In 1992, a pair of German immigrant brothers were visiting me in
Texas. They were in their twenties. One of them asked me, "Have
you ever heard of Edgar Wallace?"
It was an odd question, I thought. What interest did he have in
"Yes," I replied. "He was the author of crime novels
in the 1920s."
They were amazed. "You are the first American we have ever
asked who knew who he was." This was even more curious. Apparently,
they had used the Edgar Wallace question to confound Americans.
Why, I could not imagine.
"Wallace’s novels are still read in Germany," they said.
This did not impress me so much as it astounded me. Why would anyone
read his novels at this late date? It must have something to do
with the Teutonic mind.
I had never actually read an Edgar Wallace novel. I had never even
seen one. I have yet to see one. Yet they sold by the millions.
My literary gap was no liability. In the modern world, trivia counts.
It matters not at all that a person has never read an author’s works.
What matters is his familiarity with detailed though useless information
about an author’s private life. So, I decided to lay it on. "He
was a diabetic. He died early in the 1930s, having spent all of
his money, working in Hollywood on his final project."
Then I delivered the coup de grâce. "Wallace’s last
project is the only thing he ever wrote that anyone except Germans
remember. He was working on a screenplay about a giant ape."
In the Christmas season, 2005, the whole world is once again going
to delight in the story that Edgar Wallace left to posterity.
Think about this. Wallace was one of the most popular authors of
his era. He cranked out so many crime novels so rapidly —
he took about a week to write one — that they were referred
to as "Wallaces." Yet he was forgotten in the United States
within a decade. When most Americans think of crime novels, Edgar
Wallace is not one of the authors they recall. He was not on the
list in 1950, either.
Here was an author who had a remarkable skill: the ability to meet
consumer demand as fast as it registered. He never suffered from
He spent every dime he made, and then some. Good Britisher that
he was, he drank 30 cups of tea daily. Diabetic that he was, he
added five spoons of sugar to each cup. Eventually, this killed
The Great Depression wiped him out financially. In December, 1931,
he went to Hollywood to earn a salary of $3,000 a week. Two months
later, he died.
King Kong was released in 1933. No other movie released
in 1933 has had a greater market. No other 1933 movie still grabs
people, not as an artsy example of a classic early film, but for
its own entertainment value. It was repeatedly released to the theater-going
public. I saw it first in one of those re-releases, probably around
I later watched it on late-night TV. I bought the video —
the uncut version, where he stomps on one native and chews up another.
These scenes were cut out of the original release, to portray him
as a victim.
Let’s face it, we are all suckers for a love story. We ignore what
we want to ignore. The movie suggests what the ape did to all those
previous sacrificial victims. He knew just where to find them, when
to find them, and how to untie them. With fingers that big and rope
that small, his dexterity indicated a lot of practice.
He was not polygamous. They were not living in the cave.
The technology of the stop-action photography was never matched.
I still marvel at the battle between the T-rex and Kong.
Fay Wray established her reputation as Hollywood’s pre-eminent
screamer, a reputation that Jamie Lee Curtis attempted to overshadow
but failed, which is probably why she went into comedy.
A CAREER NOT TO IMITATE
Wallace achieved what every novelist dreams of: enormous book sales.
He was a celebrity.
Yet his books were not classics. They remain in print in Great
Britain and Germany, but they exert no literary influence. Not one
of the titles rings a bell with me. Have you read any
His books have been made into movies. You have not seen any of
them. A lot of them are in German. Have you seen any
I could hardly believe it when I read the list. I had actually
seen one. Well, not quite one. I had seen one or possibly two chapters
of The Green Archer (1940) in 1950. It was shown at a local
elementary school. It starred Victory Jory. I clearly remember Jory’s role. I can see a black car driving onto a lawn, stopping,
and being lowered by remote control into the bad guy’s underground
hideout. But I never saw the final chapter, so I never learned the
identity of the black archer. As for "Based on a book by Edgar Wallace"?
It never registered.
Because writers, like artists, dream of posthumous fame, or at
least posthumous influence, Wallace’s career as a novelist
is like a neon sign: "All ye who enter here, abandon hope."
Yet he achieved what artists and writers dream of: the creation
of a classic. King Kong is surely a classic. But because
it is a movie, and because hardly anyone remembers the name of a
movie’s screenplay writer, Wallace is not merely forgotten; he was
never remembered. His name is associated with his greatest creation
only by trivia buffs. He gets no respect.
He died before he saw the fruits of his labor.
When it comes to imitating a Wallace, better to copy Lew than Edgar.