The first publishers of Alexander Wilson’s first novel ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ issued the following details about the book in their periodical for libraries and the book-trade called ‘Longmans List’:
Notes on Books, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, July 1928
The Mystery of Tunnel 51
By Alexander Wilson, Crown 8vo, pp. vi + 345, price 7s. 6d. net. [April 26, 1928]
The mysterious death of Major Elliott and the theft of some very important plans of the Frontier, cause great consternation to the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief in India. The Viceroy cables for Sir Leonard Wallace, the Chief of the Intelligence Department in the Indian Office in London. Sir Leonard Wallace, with his assistant, Major Brien, makes a rapid flight to India, where he finds himself up against agents of the Russian Soviet, and makes important discoveries on the very night of his arrival in Karachi. His investigations take him in rapid succession to Simla, Lahore, and back to Karachi, and include a police raid on certain premises in Lahore. He clears up the mystery of Major Elliott’s death and his assistant, Major Brien, has an exciting chase after the chief of the Russian agents in an attempt to recover the plans. Levinsky (the Russian) is captured, but the plans are not in his possession. They are, however, obtained after a raid in Karachi. Major Brien takes the plans to Delhi, but Wallace continues his chase of the chief of Soviet agents.
The first Wallace of the Secret Service novel has been re-published 87 years later by Allison and Busby in 2015 with the blurb:
Chief of the Intelligence Department Sir Leonard Wallace – bearing always the hall mark of coolness and wit – is up to his earlobes in trouble. Summoned by the Viceroy of India, he makes a rapid flight to India to investigate the mysterious death of British officer Major Elliot and the theft of some very important dispatches.
The Allison and Busby project is an ambitious retrieval of a significant espionage writer of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who had somehow been lost to history. And the critical reception has recognised this:
- Novelist and columnist Tony Parsons: ‘Without Alexander Wilson, there is no James Bond, there is no Bourne, there is no George Smiley. Unmissable’.
- Tony Halligan Euro-crime: ‘absolutely spellbinding . . . I was gripped all the way through and enjoyed the work tremendously. Well recommended.’
- Daily Mail: ‘a romping read . . . James Bond may find he has a worthy rival’
- The Bookbag: ‘If you enjoyed the crime fiction of the era, Campion being a case in point, or more so if you followed Hannay’s adventures beyond The 39 Steps, then you’ll love this…This is the first of the Wallace stories, which were extremely popular at the time. If they’re all up to this standard, then their re-release is long overdue’
- The Good Book Guide: ‘An exciting introduction to an accomplished, long-overlooked crime writer, and to a cool, intelligent hero…’Vintage spy fiction, this intriguing forerunner to the work of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre is exciting and engrossing.’
The Mystery of Tunnel 51 has also been produced in a first unabridged audio edition, read by David Timson.
Wilson’s novel is based on the real-life intelligence conflict between the British Empire and Russia/Soviet Union in what became known as ‘The Great Game.’
The Punjab, of which Lahore was the capital, encompassed the North West Frontier region with Afghanistan.
During the 1920s, the Soviet Union funded, supported and encouraged insurrection, independence groups and terrorism.
Wilson directly experienced this atmosphere. Lahore was in a constant state of tension where the British Indian administration struggled to contain inter-communal violence .
Plots had been hatched by Indian separatists to assassinate the Governor of the Punjab after the leader of a protest group, Lala Lajpat Rai, had died from a heart attack following a beating he received during a demonstration in Lahore.
Alexander Wilson would have been familiar with all of these events and the intelligence shared among the ruling European elite and pro-Imperialist Indian community.
As a senior academic and later Principal of Islamia College, he would have been in daily contact with muslim students and teachers- then a minority religious group in Lahore though a majority in the countryside.
He would have been a witness to the Viceroy of India seen here in Pathe footage making an official visit to Lahore in 1926:
In December 1928 British deputy police superintendent, John Saunders, was assassinated while travelling to work on his motorcycle. A Sikh head police constable who pursued the gunmen through University of Punjab buildings was also shot dead.
Saunders’ killer was the Indian socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh.
He was later arrested after a bombing of the Indian Central Legislative Assembly.
Singh headed the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association/Army- regarded as a violent revolutionary organisation supported by the Soviet Comintern and Communist Party in Great Britain.
After a controversial tribunal trial in Lahore, he was hanged in March 1931 at about the same time Alexander Wilson resigned from his post as the Principal of Islamia College.
‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ is also informed by the backdrop of what became known as the Lahore Conspiracy trial of independence activist and revolutionary, Jotindra Nath Dass, who died in 1929 after a hunger strike lasting 63 days.
Wilson’s first novel indicates he had close knowledge and understanding of the current affairs intelligence, military and policing concerns of the British Raj at this time.
At Islamia College, he raised and commanded half an OTC company of his students for the British Indian Army reserve.
‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ was well received by the critics throughout the English speaking world.
The Scottish Sunday Post’s review on 27th May 1928 was almost ecstatic in praise:
When Major Elliot travelling from Simla to Delhi was murdered in Tunnel 51 and important papers stolen , Sir Leonard Wallace, Head of the British Intelligence Department, flew- literally- to the spot. He took with him his bulldog assistant, and his comic servant Batty, and then there was detecting- some detecting! There are adventures galore, pistols and bombs- indeed a Capital thriller.
The Scotsman was another Scottish newspaper giving Wilson’s inaugural publication as a thriller writer the thumbs up on 2nd July 1928:
A thrilling detective story , which centres its interest in the complicated investigation of a murder committed in a train speeding its way from Simla to Delhi. Mr Alexander Wilson’s novel The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (7s 6d. London Longmans) quickly sets agoing an interest that becomes stronger and stronger as the story proceeds. The murder has been done to gain possession of plans of the frontier defences of India; and the Viceroy convinced that the crime is, in its initiation at least, the work of Bolshevik spies, commissions the chief of the British Intelligence Service to investigate it. The plans are ultimately recovered and the perpetrators of the murder tracked down, but not until a love affair has been set agoing in the course of pursuits and evasions ; the sweethearts are held up by a gang of desperate Russians presented, like the other characters, with a convincing imaginative power; and everybody concerned in the hunt is disposed of by methods of poetic justice.
The Simla mountain railway, which is the stage for Wilson’s spy thriller, is still operational though now with diesel rather than steam locomotives and Simla is now spelt Shimla.
The railway line was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.
It was originally built with 107 tunnels and 864 bridges and 102 of the tunnels are still in use.
Longmans, Green and Company also published in America and in May 1928, the New York Times offered this positive review:
This is a novel of the British Intelligence Service. The central character is Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of that service and reputed to have the keenest brains in all England. He is there with the brawn too, if anybody should ask you. Indeed, he is a true super-hero, ready to do or die for old England and withal as modest and unassuming as a British hero should be. The story opens with the murder of a British officer in India. This officer, who is carrying important dispatches to the Viceroy, is stabbed in the back while riding on a rail motorcar through a tunnel on the way from Simla to Delhi. The papers disappear, and it is believed that the murder and theft are parts of a Bolshevist plot. That is why Sir Leonard Wallace is summoned all the way from England. He is known to be death on Bolshevists, and the stirring events that take place after his arrival fully justify his reputation.
Alexander Wilson’s famous fictional intelligence chief, Sir Leonard Wallace, does not make his first appearance until Chapter 9 and page 70 (of the new Allison and Busby edition):
A luxurious car skirted the traffic in Trafalgar Square, swung along the Mall and up St James’s Street, and presently stopped in front of an imposing mansion in Piccadilly. The door opened and a slightly built man of middle height alighted and held out his hand to assist a woman. The man gave the chauffeur some instructions and then followed his companion up the steps of the house. The door was opened by a solemn, elderly butler whose every movement bespoke dignity and importance; his white side-whiskers whispered of responsibility, and his bow was the very epitome of what a butler’s bow should be. The woman, she seemed little more than a girl, smiled and passed in. The man, more leisurely, stood at the door for a moment and gazed appreciatively across the Park where the trees, in all the glory of their autumn tints, gave a warm sense of colour to their surroundings. Then he turned and walked quietly inside.
London in colour in 1926-7 recorded by Pioneering filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene
‘There are many worse places than london, Sims,’ he said, as he handed his coat and hat to the butler.
‘Don’t you think so?’
‘I do indeed, Sir Leonard,’ replied the man in a deep sepulchral voice.
‘H’m! And I suppose the body is still upstairs?’ imitating the solemn voice.
‘Body, sir! What body?’ A slight twitch of the left eyebrow was the only indication of surprise Sims permitted himself.
‘The same old body! I’ve often wondered when you are going to bury it.’
The butler had by this time grasped the point, and he bowed, if possible, more deeply than ever. Sir Leonard strolled along the wide, beautifully panelled hall, and stopped by a great fireplace where a fire blazed merrily away.
‘By Jove! you don’t seem to be worried by coal strikes, Sims,’ he remarked. ‘There seems no shortage of coal in this house.’
‘Certainly not, sir! I hope I always do my duty!’
‘In spite of miners and the dole and russian money and all the rest of it, eh?’
Again the butler bowed.
‘You’re a paragon, Sims. I wish you weren’t sometimes. I suppose you were human once?’
‘I said, “I suppose you were human once”. yes, you were! Do you remember keeping wicket during a certain famous cricket match at Kimmeridge years ago?’
Sims actually smiled – it was a fleeting sort of a smile, but still a smile for all that.
‘I have never forgotten that match, Sir Leonard, nor, if I may be allowed to say so, the exciting events that took place about that time.’
‘No, I suppose not – neither have I!’ He looked rather ruefully at his left arm, which to the ordinary gaze appeared quite normal except for the glove which he wore on the hand and which was seldom removed. But that arm was an artificial one! He had lost it through the exciting events mentioned by the butler. Coming home from France with a badly wounded arm, he had spent a holiday on the coast of Dorset whilst convalescing, and there, with the aid of some friends and, later on, under the auspices of the Home office, discovered a German submarine base and the headquarters of a number of spies. Four submarines and practically all the spies had been captured, and it was when Sir leonard and his assistants had cornered the chief of the German secret agents that he was again shot in the arm, as a consequence of which it had to be amputated.
Great excitement had been caused throughout the country by the capture. Honours were showered on Sir Leonard, who was then plain Major, and his companions, the chief of whom was his great friend Major, then Captain, William Brien. The two of them had been cavalry officers, but as a result of their work they were attached to the Intelligence Department and now several years after the War, Sir Leonard was head of the Department and held undisputed sway, with Major Brien as his second in command.
Dressed in the most fastidious taste, Sir Leonard looked the picture of indolent ease as he lounged in front of the great fire. By no means handsome, he possessed a most attractive face, with humorous curves, which the majority of people found irresistible.
He never got excited, was seldom known to lose his temper, had the most easy-going disposition in the world, and, to quote Major Brien, ‘would probably light his pipe and take his ease if the end of the world had come.’ His utter nonchalance exasperated some people, but offended none.
He took out a pipe now and cleverly using his artificial hand filled and lighted it.
‘This old limb’s almost as useful as the real one was, Sims,’ he remarked. ‘Anyhow we don’t miss it much, do we!’
The old servitor shook his head sorrowfully.
‘It was a very sad business, Sir Leonard,’ he said. ‘Very sad indeed I—’
‘Oh, go away, you old croaker! By the way where did Lady Wallace go?’
‘Up to her boudoir, I believe, Sir Leonard.’
The other nodded, and Sims turned, and crossing the wide hall as silently as a ghost, disappeared through a green baize door at the end, which obviously led to his pantry and the other domestic rooms.
Sir Leonard strolled up the wide carpeted stairs. Halfway up he stared reflectively at a beautiful stained glass window, whereon were pictured stirring events, in the life of St George, who had a penchant apparently for destroying dragons.
‘St George,’ murmured Wallace sotto voce, ‘Yours was a pretty straightforward sort of job – there’s nothing very subtle about a dragon.’
He smiled whimsically and continued his easy way to his wife’s boudoir, where he knocked gently on the door. A sweet voice bade him come in and he entered. A dazzling picture of smiling womanhood looked up at him.