Wilson was born in Dover, to an Irish mother and an English father. His father had had a 40-year career in the British Army from 15-year-old boy bugler to Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps when he died in 1919. His father served throughout the Boer War, receiving the Queen Victoria and King Edward VII medals. He was mentioned in despatches for his managing and supplying of hospital ships and trains from the Western Front. In the final year of World War I he was responsible for all medical supplies to the British Army in Europe. In his childhood Alexander Wilson's family followed his father to Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ceylon. He was educated at St. Joseph's College, Hong Kong a prestigious public school St Boniface's Catholic College in Plymouth where he played amateur soccer.
He served in the Royal Navy at the start of World War I. A reference in a War Office document indicated he had been in the Royal Naval Air Service and crashed his plane. He was then commissioned in 1915 in the Royal Army Service Corps escorting motor transports and supplies to France. He received disabling injuries to his knee and shrapnel wounds to the left side of his body before being invalided, and received the Silver War Badge. He was in the merchant navy in 1919 serving as a purser on a requisitioned German liner SS Prinzessin, sailing from London to Vancouver via South Africa, China and Japan. In the early 1920s he was actor-manager of a touring repertory company, which was world-renowned.
In 1925, he left his first wife, Gladys, and three young children Adrian, Dennis (who became a published poet in his 90s) and Daphne in England and went to British India to become Professor of English Literature at Islamia College, the University of Punjab in Lahore (now part of Pakistan). He began writing spy novels while in India and received his first contract for The Mystery of Tunnel 51 from Longmans and Green Co. in 1927. His fictional chief of the British Intelligence Service, Sir Leonard Wallace, first appears in Chapter IX from page 59. There is no documentary evidence that Wilson himself had any connections with MI6 (The Secret Intelligence Service), MI5 (The Security Service) IPI (Indian Political Intelligence in London) or the Indian Intelligence Bureau in Delhi at this time. While in the post at Lahore, he travelled around the North-West Frontier, learned Urdu and Persian and was appointed an honorary Major in the Indian Army Reserve while in command of Islamia College's UTC (University Training Corps) which amounted to half a company. In his application for the Emergency Officer War Reserve in 1939 he said that during these years, he also spent time in Arabia, Ceylon and Palestine. Wilson had a leading role in Lahore's only all Muslim College that educated and trained for the British Indian Army the sons of Waziristan Chiefs and farmers from the North West Frontier. The Soviet Comintern was active in subversion and supporting insurrection. Between 1928 and 1932 the British authorities were combating a heightening of terrorist plots and assassinations. Tensions were raised by hunger strikes and the Lahore Conspiracy Case during which pro-independence activists died and were sentenced to death.
He was interviewed and appointed as an English professor by the then principal of Islamia College, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (an author, academic and educationalist who went on to translate the Quran). Wilson provided a positive and sympathetic portrait of Abdullah in his second novel The Devil's Cocktail (1928), as the principal of a fictional Sheranwalla College, Lahore. He succeeded Yusuf Ali as principal of Islamia College in 1928 until he resigned in 1931. In his 1939 application to join the Emergency War Officers' Reserve Wilson said he had been editor of a daily newspaper in Lahore between 1931 and 1934.
His first spy novel, The Mystery of Tunnel 51, featuring the character Sir Leonard Wallace, was published in 1928. The struggle by Wallace and his intelligence officers and agents to battle against the Soviet Union, terrorism and subversion in the British Empire, the tentacles of global organised crime, and Nazi Germany would feature in eight subsequent novels. That same year he also published The Devil's Cocktail. In total, Wilson wrote and published three academic books and 24 novels; he also wrote 4 unpublished manuscripts. The Sir Leonard Wallace character appears closely based on the first 'C' of MI6 Mansfield Smith-Cumming.
Wilson's first four books were published by Longmans Green & Co in 1928–1931 and in addition to the two spy novels first featuring Sir Leonard Wallace and the British Secret Service, Murder Mansion (1929) and The Death of Dr. Whitelaw were both crime thrillers. In 1933 he published Confessions of a Scoundrel under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Spencer, the same surname used by the first actual 'C' Mansfield Smith-Cumming when renting the MI6 headquarters at 2 Whitehall Court. Wilson was first published by Herbert Jenkins in 1933 and the novels included titles in the Sir Leonard Wallace series and other novels in the crime, romance, comedy and thriller genres. He published under two other pseudonyms. Under the name Gregory Wilson, writing for The Modern Publishing Company, he authored The Factory Mystery and The Boxing Mystery in 1938. Under the name Michael Chesney he wrote a trilogy of further spy novels of imperial adventure featuring the central character Colonel Geoffrey Callaghan 'Chief of Military Intelligence' between 1938 and 1939. Callaghan of Intelligence, "Steel" Callaghan, and Callaghan Meets His Fate were published by Herbert Jenkins. It would appear his last two novels were published by Herbert Jenkins in 1940.
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. In January 1940 the Observer reviewer Maurice Richardson said Wallace Intervenes: ‘... is another spy story featuring Hitler in person, if not name. This time he is kidnapped, put in a trunk, and successfully impersonated by Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of the intelligence service. This comes at the end of an exciting love-duel in which one of our younger agents has to seduce a beautiful Austrian baroness, who fortunately turns out to be on our side all the time.’
In 2015–16 Allison & Busby republished nine of Wilson's Wallace of the Secret Service novels. The Daily Mail said of the re-issue of "The Mystery of Tunnel 51" 'prepare for a romping read,' and that it was the 'first of nine fast and furious adventures.'
In India, he met and is believed to have bigamously married a touring actress called Dorothy Wick. When they returned to England, in 1933, Wilson left Dorothy and their baby son Michael in London and returned to his first legitimate wife and family, now in Southampton.
However, he stayed with them for only 18 months. In 1935, Wilson moved to London, telling Gladys and family that he would find a place for them all to live. Instead, he returned to Dorothy.
Alexander Wilson's son by his second marriage, Michael, suspected his father was involved in intelligence activities as an agent in the 1920s and 1930s and he based this supposition on his memory of seeing his father meet Joachim Ribbentrop at the German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace, London in the spring of 1938 and other meetings with mysterious men to whom his father spoke fluent German. It is certain that Wilson was in MI6 in 1940, by which time he had left Michael's mother Dorothy and met his third wife, Alison McKelvie, a secretary in MI6. It was Michael who in 2005 began the investigation into his father's past at the age of 73. He had changed his name by deed poll to Mike Shannon when setting out on his career as an actor and poet. When he was only nine years old his mother and her family told him his father had been killed in the Battle of El Alamein and he did not discover the truth until 2006.
In 1942, Wilson told his third wife Alison that he was dismissed from MI6 to go into the field as an agent. He said his subsequent misadventures, including being declared bankrupt, though never discharged, and being jailed for petty crime, were part of the cover he had to adopt for operational reasons.
In May 2013 a second tranche of Foreign Office files connected with intelligence matters was released to the National Archives at Kew. This included a file marked 'The Case of the Egyptian Ambassador,' and concerned an MI5 investigation into alleged espionage by the ambassador and his staff in London from the beginning of the war. The papers refer to an SIS/MI6 translator who was accused of embroidering his record of eavesdropping on telephone calls to and from the Embassy. Although the translator's name is redacted it is likely to refer to Alexander Wilson since the details disclosed match those included in the first part of Alison Wilson's memoir written for her two sons and quoted from in his biography published in 2010.
The file reveals that the translator of Hindustani, Persian and Arabic had joined the service in October 1939 and been dismissed from SIS in October 1942. It was reported that he had faked a burglary at his flat and been in serious trouble with the police. The Director General of MI5 Brigadier Sir David Petrie stated that the fact he was no longer in the service was: '...perhaps some small compensation for the amount of trouble to which his inventive mind has put us all. A fabricator, such as this man was, is a great public danger.' The then Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Stewart Menzies wrote: '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!'
In the mid-1950s, when Wilson was working as a hospital porter, he met and married a nurse, Elizabeth Hill, with whom he also had a child.
Wilson died of a heart attack on 4 April 1963, aged 69, in Ealing and is buried in Milton cemetery, Portsmouth with a tombstone describing him as an author and patriot and the quotation from Shakespeare's Othello; "He loved not wisely but too well." The monument is feet away from the grave of fellow MI6 agent Commander Lionel Crabb.
Actress Ruth Wilson is one of his grandchildren. It was only since 2007 that Alexander Wilson's multiple families and descendants began meeting each other for the first time. She discovered that the children of Mike Shannon were also professionals in playwriting, film-making and drama education.
Ruth's brother, Sam, a senior BBC journalist, wrote an article in The Times in 2010 that explored the impact of Alexander Wilson's complicated private life on his various families.
Wilson wrote and published three academic books and 24 novels.1928: The Mystery of Tunnel 51. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
1928: The Devil's Cocktail. Longmans, Green and Co.
1929: Murder Mansion. Longmans, Green and Co.
1930: The Death of Dr. Whitelaw. Longmans, Green and Co.
1933: The Confessions of a Scoundrel under the pseudonym of 'Geoffrey Spencer.' T Werner Laurie.
1933: The Crimson Dacoit. Herbert Jenkins.
1933: Wallace of the Secret Service. Herbert Jenkins.
1934: Get Wallace! Herbert Jenkins.
1934: The Sentimental Crook. Herbert Jenkins.
1935: The Magnificent Hobo. Herbert Jenkins.
1936: His Excellency, Governor Wallace. Herbert Jenkins.
1937: Microbes of Power. Herbert Jenkins.
1937: Mr Justice. Herbert Jenkins.
1937: Double Events. Herbert Jenkins.
1938: Wallace At Bay. Herbert Jenkins.
1938: The Factory Mystery as 'Gregory Wilson.' Modern Publishing Company.
1938: The Boxing Mystery as 'Gregory Wilson.' Modern Publishing Company.
1938: Callaghan of Intelligence under the pseudonym of Michael Chesney. Herbert Jenkins.
1939: Wallace Intervenes. Herbert Jenkins.
1939: Scapegoats for Murder. Herbert Jenkins.
1939: "Steel" Callaghan under the pseudonym of 'Michael Chesney.' Herbert Jenkins.
1939: Callaghan Meets His Fate under the pseudonym of 'Michael Chesney.' Herbert Jenkins.
1940: Chronicles of the Secret Service. Herbert Jenkins.
1940: Double Masquerade. Herbert Jenkins.