Edgar Wallace, the King of Thrillers
In Little Marlow cemetery rest the remains of Edgar Wallace, the prolific author who created the film legend King Kong. Wallace (1875 – 1932) was born in Greenwich of actor parents but, being the outcome of an illegitimate liaison, he was raised by a Billingsgate fish porter and his wife. Wallace left school aged twelve and took a variety of menial jobs before enlisting in the army in 1894. Sent to South Africa, he began writing occasional pieces for the Cape Colony press to supplement his army pay. He also published poetry, being inspired by Rudyard Kipling whom he met on a visit to Cape Town in 1898. Finding a soldier’s life uncongenial and with a growing ambition to support himself through his writing, Wallace bought himself out of the army.
By 1898 he was a Boer War correspondent for the Daily Mail, adopting the by-line ‘Edgar Wallace’: Edgar was the surname of his biological father while the name Wallace came from the author of Ben-Hur, Llew Wallace. After marriage, Wallace returned to England and settled near where he’d been born in south east London. It’s said that he liked the house as it had a garden with a rear gate, which allowed him to beat a retreat from debt collectors – Wallace was both financially naive and prone to live above his means. He went to Europe as a correspondent during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War where he met British and Russian spies whilst in the Balkans. This experience inspired him to write The Four Just Men, the prototype of modern thriller novels.
Wallace had been hired as a sub-editor on the Daily Mail by Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) but, after libel cases which cost his employer dearly, he was dismissed in 1908. At this point in his career, Wallace’s standing in Fleet Street was so low that no editor would employ him. Fortune then smiled on him when he wrote a series of magazine articles, later turned into novels, about his experiences in imperial Africa. The Sanders of the River stories, begun in 1909, were best-sellers at the time but are now principally remembered for the film of the same name, which co-starred Paul Robeson as a tribal chief. A keen, but not successful gambler himself, Wallace also developed a new sideline as a tipster and horse-racing correspondent.
Wallace went on to perfect the modern thriller using his journalistic skills to produce sensationalist, fast-paced novels, with sometimes improbable story lines. He became a prolific author with a long string of titles to his name. It was said that he could complete a 70,000-word novel in three days. It became a standing joke that, if someone telephoned and was told Wallace was writing a novel, they would reply “I’ll wait then!” It has been estimated that by the late 1920s one in every four books bought in England, apart from the Bible, was written by the ‘King of Thrillers’.
In 1926, he had his first West End theatrical success with The Ringer, starring Gerald Du Maurier, and a further seventeen of his plays were staged. His stories were eagerly sought by the film industry and in 1927 he was invited to serve as chairman of the new British Lion Film Corporation, for which he directed several of his own productions. Wallace, a handsome figure of a man, even took cameo roles in some of his films in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock. Buoyed by his success, Wallace became a flamboyant public figure who enjoyed living in the grand style. He owned a stable of racehorses, drove a yellow Rolls-Royce, and lost vast sums on turf betting. In 1923, he was elected Chairman of the Press Club and established a fund for impoverished journalists. He even ventured into politics but suffered a heavy defeat when he stood as the Liberal candidate for Blackpool in the 1931 general election. His personal life was not without its complications: he took as his second wife his young secretary who was the same age as his eldest daughter would have been.
Hollywood film companies wooed Wallace who was eager, in turn, to become a successful scriptwriter and film director in the home of the American film industry. He went to the USA as a scriptwriter with RKO Studios in Hollywood but, in February 1932, while working on the film that was subsequently released as King Kong, he died suddenly from diabetes and double pneumonia. His lifestyle had been unhealthy for decades: he spurned physical exercise and was reputed to have lived on a diet of sugary tea while smoking four packets of cigarettes daily. Wallace had bought Chalklands, off Blind Lane at Bourne End, as a country home and he was brought back there from Beverly Hills, California, being laid to rest at Fern Lane cemetery in Little Marlow.
Wallace had made millions but died in great debt due to his extravagant lifestyle, generosity to others and gambling. The enormous demand for his work, however, produced enough royalties to settle the charge on his estate just two years after his death. Hundreds of films were made from his stories, and a television series was made in England. Many of his works were produced in Germany too. There is a plaque to his memory at Ludgate Circus in London on which is inscribed the following: “He knew wealth and poverty, yet had walked with Kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”
by Jeff Griffiths