Alexander Wilson (1893-1963) was a best-selling and highly acclaimed author of spy, crime and romantic comedy fiction, who left a portfolio of filmic and brilliant story telling after a mysterious life of adventure and controversy.
Under his own name and the pseudonyms of Geoffrey Spencer, Gregory Wilson, and Michael Chesney, he penned 24 novels between 1928 and 1940. He wrote a further four unpublished novels and his last spy short story was published in a Faber & Faber collection My Best Spy Story in 1955.
He established his reputation with a series of espionage fiction featuring a character named Leonard Wallace, a member of the Secret Service. The characterisation is believed to be the earliest and closest resemblance to the first ‘C’ of MI6 in spy fiction.
Wilson wrote forceful, exciting, thrilling, vibrant, vivid, intriguing, daring stories, all adjectives used by reviewers in the Telegraph, Observer, Scotsman, Times Literary Supplement with the Mail saying his work was among the best.
He spanned genres and pioneered themes and ideas well ahead of his time: child abuse by priests, the social and personal agony of abortion, the complex tentacles of organized crime, and the ethics of spying.
He was one of the first 20th century novelists to create positive depictions of the disabled (Wallace wore a false arm), women front line intelligence operatives, male honey-traps, electronic bugging and biological warfare. Despite being the product of a sexist age, Wilson depicted central women characters as equal and often superior to men.
The blurred lines between reality and fantasy were very much present in the mysterious life of Wilson himself; perhaps larger at times than his own fiction, characterised by constructed identities, lies, deceptions and enigmas. He had four wives and seven children in multiple families unknown to each other. One of his granddaughters is the award-winning actress Ruth Wilson.
Wilson created a fictional world that mirrored the Great Game of intelligence warfare- combating the Soviet Comintern in Afghanistan, British India, and the Middle East, targeting Lenin and Stalin, spying on Mahatma Gandhi and tackling the mentality of terrorism motivated by religious fundamentalism. Wallace and his officers and agents even had a shadow double network using international commerce as cover.
Wilson spoke French, German, Cantonese, Urdu, Arabic, and Italian and was an international adventurer, soldier and intelligence officer himself. Invalided out of the Great War while serving as a lieutenant on military transports to the Western Front, he carried shrapnel scars across his body, worked the oceans as a ship’s purser, was a Professor of English and Principal of a University College in the Punjab, Indian Army Reserve Major between 1925 and 1932, a Metropolitan Special Police Constable 1939-40, and an eavesdropping language intelligence officer for SIS during the Second World War in the top secret Section X that spied on and bugged London embassies and diplomatic legations between 1940 and 1942.
(Words by Tim Crook, an award-winning journalist, author and academic based at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has written several books on journalism, radio and media law and researches spy writing and the rituals and practices of espionage.)