cape Town. Kipling asked to meet the writer and later sent Wallace his address. Wallace’s ambitions and reputation grew. Honourably discharged, he remained in Africa and became increasingly better known. When the second Boer war broke out he was recruited by Reuters, to be snubbed by posher journalists apart from Churchill. Knowing serving soldiers, he frequently scooped his rivals but angered Kitchener by successfully dodging army censorship.

After marrying the daughter of a local missionary, Wallace eventually returned to England where Kitchener shook his hand publicly and Harmsworth made him editor of the Daily Mail. Knowing he could do better from royalties, he tried his hand unsuccessfully at plays. Smithy, a collection of self-published cockney soldier stories, did reasonably well, so he next conceived a thriller. The Four Just Men was printed with the ending missing. Wallace offered a cash prize to the readers who guessed it. Unfortunately a lot of people guessed, and all his profits went in prizes.

Other stunts got him sacked from the Mail. However, he was soon back on his lifetime’s roller-coaster ride of rapid production and extravagant spending, gaining a reputation which by 1920 would make him a household name. In 1931 RKO invited him to Hollywood to work on an idea that Wallace would generously credit to the director, Merian C. Cooper. As Neil Clark makes clear in this first full biography since 1939, the Bodleian’s existing script shows that Wallace conceived the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif himself, the climb up the Empire State building and the aeroplane attack.

In Hollywood, without his second wife, Wallace paid little attention to signs of a serious illness taking hold, having become infatuated with a certain young actress (thought to be Sari Maritza) whom he invited one night to dine with him. Awaiting her late arrival he self-medicated horrendously and fell into a diabetic coma, compounded by double pneumonia, from which he never recovered. He was 56. Britain mourned.

The following year, 1933, his name was used to help King Kong become a hit, but Cooper denied that Wallace had done any significant work. He was believed, until the discovery of the 110-page script which showed that Wallace had created the film’s significant final scene. ‘Kong opens his eyes, picks the girl up, holds her to his breast like a doll, closes his eyes and drops his head,’ wrote that titan of the Fleet Street jungle before his obsession with a starlet brought him low.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Michael Moorcock is a writer principally of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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  • Juan de Medjugorje

    Excellent article.
    When I was twelve years old I read “The Crimson Circle” by Edgar Wallace, and I was so stunned by the ingenuity of the plot and the liveliness and amenity of his style that I wanted to read all of his books against the will of my good father, who believed that such readings stole me time to succeed academically.
    Later I translated several of his books into Spanish, and he is still my favourite fiction author.
    I still remember the day I met Penelope Wallace, the youngest daughter of the famous writer. She invited me to lunch at the Press Club.
    In “Edgar Wallace, the Biography of a Phenomenon”, Margaret Lane wrote that the famous writer caught pneumonia waiting in the cold to keep a date with a young Hollywood actress. According to a gossip written by Dorothy Kilgallen in 1939, this caused a breakdown in the marital relationships between the biographer and her husband Bryan Edgar, son of the famous author, who “retaliated by panning the tome in his review in a London paper”.

    Thank you, Mr. Moorcock.

    • pedestrianblogger

      I have never read anything by Wallace (my loss, I am quite sure) but did once read four novels by Michael Moorcock in one day.