The writing career of Alexander Wilson

The full cover of Alexander Wilson's 1933 terrorism thriller 'The Crimson Dacoit' published by Herbert Jenkins in 1933.
The full cover of Alexander Wilson’s 1933 terrorism thriller ‘The Crimson Dacoit’ published by Herbert Jenkins in 1933.

Beginnings and First Novels

Alexander Wilson first enjoyed success with writing novels in 1927.

Longmans, Green and Company, based in Paternoster Row in the City of London, agreed to publish the first two Wallace of the Secret Service novels: ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ and ‘The Devil’s Cocktail.’

The original cover of the first edition of 'The Devil's Cocktail' published by Longman, Green and Company in 1928. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.
The original cover of the first edition of ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ published by Longmans, Green and Company in 1928. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.

At the time Wilson was working as a Professor of English Literature at Islamia College in Lahore.

Islamia College was the only all Muslim college of the University of the Punjab.

Both novels have dramatic plots set in British India. They received excellent reviews throughout the English speaking world.

There is no evidence of his having written and submitted any other manuscripts to publishers before.

Alexander Wilson with pipe in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.
Alexander Wilson with pipe in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.

A newspaper report in Lahore’s Civil and Military Gazette does provide details of an event when he read the scripts of plays he had written- though none of these have survived.

Nor is there any evidence or explanation for his interest in spy writing.

Previous to going to India,  he had been jointly running a touring repertory company with his first wife Gladys in the Home Counties of England.

Longmans  published two more of Wilson’s novels.  ‘Murder Mansion’ in 1929 was a horror thriller in the grand guignol tradition and ‘The Death of Dr. Whitelaw’ in 1930 was a crime thriller featuring the kidnapping of the Prime Minister.

'The Death of Dr. Whitelaw' published by Longmans, Green & Company in 1931. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.
‘The Death of Dr. Whitelaw’ published by Longmans, Green & Company in 1930. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.

Academic career and publications

During his academic career in India, Wilson rose to be Principal of Islamia College in 1928 and continued in this post until the spring of 1931 where there have been references to his appointment as the editor of an English speaking newspaper in Lahore.

There is documentary material indicating he was awarded an honorary fellowship of the University of Punjab for his contributions to public life and role as College Principal.

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Wilson is credited with three academic publications published in India:

‘Selected English Prose Stories for Indian Students’ [Co-edited and written with Mohammad Din.] Lahore, 1926, Shamsher Singh & Co.

‘Four Periods of Essays’ Lahore, 1928, Rai Sahib M. Gulab Singh and Sons.

‘Selected English Essays (From Steele to Benson)’ Lahore, 1930, Uttar Chand Kapur & Sons.

1933- New Agent, Publisher and Widening Genres

On his return to Britain in 1933/4 Wilson changed agents, publishers and began writing books with pseudonyms.

Wilson was first represented by the famous literary agency Curtis Brown.

But in 1933 he switched to John Farquharson- regarded as one of the most influential literary agents in Britain over the next three decades.

His remaining novels, under the name Alexander Wilson, were published by Herbert Jenkins- the publisher of P.G. Wodehouse.

Wilson used the forenames Alexander Douglas Chesney as an author- quite different from his real names of Alexander Joseph Patrick.

In 1933 Wilson wrote a novel under the name ‘Geoffrey Spencer’ and the book was published by the firm T Werner Laurie.

‘Confessions of a Scoundrel’  was a very modern book exploring challenging themes of violence to women in intimate relationships, abortion, and child abuse by priests.

Cover of 'Confessions of a Scoundrel' by Alexander Wilson under the pseudonym 'Geoffrey Spencer.' Image: Random House.
Cover of ‘Confessions of a Scoundrel’ by Alexander Wilson under the pseudonym ‘Geoffrey Spencer.’ Image: Random House.

It provided an uncompromising first person account of a fraudster and murderer completing his memoirs while awaiting capital execution.

It was so realistic the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement gave the impression he thought it was an autobiography.

This novel bears very close resemblance to the text, plot and theme of a novel published a year later by Herbert Jenkins titled ‘The Sentimental Crook’.

It could be argued that ‘The Sentimental Crook’ was a more sanitised version of ‘Confessions of a Scoundrel.’

In the pre-Internet age, there is no evidence that the publishers or critics in Britain had any idea of Wilson having managed to sell the same book with slight variations to two different publishing houses.

It would appear that a critic in New Zealand is the only journalist who realised the fraud- presuming that either of the writers, Alexander Wilson or Geoffrey Spencer, had plagiarised the other’s book.

New Zealand review suspects plagiarism between 'Confessions of a Scoundrel' and 'The Sentimental Crook.'
New Zealand reviewer suspects plagiarism between ‘Confessions of a Scoundrel’ and ‘The Sentimental Crook.’ Evening Post 26th September 1935.

In 1933 Herbert Jenkins published Wilson’s ‘The Crimson Dacoit’ in the one shilling series.

This was a prescient thriller about the origin and motivation for terrorism in the fight for Indian independence. Wilson explores a bitter and angry theme of inner betrayal in the British Raj’s imperial intelligence service.

Wallace of the Secret Service was also published by Herbert Jenkins in this year and comprised of ten skilfully written self-contained chapters of global intelligence operations headed by Sir Leonard Wallace- the fictional ‘C’ of Wilson’s Secret Service.

An introduction also provides the back-story to Sir Leonard’s career, his exploits during the Great War and an explanation for his amputated arm.

Wallace and his agents battle the menace of Lenin and Stalin, organised crime in Italy and France, terrorist machinations by independence activists in Egypt and an exquisite encounter with Mahatma Gandhi in British India.

Between 1933 and 1940 Herbert Jenkins published a further 12 novels by Alexander Wilson.

Six of the novels were part of the Wallace of the Secret Service series: ‘Get Wallace!’ (1934), ‘His Excellency, Governor Wallace’ (1936), ‘Microbes of Power’ (1937), ‘Wallace at Bay’ (1938), ‘Wallace Intervenes’ (1939), and ‘Chronicles of the Secret Service’ (1940).

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Wilson’s Sir Leonard Wallace character appears in one anthology of espionage stories first published by Faber and Faber in 1938 and republished in further editions up until 1956.

‘My Best Spy Story: A Collection of Stories by their own Authors’, features ‘Brien Averts A War’ on pages 355 to 384.

The cover of 'My Best Spy Story' anthology published by Faber and Faber in 1954. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.
The cover of ‘My Best Spy Story’ anthology published by Faber and Faber in 1954. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.

The other six Herbert Jenkins novels reflect Wilson’s versatility as an author. They ranged from romantic comedy such as ‘The Magnificent Hobo’ (1935), ‘Double Events’  (1937) and ‘Double Masquerade’ (1940), to finely crafted and dramatic crime and espionage thrillers such as ‘Mr. Justice’  (1937), and ‘Scapegoats for Murder’ (1939).

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A key market for Alexander Wilson’s readership in the 1920s, 30s and 40s was the book lending services of large private retail business such as W H Smiths and Boots.

At this time a 7s & 6d novel was a significant outlay for the majority of the working population and outside the public lending libraries many readers would be prepared to pay 2 old pence for five days of lending.

WHSmithslendinglibraryedition
This rare edition of Alexander Wilson’s ‘The Magnificent Hobo’ from 1935 has the WH Smith & Sons sticker and lending library card for its branch in Rhyl. Image: Copyright The Alexander Wilson Estate.

More pseudonyms- Gregory Wilson and Michael Chesney

In 1938 Alexander Wilson ‘hack wrote’ two thrillers for the Modern Publishing Company whose books were promoted and serialised in the News of the World.

‘The Factory Mystery’, and the ‘The Boxing Mystery’ written as Gregory Wilson give the impression that Wilson may gave been given the plot outline to flesh out as a quick commission.

'The Factory Mystery'- a hack crime thriller written by Alexander Wilson as 'Gregory Wilson' in 1938. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.
‘The Factory Mystery’- a hack crime thriller written by Alexander Wilson as ‘Gregory Wilson’ in 1938. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.

In the late 1930s Alexander Wilson created another espionage series featuring Colonel Geoffrey Callaghan of military intelligence and feature dramatic espionage plots in the British Empire.

The three novels were written under the pseudonym ‘Michael Chesney,’ the forenames of Wilson’s only son from his second marriage who was born in 1933.

‘Callaghan of Intelligence’ (1938), ‘”Steel” Callaghan’ (1939), and ‘Callaghan Meets His Fate (1939)’ were all published by Herbert Jenkins.

Wilson joined the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in September 1939 and served as linguist/translator/interpreter until October 1942.

This means that he was probably writing his last published novels 1939/1940 during the first year of the Second World War.

Unpublished Manuscripts

Four unpublished manuscripts were handed by Wilson’s third wife, Alison, to Dennis Wilson at his funeral in Portsmouth in 1963.

There is no explanation as to why his published writing career ended in 1940 and he was unable to achieve any further publication before his death in Ealing from a heart attack in 1963.

Random House,  who control the archives for Herbert Jenkins and T Werner Laurie, have no files or documentation concerning Alexander Wilson. All of the archives for the John Farquharson and Curtis Brown literary agencies were destroyed in a fire.

  • ‘Murder In Duplicate’ is an original crime thriller set in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was written as A.J.P. Wilson at 88 Sheen Park, Richmond, Surrey.
  • ‘The Englishman From Texas’ is a western. The manuscript has  no identification in terms of author’s identity or date and location of writing.
  • ‘Out of the Land of Egypt’ is an original spy thriller set in the post war period, beginning of the Cold War and exploring the role of Nazis in Egypt during the 1950s. The manuscript bears the signature of  Col. Alan C. Wilson at 13 Lancaster Gardens, Ealing, London W.13., the address where Alexander Wilson died in 1963.
  • ‘Combined Operations’ bears a title  assigned by Alexander Wilson’s son from his first marriage, the poet Dennis B. Wilson. The original handwritten manuscript is dated 1961 and did not disclose any writing name. But it does state that it was written at 13 Lancaster Gardens, Ealing, London W. 13.
Surviving children of Alexander Wilson at his gravestone in Portsmouth in 2009. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate.
Surviving children of Alexander Wilson at his gravestone in Portsmouth in 2009. Image: The Alexander Wilson Estate. Left to Right: The late Mike Shannon (born Michael Chesney Wilson), Gordon Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Daphne McGill (born Daphne Wilson), Nigel Wilson, and Douglas Ansdell.
AlexanderWilsonwritingoutput
The writing output of Alexander Wilson as identified by researchers since 2005. Image: Copyright The Alexander Estate. All Rights Reserved.

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