Edgar Wallace 1875-1932
(Full name Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace) English novelist, playwright, journalist, screenwriter, and short story writer.
Wallace was a prolific writer of crime thrillers, detective stories, and stage plays based on his books. His works are noted for their fast-paced narratives and accurate depiction of English working-class life.
Born in Greenwich to an unmarried actor and actress, Wallace was adopted and raised by foster parents in the town of Billingsgate. As a teenager he worked at a succession of factories and unskilled jobs before enlisting in the British army in 1893. Wallace spent six years in the military, the last three of which he served as a member of the Medical Staff Corps in South Africa. While stationed there, he began writing poetry and made the acquaintance of Rudyard Kipling, who, after reading some of Wallace's early work, encouraged him to pursue writing as a career. Wallace bought his army discharge in 1899, but remained in South Africa as a news correspondent during the Boer War. He continued his journalistic career upon returning to England, and worked as a reporter and editor for most of his adult life. It was not until the age of forty that Wallace became known as a writer of fiction. In the last decade of his life he wrote books that sold millions of copies. At one point during his prolific career it was estimated that one out of every four books sold in England was written by Edgar Wallace. He died in 1932.
During his lifetime Wallace wrote numerous plays and film scripts and produced over one hundred seventy novels. His first novel, The Four Just Men, a thriller published at his own expense in 1906, marked the beginning of his career as a popular writer. Though he wrote in a wide variety of genres, Wallace is best known for his thrillers and detective stories, including The Crimson Circle, The Clue of the New Pin, The Fellowship of the Frog, and The Mind of Mr. J. G. Reeder. He was also well known for a series of short stories set in colonial Africa featuring the fictional Commissioner Sanders. In addition, Wallace wrote science fiction and social satire, and completed a ten-volume history of World War I. At the time of his death he was working on the script for the film King Kong.
During his lifetime, Wallace was widely read and generally well-received by critics as a provider of entertainment. In addition to selling well in England and America, his books were extremely popular in translation in Germany. While some modern critics dismiss Wallace as a producer of mere pulp, others credit him with helping to create an audience for the modern thriller. Many commentators praise Wallace's gift for fast-paced plots, accurate depictions of the British working class, and authentic portrayals of criminals. Commentators also continue to praise his Commissioner Sanders stories for their evocations of colonial Africa.
The Mission That Failed! A Tale of the Raid, and Other Poems (poetry) 1898
Writ in Barracks (poetry) 1900
The Four Just Men (novel) 1906
Sanders of the River (short stories) 1911
The Melody of Death (novel) 1915
The Tomb of T'sin (novel) 1916
Lieutenant Bones (short stories) 1918
Captains of Souls (novel) 1922
The Crimson Circle (novel) 1922
The Clue of the New Pin (novel) 1923
Double Dan (novel) 1924; also published as Diana of Kara-Kara, 1924
Educated Evans (short stories) 1924
The Fellowship of the Frog (novel) 1925
The Mind of Mr. J. G. Reeder (short stories) 1925; also published as The Murder Book of Mr. J. G. Reeder, 1929
The Door with Seven Locks (novel) 1926
* The Ringer (drama) 1926
The Man Who Was Nobody (novel) 1927
The Squeaker (novel) 1927; also published as The Squealer, 1928
The India-Rubber Men (novel) 1929
Planetoid 127 (novel) 1929
Red Aces (screenplay) 1929
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SOURCE: A review of The Angel of Terror, in The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1922, p. 11.
[In the following review, the critic praises Wallace's inventiveness in portraying a female villain in The Angel of Terror.]
The author of [The Angel of Terror] has devised something new in fiction. He has reversed all the conventional methods of dealing with pretty girls and presents us with a heroine—or, to be accurate, a co-heroine—who is something very different in the heroine line. She is exquisitely beautiful, but her beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and it camouflages more sublimated essence of Satan than could be condensed out of a thousand ordinary heroines. Mr. Wallace's originality has gone even further than the usual endeavors of fiction writers to provide something a bit wicked in their feminine creations, for they are usually content to allow their wicked women to be bad merely in the way of getting what they want by exploiting their sex. But Mr. Wallace's Jean Briggerland is very proper in her behavior toward men. She is a thoroughgoing criminal, well endowed with intelligence and using it all for criminal purposes. She is quite devoid of all ethical sense and her standard of judgment for her actions is whether they enable her to succeed in some criminal enterprise.
At the beginning of the story a man who has been somewhat attentive to her is shot and...
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SOURCE: A review of The Clue of the New Pin, in The New York Times Book Review, April 15, 1923, pp. 22, 24.
[In the following review, the critic notes Wallace's flair for plotting, suspense, and humor in The Clue of the New Pin.]
Fiction mystery stories have a marked advantage over those of real life. The reader knows that eventually the criminal will be found out, the tangled skein unraveled. No matter how exciting the opening columns of a newspaper murder report or great gem robbery may be, it profiteth little if in a few days the perplexed police give out the statement that "the department is still working on the crime, but does not expect to have anything further to report for some time." Disillusioned by the fact, the reader may well turn to fiction, with its always obliging last chapters. To meet such a presumed contingency, Edgar Wallace has written The Clue of the New Pin.
Germs and robbery, murder and sudden death, all play their part in this intricate story. Mr. Wallace's recipe for plotmaking includes many of the most delectable ingredients. The story has its roots in an Oriental past. Once bring in the "heathen Chinee" and anything may happen. Then there is a house with a subterranean and secret vault, to which there is but one key.
True to form, likewise, are some of the persons involved. Meet the miser, Jesse Trasmere. He hoards his lucre...
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SOURCE: "The Head Hunter," in The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1925, p. 13.
[In the following review, the critic finds Wallace's The Hairy Arm to be an entertaining suspense novel.]
In The Hairy Arm, Edgar Wallace, one of England's most prolific writers of mystery stories, has added another to his already long list of thrillers. Edgar Allan Poe's most famous murder tale undoubtedly supplied the germ idea of the book, but the story has its own ingenious complications. The denouement is totally unexpected when it does come, though all the while the master clue was as prominently displayed as is the warning semaphore arm over a railroad track.
The Hairy Arm deals with murders committed by a sort of Jack the Ripper, who has peculiarities all his own. He neatly slices off his victim's head, packs it in a cardboard box, sends a typewritten message to the police, signing it "The Head Hunter," and tells where the grewsome parcel is to be found.
In twelve years the Head Hunter has decapitated seven men. In each case the murdered man has been a fugitive from justice. In a sense, therefore, the killer might be considered a social benefactor, since he rids the world of some of its undesirables. His latest victim is Francis Elmer, a middle-aged clerk who was about to be arrested for embezzlement.
Captain Michael Brixan, free-lance...
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SOURCE: "London Dope Runners," in The New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1926, p. 9.
[In the following review, the critic notes Wallace's skill as a craftsman of the suspense novel.]
One of the most remarkable aspects of the writers of the modern American popular fiction is their amazing fruitfulness. These facile craftsmen turn out countless novels year after year without ever seeming to run dry. For a month or two their books are displayed on the shelves and in the windows of the Booksellers and then are seen no more. In theme these pleasant ephemers of the fiction world cover a wide variety of subjects. They include tales of the sea, the Far West, murder mysteries, divorce and society scandal. And each of these, it would seem, has its own coterie of readers, for the books sell and make money for the author and publisher alike.
Edgar Wallace's latest opus, The Sinister Man, is of this stamp. This prolific writer's seventeenth novel does not differ appreciably from his first either in contents or in form. It is an interesting story about dope smuggling in England and is done in the usual style of such tales. In so far as technique and style are concerned The Sinister Man is the work of an exceedingly competent craftsman. Mr. Wallace's novel is unmarred by bad phrasing, obvious heroics or objectionable platitudes. It will, in all likelihood, prove a temporary...
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SOURCE: "The Bookman Gallery: Edgar Wallace," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXIX, No. 414, March, 1926, pp. 301-04.
[In the following essay, McQuilland discusses Wallace's writing process and gives an overall assessment of his books.]
Big sales in novels are viewed with contempt by many writers and readers outside the range of the lucky publisher and the almost equally lucky author and his personal friends. So far has this contempt progressed that it is now generally assumed that because a novel sells in considerable quantities, it must be a piece of bad art. I recently heard a clever woman, herself a novelist of capacity, declare that The Constant Nymph, because of its general popularity, placed Miss Margaret Kennedy amongst the Philistines of fiction.
Of course this is complete nonsense. Dickens and Thackeray had, and still have, enormous sales. Joseph Conrad in his later years was a best-seller. There are quite a number of good novelists to-day who sell three to five editions.
I am sure my friend Mr. Edgar Wallace would disclaim any pretence of being an aesthete, and would say frankly that he wrote for all and sundry, without any literary pretensions; but he is a case of the really good story-teller who appeals to hundreds of thousands of readers, not because he is inferior, or vulgar, or cheap, but simply because he has that quality of invention which carries...
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SOURCE: "A Girl Detective," in The New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1927, p. 24.
[In the following essay, the critic gives a favorable review of Wallace's The Girl from Scotland Yard, but faults Wallace for using "questionable" plot devices.]
A past master of the mystery novel, with some thirty-odd volumes to his credit, has assembled in his latest thriller [A Girl Detective] a collection of characters precisely like those of many another yarn except for the fact that they are practically all women. Leslie Maughan the sleuth who solves the riddle, is the only girl detective at Scotland Yard. The villain—a very evil and sinister villain—is also a woman—the Princess Anita Bellini. And, finally, Druze, the murdered butler, is revealed to be a woman in disguise.
It is quite possible that Mr. Wallace has sprinkled the fair sex so liberally through his pages in order to win over a host of feminine readers to his clientele. Whatever his intention, he has turned out a puzzle that should baffle even the most skilled of those who pride themselves upon being able to guess the guilty party in the first chapter or two. All the elements of a dozen mystery tales are here, thrown together into a veritable Gordian knot, the solution of which must be reached by blind cutting rather than careful untangling. Further confusion is added by the somewhat questionable device of imparting...
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SOURCE: "Very Much On the Spot" in New Statesman, Vol. XXXV, No. 890, May 17, 1930, pp. 180-82.
[MacCarthy was one of the foremost English literary and drama critics of the twentieth century. He served for many years on the staff of the New Statesman and edited Life and Letters. A member of the Bloomsbury group, which also included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey among its number, MacCarthy was guided by their primary tenet that "one' sprime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience, and the pursuit of knowledge." MacCarthy brought to his work a wide range of reading, serious and sensitive judgement, an interest in the works of new writers, and high critical standards. In the following excerpt, he praises Wallace's play On the Spot.]
With a little more industry Mr. Edgar Wallace might provide all the light reading the inhabitants of this island require. He already provides a considerable part of it. Nor do I see why he should not also write most of the plays. I am sure they would be different from each other. On the Spot, for instance, is by no means in the key of The Ringer. Indeed, I can imagine many of his devoted readers being not a little taken aback by it. It is thrilling but decidedly grim. There are three murders and a suicide in it, and a fine tension of suspense...
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SOURCE: "The Thriller," in his Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, W. Collins & Co. Ltd., 1931, pp. 212-37.
[In the following excerpt, Thomson analyzes the themes and patterns that recur in Wallace's novels.]
To many people detective fiction is nowadays synonymous with the novels of Mr. Edgar Wallace. Born in 1875, Mr. Wallace has had a varied career. He has served as a private soldier, been a miner, war correspondent, journalist on the staff of at least two London daily papers, and has experimented in numerous other occupations. Then three or four years ago his detective stories suddenly became popular; now he is one of the world's celebrities. If my memory does not play me false, it was only a few years ago that he was enlivening the columns of the less dignified Sunday papers with the adventures of an Aberdeen Annie: but he has put on his three-league boots since then. His international popularity is probably greatest in America and then Germany. He edits a German magazine of detective stories, and the enterprising bookseller of even the small German provincial town dresses his windows with an attractive display of Romanen von Edgar Wallace. Germans will smile at you when you inform them that of their contemporary writers you read only Ludwig, Feuchtwanger and Remarque. But you cannot afford to smile in return when they tell you they read Shaw, Galsworthy, and Edgar...
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SOURCE: "Edgar Wallace: The Passing of a Great Personality," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXXXI, No. 486, March, 1932, pp. 3101.
[Grierson was an English-born author best known for his crime novels and nonfiction works on crime detection. In the following excerpt, he praises Wallace as a pioneer of the thriller genre and highlights the novelist's accurate depiction of the London underworld.]
Edgar Wallace is dead.
The world has lost a great man.
For Wallace was great—not merely because he wrote some one hundred and fifty novels and thirty plays, and film scenarios, pen-pictures and newspaper articles by the score; but because of the indomitable spirit that made a little newsboy into one of the most amazing figures of his generation, and a very fine gentleman withal.
Fifty-six years ago Wallace came into the world, a workhouse child, and his first job was to sell newspapers in the Fleet Street in which he was to become a power.
He enlisted in the Army and went to South Africa, and it was there that he wrote a poem which made Kipling, then visiting Cape Town, advise him to beat his bayonet into a fountain-pen.
Wallace saved money and bought his discharge, and in the following years made his name as a brilliant war correspondent, descriptive writer and all-round journalist.
So much for his...
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SOURCE: "Edgar Wallace: The Great Storyteller," in The English Review, Vol. LIV, March, 1932, pp. 3114.
[Bentley was an English-born journalist and author best known for his detective novel Trent's Last Case (1913). In the following essay, Bentley praises Wallace's storytelling techniques, rendering of dialect, and knowledge of the British working classes]
When Edgar Wallace died last month, it was not only the obituary-men and the social diarists who told and annotated the story of his amazing life. The leader-writers, from the Times downwards, swelled the chorus. The chorus of what? Hardly of pure admiration for his literary talent—though that, and nothing else, had made his name. Very few of the choristers, I should think, were thoroughgoing Edgar Wallace "fans." Most of them allowed it, in all delicacy, to appear that they were not. But they wrote in emphatic, and sincere, and kindly appreciation of a literary success that is without a parallel; a success honestly won by incredible powers of hard work, and by appeal to that love of a thrilling and entertaining story that is shared by ambassadors and office boys and all between. Not that all ambassadors, or even all office boys, have retained that simple taste in all its keenness. There are highbrows everywhere, and a genuine highbrow obtains far more satisfaction from the things of the mind than the best of Edgar Wallace thrillers...
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SOURCE: "Several Writers for the Theatre—and Miss Stein" in his Passing Judgements, Alfred A. Knopf, 1935, pp. 140-76.
[Nathan has been called the most learned and influential drama critic the United States has yet produced. During the early decades of the twentieth century, he was greatly responsible for shifting the emphasis of the American theatre from light entertainment to serious drama and for introducing audiences and producers to the work of Eugene O'Neill, Henrik Ibsen, and Bernard Shaw, among others. Nathan was a contributing editor to H. L. Mencken's magazine the American Mercury and coeditor of the Smart Set. With Mencken, Nathan belonged to an iconoclastic school of American critics who attacked the vulgarity of accepted ideas and sought to bring a new level of sophistication to American culture, which they found provincial and backward. Nathan shared with Mencken a gift for stinging invective and verbal adroitness, as well as total confidence in his own judgements. In the following excerpt, Nathan asserts that Wallace's work, while popular, was vulgar and insignificant.]
There are just two reasons, or justifications, for a writing man doing a prodigious amount of work. One is to achieve something eventually beautiful and, with it, a deserved glory. The other is to make a pot of money. If a man doesn't achieve one or the other, his life may be put down—by himself as well as...
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SOURCE: "King Edgar, and How He Got His Crown," in his Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and Their Audience, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971, pp. 73-84.
[Watson was an English journalist and novelist who was known for his detective novels. In the following essay, he speculates that the wide popularity of Wallace's novels was due to predictable plots and characters, as well as the author's refusal to question middle-class tastes and morality.]
From the analysis of the method and content of Wallace's work which Margaret Lane has offered in her book, Edgar Wallace: Biography of a Phenomenon, the picture emerges of a writer supremely adept in an 'off-the-cuff' technique but observant all the time of a set of strict conventions. The nature of these conventions cannot be unrelated to what must have been the mental and emotional climate of forty years ago, for Wallace came nearer to being universally read by his generation than did any other author.
The first of the Wallace rules, as listed by Miss Lane, was subordination of everything to action. Nothing was to be what it seemed; confusion and suspense were to be maintained to the end, with none of the two-dimensional characters allowed a static moment. There was not a floor, not a wall, that might not suddenly go into motion. Even in the realm of crime fiction, there have been very few writers so constantly suggestive of...
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SOURCE: "Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Edgar Wallace," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July, 1976, pp. 142-44.
[In the following essay, Arnold compares the plot elements of Wallace's The Four Just Men to those in a novel by German writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt.]
In 1959, Siegfried M. Pistorius interviewed Friedrich Dürrenmatt in the latter's home above Neuchatel and found that Durrenmatt had complete sets of the novels by Edgar Wallace, Georges Simenon, and Agatha Christie on the shelves. In his book on Diirrenmatt's prose works, Peter Spycher mentions this fact, but says nothing concrete about influences from these authors on Diirrenmatt's detective stories. I intend to show elsewhere that Simenon's inspector Maigret has contributed certain traits to the figure of Inspektor Barlach (Der Richter und sein Henker, 1952; Der Verdacht, 1953), and that Diirrenmatt's novel Das Versprechen (1958, based on his filmscript Esgeschah am hellichten Tag) is a clever transformation of Simenon's novel Maigret tend un piege (1955). Here I wish to point out the influence of some works by Edgar Wallace on Diirrenmatt's short novel Die Panne (1956).
In 1905, Edgar Wallace published a novel entitled The Four Just Men. It was followed by two related novels, The Council of Justice (1908) and The Three Just Men (1925), and...
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Sampson, Robert. In his Yesterday's Faces, Volume V. Dangerous Horizons, pp. 188-89. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University, 1991.
Checklist of works by and about Wallace.
Lane, Margaret. Edgar Wallace: The Biography of a Phenomenon. Rev. ed. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1965, 338 p.
Biography that includes analysis of Wallace's fiction and attempts to account for its popular appeal.
Wallace, Penelope. "A Man and His Books." The Mystery and Detection Annual (1972): 93-97.
Remembrance of Wallace's life, written by his daughter.
Chesterton, G. K. "On Detective Story Writers." In his Come to Think of It…, pp. 29-33. London: Methuen, 1930.
Compares Wallace's work to that of other popular mystery writers.
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