Edgar WallaceThis month Sharon Smith from Skullduggery House Books in Lightfoot, Virginia, looks at the work of Edgar Wallace – the prolific writer who helped to define the thriller genre.

Sharon and her husband have been in the used and rare mystery book business for 17 years, but Sharon has been reading classic mysteries for more than half a century - from Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, to Dashiell Hammett and many more.

Before there was Tom Clancy or Stephen Coonts, before Robin Cook or James Patterson, before Helen MacInnes or Alistair MacLean, before them all was (Richard) (Horatio) Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), the inventor of the modern thriller. Wallace, raised in the slums of southeast London, had a varied career after finishing school.  He worked in a printing firm, a shoe shop, a rubber factory, as a merchant seaman, a plasterer and a milk delivery boy.  He served in the Royal West Kent Regiment in England (1893-1896) and the Medical Staff Corps in South Africa (1896-1899).

Edgar Wallace


His writing career began, as with so many authors, in journalism. As special correspondent for Reuters news agency (1899-1902) and London’s Daily Mail (1900-1902), he saw the Boer War in South Africa first hand. Wallace continued to write for newspapers until his death in 1932.
Edgar Wallace was an incredibly prolific writer, producing over 200 works - including 170 novels - in addition to his newspaper articles.  His first book, The Mission That Failed!, A tale of the Raid, and Other Poems, was published in 1898 and his last one in 1932. Most of his novels are thrillers.  Though very popular with readers, Wallace faired less well with critics who pointed out the unseemliness of an author polishing off a novel over the weekend.

His frenetic pace led to errors such as mid-book name changes, gaps in plotting, and - according to his critics - massive use of cliche. Since Wallace originated many of the now trite thriller terms and situations, that last accusation is probably inaccurate.  Colin Watson, writing in Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and their Audience, conceded that “trying to assess Wallace’s work in literary terms would be as pointless as applying sculptural evaluation to a load of gravel.”  But that, of course, is not the point.  The point is that Edgar Wallace had an uncanny awareness of what the Fin de Siecle and World War I generations wanted to read.
By 1906 when Wallace’s first crime novels appeared, there were serious rumblings in Britain’s Empire on which the sun never set; a war between Germany and Britain was expected in the near future; France, Italy and the Balkans were in ferment; and the United States of America was the brash new kid on the block.  In short, the world was changing much more rapidly than was comfortable for a lot of folks, the security of Queen Victoria’s long reign was gone, and things were going to get worse before they got better

Edgar Wallace

When the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, Wallace’s stories are very reinforcing.  They are full of terrifyingly malignant criminals with massive intellects, frighteningly mysterious events and sometimes excessively twisty plots.  But in the end, the sleuth, a pretty ordinary-type good guy triumphs in a self-deprecating way and the criminal receives his justly severe punishment.  The Crimson Circle, The India Rubber Man, and Terror Keep are perfect examples of Wallace’s ability to create a really scary sense of menace from an unknown quarter until the sleuth solves the puzzle and the fear dissipates like mist on a hot day.

Every bit as enjoyable as the storyline is the sub-text of British culture.  Each Wallace novel is a mini social history text, recalling a time, place, and set of mores that are no more.  Taken in order they offer insights into the span of time from 19th century global king pin to post-World War I existentialism and economic depression.   How wonderful to step back to a time when master criminals, unknown poisons, and terror in the fog were the scariest things on tap.