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Wednesday 7 November 2018

The Golden Age Alexander Wilson

by Carol Westron

Alexander Wilson may easily rank as one of the most extraordinary figures amongst the authors of the Golden Age. His life was as remarkable and filled with as much mystery as the protagonists in many fiction novels. Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson was born into a military family and spent much of his childhood in foreign countries such as Mauritius, Hong Kong, Ceylon and Singapore. He was educated in colleges in Hong Kong and Plymouth.

In the First World War, Wilson served in the Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service until he was wounded and invalided out. After the war, he served in the Merchant Navy as a purser and travelled to South Africa, China, Japan and Vancouver. After this he became the actor-manager of a renowned touring repertory company. He had also married his first wife, Gladys, and had three children.

It is at this point that Wilson’s life moved from adventurous and dynamic to something less credible and, as time progressed, far more discreditable. In 1925, he left his wife and children and became the Professor of English Literature at Islamia College at the university of Punjab in Lahore. This is interesting because, although Wilson was a man of adventurous and dynamic character, he had not been to university and had few credentials for an academic career. There are no documentary records to indicate that Wilson was employed by any of the security services in either Britain or India but, in The Secret Lives of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson (2010), his biographer, journalist Tim Crook, maintained that he was working undercover to combat communism. Certainly, during the time he spent at the college, he had a strong involvement with the military in India, being appointed an honorary major in the Indian Army Reserve, and was also in command of Islamia College’s University Training Corps. He learned Urdu and Persian and travelled around the North West Frontier. He later claimed to have travelled around Palestine, Ceylon and Arabia.

Wilson was appointed to his position in Islamia College by the college principal, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, an author, academic and educationalist, who was also involved in Indian politics. In 1928 Wilson succeeded Abdullah Yusuf Ali as principal of Islamia College. In the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a heightening of political tension, with many assassinations and terrorist plots, this insurrection was inflamed by the Soviet Comintern, an organisation that wished to spread communism across the world.

In 1928 Wilson published his first spy novel, The Mystery of Tunnel 51, featuring the British spymaster Sir Leonard Wallace. In The Mystery of Tunnel 51, as in Wilson’s subsequent spy novels, the British Intelligence Service is battling against the forces of evil, which reveals itself as communism, international terrorism and sedition. Also, in 1928, Wilson published The Devil’s Cocktail, in which Wallace sends a young British agent, Captain Hugh Shannon, to deal with simmering insurrection in India, which is being fanned by Russian interference. As his cover, Shannon is to be the new professor of English Literature at a Muslim college, a position strikingly similar to Wilson’s own employment, and indeed the plot reflects the political situation in the region at that time. In The Devil’s Cocktail, the principal of the college employing Shannon bears a strong resemblance to Abdullah Yusuf Ali and is sympathetically portrayed.

In the nine books featuring Sir Leonard Wallace, Wilson creates the archetypal, inter-war, British hero figure, in looks and manner. ‘Sir Leonard Wallace sat at his desk, his favourite briar held firmly between his strong white teeth. His steel-grey eyes bored deeply into those of Foster as that young man approached.’... ‘His unruffled, easy-going, unexcitable temperament, his air of complete nonchalance, had at one time deceived Foster as it had so many others, but he had learnt, like those who worked with the chief, to recognise the dynamic driving force behind the calm manner, the brilliant brain, the working of which was cloaked by that lazy, attractive smile.’ (Wallace Intervenes, 1939.)

There are many theories, but no concrete proof, regarding whether Wilson was employed by the British Intelligence Service as an agent in India. It has even been suggested that he was encouraged to write the Wallace books as a form of propaganda. In The Secret Lives of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson (2010) Crook argues that Wilson was an MI6 operative whose records have been expunged and bases this, in part, on the resemblance between Wilson’s fictional head of British Security and the real-life man who, at that time, was in charge of MI6. According to Crook, ‘What was remarkable about these books was their uncanny portrayal of the original 'C' – Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head of MI6, fictionalised as Sir Leonard. Only someone who knew Smith-Cumming could have written those books.’ He cites as evidence facts such as the fictional Wallace shared with the real C: a false wooden limb, grey eyes and a wife whose forename began with M. However, Smith-Cumming lost his leg quite late in life, in a car accident, whereas Wallace had an artificial arm that, amazingly, did not impede him from active, and vigorously physical, service. Mansfield Smith-Cumming died in 1923, five years before Wilson published his first spy books. It seems possible, even probable, that he based some parts of his characterisation of Wallace on Smith-Cummings, but this can only prove that he was acquainted with him or with people who knew him, not that Wilson was a member of MI6.

In 1931 Wilson resigned as principal of the college although no reasons have been put forward to explain this departure. In his application to join the Emergency War Officers’ Reserve in 1939, he claimed to have been editing a daily newspaper in Lahore between 1931 and 1934. Around this time, he took a break from spy stories and wrote two crime thrillers, Murder Mansion (1929) and The Death of Dr. Whitelaw (1930.)  The next book he published was far more interesting when considering Wilson’s life and whether he was an agent of the British security services or a successful fantasist. In 1933 he published Confessions of a Scoundrel, which claims to be ‘The Frank Autobiography Of A Thorough-Paced Scoundrel’ and is described thus: ‘This stirring and dramatic story of crime and depravity is the autobiography of a man about to be hanged.’ This book was published by a firm that Wilson never used before or afterwards, T. Werner Laurie, a London publisher that specialised in avant-garde and racy books. The pseudonym he used for Confessions of a Scoundrel was Geoffrey Spencer, which was the name that the first ‘C’, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, had used to rent the MI6 headquarters at 2 Whitehall Court. If Wilson was indeed working for British Intelligence, the use of this pseudonym was a strange and impudent indiscretion.

While in India, Wilson had met and bigamously married Dorothy Wick, a touring actress. When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he took Dorothy and their infant son, Michael, with him and deposited them in London while he returned to his first wife, Gladys, and their three children, who were living in Southampton. However, after eighteen months, Wilson moved to London, telling Gladys and the children that he would live in lodgings until he found a suitable place for the family to stay. In fact, the ‘landlady’ he moved in with was Dorothy and he never returned to live with his original family again.

During the years between 1933 and 1940 Wilson wrote the impressive total of nineteen books, including seven more spy books featuring Wallace, and others in different genres, including crime, romance, comedy and thrillers. He used the pseudonym Gregory Wilson to write two detective stories, The Factory Mystery (1938) and The Boxing Mystery (1938). Between 1938 and 1939, under the name Michael Chesney,, he wrote a trilogy of spy novels featuring Colonel Geoffrey Callaghan, ‘Chief of Military Intelligence.’

At the start of the Second World War, Wilson applied to join the Emergency War Officers’ Reserve. By 1940 he was part of MI6, probably employed as a translator, and had left his bigamously married second wife, Dorothy, and bigamously married a secretary in MI6, Alison McKelvie. In 1942, Wilson told Alison that he had been dismissed from MI6 as cover to go undercover as an agent. He used the same excuse for his future inglorious career, which included being put in gaol for petty crimes and being declared bankrupt.

In 2013, files from the Foreign Office were released to the National Archives at Kew. One of the files gave information about an SIS/MI6 translator, fluent in Hindustani, Persian and Arabic, who had been given the task of eavesdropping on the Egyptian ambassador in London and his staff, who were suspected of espionage activities at the beginning of the war. The translator’s name is redacted but it is stated that he served from October 1939 to October 1942, when he was dismissed from the service, accused of embroidering the record of his eavesdropping. It was also stated that this person had faked a burglary at his flat, which had caused trouble with the police. Although the identity of this dismissed translator cannot be proved, the dates coincide exactly with those provided by his third wife in the memoir she wrote for her two sons. Also, a letter written in 1943 by Sir Stewart Menzies, then Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, states: ‘I do not think it at all likely that we shall again have the bad luck to strike a man who combines a blameless record, first rate linguistic abilities, remarkable gifts as a writer of fiction, and no sense of responsibility in using them.’ (National Archives, Kew.)

After 1940, Wilson published no more books, although he wrote four more which were never published. After 1942 he seems to have only menial jobs, although he did add to his tally of bigamous wives. While working as a hospital porter he met and married a nurse, Elizabeth Hill, and had yet another child by her.

Wilson died of a heart attack in 1963 and was buried in Milton cemetery, Portsmouth. The inscription on the tombstone describes him as an author and a patriot and has a quote adapted from Othello, ‘He loved not wisely but too too well,’ which has its own irony when considering his record of bigamous marriages and his habit of abandoning his wives and children. 

Apparently the four families of Alexander Wilson remained unaware of each other’s existence during his lifetime, although Gladys and Alison became aware of his double life in 1963, when Alison informed Gladys of Wilson’s death. It is not clear whether Alison was aware of Gladys’ relationship to Wilson but, apparently, Gladys had thought that Alison was her husband’s landlady. Dorothy had been estranged from Wilson and had told her son, Michael, that his father had been killed at the Battle of El Alamein. As an adult, Michael Wilson changed his name by deed poll to Mike Shannon in order to aid his career as an actor and poet, and it is interesting to note that he chose the surname of the hero of The Devil’s Cocktail (1928.) In 2005 Mike set out to discover the truth about his father’s background, with the aid of journalist Tim Crook, and in 2006 discovered the three other families of half-siblings that he possessed.

Crook is adamant in his belief that, from the late 1920s, Wilson was working for British Intelligence. ‘I suspect some Army connection, possibly through his family, that led him to being either recruited or activated at this point. The British needed to combat the threat of Communist-backed insurgents in the North-West Frontier.’ This is reasonably plausible, as his academic credentials were inadequate for a senior teaching position, but, if so, it is not clear when he left British Intelligence and under what circumstances. The use of the name used by the head of MI6 as a pseudonym for his fictional ‘autobiography’ of a murderer indicates a reckless and bitter man. It is undisputed that Wilson acted as a translator for SIS/MI6 in the early years of the Second World War but the circumstances of his dismissal from the service are less clear. Crook claims that Wilson’s bankruptcy and terms in prison were all part of the cover for his work as a spy, citing the fictional example of John le Carr√©’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, twenty years later in 1963. However, the records held in the Kew Archives contradict this. What is more, Wilson’s third wife, Alison, who worked for MI6, thought that nearly everything he told her was untrue, as she stated in her memoir: ‘I realised there was not a single thing [he] had ever told me that I could put my finger on and now say 'that is true'. Just one thing I knew – he had written intelligence stories. This indeed was the supreme irony: the only reality in a mountain of fiction was fiction itself.’

Wilson’s books, especially those featuring Wallace, were well received at the time of publication, with enthusiastic reviews from major newspapers: ‘sensational... a genuine piece of forceful story-telling.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 1933.) When I read Wilson’s Wallace books I thought them implausible, which I could forgive, many spy and detective stories are improbable but fun, however, I also found Wilson’s stories predictable and far from subtle. This scene from Wallace at Bay (1938) illustrates this simplistic and biased attitude. The agents are checking through a signing-in book to decide who, amongst the people staying at the hotel, is the terrorist, and use the simple expedient of excluding any of the guests who are ordinary, elderly or, in their terms, effete, usually dismissing them in an offensive or
patronising manner.
‘“This gentleman -” Madison coughed slightly as he pointed to the name, Julius Carberry, “- is a traveller in ladies’ lingerie, and, if I may say so, sir, looks like it. He was pointed out to me.”
“As bad as that, Madison?” queried O’Brien, his eyes twinkling humorously.
“Quite, sir. He combed back his glossy locks while I was looking at him, and I’ll swear he uses lipstick. He’s the kind of unnatural creature who would stand with one hand on his hip and speak with a lisp.”
“Oh, I say,” murmured O’Brien in an affected voice, and his companions laughed.
‘“Miss Veronica Simpson,” went on Maddison, pointing out another resident, “is a retired schoolmistress
spending her pension on seeing the sights, I believe.”’
“The old dear’s making whoopee,” commented Sir Leonard. “I don’t think we need consider her.”’
Fortunately for these extraordinarily subtle and unbiased minds, the next name on the list is Polish, and, even
better, it was shouted out by another enemy agent just before his death.

In the same decade, Agatha Christie was slyly teasing the reader and, however many suspicious foreigners she introduced, there was a good chance that the villain would have been the honest farmer just up from the country, the ‘unnatural’ young man or the innocent-seeming, elderly teacher.

Wilson’s books are very much of their time and class, and the majority of 21st Century readers will find them racist, jingoistic, blindly royalist and conservative, homophobic, condescending to women and extremely stereotyped. As one Amazon reviewer remarked about The Devil’s Cocktail (1928): ‘The British are always nice and brave, and that the rest of the world is hugely inferior. The only Indian who is not a fool, turns out to be an Englishman in disguise.’ the same time, it must be emphasised that Wilson’s books were extremely popular when they were published, at a time when patriotic fervour needed boosting. His 1939 book, Wallace Intervenes, has Wallace and his team pitted against a German chancellor, who is Hitler in fact if not in name, and, as a 1940 reviewer for the Observer observes, ‘he [Hitler] is kidnapped, put in a trunk, and successfully impersonated by Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of the intelligence service.’ Allison & Busby have recently republished the Wallace books and there are some enthusiastic reviews as well as some critical ones. For those who are interested in the history of spy novels and the attitudes and politics of the 1930s they are informative, if chilling, documents of the viewpoints of the time. 

The majority of Alexander Wilson’s books are out of print but the whole of the series featuring Wallace are
available, reprinted by Allison & Busby. The ones specifically mentioned in this article are listed below.

The Mystery of Tunnel 51
Published by Allison & Busby. ISBN: 978-0749018054. ASIN:B00QMFWU0A

The Devil’s Cocktail
Published by Allison & Busby. ISBN: 978-0749018108. ASIN: B00QMFWTZG

Wallace at Bay
Published by Allison & Busby. ISBN: 978-0-7490-1835-1. ASIN: B01BOGSDJI

Wallace Intervenes
Published by Allison & Busby. ISBN: 978-0749018405. ASIN: B01BOGSD8Y
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel,
The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was
published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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