Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2020

The Black Grippe, by Edgar Wallace

I read this short story for the #1920 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  The Black Grippe seems eerily appropriate for our time…

Edgar Wallace was a British crime writer, war correspondent, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright.  Famous for the creation of King Kong, he also wrote The Four Just Men (1905) and a staggering 957 short stories.  His own life seems worthy of a book in its own right:

Born into poverty as an illegitimate London child, Wallace left school at the age of 12. He joined the army at age 21 and was a war correspondent during the Second Boer War, for Reuters and the Daily Mail. Struggling with debt, he left South Africa, returned to London, and began writing thrillers to raise income, publishing books including The Four Just Men (1905). Drawing on his time as a reporter in the Congo, covering the Belgian atrocities, Wallace serialised short stories in magazines such as The Windsor Magazine and later published collections such as Sanders of the River (1911). He signed with Hodder and Stoughton in 1921 and became an internationally recognised author. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove hyperlinks, viewed 8/4/20)

The Black Grippe features Dr Hereford Bevan and his assistant Stuart Gold who are urgently experimenting with South African rabbits in the laboratory of the Jackson Institute of Tropical Medicines.

In the young principal’s hand was a long porcelain rod with which from time to time he menaced the unconscious feeder, without, however, producing so much as a single shiver of apprehension. With his long ears pricked, his sensitive nostrils quivering—he was used to the man-smell of Hereford Bevan by now—and his big black eyes staring unwinkingly ahead, there was little in the appearance of the rabbit to suggest abnormal condition.

For the third time in a quarter of an hour Bevan raised the rod as though to strike the animal across the nose, and for the third time lowered the rod again. Then with a sigh he lifted the little beast by the ears and carried him, struggling and squirming, to a small hutch, put him in very gently, and closed the wire-netted door.

Bevan is observing the second stage of an epidemic which has emerged in Britain, Europe and America.  As he explains to his visitor Professor Van der Bergh, the first stage of the illness begins with strange symptoms:

‘People began to cry—that is to say, their eyes filled with water and they felt extremely uncomfortable for about a quarter of an hour. So far as I can discover the crying period did not last much more than a quarter of an hour, in some cases a much shorter time.’

Again the professor nodded.

‘That is what happened in New York,’ he said, ‘and this symptom was followed about six hours later by a slight rise of temperature, shivering, and a desire for sleep.’

Aghast when the implications of the impending epidemic become clear, the professor heads for his Embassy and the doctor seeks an urgent audience with government:

On the face of Sir Douglas Sexton was undisguised incredulity.

‘Come, come,’ he said, when Dr Bevan had finished, and permitted his heavy features to relax into a smile. ‘Now, that sort of stuff is all very well for the Press if you want to make a sensation and advertise your name, but surely you are not coming to me, a medical man, and a medical man, moreover, in the confidence of the Government and the Ministry of Health, with a story of that kind! Of course, there was some sort of epidemic, I admit, on the 18th. I myself suffered a little inconvenience, but I think that phenomena could be explained by the sudden change of wind from the southwest to the north-east and the corresponding drop in temperature. You may have noticed that the temperature dropped six degrees that morning.’

‘I am not bothering about the cause of the epidemic,’ said Bevan, patiently. ‘I am merely giving you, Sir Douglas, a rough account of what form the second epidemic will take.’

Reminiscent of the response in the early days of our current pandemic…

…For seven days three men worked most earnestly to enlist the attention of the authorities. They might have given the story to the Press and created a sensation, but neither Bevan nor Van der Bergh favoured this method. Eminent doctors who were consulted took views which were extraordinarily different. Some came to the laboratories to examine the records. Others ‘poohpoohed’ the whole idea.

For Wallace’s readers in 1920, the allusions to the Spanish Flu would have been only too vivid:

The Spanish flu (also known as the 1918 flu pandemic) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, behind the Black Death.

To maintain morale, World War I censors minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit. This gave rise to the name Spanish flu. Historical and epidemiological data are inadequate to identify with certainty the pandemic’s geographic origin, with varying views as to its location.  (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove hyperlinks, viewed 8/4/20)

I wonder which of our writers are responding to the pandemic with new fiction?  So far all I’ve come across is some indigestible poetry, but I’m sure that there will be some powerful new fiction arising from this extraordinary time in our lives.

This is a slideshow featuring the illustrations by E. Verpilleux:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Update 14/4/20:

Other books I’ve previously read that were published in 1920 are:

(Links are to my reviews.)


Author: Edgar Wallace
Title:  The Black Grippe
First published in The Strand Magazine, March 1920
Source: Project Gutenberg


  1. I think we will get references to our pandemic time for years to come.


    • I think so too. Because although each of us experiences it differently, it is a universal experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 957 short stories! Astonishingly prolific!


  3. I’m sure ‘coronavirus’ will become as big a landmark in stories as ‘9/11’ – which seems to be more in stories than the subject of stories. But what terrifies me is the rapidity with which governments are moving to implement permanent right wing measures, particularly greatly increased surveillance, disguised as disease tracking, and the end of restrictions on carbon emissions. SF began writing these stories, of fascist, burnt-out worlds, with huge unemployed underclasses, years ago and as early as next year they will be our reality.


    • I understand and share your concern, (as you know, I’ve reviewed a fair few book that warn about state surveillance) … but now that we have community transmission, it’s essential that people do track their contacts to contain the spread. I decided to keep a diary of what I’d done and where I’d been in the week before our age group was told to stay home, and was discomfited to find that I had completely forgotten some contacts and that was only a fortnight ago. And I’d hardly been anywhere, only the supermarket, the pharmacist and the eye specialist, I thought, but then a day later I remembered the post office, the panel beater and the doctor for my flu shot.
      What matters most, I think, is that we get parliament back ASAP to ensure that measures do not run past their use-by date. All of these emergency powers have what’s called a sunset clause, and they automatically lapse if not formally renewed.


  4. A very timely and scary sounding story. I know Wallace was very prolific, but I don’t think he’s much read nowadays. An interesting entry for 1920! :D


    • I don’t think he is either…
      I didn’t have anything on my shelves for 1920 so I went hunting at Project Gutenberg, and there he was!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This does sound a very apt read. I’m not sure I could manage to read it now but I’ll look out for one of the 957 short stories – I can’t believe Wallace has passed me by!


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