Get Wallace! Alexander Wilson’s fourth Secret Service novel published in 1934

The cover of 'Get Wallace!' Alexander Wilson's fourth Wallace of the Secret Service novel first published in 1934. Image: Allison and Busby.
‘Get Wallace!’ Alexander Wilson’s fourth Secret Service novel from 1934. Image: Allison and Busby.

‘Get Wallace’ firmly established Alexander Wilson’s fictional British Secret Service as something English speaking readers could identify with.

It was rapidly becoming an imaginative force policing the world and keeping people safe from the evils of organised crime.

The first publisher Herbert Jenkins explained ‘What This Story Is About’

Sir Leonard Wallace, the famous chief of the Secret Service, finds that the peace of Europe is threatened by a gang engaged in the theft and sale of national secrets. Wallace gets busy, and is assisted by the gang-leader’s own fear of him and his anxiety to get the Englishman into his power.

Wallace’s investigations, his startling discoveries and his escapes from death make this one of the most exciting books ever written by Alexander Wilson. 

Allison and Busby in their elegant republication in September 2015 said:

Sir Leonard Wallace, the famous chief of the Secret Service, finds that the peace of Europe is threatened by a gang engaged in the theft and sale of national secrets. Wallace gets busy, and is assisted by the gang-leader’s own fear of him and his anxiety to get the Englishman into his power.

The critical reception was highly favourable in 1934.

The Times Literary Supplement said:

A plot rattling with ‘breathless pace’ and ‘brisk entertainment.’

On November 19th 1934 ‘Get Wallace’ was the lead review item in the Scotsman:

Major Wilson tells an exciting tale of international espionage on a grand scale, the bartering nations’ secrets among rival nations, and the successful efforts of the British Secret Service, under Sir Leonard Wallace to foil the gang. The words Secret Service have about them an arresting glamour, of which effective use is made in this instance in lending colour to the background of the story, lifting its less richly endowed brother, the crime novel.

Sir Leonard Wallace returns to Britain from a holiday in America to find the members of his staff in the midst of a first-class mystery. National secrets, embodying plans and documents, have been acquired by a gang and offered to the highest bidder among rival countries. Britain is perturbed; France is scared. The solution of the mystery involves Sir Leonard and his assistants in 48 hectic hours of action. From the first attempt to kill Sir Leonard on the quayside, dramatic situation follows dramatic situation in orderly but rather breathless fashion. The reader has just finished a palpitating prowl round a sinister house in the Isle of Sheppey, recovered most of the stolen documents, and bolted the crooks from their lair on to a yacht, when he finds himself in Camden Town abruptly interrupting an underhand piece of business between Stanislaus Ictinos – gorgeous villain, worth every letter of his name – who is one of the two principal partners of the gang, and a Russian emissary. Then he finds himself in a raiding party on the gang yacht and chasing the escaping Ictinos, suspecting the end is near. But the author has one or two situations to work off before the grand climax is reached in a dénouement not unexpected, but nevertheless entirely effective.

The Observer’s reviewer Torquemada emphasised that the paper recognised Alexander Wilson had given his Secret Service chief and agents a humanitarian dimension missing from much of the spy literature of the time:

Secret Service heroes have gained in humanity since those days, just before the war, when A.A. Milne so cheerfully parodied the unlifelike but urgent warnings of William Le Queux […]

The humanity of Sir Leonard Wallace, still Chief of Mr. Wilson’s Secret Service, is of a different kind: a little more mature, as befits a hero who married so successfully during last year’s thriller season. In “Get Wallace” we are not dealing with any single secret, but with a perfect- almost, as regards impersonation, unbelievably perfect- organisation for discovering and auctioning the most vital secrets of several European Governments. The author of “The Crimson Dacoit” has shown daring and ingenuity in making the previous success of two of Wallace’s best helpers, “Quotation” Cousins and Captain Hugh Shannon, become an invaluable asset to the enemy. Things are looking bad for England and France when Wallace comes back from a brief holiday in America; but, at long last, that is to say, after a really fine tale, even the super-villainous Greek has to lower his flag.

A significant part of the action in the novel takes place on the Isle of Sheppey- an area Alexander Wilson knew very well.

During the Great War, his mother and other members of his family lived in Minster while his father took on a key role as a Colonel in the RAMC directing medical supplies throughout the Western Front in the final months of the conflict.

Wilson’s father, also called Alexander, died of a heart attack there in 1919 within 24 hours of coming home on leave, was given a memorable military funeral by hundreds of soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment and is buried in the town’s cemetery.

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This extract from ‘Get Wallace’ provides a charming description of the world famous department  store Selfridges during Christmas in the early 1930s.

Chapter One ‘Cousins Goes Shopping’ (pages 7-12 in the Allison and Busby edition)

The Christmas rush was at its height. An almost solid mass of humanity crowded both sides of oxford Street; taxis, omnibuses, private cars, commercial vehicles panted their way forward by painfully slow degrees, every now and then coming to a protesting stop as the traffic signals barred their progress with scarlet warning. The shops were packed with jolly, clamouring people bent on purchasing gifts for friends and relations, all of them imbued with the spirit which only Yuletide can bring.

In one of the great stores, of which London has such a large number, a little man, slim, barely five feet in height, made his way from department to department with surprising ease. Unlike so many of the men and women round him, he showed no signs of confusion or agitation. Utterly unperturbed, he progressed by a series of rapid, eel-like wriggles, while others, pushing and jostling, almost remained at a despairing standstill. He managed also to get served without appreciable delay, one or other of the hardworked, but always courteous assistants seeming ready to place herself at his disposal when called upon. It may have been that they were attracted by his deep brown eyes, the brightness of which almost fascinated, or perhaps the mouth, full of humorous curves, proved irresistible. Altogether he was a remarkable individual, compelling attention wherever he went. His extraordinarily wrinkled face was utterly incongruous, when one noticed the slim, boyish figure neatly attired in a dark grey overcoat, grey suit, grey Stetson hat. Whenever he smiled, which he frequently did when conversing with the girls who served him, the wrinkles turned into a mass of little creases, each one of which appeared to be having a little joke on its own. He proved a rare tonic to quite a number of assistants who, previous to his advent, had felt as though they were about to collapse from sheer fatigue.

By the time he reached the wireless department, he was loaded with parcels. He spent some time inspecting valves and loud speakers; then turned his attention to the display of cabinets. Customers desirous of purchasing radio sets were being shown the latest models by polite young men; in various parts of the room were listening-in to scraps of the programmes broadcast from London regional, national, radio normandie and other stations. Suddenly above the medley of music and song came the rapid, insistent tap of a Morse message. A young salesman standing close to the little man with the wrinkled face gave vent to an expression of annoyance.

‘That blessed row keeps butting in and spoiling our demonstrations,’ he remarked, as though looking for a sympathiser. ‘You’d hardly believe it, sir, but there are some people who know so little of wireless that they imagine the dot-dash-dot business to be caused by a flaw in the set.’

‘You surprise me,’ returned the little man. ‘I suppose it is actually a ship sending a message.’

‘I can’t make out what it is. To tell you the truth I feel rather puzzled about it. It is butting into all the stations, and is so loud and persistent—’

‘What you might describe as remorseless,’ murmured the other, his bright eyes twinkling mischievously.

The demonstrator eyed him more in sorrow than in anger; was about to turn away when, sharp above the strains of a melody played by a symphony orchestra, came the staccato note of the wireless message once more.

'Get Wallace' First Edition by Herbert Jenkins in 1934 and First Edition by Allison and Busby 2015. Image: AWE
‘Get Wallace’ First Edition by Herbert Jenkins in 1934 and First Edition by Allison and Busby 2015. Image: AWE

‘There it is again, blow it,’ grunted the salesman. ‘odd that it should keep coming through like that, isn’t it?’

But the little man was not paying any attention to him. He was listening to the rapid series of dots and dashes coming over the air with such force. The first time he had heard the interruption he had been too much engaged to take any notice of it. now he was spelling out the message to himself with surprising results.

X. S. B. Seven, it ran, wanted at Headquarters immediately. Most urgent.

As the sound of the last dot died away, leaving the music triumphant, the man with the wrinkled face turned to the demonstrator.

‘Where is the nearest telephone?’ he demanded.

On receipt of the information, he rapidly wriggled his way through the crowds to the telephone department. The number he murmured to the operator acted like a charm. Without the slightest delay she indicated a box, eyeing him with great curiosity as she did so. Carefully shutting the door behind him, he placed the receiver to his ear.

‘Cousins speaking, sir,’ was all he said.

‘Good,’ came a quiet voice from the other end of the wire. ‘We’ve been trying to get hold of you for the last hour. Where are you and what are you doing?’

‘In Selfridges – shopping,’ replied Cousins.

A soft chuckle seemed to indicate that the other man was amused.

‘Sorry to interrupt your laudable endeavour to help trade, Cousins,’ he observed. ‘But I want you here – at once.’

‘Very well, sir. I’ll be with you in ten minutes.’

Having given instructions for his numerous parcels to be sent to his flat in Lancaster Gate, the little man, whose name was Cousins, and who was down as X. S. B. Seven in the records of a certain important government department, quickly went from the congestion and noise of Selfridges into the rattle, roar, and crush of Oxford Street. Hailing a taxicab he directed the driver to take him to Whitehall, giving explicit instructions about the route to be followed. Few people know London as Cousins does. He gave a lesson to the taxi driver that afternoon, concerning the way to get from Selfridges to Whitehall by the shortest and least congested route, that was an eye-opener to a man who had previously considered his knowledge of the metropolis unique.

Seven minutes after concluding his telephone conversation, Cousins alighted near the Foreign office. Paying off the taxi he walked across to the building which is the headquarters of the British Intelligence Service. Less than two minutes later he entered the office of Major Brien, one-time officer of cavalry, now head of the office staff and second in command to Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of Great Britain’s Secret Service. The tall, upright man, whose fair hair was rapidly thinning, and whose good-looking face was beginning to show signs of the strain of years in the most exacting profession in the world, greeted Cousins from behind a desk literally buried under a mass of documents of all shapes, colours, and sizes. His blue eyes twinkled merrily, as he surveyed the dapper little man, who ranked very high in the list of those devoting their lives to their country’s service, as members of that very silent but very efficient corps of patriots.

‘I’m beastly sorry to interrupt your Christmas shopping, Cousins,’ he observed, ‘and as our French friends would say, utterly desolated at calling you back in the midst of the first leave you’ve had for about three years. But que voulez-vous? It is the service calling. Take a pew, and help yourself to a cigarette, if you can find one.’

He pushed aside a heap of reports, uncovering a large silver cigarette box. Cousins, preferring his pipe, filled and lit it before sinking into a comfortable leather armchair close to the desk.

‘I hate leave,’ he pronounced with a smile; ‘always feel lost. To quote ruskin—’

‘Don’t quote anybody,’ interrupted Brien hastily. He helped himself to a cigarette, lit it, and sent a spiral of grey-blue smoke rising towards the ceiling. ‘We telephoned to all sorts of places in an attempt to find you,’ he resumed presently, ‘before getting the Admiralty to send out a wireless message in the rather vain hope that you might pick it up somewhere. If the matter had not been extremely urgent I shouldn’t have bothered you. But I am very short-handed at the moment. Most of the experts are spread over Europe engaged on other jobs. Maddison is here, but he’s as puzzled as I am. There is nobody else I dare rely upon in an affair of such gravity as this. I shall be heartily glad when Sir Leonard gets back from the United States.’

‘What’s the trouble, sir?’ queried Cousins.

Major Brien sat reflectively stroking his small military moustache for a few seconds; then leant forward.

‘Two of our most cherished military secrets,’ he observed, ‘have, during the last few days, been offered for sale to the governments of France, Germany, and russia. one consists of the plans of the Wentworth gun, the other the Masterson monoplane. I received information to the effect that negotiations had been opened in Moscow and Berlin, from reval and Gottfried respectively, early this morning. This afternoon Lalére informed me from Paris that the Quai d’orsay had been invited by some mysterious agency to make an offer for the plans.’

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