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Consequences – Forgotten Influences: Edgar Wallace

By Tom Anderson

In my Consequences in Alternate History articles, I’ve described chains of happenstance occurrences that have led from a distant start to an unlikely finish. In my very first article of this type, I described how Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise would not exist in a recognisable form without Edgar Wallace and his work on King Kong. Edgar Wallace will also be the subject of this, my first article of a type instead looking at some of the diverse influences that one individual has had on the culture of the world we know today. Generally speaking, I will be looking at people who are either lesser known today, or else at little-known impacts made by more prominent people—hence ‘Forgotten Influences’.

As noted in that previous article, Wallace (1875-1932) was born Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman to a poor background in London. An illegitimate child, he was raised in part by the Freeman family and took their name. He was inspired by the writings of Lew Wallace and derived his own alias, Edgar Wallace, from the Ben-Hur author’s surname. Originally, he used this alias to enlist in the British Army in 1896, after serving in diverse jobs such as delivering milk, selling newspapers, being a ship’s cook and working in a rubber factory. All of this experience would go into his later writings. Wallace met Rudyard Kipling in South Africa in 1898 and was inspired to write poetry. He became a war correspondent for the Daily Mail, writing about the Boer War and later the Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Throughout his life he had problems with debt, driven by both a thirst for gambling and (according to his biographer and secretary) being overly generous with loans and donations to grifters, remembering his own childhood poverty. Wallace began writing detective stories and thrillers as a means of paying his debts.

Wallace is perhaps best known for being absurdly prolific as a writer; at one point it was estimated that a quarter of all books written in Britain that year were penned by him. His technique was to dictate at a high pace on a Dictaphone (an early sound recorder using wax cylinders) and then have these sent to his secretaries to be typed up. This is why his thrillers tend to have the trademark style of continuous narrative pace. One of Wallace’s secretaries later recalled that he was capable of writing three books at once in this way, seamlessly going from one to another in mid-sentence. Fuelled by cigarettes and tea, he was capable of writing a 70,000 word novel in three days of continuous work. With minimal editing, the transcript was sent straight to the publishers.

Because of this, Wallace’s writing is often not of the greatest depth, quality or consistency, but retains a certain trademark charm. While his style rarely varied, his eclectic lifestyle meant that he could write about topics as diverse as the British Army (the “Smithy” series), horse racing (the “Educated Evans” series), a colonial spy (“Angel, Esquire”), organised crime (“Kate Plus Ten” and “The Fellowship of the Frog” among others), law enforcement in the East End of London (the “P.C. Lee” series), life in colonial West Africa (the “Sanders of the River” series), vigilante justice (the “Four Just Men”), and many, many more. In total he wrote over 170 novels, 957 short stories and 18 stage plays—the latter causing more difficulty for his writing style, according to his biographer.

Wallace and his publishers created a celebrity image of him, with his trademark trilby hat, cigarette holder and yellow Rolls Royce. Despite this seemingly enduring image, Wallace is now relatively little known today in the English-speaking world, not least due to selling the rights to his books for little in order to pay his debts. In Germany, on the other hand, he is well remembered for film adaptations of his works made in the 1960s, which have kept his writings alive. Because of this, it is easy to forget the impact and influence that Wallace had on others. We already covered one such example with the Super Mario series in that earlier article, but now let’s look at some others. Another example I already mentioned in the article “Lord of the Reams” was that J.R.R Tolkien, when forced at short notice to come up with titles for the unplanned trilogy division of The Lord of the Rings, settled on The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King for the first and third. This may be a coincidence, but the fact that Wallace’s thriller The Fellowship of the Frog had been adapted to film in 1937, and then given an original sequel The Return of the Frog the year after, may have been on Tolkien’s mind at the time.

As a child in school I was confused by a teacher referring to the three boys in the front row as “The Three Just Men”. This was in reference to Wallace’s series “The Four Just Men” (later reduced to three, and then only two regulars), a group of intellectually gifted vigilantes who went after criminals beyond the law. In an interesting example of a concept being softened as time went on, the Just Men assassinated the Home Secretary in their debut novel (in order to preventing him passing an anti-immigration law which would have deported dissident refugees back to their tyrannical home countries), but every sequel saw them going after less morally ambiguous villains. In fact the Just Men are even pardoned by the Government after serving as spies in the First World War, and then set up a more conventional detective agency. My teacher probably knew them through the 1959 TV adaptation, although that uses only some elements of the series. Reading the first book in particular, one is struck by how much Wallace prefigured series like “Sherlock” and “Spooks” with the combination of a realistic setting and fantastic events which baffle Government security. The book was originally launched with a big publicity campaign in 1905, where Wallace offered a (typically, mishandled) cash prize for anyone who could solve the mystery of how the Home Secretary was assassinated. Inevitably, he went bankrupt and ended up selling the rights for just £75 to pay off his creditors.

One of Wallace’s thrillers is called The Green Archer (1925), about a latter day Robin Hood vigilante exposing the secrets of a reclusive millionaire. It was adapted as a film serial twice, and the latter (in 1940) came out to capitalise on the success of Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938. Taken together, these two were the inspiration for DC Comics’ Green Arrow character, who came to the small screen in 2012 as just Arrow and trailblazed a number of other DC Comics TV adaptations.

Less well known is that Wallace may also have been an influence on the iconic Batman villain, The Joker. Appropriately enough for the character (who cites multiple incompatible origin stories in The Dark Knight as portrayed by Heath Ledger), the creators of Batman always contradicted each other when stating who came up with the idea. Certainly one major influence was the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, with a character whose face is scarred into a perpetual smile. However, less often cited is Wallace’s 1926 thriller titled either The Colossus or just…The Joker. This involves a villainous mastermind named Stratford Harlow, known as The Joker, who is described: “His clean-shaven face was unlined, his skin without blemish. Pale blue eyes are not accounted beautiful and the pallor of Mr Harlow's eyes was such that, seeing him for the first time, many sensitive people experienced a shock, thinking he was sightless. His nose was big and long, and of the same width from forehead to tip. He had very red, thick lips that seemed to be pouting even when they were in repose.” Our first introduction to Mr Harlow comes with him having the idea of recruiting prisoners from Dartford to act as his henchmen. At one point Harlow offers to pay protagonist Jim Carlton, who asks why:

“'To watch my interests.' [Harlow] almost snapped the words. 'To employ that clever brain of yours in furthering my cause, in protecting me when I go—joking! I love a joke—a practical joke. To see the right man squirming makes me laugh. Five thousand a year, and all your expenses paid to the utmost limit. You like play-going? I'll show you a play that will set you rolling with joy! What do you say?'

When Carlton refuses, Harlow makes a veiled reference to an attack his henchmen had recently carried out, and we have this description: “Mr Harlow showed his teeth in a smile and for a moment his pale eyes lit up with glee.” At the end of the book, when Harlow has seemingly been captured, he makes an elaborate escape from his cell to make schemes another day. This book has never, to my knowledge, been cited as an influence for the Batman character, but as you can see, there are a number of suspicious parallels.

Often Wallace titles seem to live on even when the man himself is forgotten. As noted above, he wrote a crime novel “Kate Plus Ten” (1919), about the daughter of a criminal who has become a criminal mastermind and organiser herself. This was adapted for film in 1938. Seventy years later, when the Discovery Health Channel made a reality TV series about Kate Gosselin raising her large family, they came up with the title “Kate Plus Eight”. Echoes and shadows are cast far into the future by old childhood memories, sometimes repeated on to the next generation who (like my Three Just Men example from school) may not even know what they originally referred to.

This is without going into the concepts that Wallace pioneered. He is believed to be the first crime writer to write about police investigating crimes (P.C. Lee, Det Sgt Elk, etc.) rather than amateur sleuths—though he also had his fair share of those, notably Mr J. G. Reeder. In The Green Rust (1919) he posits the idea of a bio-terrorism attack as a thriller plot, in that case made by vengeful Germans after the loss of the First World War. The Man Who Bought London (1915) reads today like a prediction of the challenge of online business to conservative traditional retailers, as well as having a truly memorable villain reveal. Agatha Christie cited Wallace as one of her inspirations in Partners in Crime (1929), a collection which involves her spoofing or homaging detective stories in the style of different writers she admired. In the Wallace-like story, The Crackler protagonists Tommy and Tuppence note that they may need to move to a bigger detective office if they are to get enough shelf space for all of Wallace’s books!

I hope this rundown has shown the unexpected impacts of a writer who, today, is now little remembered. Similar cases will be explored in the future…



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