‘Wallace at Bay’ is about gripping counter-intelligence operations taking place in and around the Little Venice area of Maida Vale- in streets and locations wholly familiar to Alexander Wilson during the last 1930s.
This is a novel that gives the reader an evocative and realistic experience of being on the streets of London in 1938.
Herbert Jenkins in ‘What This Story Is About’ said of the novel:
Following a sanguinary affray on the outskirts of London Sir Leonard Wallace, the famous chief of the Secret Service, found evidence of an anarchist organization headed by a man called Ulyanov, who had sworn to exterminate all royalty. Carter, Wallace’s astute colleague, joined the anarchists to discover where next they would strike and the secrets of their stronghold. Success seemed assured, but suddenly the tables were turned. Wallace, with his band of courageous adherents found themselves at bay, trapped by desperate fanatics.
The violent anarchists are targeting King Peter- the young teenage monarch of Yugoslavia, educated in England and a reluctant and apprehensive head of a Royal House rocked by the violent assassination of his father King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934.
This is an example of Alexander Wilson blending his fiction with the detail of real life events and news and current affairs.
King Alexander’s demise was one of the first political assassinations captured on the new medium of movie-camera and shown in a cinemas throughout the world.
Allison and Busby re-published ‘Wallace At Bay’ in April 2016, some 78 years after its original publication.
The Aberdeen Journal observed that ‘Wallace At Bay’ was Sir Leonard’s most difficult case:
Wallace faces his most difficult case. He tackles a gang of international anarchists,whose object it is to exterminate all royalty. Carter, one of Wallace’s “ace” men, insinuates himself into the confidence of one of the leaders of the anarchists and ultimately attends a meeting of the “inner circle.”
Wallace’s fight against heavy odds seems assured of success, when the tables are turned with disconcerting suddenness. For once Mr. Wilson’s popular hero seems to be beaten, and how he and his band of helpers snatch success from the jaws of defeat will hold the reader enthralled.
Alexander Wilson’s son by his second marriage to the actress Dorothy Wick, Mike Shannon, visited the flat where he was brought up in Little Venice during the thirties.
One of the most vivid memories of his father was being taken for a ginger beer to the local pub on the canal when his father would begin a story on leaving their home, improvise its characters and plot to and from the pub and manage an elegant climactic end on their return home.
Wallace At Bay was first published in the febrile and nervous year of Munich.
Wallace At Bay is probably one of Wilson’s most hard-boiled novels.
The anarchist/communists sponsored by the Soviet Union are villainous ‘others’ from Poland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany, who speak in cod accents and awkward broken English.
There is physical demonization that is reminiscent of the depiction of ‘evil’ foreign spies in Bulldog Drummond.
There are derivative dimensions of John Buchan style characterization in the form of one of the lead anarchist and assassins, Ivan Modjeska, who has the power to disable and control his enemies through hypnosis; a device central to the Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot novel, ‘The Three Hostages’, first published in 1924, and whose central villain Medina applies his malevolent skill of hypnosis to manipulate his victims.
Yet there is also something urgent and journalistically relevant about Alexander Wilson’s ‘Wallace At Bay’.
There has been speculation that Croatian nationalists and Mussolini’s secret service sponsored the King Alexander’s assassination, and when Hermann Goering attended King Alexander’s funeral in Belgrade he may well have been masking the fact that Nazi Germany had also enthusiastically supported the regicide.
No tears would have been shed in Moscow where the Soviet Union had resented King Alexander’s harbouring of two hundred thousand White Russian exiles and his public association with anti-Bolshevist leaders who had been sentenced to death in their absence.
Wilson extends this degree of malevolence to fictionalize the Soviet Union’s commissioning of King Peter’s murder on a visit to London to pay his respects at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day.
Alexander Wilson is encoding in his espionage fiction the scenario of the Italians being heavily involved in a terrorist conspiracy to destroy royalty.
It was a fact that France’s request to Italy for the extradition of two suspected members of the assassination gang received short shrift.
Mussolini pretended grief, faked sympathy for Yugoslavia, and did nothing.
The political philosophies of anarchism and Soviet Bolshevism have never been particularly compatible bedfellows.
There is evidence that violent legions of anarchism were encouraged and financed by the Soviet Union after the October Revolution of 1917.
Italian ‘Red’ anarchists had detonated the first ‘car bomb’ in Wall Street in 1920, leaving carnage in Lower Manhattan.
A gang of Russian anarchists led by the mythological ‘Peter the Painter’ in 1910/11 had murdered three City of London police officers in Hounsditch and they were immortalized in the Siege of Sidney Street, largely because the gun battle was captured in early silent newsreel and even showed a bullet going clean through Winston Churchill’s top hat.
One of gang members, Jacob Peters, later returned to Russia to play a role in the Bolshevik led Revolution and rose to the position of deputy head of the Soviet secret police force, the Cheka.
Wilson dramatizes the French propagande par le fait– ‘Propaganda of the deed’ doctrine of anarchism that advocates the deployment of physical violence against political enemies as a means of inspiring the masses to rise up and embrace revolution.
Propaganda of the deed manifested itself at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the phenomenon of terrorism: indiscriminate bombings that detonated inter-communal violence, and discriminating attacks on symbolic targets that would include the assassination of royalty, and heads of state.
Wilson’s promotion of joint Anglo-American cooperation in counter-intelligence in 1938 challenged a background of prejudice against the USA that was expressed by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge as a suspicion and jealousy that Uncle Sam had ‘”enriched itself at the expense of Europe.”’ (pp 143-145 Graves, Robert & Hodge, Alan (1940, Reprint 2009) The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939, London: The Folio Society.)
There was ‘contempt for its toleration of gangsters and non-enforcement of Prohibition’ and the USA had become the object of ‘popular execration in Britain as “the new home of tyranny.”’ (ibid)
In the late 1920s British public opinion had been whipped up into a swell of outrage over the 7-year death row predicament of the ‘Red’ Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti.
Although convicted of 2 murders during a violent bank robbery in Massachusetts the two self-avowed anarchists became the centre of a miscarriage of justice campaign stoked internationally by the Comintern.
Graves and Hodge observed that when US President Coolidge rejected their last appeal in August 1927: ‘The physical shock of horror that the news brought to millions of anxious homes cannot be readily conveyed.
There was nothing like it throughout the period.
On the evening after the execution a memorial gathering was held in Hyde Park.
The mounted police had orders to take action at the slightest sign of disorder in the crowd, which was large, sorrowful and orderly. Vanzetti’s noble message of farewell drew sobs and groans when it was read out.’ (ibid)
A dramatic sequence in the novel ‘Wallace at Bay’ involves scenes in the Bakerloo Line of the London underground.
Wilson’s anti-Soviet ideological stance in Wallace At Bay had to confront the endurance of a romantic adoration of the Soviet Union from a well-established constituency of leftism in Britain.
This compelled Malcolm Muggeridge to write sarcastically: ‘In the U.S.S.R., the total abandonment of Law, and its replacement by terrorism, was obscured by the ostensible application of humanitarian principles to the punishment of non-political offenders.
The fact that many were shot without a public trial for unspecified reasons of state, did not deter earnest advocates of penal reform from holding the Soviet Government up to admiration for having abolished capital punishment; and even as late as 1937 the Rev. Hewlett Johnson could quote with approval a friend’s estimate of a “colony for criminals adjacent to Moscow” as “more marvelous than Canterbury Cathedral.”’ (p 243 Muggeridge, Malcolm (1940) The Sun Never Sets: The Story of England In The Nineteen Thirties, New York: Random House.)
Wilson switches the action in ‘Wallace At Bay’ from London to Vienna in the year of Anschluss when Hitler sought a secret assurance that Great Britain would not intervene militarily if he absorbed Austria into a Greater Third Reich.
It is not too fanciful to speculate that Alexander Wilson’s visit to the old German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace and his meeting with Ribbentrop, witnessed by the young Mike Shannon in the spring of 1938, might have been to courier that very message?
In ‘Wallace At Bay’ Wilson dramatizes the inevitability and importance of a special relationship in espionage between Great Britain and the United States.
Oscar Miles, of the United States Secret Service, is reintroduced having conducted his first allied intelligence operation with the British in Wilson’s second 1928 novel based in India, ‘The Devil’s Cocktail.’
Alexander Wilson’s enthusiasm and depiction of American international intelligence operations in his fiction was years ahead of the reality.
The precursor of the CIA, the OSS, was not constituted until after the USA had been drawn into the Second World War by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
But Great Britain and the United States did cooperate in relation to intelligence operations against Soviet subversion in Imperial India; particularly by Indian dissidents living and plotting in the USA during the early decades of the 20th century.
‘Wallace At Bay’ concentrates on the Soviet Union as the main threat to British national security in a year when media and political perceptions of military danger were concentrated on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
‘Wallace At Bay’ is all about the methodology of infiltrating an agent inside an enemy intelligence agency’s espionage operation as well as the risks.
And these are melodramatically presented in the fate of Tommy Carter and the rest of Wilson’s fictional British Secret Service.
Wilson’s prose interpolates exaggerated fantasy with a sharp intake of intelligence actuality.
‘Wallace At Bay’ can also be seen as a proto-James Bond novel.
Wilson, very much in the style of the later Ian Fleming, conjures the existence of a sinister international gang of nihilists, orchestrated by an ugly caricature of a rasping dwarf master anarchist/communist called Ulyanov, the Principal of the Council of Ten, who spews evil venom with the malignancy of hydrochloric acid and molten lava.
Ulyanov is a prototype human Dalek whose revolting personality is contained in a dwarf-like and bald physiology and Vulturine features that express the predatory ruthlessness of some ghastly half bird, half reptilian monster.
Even Ulyanov’s favourite adjective for murdering people is the Dr. Who Dalek execution cry ‘Exterminate!’
His metallic voice resonates with all the malevolence of Joseph Goebbels, or the high-pitched mesmeric rants of Adolph Hitler.
The money, terrorist ideology, and orders emanate from Moscow.
The headquarters of this regicidal 1930s Al Qaeda or ISIS exist half-buried in the suburbs of Vienna and are equipped with fortified underground radio communications and a concealed aeroplane runway and hanger.
Sir Leonard Wallace, the heroic chief of the British Secret Service finds himself captured, tortured and abused with a degree of violence and sadism that Fleming would have certainly been proud of.
Wallace is subject to torture that involves ripping open the skin of his face, branding the flesh on his chest with a red hot poker accompanied by the description of burning flesh, and gun-fights that do not skip on the detail of bullets entering skulls and brains and convulsing and dying bodies.
The climactic chapters are written with a fine handling of suspense parallel narrative through the clever criss-crossing of points of views that in modern literary criticism is described as ‘free indirect discourse.’
The narratological voices switch and focalize between the consciences of Carter and Miles, Wallace, and then Cousins with a literary skill that matches and follows the prose efforts of novelists we now celebrate as canonized and iconic modernist writers of the 20th century.
If Alexander Wilson is pigeon-holed by literature studies into the ghetto of the forgotten popular pulp fiction writer, perhaps the academic discipline of cultural studies can more effectively measure his social and literary status.
The Opening of Wallace At Bay-Chapter One ‘An Affair in the Strand’
An actor finds himself performing in a real life productions scripted by other people he never dreamed of meeting. (pages 7-14 of the Allison and Busby edition)
Gale Preston, the well-known film and stage actor, threw the manuscript upon a table close to where he was standing, and looked thoughtfully at his friend, the producer, who sprawled comfortably in an easy chair.
‘It’s a good show,’ he decided, ‘strong, clever, and with plenty of action. I am not altogether certain, though, that I fancy myself in the part of Stanley Ferrers.’
‘Why not?’ queried the other. ‘I think it is the best part you have had for years.’
‘Perhaps, but it is not in my line, is it? I have never played a temperamental, neurotic role either on the stage or in a film. I am not saying that the part itself is not good; I am simply doubting my ability to play it.’
‘Bosh!’ snorted the other. ‘You’d make a success of anything you played.’
‘Thanks for the few kind words, Tony,’ he returned. ‘Coming from a producer they are indeed a compliment.’
‘Look here,’ observed the man in the chair, stretching himself even more comfortably, though not so very elegantly, ‘you know I wouldn’t say anything I didn’t mean. I certainly would not suggest your playing a character for which I knew you were unsuited. I’m not an idiot, though perhaps some people think I am. What’s the snag?’
‘At the moment I can’t imagine how a fellow of the temperament of Ferrers would react to a charge of murder.’
‘Hasn’t the author shown you?’
‘Up to a point, yes. Ferrers is innocent, but he is also highly strung, and people of that type are difficult to gauge. He is portrayed as being so overcome by the shock that he becomes hysterical in his denunciations, making it appear that he is guilty, or, at least, knows a good deal more about the murder than he actually does. To my mind, his behaviour is exaggerated, and I hate exaggeration. What do you think?’
The producer reflected for a few moments.
‘The same thing occurred to me,’ he admitted at length, ‘and it was my intention to tone the hysteria down a good bit.’ Suddenly he sat bolt upright, and laughed softly. ‘I’ve an idea,’ he announced; ‘why not go out for a walk and study the men you meet? When you come across one who looks of a similar type to Stanley Ferrers, clap your hand on his shoulder, and tell him you arrest him for murder. Watch carefully how he behaves, what he says, and the expression that appears on his face. Afterwards you can apologise, take him in somewhere and give him a drink.’
Gale Preston laughed.
‘By Jove!’ he exclaimed. ‘It is certainly a notion. I’ll do it.’ Thus, by a casual, irresponsible decision, did an actor in search of inspiration upset the well-laid plans of the British Secret Service, and render trebly difficult a task that was already bristling with complications. By a chance in a million, he selected the one man who, at that time, was most seriously engaging the attention of the authorities; a man whom they had traced after endless disappointments and setbacks.
Eager to try the experiment suggested by his friend, Gale Preston started off, after lunching at Romano’s, in search of a man whose face and demeanour would suggest that he was similar in temperament to the character, Stanley Ferrers, in his new play. He walked the length of the Strand to Trafalgar Square; then slowly retraced his steps, keenly studying the countenances of men he met and passed. Several appeared likely subjects for his rather unpardonable experiment, but they were always with companions, or something else about them stayed him. At length he reached Waterloo Place, and was waiting for the traffic to pass to enable him to cross towards the Gaiety, when he caught sight of a man standing on the island in the middle of the road. He, also, was waiting for the long stream of vehicles to go by, and Preston had ample time to study him. He was about medium height, and thin almost to the point of emaciation. Clothed in a long coat of some dark material, a voluminous bow tie adorning his high collar, and a black felt hat drawn low over his forehead, there was a suggestion of the foreigner about him. It was his hands, however, that had first attracted Preston’s attention. Long and white, with fingers almost like talons, they were never still. His mouth was half open, and the underlip appeared to be trembling, though it was difficult to be certain of that, but it was his eyes that decided the actor. Despite the hat shading them, he observed how they constantly moved from side to side, as though their owner were in a high state of nerves, while they contained a burning intensity that, he decided, denoted a passionate, highly-strung disposition. Perhaps if he had been a better judge of human nature he would have hesitated. As it was, he became convinced that if he searched the whole of London he would not find a better subject.
The traffic subsided temporarily, the man crossed towards him. Preston allowed him to pass, and fell in behind him. He had no wish to try his experiment amidst a crowd of people. The results might be embarrassing. When opposite the Tivoli Theatre, however, he suddenly found himself comparatively alone with the man. There appeared no one else within yards. Acting promptly, he stepped forward; placed his hand firmly on the other’s shoulder.
‘I have a warrant for your arrest,’ he began, ‘on the charge of—’
He got no further. Abruptly, and with extraordinary violence, he was flung across the pavement, only preventing himself from falling by a great effort. He had a vision of the dark-coated stranger darting swiftly into the road between the numerous vehicles passing by, heard shouts and the grinding of brakes. For a moment he felt dazed; then a hand gripped his arm. He was swung unceremoniously round to face a huge, broad-shouldered man with clean-shaven face, clear-cut features, determined chin, and keen grey eyes.
‘Having a little game?’ demanded the newcomer in an attractive voice that somehow suggested a great sense of humour.
‘Who are you, sir,’ asked Preston indignantly, ‘and why are you holding on to my arm?’
‘If you will play at being a spinning top in the Strand,’ came the sarcastic retort, ‘you surely can’t object to a little steadying influence.’
‘I – I was most grossly assaulted by a man who—’
‘Yes; we know all about that. But you interfered with him first, and I’m afraid you will have to do a little explaining. Seem to know your face,’ he added, frowning thoughtfully.
‘I am Gale Preston,’ replied the actor with dignity.
‘Gale Preston! Gale Preston!’ The big man rubbed his chin reflectively with his disengaged hand. ‘You appear to think I ought to know it. Sorry and all that, but— Oh, I get you. You’re the film Johnny, aren’t you?’
‘I am a well-known star,’ came the reply with more dignity than before.
‘You were almost a fallen star just now,’ commented the other. ‘May I ask you to be good enough to release my arm?’ ‘Presently, sonny, presently. Don’t be in such a hurry. We’ll cross the road, if you will permit me to escort you.’
The actor protested vehemently, but he might as well have ordered the sun to cease shining. Willy-nilly he was led to the other side, his captor guiding him unerringly between the taxicabs, omnibuses and all the other motors passing in both directions in never-ending streams. They arrived opposite the Adelphi Arches. ‘He went down there,’ observed the big man, ‘and, thanks to you, has probably got clear away.’
‘Of whom are you speaking?’ asked the irate actor.
‘Of whom would I be speaking, but your boyfriend – the fellow you gripped on the shoulder with such bonhomie?’
‘He was no friend of mine. He was not even an acquaintance.’
His companion gazed down at him, a frank look of disbelief on his face.
‘Do you usually grip hold of perfect strangers with such brotherly cordiality?’ he asked.
‘I—’ Preston got no further. It occurred to him that his explanation would sound absolutely ridiculous. Who would believe it? But why should he have to give an explanation to anybody but the man he had chosen for his experiment? Indignation surged up within him with greater force than ever. ‘I don’t know who you are, sir, and I don’t care,’ he declared forcibly, ‘but I should like to know by what right you are detaining me in this unwarrantable manner, and why? If you do not release me at once I shall be forced to call a policeman.’
At that the other laughed outright.
‘Call away,’ he encouraged. ‘I’ve no wish to interfere with your amusements.’ He took out a gold cigarette case, which he opened and proffered to the actor. ‘Have one?’ he invited.
‘No,’ was the blunt reply.
‘You won’t? Well, I suppose you have no objection to my smoking? No luck?’ he called to a man who came hurrying up.
The newcomer, an individual slightly inclined to corpulence, fresh-faced, jolly-looking, shook his head. Apparently he found it warm, though it was early March and a keen wind was blowing, for he removed his soft hat, disclosing a mass of well-brushed, fair hair, and mopped his forehead with a silk handkerchief.
‘Not a sign of him,’ he proclaimed. ‘He must know his way about these parts. Lawrence and Irving are still searching. He really did us in the traffic. How he got across without being knocked down beats me. This the interfering stranger?’ he asked, looking keenly at Preston.
‘He is,’ nodded the big man. ‘And now you’ve arrived, Hill, we’ll take him for a little walk. Come along!’ he added to the actor. They ranged themselves on either side of him, and marched him along the Strand, across Trafalgar Square into Whitehall. Preston began to have visions of Scotland Yard, but they turned into a building almost opposite the Foreign Office. He was ushered into a lift, which took them up to the second storey. There Preston was left in a small, bare apartment, containing only a table and two or three chairs, with Hill to guard him while the big man went out. He was away a considerable time, but came back at last, and beckoned to Hill and the actor. They followed him along a corridor, passing several closed doors, until they came to one on which the leader knocked. A voice, that seemed far away, bade them enter. Preston had just time to observe that the door was of a remarkable thickness and padded on the inside as he was gently pushed into the room. The big man alone accompanied him.
By now the actor was becoming greatly interested. He knew he was in some government office, but the numerous men who seemed to be on watch in the corridors and at the entrance, the closed doors, the air of secrecy that prevailed, intrigued him vastly. He found himself in a large, lofty room, most of the walls of which were lined with bookshelves containing dry-looking volumes and paperbound documents. In one corner was a huge safe. The only wall not occupied by a bookcase was entirely covered by a huge map of Europe, while another of Asia hung over the fireplace. A large flat desk occupied the centre of the room. Behind it, his back to the two great windows, sat a fair-haired, good-looking man with blue eyes and a small, well-trimmed military moustache. He regarded the actor somewhat sternly.
‘You are Mr Gale Preston?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ replied the actor. Some of the self-confidence which formed a goodly proportion of his stock-in-trade began to evaporate. He felt that he had become mixed up in something he did not understand, and he disliked the feeling. He was so used to being regarded as a very important individual that the emotion, disagreeably like an attack of the inferiority complex, which came over him in the presence of the man at the desk and the big fellow standing by his side, was utterly distasteful. Nevertheless, it persisted. The blue eyes seemed cold, unrelenting, yet looked as though they could twinkle very attractively at times. Despite his unwonted sense of littleness, however, he endeavoured to assert himself. ‘I must protest at the gross impertinence of this man,’ he began, indicating his companion, ‘who—’
‘You can do that later on, if you wish,’ he was interrupted in courteous tones. ‘At present there are certain matters which you had better explain as much for our information as for your own peace of mind. I am Major Brien; this gentleman is Captain Shannon, and this building is the headquarters of the Intelligence Service. Need I say more?’