Chris Gray on a new book about thriller writer Edgar Wallace

Neil Clark’s home on Oxford’s Elm Rise estate supplies eloquent testimony to his enthusiasm for the works of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, whose biography he has recently completed in an attempt to restore popularity to a writer unjustly neglected in recent decades.

In most rooms are long shelves laden with his novels from Hodder & Stoughton, Ward Lock and other publishers who were keen to derive their share from his fame. Some of the Hodder titles bear a Crimson Circle logo on their spine, the device taken from the title of one of Wallace’s most successful novels, which sold half a million copies in Britain alone. So many titles? Well, this self-taught writer did publish rather a lot, despite a comparatively short working life that ended in 1932 just after he’d supplied the screenplay for the legendary film, King Kong. He was 56.

His tally of work stood at 172 books, 16 plays, 61 sketches and 250 short stories. There were also millions and millions of words, delivered in his work as a journalist, which was how he made his name. At the height of his fame, it was worked out that one in every four of the books sold in Britain — the Bible excepted — was from the Wallace ‘Fiction Factory’.

Dictated at speed to his secretary — as he puffed, through a trademark holder, on one of the 100 cigarettes he smoked each day — his novels were finished, in some cases, over a weekend. Between 1925 and 1929, there was a new Wallace title on the shelves every three weeks.

That he was so prolific became part of the image that endeared him to the public. Jokes were published and recounted about it. He revelled in one concerning a telephone caller who was told “Mr Wallace is writing a book.” “Right,” said the man. “I’ll hold on.” Part of the image, too, was his ostentatious lifestyle — the best of everything, including yellow Rolls-Royce, and lavish, utterly reckless, spending on gambling, among much else. Full details are supplied by biographer Neil in Stranger Than Fiction (The History Press, £17.99), a fascinating book which I wholeheartedly recommend. He is signing copies at W.H Smith, in Cornmarket, from 10am-4pm on February 28.

A journalist and teacher throughout his working life. Neil, now 48, was educated at Botley Primary School, Abingdon School, Oxford College of Further Education and Brunel University, where he read law and politics.

His enthusiasm for Wallace’s work began, he thinks, with King Kong, which the writer never lived to see made, but quickly moved on to his novels, all of which he has now read, usually more than once.

In 1993/4 he served as organiser of the Edgar Wallace Society, which had seen founded in 1969 by the writer’s daughter Penelope, who lived in Oxford (at 4 Bradmore Road, near to the former home of Walter Pater) with husband George Halcrow, the owner of three local restaurants.

Penelope was a tireless champion of her father’s work. She had also been a director of Edgar Wallace Ltd, which in two years paid off the £30,000 debts — a vast sum in those days — owing at his death.

The library at Newspaper House contains a copy of the Edgar Wallace Society’s first newsletter, in which Penelope confesses “this has taken a long time to write”. But if this is unlike her father, another observation calls him to mind when she talks of hours of work in the Bodleian working on a Wallace bibliography — “severely strained by the ‘no smoking’ rule”. Yes, she too was fond of her gaspers and, says Neil, who knew her, puffed through a holder.

Neil was also destined to spend a great deal of time in the Bodleian, since this is where the Wallace archive is now stored.

Those who have dismissed Wallace as a purveyor or pulp fiction are reminded that he was greatly admired by many so-called ‘serious’ writers, including Graham Greene.

My recent reading of one of the oeuvre inclines me to take the same view. The Fourth Plague proved an unputdownable adventure, with a Mafia-like organisation out to unleash a virus on Britain. There’s even a Leonardo da Vinci element to it, 75 years ahead of Dan Brown.

One passage struck me as being so true to my own experience in a long working life in journalism, that I jotted it down after reading it on my Kindle. I share it with readers in conclusion today: “It was a pose of hers, as it was a pose of certain members of her class, to profess a profound ignorance upon matters which were engaging the attention of newspaper readers. The pose of ignorance is a popular one with members of the leisured classes; popular because it suggests their superiority to the influences which surround them; because it signalises their independence of chronicled facts and because, too, it is the easiest of all poses to assume and sustain.”