Thursday, December 5, 2013

DWP magazine feature


Me on Wheatley and the Project in this month's Discover Your History Magazine: now available from all good newsagents, and probably most of the bad ones as well.


http://www.discoveryourhistory.net/issues/48

Monday, November 18, 2013

Red Eagle (1937)


Whatever direction you creep up on it from, Red Eagle is an oddity, and a bit of a mystery. 
It was surely what nobody expected next from Wheatley, and it seemed to come from nowhere. There's no hint of it in the phony newspaper that was one of the inserts in Robert Prentice, where Old Rowley is cited as "his only serious book to date" with no mention that another might be on the way, and Wheatley announces his forthcoming titles as Contraband and The Secret War, to be followed by "a shipwreck yarn placed in the South Atlantic, which I may call Uncharted Seas, and another definitely to be called The Golden Spaniard, where I shall bring back my old friends, De Richleau and co."
Interesting to see how far ahead his novels were planned, but in the event both of the latter had to wait, while he engaged himself instead on what would prove his last non-fiction work until The Devil and All His Works some four decades later (not counting the war memoirs with which he is connected autobiographically). Whether it was the inclination or the opportunity that presented itself unexpectedly I don't know, but the result certainly does not give the impression of having been dashed off between weightier courses: it's vastly more serious and impressive technically than Old Rowley, which was basically a sketch in watercolours, albeit a delightful one.
According to Drink & Ink, it came at the instigation of Hutchinson's: 
... my publishers had for a long time been urging me to write another biography, but I could think of no character I admired sufficiently to make a book out of his life story. Then, for what reason I have now forgotten, it occurred to me to write about a man of whom very few of the British public had ever heard. His name was Klementy Voroshilov, and I called my book Red Eagle.
 Hutchinson's may well have been keen for another non-fiction effort from Wheatley, but at the cost of him delaying his far more bankable thrillers? Hard to imagine them knowingly urging him to postpone both the return of De Richleau and "a shipwreck yarn placed in the South Atlantic" for this! Even its date of birth is ambiguous: all reliable sources place it at this point in the sequence, after Prentice and before Uncharted Seas, but my Arrow paperback edition (a revised edition prepared in 1964) claims it was first published in 1936...

It seems an unlikely proposition in other ways, too. Given De Richleau's sentiments regarding the Russian Revolution, it is surprising indeed to see Wheatley willing not only to give the matter such detailed treatment but so even-handedly too: the book, as Phil Baker notes, shows "broader political sympathies than one might expect." It helps, no doubt, that in Voroshilov, the figure upon whom he chose to focus, he found another of those sensualist, bon vivant conquerors guaranteed to capture his imagination and secure the benefit of his doubt regardless of political stamp, "fond of wine, women and song" (Baker). Nonetheless, the book is another reminder that Wheatley's polemicist tendencies disguised a far more engaged and inquiring intelligence than he was always willing to admit to.
If nothing else, the book is valuable for making the essential point that on the one hand a Russian Revolution was justified, and on the other that what emerged from it was a betrayal, indeed a perversion of its ideals. Of Stalin he writes: "Whether you regard him in the same light as the late John Dillinger, America's first Public Enemy No. 1, or place him in the same category as our national hero Robin Hood, depends entirely on your point of view," and he takes care to remind us that the tragedy of the Revolution was that it only incrementally succumbed to Bolshevism, and was initially conceived and managed in a genuinely beneficent spirit.
Wheatley's concerns are consistent, as are the freedoms he supports and the evils he decries. If you believe in freedom of speech and assembly and the right to dissent, it is only reasonable to despise the Czar and Lenin alike. Yet still it seems odd, somehow, to hear Wheatley banging the revolutionary drum so overtly. (His much- and willingly-misunderstood Letter To Posterity is concerned with exactly the same rights, and likewise counsels revolution as the right means of regaining them.)
The Revolution was hailed with joy throughout the whole of Russia... For a dozen years past various measures had been forced on the Czar from time to time which had foreshadowed some degree of liberty, but in every case the apparent step towards freedom had proved to be an illusion... Now at last the tyrant was gone.
Though not, perhaps, as breezily readable as Old Rowley, the book rewards the reader's attention with numerous amusing insights, both amusingly typical and amusingly untypical. He predicts that "When the history of the war finally comes to be written, perhaps a hundred years hence, it is probable that Hindenburg will be the only great general to emerge from it," and unsurprisingly (given that De Richleau had laid responsibility for the great war more or less solely at his door in The Devil Rides Out) he has a whale of a time with Rasputin:
He never bathed, he never washed, his straggly beard was matted with filth and his uncut nails were black with grime. (...) Into many of his practices Black Magic unquestionably entered and his counsels regarding State affairs were invariably evil. There have been few such monsters in the historic records of the world.
And as so often with Wheatley there are odd cross-overs with his other books of the same period, showing what happened to be on his mind at the time: Marlene Dietrich gets an unlikely namecheck, as she will again in Uncharted Seas, and (with The Golden Spaniard already simmering on the back burner) De Richleau and Dumas are never far from his thoughts either:
Voroshilov, as quick, as gay and as dauntless as D'Artagnan, Budenny the mighty fighter, like another Porthos, while Shchadenko had just a hint of the sly, clever Aramis in his make-up. These three modern musketeers were worth an army corps.
He begins by reviewing Russia's past, and provides a potted history of the Czars that links rewardingly to his known interests in such figures as Ataturk and Mussolini. All is clearly in the established Wheatley voice, and the hand guiding the narrative along is clearly a novelist's:
During the winter there was not much work for the peasant to do, except cut a little wood, thresh his rye, or carry grain into town. Most of the time the greater part of the country is snow-bound so he lay on the top of the stove reciting or listening to tales and legends. Abysmal ignorance of the whole world outside the radius of a few versts was the rule, and superstition was rampant.
Each village had its witch, and the lazy, verminous priests did little to counteract her influence. Occasionally, if some rich Kulak's crops were blighted he got up an agitation against her, and they chucked her in the pond and prodded her all over with pins to find the devil's mark which is supposed to be painless; sometimes they killed her. Saints' days, a continuance on the same dates of ancient pagan festivals, were celebrated with much junketing and a great deal of drunkenness.
Such was the state of Russia in the year 1881 when Klementory Efremovitch Vorosilov was born.
Thus Vorosilov is cast in the role Wheatley found most agreeable in contemporary politics: that of the progressive dictator, charged with dragging a backwards population into modernity, akin to Ataturk (who "forcibly confiscated the fezzes of the Turks") and Peter the Great (who "cut off the beards of the Russians"); both of whom "abolished many senseless fasts" and "compelled their people to accept the customs of more advanced nations." (A classic Wheatley observation, that: nothing more senseless than obligatory fasting to the man who, after all, contributed an article called We Don't Eat Enough at Christmas to the Daily Mail in austerity-blighted 1947!)

It is understandably difficult, now, to find an account of the great wars of the 20th century that is not somehow informed, even unconsciously, by the tidying up of consensus. But here is Wheatley writing in an authentic, individual voice, and as always the sense of being plucked out of our own time and dropped into his is vivid and intoxicating:
For the western nations it meant the end of an era. As Sir Edward Grey said so truly on that fateful night, 'The lamps are going out all over Europe...' Such freedom of speech and action as was known then was never to be known again, even by the children of that generation, nor were they ever to know again the same comfort and security in their daily lives. The peoples were given over bound hand and foot by their national patriotism to the politicians, the swashbucklers and the profiteers... Even in Britain the old freedom is now only a myth, dozens of war measures still circumscribe our actions and our only right is to re-elect a new House of Commons every few years which may voice our grievances but it is not consulted by the little clique of Rulers in the Cabinet on a major crisis.
The right of people to move freely, without qualifications, from one country to another is now denied them. In the majority of countries they may no longer write or speak their true thoughts without risk of imprisonment and must even order their lives in accordance with the Government's will. Most tragic of all, that free intercourse between peoples of different countries and the independence of the individual, which begat mutual respect and chivalry and seemly behaviour, ceased to be when the warring nations went down into the pit.
Seriously: is this really the work of a silly, shallow, superficial, bad writer? Does this square up even vaguely to posterity's caricature of Wheatley and all his works?
It's a real pity he abandoned historical biography after this.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who Killed Robert Prentice? (1937)



The second of Wheatley's delightful 'Crime Dossiers', and I don't mind telling you, I was determined I was going to beat this one, having failed so miserably to solve the first one, Murder Off Miami.

In the event, actually, I did guess whodunnit, but 'guess' is the operative word: I guessed straight away in fact, and it was purely a hunch, based on a familiarity with a further eighty years of murder mystery plots. I didn't actually spot any of the clues.
(That said, one of them, involving perfume, is surely unfair, since ingenious though the original dossiers were - and sadly this time round I was using a 1980s reissue with most of the bits of evidence merely reproduced on the page rather than inserted for real - I very much doubt whether Hutchinson was up to including scented pages.)
As it turns out, though, whodunnit is not as important as it first seems, since Wheatley and Links have pulled off a clever double twist that already - two books in - plays for its effect on the convention of the sealed endsection they themselves had only just established.

Actually, when I say I didn't solve Murder Off Miami, that's not strictly true. I did come up with a solution, and rather  a good one I thought, that certainly seemed to hold water... but thst just so happened not to be the correct one.
In my defence, it was my first encounter with a crime dossier, and I didn't know how fairly they played, or how minutely we were supposed to scan the material for submerged hints and revelations. It turned out that it played entirely fair: there really were clues to be spotted, and I didn't spot them.
So this time I was doubly determined to solve it all, and further galvanised by the fact that the sealed section in the edition I was reading was still sealed, and had never been read by anybody.
Sadly, though the mystery itself is ingenious, it's much more linear than Miami, and there simply aren't that many clues to spot - only two, really - though a few others dotted about may help to eliminate a couple of red herrings.

By far the most charming bit of evidence this time around is a folded copy of the South Sussex Chronicle, containing a complete and very helpful account of the inquest into Robert Prentice's murder.
But as it is an entire facsimile newspaper, that's not all! The illusion of authenticity is further sustained by genuine advertisements: a typically canny Wheatley innovation, the revenue from which off-set some of the unusually high printing costs that the Crime Dossiers accrued. (Baker, p. 359)
And what a peculiar assortment they are! We have 'Mackeson's Milk Stout ("the original and genuine milk stout, first brewed thirty years ago at Hythe"), and 'Sherley's Remedies', a complete range of canine health preparations, including shampoo, tonic and condition powders and worm capsules, advertised as being particularly useful for police dogs (who "have to be perfectly fit in all ways before they can give of their best and co-operate with their human colleagues in fighting crime.")
Elsewhere a smiling C.P. Miller of Bournemouth assures us "My Rupture never worries me Now!", not since he discovered the Brooks Appliance. (He can now lift any weight, and even move pianos.) And of course, there is an advert for Hutchinson books, displaying some of the best-selling authors they publish, among them one Eve Chaucer, whose latest (It Is Easier For a Camel), it helpfully informs us, is published October 8th. And then there's some fellow called Wheatley "whose work is published in sixteen languages."
And there's a separate ad for "The Ideal Present": Murder Off Miami, of course. "Post a copy to your friend abroad," it advises.

Oddly, this Wheatley chap turns up in three separate contexts in this one issue of the Chronicle. 
As well as the adverts for his books, we see him listed (in the other front page story, beside the murder) as one of the attendees at a meeting to form the committee of the Harry Preston Memorial Fund. This, too, was genuine, and its inclusion intended to drum up further contributions to the fund. Preston was a boxing promoter, hotelier and well-known society figure, as well as a close friend of Wheatley's who, according to his recollection in Drink and Ink, "had not deserted me during the time I was almost penniless." Wheatley later recalls that he supplied "two well-known pugilists" for a three-round contest in a ring specially erected at the Prince of Wales Hotel in De Vere Gardens as his own idiosyncratic contribution to the launch party for The Devil Rides Out.

But the best Wheatley cameo in the paper is his third, in a back page story entitled 'WRITER WHO MADE "MURDER FICTION" HISTORY LIVING NEAR SCENE OF CRIME', in which we discover - would you believe! - that just a short walk from the murder scene is "the country home of Mr J.G. Links, who, with Dennis Wheatley, created a new era in crime fiction a few months ago by the production of the now famous dossier, Murder Off Miami." Luckily the reporter found him at home, along with his guests, both Mr Wheatley and his wife ("also an author, who has already gained a wide public under the name of Eve Chaucer, by her two novels, No Ordinary Virgin and Better To Marry.")
The three do briefly hint at something of their guesses as to the solution of the local crime ("I shall be most interested to see how it turns out," Joan opines, "It might even have the makings of a good story.") But the bulk of the fairly lengthy article is given over to a meticulous book by book account of Wheatley's career to date (including of course, an excitement-whetting hint of what's to come, which in Wheatley's case, true to form, lines up not the next one book but the next three).
We are told, for the second time, that he has "so great a reputation that his work is published in sixteen languages, although his first book only appeared less than four years ago." The amazing success story of The Forbidden Territory is recounted  for the first time (but not by a long chalk the last). "Scene after scene" of Such Power Is Dangerous, we learn, "was so packed with excitement that the Sunday Dispatch critic wrote of it: 'Easily the best melange of thrills that I have ever read.'" This was followed by "his only serious book to date, although serious is perhaps hardly the word for his vivid and entertaining biography, Old Rowley."
And so on, and much more, in the same manner. For Wheatley to have included such puffery in one of his own productions is in itself the mark of a very particular personality, but the fact that it is actually he himself writing all this makes it something else again.
But as well as the fun of reading Wheatley praising himself to the skies, there are some interesting observations here in terms of how Wheatley perceived himself as a writer. Though They Found Atlantis is perhaps surprisingly described as "his best and favourite book" it is very intriguing to see that he has already identified The Devil Rides Out as the book "which Mr Wheatley thinks will probably outlive any of his others."
We also get a sense of just how ordered his writing life had become, even at this early stage (he explains that The Secret War "will come out in January - a bit soon after Contraband, but that can't be helped, as I always like to have one of my two annual books out early in the year"), and also how carefully he managed his career in order to achieve maximum sales potential. Describing his books as "tales of romantic adventure played out against very carefully chosen backgrounds which would provide readers with an additional interest and lend plausibility to the thrills and suspense," he continues:

Asked about his phenomenally rapid rise to the status of one of the world's best-sellers, he said that, as he never uses the same background for a story twice, the variety of his books may largely account for it. He argues that it is virtually impossible to please the whole of the thriller-reading public every time, but that each section of it may be given just the thing they want at intervals of three or four books. His mail informs him that every one of his stories proves first favourite with some readers, while the great majority, who may prefer others, still derive considerable enjoyment from the ones they do not personally consider to be his best.

Murder most foul: Prentice's body exactly as it was discovered!

So, what about this murder of Robert Prentice, then?
Well, it's a pretty racy tale, revolving around an extra-marital amour, and featuring a woman who is simultaneously enjoying the attentions of another woman's husband and her son; there's also a post-coital nude blackmail photo (included in the evidence), and free and frank discussion of abortion and promiscuity. No wonder it was banned in Nazi Germany on the grounds of inferior moral character: "created for English conditions, not German ones." (Baker, p.360)

Robert Prentice has been found dead, some time ago, from strychnine poisoning, and his widow Cicely has written to Lieutenant Schwab (famed, according to a newspaper clipping for his "brilliant feat of detection in the 'Murder Off Miami' case") to beg his assistance. The police have followed various leads and unearthed a number of suspects, but no case could be made to stick against a single one of them (not even sleazy blackmailer Nathaniel Smears, nor Suzanne L'Estrange, the dead man's gold-digging hussy of a secretary-cum-mistress, a "real 'still waters run deep', silent but very sexy man-eating type," with "that rather mincing, cat-like walk you sometimes notice in Frenchwomen").
As a result, though foul play seemed more or less certain, they have reluctantly dropped the investigation for want of evidence. Is there any chance the distinguished Lt Schwab could look into the matter afresh, and see if he can spot anything the other bloodhounds have missed?
So plaintive is her missive, so touching her concern that her husband's case be re-examined and his killer brought to justice... that I'm afraid I had her pegged as the murderess from page one.

As before, once all the various documents have been read and evidence perused, the book brings us to a sealed section and tells us not to break the seal until we are ready to identify the culprit. Having done so, we find a letter from Schwab that begins: "Dear Mrs Prentice, When you receive this you will be in gaol faacing the charge of murder..."
He then goes on to list the various bits of evidence from the previous material that pointed to her being the culprit.

But Wheatley and Links have another surprise up their sleeve.
We next jump to an account of the woman's trial, where one of the key pieces of evidence that Schwab had spotted is unexpectedly - and conclusively - demolished by a fresh revelation. It can only mean that Schwab was, in fact, wrong, and Mrs Prentice is actually innocent.
The case against her collapses, she is acquitted, and the book brings us delightfully back to square one with a second sealed section and a fresh injunction to "make up your mind who really did the murder"!
What we then learn (after a full-page ad for Wheatley's Secret War) is that, of course, Cicely Prentice was the murderess after all, but an uncommonly cunning and thorough one, who wrote to Schwab, and deliberately, as if unknowingly, supplied him with faked self-incriminating evidence, with the express aim of his alighting on her as the culprit and the case going to trial. Then, as planned, she produced the spectacular new evidence that undermined the case against her, and was set free.
The reason? To safeguard her future, since she had discovered that she had accidentally become pregnant by her husband the last time they met, the night before his murder. She had deliberately set up fake alibis, and created the impression that she had been miles away in Bath at the time, but since it was known and certain fact that they had not been in each other's company at all for the previous three months, the birth of his child could only mean that she had not been where she said she was at the most crucial time; indeed that she had gone to some effort to falsely establish otherwise. (She further decides that, given her notoriety as a result of the case, to flee or to attempt to secure an abortion would be equally as hazardous as having the child which, even before DNA testing, represents too great a risk, as her husband was hare-lipped.)
And so, she arranged for the phony evidence and the failed trial, because under English law, no person can be tried twice for the same crime, and no matter what evidence came to light from then on, she would be safe.

All very clever, all very satisfying. And now of course, this clever and satisfying final twist no longer works, since this bedrock safeguard against malicious prosecution, the enshrined right of every free citizen under English law since the Norman Conquest, was very kindly abolished on our behalf by Tony Blair in 2003.
What - if he could have even imagined such a thing coming to pass - would the Wheatley of A Letter To Posterity have made of that, I wonder?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Secret War (1937)



The Secret War is a classic example of Wheatley's acknowledged method of writing two books simultaneously.
It works like this: he takes a romantic thriller, in which an assortment of heroes face an assortment of villains and an assortment of perils, of a sort which could basically be made to fit any setting, and slots it into a specific historical or contemporary context, which is detailed with a depth and at a length entirely untypical of books of this sort.
He explained it himself in Drink and Ink:

My books were, on average, about 160,000 words, which is over twice the length of the ordinary thriller. But in the fact that my books were not ordinary thrillers lies the secret of their success. Actually, to create each book I wrote and combined two. One of these would consist of a history of Ceylon or Mexico, or of a period in the Napoleonic or Hitler wars. Into these factual accounts I wove a spy story, desperate situations and boy jumping into bed with girl.
This blend proved amazingly successful as many people who normally never read thrillers would read a 'Wheatley' for the pleasure of recalling the country described, if they had visited it, or to learn about it or about some interesting historical events. 

Of course, the above comment that readers often came to him for factual information makes the blatantly propagandistic elements in some of his books read even more intriguingly.

I wrote in my introductory comments here that one of the attractions of Wheatley's books is that they document the twentieth century not in retrospect but as its key events are actually being played out. And because they are not works of formal history, and have no eye on posterity or authority, they have an unmistakeable authenticity that could never be faked or duplicated by a contemporary novel set in the same times.
Critics tend to write off as stylistically disastrous this schizophrenic aspect of his construction, as if he had simply plagiarised a few history books and travelogues, and inserted chunks of information at random points in an otherwise unconnected narrative. But The Secret War, at least, is for the most part a seamless demonstration of the technique.

In fact, as biographer Phil Baker points out, there are actually three seams converging here: an action thriller, an account of the political and military aftermath (and implications) of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and also what I'm almost tempted to call a philosophical rumination on the ethics of war that is derived in large measure from one of his strangest unpublished ideas: "an anti-war polemic entitled 'Pills of Honour'":

As for the war itself, and the enormous sacrifice of youth ordered by a few old men, Wheatley had a suggestion. To show they were really sincere, the Cabinet should make an honourable example and commit suicide en masse: "If Mr Macdonald is so anxious that Britain should lead the world to a permanent peace, let him cease reducing our armaments to below safety level and instead give this example."
(Baker, p. 339)

This curious work never appeared before the public in its original form, but the argument does appear in The Secret War. Here it is advanced not by Wheatley himself (in his famously intrusive authorial voice) but by the main character, Sir Anthony Lovelace, very much the staunch and respected, but no less idiosyncratic, authority figure Wheatley most aspired to be:

"I once formulated a plan which entailed death for certain people in the event of war. Wrote an article on it called 'Pills of Honour', but, of course, none of the papers would publish it."
"What was your idea? Tell me about it?"
"Well, it would sound quite mad to many people, but it won't sound mad to you. The statesmen of Great Britain are always talking of setting an example to the world and I wanted either to call their bluff or give them a real opportunity to do so. The people as a whole are dead against war and, if they liked to agitate enough, they could force their Members of Parliament to push a Bill through the House of Commons. There's no reason why the members should object either since it would not affect them - only the Cabinet. My Bill would make it law that the Chief Government Analyst should be waiting at any Cabinet meeting when the question of plunging the country into war was under discussion. With him he'd have a little box of pills - one for each member of the government.
"If they decided that no other possible course was open to them than the step which would ensure certain death for hundreds of thousands of their countrymen, and misery for millions more, the Government Analyst would hand round his little box of pills and the Ministers would endorse the absolute necessity for their decision by their own rapid and quite painless death..."

This, then, is the springboard for The Secret War: a strange kind of militant-pacifist fantasy that could not have emerged from a less likely pen than Wheatley's.
From this original idea - that to entertain the prospect of war, and therefore death on a mass scale, one must accept or even permit the prospect of death to oneself  if one is to retain moral integrity - Wheatley conceived a political thriller concerning the 'Millers of God', a secret organisation that aims to kill off warmongers and profiteers in the name of humanity and peace. It's a superb and satisfyingly unusual premise for a globetrotting yarn, set in motion by the chance meeting of Lovelace and Christopher Penn, a particularly headstrong and idealistic member of the Millers.

Penn is given the first words of the book, and strong meat indeed they must have seemed to Wheatley's regular readership at the time:

"War," declared Christopher Penn, "is the most terrible of all evils. Pestilence and famine are natural ills which civilisation is gradually bringing under its control. Fire and Tempest, Earthquake and Flood - they at least are short-lived localised horrors which it's impossible to prevent. But war is man-made. It's a wilful, inexcusable act of barbarity. It entails the committal of mass-murder, mass-mutilation and every other crime in the calendar, by one set of normally peace-loving people against another. Nothing - nothing, I say, is too terrible a punishment for those who set it in motion."

This leads to a discussion among several characters, including Lovelace, that takes in both the defensibility of war in the abstract and, specifically, the efficacy or otherwise of the League of Nations and the defensibility or otherwise of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.
Wheatley has one character condemning Italian aggression and another defending it, but Penn's and Lovelace's positions are more interesting: Penn, as we have seen, opposes all war on principle, and so is incapable of  differentiating between a just and unjust war (or acknowledging the distinction), while Lovelace is able to process all points of view and make a case for each, with seemingly little need to maintain any particular view himself. They thus represent inflexible dogmatism and a possibly injurious kind of apathetic neutrality, which Wheatley seems to be nominating as more significant influences on the course of future events than passionate commitment to any one side. (It is notable that when Penn does get a clear chance to eliminate his target, his conscience stays his hand.)

To anyone with an interest in 20th century history, these first pages are stimulating indeed: they read as history, yet with the immediacy of reportage. You simply could not fake the absolute authenticity of this 1937 observation on Anglo-German relations (supplied by Lovelace), for instance: "But for years past Germany and Britain have been drawing closer together. We can't understand her ill-treatment of her Jewish citizens, but that's about the only difference of opinion between us."
Somehow, I just can't imagine a modern novelist writing a conversation between two such men at that time and having either of them describe anti-Semitism as an anomalous element of Nazism, rather than a defining one.
And in how many accounts of the Abyssinian invasion written today, I wonder, would a perspective this intricate be offered:

"You don't think it might be in the interest of - er - humanity if the Italians were allowed to occupy Abyssinia?" There was just the suggestion of a twinkle in Lovelace's brown eyes.
"What!" Cassel sat up with a jerk. "You can't be speaking seriously?"
"Not altogether, but the place is a bit of a mess. The Emperor is quite enlightened, I believe and probably he does his best, but he's almost single-handed, and conditions there are  - well - quite medieval."
"They're building schools, you know, now, hospitals and modern prisons as well."
"Perhaps, but that's only since Italy threatened to take the country over and it became vital that Abyssinia should win the sympathy of civilised nations by showing that she meant to mend her manners. They only abolished slavery as the price of admission to the League, and nine-tenths of the population are still completely barbarous savages."
(...)
"I disagree entirely," Cassel cut in. "Under the present Emperor conditions will improve very rapidly and, if once a white race were allowed to get a grip on the country, it'd be the end of the blacks. They'd be exploited in the interests of capitalism and become wage slaves in two generations. The only hope for the Abyssinians is to keep the white man out. It's their country and they have the right to do so."
Lovelace had filled his pipe and applied a match. Little imps of laughter were dancing in his eyes as he looked over the flame at the aggressive pacifist. "I'm afraid you're wrong there. The greater part of Abyssinia doesn't really belong to the Abyssinians. They only took it over with fire and sword themselves, less than half a century ago. It's still peopled by completely alien races."
For a moment Cassel chewed morosely on the butt of his cigar. "It's easy to see you're a hundred per cent pro-Italian," he burst out.
"No, I'm not, but if I cared to, I could make a pretty good case for Italy." Lovelace's sherry arrived at that moment, and as he raised the glass he added: "Well, here's fun. Aren't you joining me?"

Those who have only the standard Colonel Blimp image of Wheatley will surely be surprised by much here: by the extent of his knowledge of the issue and of its complexities, by the generosity with which he gives room to every shade of opinion, by the restraint with which he refrains from overtly taking sides himself, and by the subtlety with which, in the midst of it all, he allows the splendid put-down "aggressive pacifist" to slip past almost unnoticed.

This dialogue continues for several more pages, with several positions I might have associated with a more retrospective take on the questions getting a clear contemporary airing.
For instance, Penn dismisses Italian overpopulation as an argument for colonial expansion as "a complete fallacy" ("It's been proved time and again that colonies are not essential to the expansion of a people"), and the Versailles treaty is attacked as "an instrument of vengeance which must lead to further war instead of a step towards a permanent peace."
(For more of the same, I recommend especially the long discussion on the consequences of Versailles and the possibility of a renewed war against an expansionist Germany roughly two-thirds of the way through chapter 5 [pages 58 -60 of the Arrow paperback], while the aside on page 142 that if Ben Jelhoull succeeds in fomenting an anti-Western jihad in Egypt it "won't be much fun to have on our hands if we're up against Italy, Germany and Japan at the same time" seems near-clairvoyant!)

But the most interesting thing (and perhaps the most unexpected, given that this is Dennis Wheatley we're talking about) is the constant sense that Wheatley is using these characters as a means to debate the issues with himself. He seems to be constantly arguing the reader (and himself) into various positions and then out of them again, as if he truly is unable to make up his own mind. Further, it seems to be a conscious, deliberate act, as if he were saying that open-mindedness and the need to constantly revise one's prejudices in the light of fresh evidence is the world's only hope of side-stepping catastrophe. (Yes, I know: but Dennis Wheatley it is!)
This is most obvious in a gruesome episode in the second half where our three heroes - Penn, Lovelace and beautiful aviatrix Valerie Lorne - crash in the desert and are captured by a Danakil tribe:

They were being kept for a night's entertainment. It was highly probable that never before in history had this village experienced the undreamed-of pleasure which could be provided by the skilful mutilation of two white men and a white woman. If they were dead before the morning they would be lucky and the Danakils intensely disappointed. His one prayer was that they might all go mad and cease to suffer early in the game...

Not much ambiguity here, especially when Wheatley has Valerie explode:

"I wish some of the people who want to go to war to save the Abyssinians were in our place now... I don't care any more for ideals and all the senseless nonsense that is talked about League and Covenants and Treaties. I hope the Italians win! I hope they wipe these people out, man, woman and child. Destroy them and blast them limb from limb until there's not a single one of them left to pollute the decent earth they tread on."

Wheatley then concludes the chapter thus: "As she ceased speaking the first bomb fell."
As the following chapter clarifies, the three are saved by an Italian air-strike on the tribal village, but where one might have expected Wheatley to have his heroes rush gratefully on to their next adventure with nary a second thought nor a backward glance, he instead pauses to allow Valerie this extraordinary reversal as she surveys the results of aerial bombardment for the first time with her own eyes:

A pitiful whimper in the tall grass near by caused Valerie to switch round just as Lovelace was urging her on again. It came from a naked child, about three years old who had been scampering away in front of them. A large piece of the last explosive bomb had taken off his right foot, severing it at the ankle, so that it now hung from the leg by only a shred of skin.
(...)
"The brutes!" she sobbed. "The fiends! - how could they? Oh, my lamb, my lamb, what have they done to you?"

The most striking thing about this volte-face is that neither Wheatley nor Valerie acknowledge it at all: it is simply presented as baldly as her earlier desire that they should indeed be blasted limb from limb, man, woman and child.
Obviously a point is being made that is not what one might have expected from Wheatley, and conveyed with a (relative) subtlety we might not necessarily have seen coming either. It's hard to resist the conclusion that the doubt and confusion are as much Wheatley's own as they are Valerie's, and in his case consciously so.

This ambiguity is a major thread through the whole of the book, and indeed prompts its central motivating event, when Lovelace first agrees to accompany Penn on his mission, and aid and protect him, despite his fundamental disagreement with its aims and his dismissal of the Millers as morally confused murderers.
It's genuinely nimble and impressive, and by the end of Chapter 3 I had scribbled in the margin: "Wheatley writes an issues book! How long before melodrama takes over? Place your bets!"
The answer is, of course, almost immediately, especially once the minxy Valerie sows the seeds of sexual jealously between the two chaps. The novel proper is a pacy yarn in which the inexperienced and naive Penn attempts to bump off his target, while Lovelace has to constantly save him from the results of his bungling and lack of resolve. This, coupled with their mutual love of Valerie ("Suddenly she threw back her head and sobbed: 'Oh, we're a couple of beastly rotten cads - but we can't help it, darling - can we?'"), is enough to keep the pulses of contemporary readers racing as the novel takes us from peril to peril and cliffhanger to cliffhanger, from capture to escape to chase to recapture, in variously meticulously evoked locations.

Where so much is untypical, it is reassuring to find a few of the expected Wheatley touches.
Never one to hide the extent of his reliance on source material, he makes reference to "Wallis Budge's translation of the Kebra Nagast", then has Valerie read aloud from it in a single chunk of uninterrupted quotation that lolls over four pages. Real-life figures appear as characters and engage in conversation with the fictional ones, in this case General Graziani and Haile Selassie (both of whom, in keeping with the book's attitudes, are given a good page's worth of opportunity to convert the reader to their position). And then, just once in a while, the more familiar, finger-wagging Wheatley shows himself, as in this reflection by Lovelace:

For the hundredth time he wondered if it wouldn't really be wise to sell Fronds. It was a very gracious house, a little larger perhaps than most people wanted these days, but a moderately rich man could keep it up quite easily and close one of the wings if he found it too big for him. The gardens were famous and could soon be put to rights again with a little money. The roofs were sound and there were plenty of bathrooms since it had been modernised, when his over-generous father had spent far more than he could afford running it, free of all charges to the country, as a hospital during the war. He hadn't known then, of course, how a grateful government would repay his patriotism by taxing him so highly, when the war was over, that he could no longer live there without making inroads on his capital, and that death duties would prove the final blow which would make a mockery of his son Anthony's inheritance.

As well as the relief at having the old interventionist Wheatley burst back on to the page and slay the neutralist impostor that has written the rest of the novel, this passage's talk of sons and inheritances also reminds us that Wheatley has given his lead character the same Christian name as his own son.

Then, lastly, there's a "garlic-breathing waiter", and, a few pages later, "a French sergeant with a little waxed moustache and a strong provincial accent, who breathed dense clouds of garlic at them" that prompted me to reflect how the British attitude to garlic has changed. To those of my generation or younger, it may seem odd that this perfectly unremarkable food, to be found routinely in a variety of dishes, was once considered both decadent and disgusting. But I can confirm that it can still divide opinion among generations as recent as that of my own parents, where pockets of open suspicion remain commonplace. And to those who read The Secret War on its initial publication it would have been accepted as virtual synonym for inedible foreign muck, and as good for a cheap laugh as bedpans and mothers-in-law. The notion that its detectability on the breath was intrinsically more repulsive than the presence of, say, onions seems just plain bizarre now, but to Wheatley's contemporary readership the idea of a Frenchman breathing "dense clouds" of it would have told them all they needed to know about him.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Wheatley, Sallust and Il Duce


As I have already noted on this site, Wheatley was an admirer of Mussolini.
Black August, set some fifty years after it was written in an imagined post-revolutionary England, cites him as one of the most influential figures of the recent past (while ignoring Hitler entirely), and as late as in the autobiographies he was preparing at the very end of his life Wheatley defended Il Duce for having "done a splendid job in cleaning up Italy", and mourned the "later megalomania (that) led him to throw in his lot with Hitler" as "one of the greatest tragedies in history."
(It is certainly ironic that history generally represents him as one of the monsters of the Second World War, almost when not entirely on a par with Hitler, while the truly monstrous Stalin is allowed a seat with the heroes.)
Wheatley took a keen and informed interest in international affairs through the thirties, and it is notable how often issues relating to Mussolini's Italy crop up in his pages around this time. It is just possible, in fact, that his interest in the subject may have influenced the return of Gregory Sallust in Contraband.

I must stress that what follows here is purest speculation: I am not making a case, indeed I have far from convinced myself. But it is at least persuasive, and at least consistent with Wheatley's established method and habit.
We have seen how Wheatley allows his reading to leak into his work. Often the pattern seems to be a stray reference appearing in one book (when the subject is new to him) followed by a more deeply threaded allusion in a subsequent one, after he has digested it more fully.
A good example is the use of Huxley's Brave New World as, first, the subject of a Hollywood film in Such Power is Dangerous and then as the major structural informant of Black August, while here at the excellent Dennis Wheatley website, a contributor notes how a stray reference to Powys's Glastonbury Romance in Black August likewise announces the book's more considered use as an influence on the plot of The Fabulous Valley. As well as receiving full length treatment in two non-fiction works, Wheatley's thirties novels similarly abound in references to the Russian Revolution and the life of Charles II.

His interest in Fascist Italy is most obviously reflected in The Secret War, which is set against the backdrop of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and reflects, I think, Wheatley's genuinely undecided views on that campaign: the book, as I shall explain further in the next post, reads almost like Wheatley's argument with himself on the subject. The use of the subject goes beyond background detail, and reflects a deep and informed interest. In Drink and Ink he writes of an occasion when he was travelling in Italy at the time of the invasion, and with the prospect of war between Italy and Britain seeming likely he considered hiring a fishing boat to take him to the South of France and avoid internment.
So we know for sure that this was a subject very much on his mind at this time: what grounds are there for linking it with the reappearance of Gregory Sallust?

The question I raised in my post on Contraband was this: why did Wheatley revive Sallust in a totally incompatible time period and with many of his most significant characteristics from his first appearance muted or changed? Why not simply invent a new character with a new name?
Well, let us begin with that surname. I haven't speculated on the nature of any link with his Roman historian namesake until now because I had presumed that there wasn't one, and it remains likely that there was no particular reason why the name had been chosen at first.
But by the time of the character's reappearance in Contraband it is possible that Wheatley's reacquaintance with the original Sallust may have prompted Gregory Sallust's comeback.

One of the few real-life figures namechecked in Secret War is General Graziani. The key military figure in Italy's African wars, he was a fascist cult hero, and a deeply charismatic individual who liked to portray himself as a romantic idealist and intellectual, and to compare himself with the great military leaders of Ancient Rome. I'm only surprised that he doesn't play more of a hands-on role in the book: he strikes me as exactly the kind of man to have appealed to Wheatley's sense of imperial grandeur. Whenever he needed guidance or inspiration, he would claim, he would turn to his "lords and masters": Caesar, Tacitus, Livy - and Sallust.
Sallust (more properly Gaius Sallustius Crispus) was Wheatley's kind of historian: partisan, rowdy, patriotic and with a reputation for immorality that resulted in his temporary banishment from the Roman Senate. His books have something of the sparky, belligerent flavour of Old Rowley and Red Eagle.
In 46 BC he joined Caesar in his African campaign, leading to his appointment as governor of the province of Africa Nova, hence his idolisation by Granziani. It seems certain that in his study of Graziani and the African campaign, therefore, Wheatley would have been reminded of Gregory Sallust by reading of his ancient namesake.

It may have been at this point that he first entertained the idea of reusing Sallust rather than invent a new character in his forthcoming Contraband. It's a slender reed on which to hang a hypothesis of this sort, I admit, but there is one other link that just might push it from possible to plausible.
The original Sallust was born at Amiternum in the country of the Sabines. Is it mere coincidence, therefore, that the all-new 1930s model Gregory Sallust should be given as love interest a woman named Sabine Szenty?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Contraband (1936)


"... But don't you see that if silk can be smuggled in other things can as well. To bankrupt our business houses and cut our customs revenue in half is only their first objective. Unless we can checkmate them they'll start dumping anarchists and agitators here by the hundred - all the scum whose full-time job is to spread discontent and ruin. Then they'll send cargoes of illicit arms to their secret depots, and bombs, and poison gas and every sort of foulness to desecrate England's green and pleasant land. For God's sake man! Forget petty larceny for a bit and give me a free hand to stop that arch-traitor Gavin Fortescue staging a red revolution."

Wheatley speaks a little in Drink and Ink of how, having had the idea for Contraband, he went about plotting it, specifically how he found the right location for the criminals' base.
But he says nothing of how the idea came to him, or why he decided on his most audacious notion yet: to bring back Gregory Sallust, the anti-hero of his novel Black August, which had been set fifty years in the future, and relocate him in the thirties present.

There's no question that this is the most interesting and original aspect of the book that finally appeared.
Though time and familiarity - the latter itself a kind of backhanded tribute - may have blunted its innovations to the casual reader, it's worth remembering just how conceptually bold Contraband is.
Of course there was nothing new in authors reviving favourite characters and giving them new adventures, as Wheatley himself had done with 'those modern musketeers' the Duke De Richleau and his friends. (Though Wheatley had been unusual in bringing them back, after their successful debut in Forbidden Territory, not in another political spy adventure but in a supernatural horror story.)
But here is where he really begins to build his own alternative world, Wheatley Land, the endlessly self-referential literary theme park.
Not only does he bring back Sallust, blithely inserted in an entirely incompatible decade from his debut, but also pits him against another returning character from an entirely different and unconnected work: Lord Gavin Fortescue, last seen trying to buy out Hollywood in Such Power Is Dangerous. (And we also welcome Sir Pellinore Gwane-Cust, perhaps the greatest name conceived for a fictional character in the history of the written word, making his first appearance, in a chapter entitled 'Enter an Eminent Edwardian'.)
No reader could hope to keep up with such wild cross-referencing, so here are those faux-scholarly footnotes, so endearing a recurring feature in his later books, in which readers are directed towards the other relevant titles in the canon, complete with dates and publishers, like the citations in a scholarly thesis.
The decision to revive both characters is interesting (though Wheatley sadly makes us privy to nothing of his reasoning), Sallust for the reasons already given, and Fortescue because Such Power had been Wheatley's least favourite of his own works to date (more so even than The Fabulous Valley, which he felt was below par but at least distinguished by the thoroughness and research that the more knocked-off Such Power had lacked.)

Bizarrely, though the book begins by providing an entirely new backstory for Sallust (he's now a First World War hero, and Rudd, his landlord cum manservant, is his former batman) Wheatley still directs the reader to Black August for "further particulars of Gregory Sallust, Mr Rudd and his curious caravanserai in Gloucester Road".
But almost from the first this is a different Sallust as well as an uprooted one; he's markedly less cynical, opportunistic and self-motivated. In Black August he had been close to traitorous in his self-interest; here he is much more the classical Wheatley hero.
One wonders why, with so much altered, Wheatley bothered to call him Gregory Sallust, as so little of the original character remains. The only thing left now, really, of the original Sallust to distinguish him from any other Wheatley hero is his slightly greater physical ruthlessness.
At the beginning he attacks one villain with a broken bottle ("the ugliest weapon in the world") leaving him "clutch(ing) at the torn and bleeding muscle" of his arm, while the final discovery, on which the climax hinges, comes not as the result of serendipity or clever deduction but by the simple expedient of having Sallust torture the information out of the villain's chief henchman.
Having first suspended his quarry by the shoulder joints, he then threatens to burn his eyes out if he doesn't talk:

"Good God, sir, you can't!" exclaimed Rudd, suddenly paling. "It - it's fiendish."
Gregory swung on him. "You fool! My woman's life depends upon my loosening this brute's tongue and I mean to do it."
Rudd shuddered. "Sorry, sir. Looked at like that o' course you're right."

According to Drink and Ink, Rudd was based on "Lewis, my second cellarman when I was a wine merchant, of whom I was very fond", but here and there I thought I caught more than a stray echo of Lugg, manservant to Margery Allingham's detective Albert Campion:

They had hardly settled down when Rudd came in wheeling a dumb waiter with half the contents of a baker's shop spread out upon it.
"Mon dieu!" she exclaimed. "Do you expect me to eat all this - or have you a party of twenty people coming?"
"No, it's just Rudd," he laughed. "Rudd's fond of cakes and he gets all the ones that we can't eat."
"'Arternoon, Miss," Rudd said with a sheepish grin. "You won't take too much notice of Mr Gregory, I hope. He's always been a one what likes a leg pull."

Today, with intertextual hi-jinx so settled a feature of the postmodern literary landscape and no longer enough to surprise us, Contraband can perhaps be seen as one of Wheatley's least ambitious books.
The profusion of twists, interconnected subplots, and patented ante-climax, climax and post-climax formula with which he liked to dazzle readers are for the most part replaced with a straight arrow narrative and what most readers would by now be able to recognise as unabashed adherence to formula.
It's a short book, easily read in two or three evening settings, and for the first time in Wheatley I found myself less than carried away by it. In particular, I loved the ingenuity and charm of the smugglers passing secret messages using a code based on Ariel's songs from The Tempest, but I wasn't convinced, either that it would work, or that Sallust would have cracked it in the way he did. As an idea, it feels rushed. Equally typical of this corner cutting is a late sequence in which we and Gregory are brought up to speed on what has been happening in our absence by Wheatley's turning a large chunk of exposition into dialogue completely inappropriate for the character charged with delivering it. (If you know the novel, I'm thinking of Milly's update on what has been happening at Quex House after she finds the dead policemen.)
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was the beginning of a glittering career for Sallust, who would become one of Wheatley's most popular and enduring regulars over the coming decades. But when read - as I am reading it - in ignorance of those later books and with only Black August to compare it to, then this new adventure for a fresher, more upright, less dour and altogether more Robin Hood-like Gregory Sallust has to be counted a disappointment.

But this is all, of course, irrelevant.
Nobody bought this book and thought anything of the sort in 1936: they were just glad to get their hands on the latest Wheatley page-turner.
And it begins quite delightfully, with Sallust stumbling into an international espionage conspiracy by following an exotic woman from a Normandy casino, just twelve hours before he is supposed to return to England, purely in the hope of having his way with her.

The more he studied her, between making bets, the more the desire to do so strengthened in his mind. He could never bring himself to be anything but "uncle-ish" to "nice" girls, however attractive, and he barred respectable married women, except on rare occasions, on practical grounds. The aftermath of broken hearts and tear-stained faces with possible threats of being cited as co-respondent by an injured husband was, he considered, too heavy a price to pay. He preferred, when he took the plunge into an affair, a woman whom he could be reasonably certain was content to play his own game. Nothing too easy - in fact it was essential to his pleasure that she should move in luxurious surroundings and be distinguished of her kind, and so quite inaccessible except to men of personality even if they had the wealth which he did not. Then, when victory was achieved, they could laugh together over their ruses, delight in one another to the full and, when the time came as it surely must, part before satiation; a little sadly, perhaps, but as friends who enriched life's experience by a few more precious moments.

( I love that "except on rare occasions".)
And despite the fact that she almost gets him killed before he's even introduced himself, the minxy Miss Sabine Szenty fits the bill admirably, it would seem, being "no bread and butter miss but an adventuress, perhaps even a poule de luxe, one of those rare exotic women for the sake of whose caresses millionaires commit crazy follies and sometimes come to ruin, disgrace, and suicide".
Not only does she have the characteristic mysterious beauty of the Wheatley heroine ("the dark pencilled eyebrows which curved back like the two ends of a cupid's bow, the points rising almost to her temples, and the sleek black hair, parted on the side and flattened on the crown but spreading into a mass of tight jet curls behind her small pink ears"), she smells good too:

She seemed to radiate warmth by merely sitting beside him as they bumped over the pavé of the old streets back to the harbour, and a faint delicious odour, not so much a definite perfume as the scent of daily coiffured hair, freshly washed silks and a scrupulously tended person - the hallmarks of a superbly soignée woman filled the darkness of the taxi.

As who would not, it's not long before Sallust is displaying frankest adoration:

He bent above her. "The gods are being kind to me in my old age. Most beautiful women are either good, stupid or vicious. And you are the marvellous exception. Lovely as a goddess, clever as an Athenian and a bad hat like myself, yet one who still has decent feelings. I'm going to kiss the lips off you once we land in France."

If it's this Wheatley you're after, the unabashed master of heightened prose, you will not go unrewarded.
The Communist agitators are stirringly described as "red servants of evil", and there are the usual swipes at the higher literary critics: "Some people sneer at reading detective fiction but I don't," reflects Mrs Bird, the villain's housekeeper; "I could make a fortune writing thrillers if I weren't so darned lazy," opines Gregory. And there's the customary mention of friendly rivals, this time the Raffles stories. ("Good stories those," says Mrs Bird, "We don't get many like them now; more's the pity.")

Does anything frighten Sallust? According to Wheatley:

He possessed more courage than most men but one thing that really scared him was to see firearms in the hands of a woman. They were so much more likely to go off unexpectedly.

Amidst all the corn are two brilliant sequences in Wheatley's best manner. One is the heroes' near-death in treacherous quicksands (oddly, a feature of the previous Gavin Fortescue adventure too) in which Wheatley again displays his mastery of screw-turning slowed pace, so every second of their torment is stretched to nerve-snapping point.
The other plays the same trick but even more impressively, as Sallust, jumping from a plane for the first time, believes that his parachute ripcord has failed to work, and we share his terror as he plummets towards the earth. But he has simply not allowed for the slight time delay, and in fact the chute opens perfectly. The ordeal, which could have lasted only a few seconds, is stretched by Wheatley over two nail-biting pages. This is true literary sleight of hand.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murder Off Miami (1936)


When I laid out the ground rules of the Dennis Wheatley Project in my introductory post, I wrote the following:

Of the non-fiction, I will certainly be including his studies of Charles II (Old Rowley, 1933), the Russian Revolution (Red Eagle, 1937) and the history of Satanism (The Devil & All His Works, 1971), but will mention only in passing the 'crime dossiers' (1936-9) and the greater part of his autobiographical writings, for the time being at least.

The inclusion of the crime dossiers in the list made little sense, in that they were not works of non-fiction, and in truth, the only real reason I opted to give them a miss was because I didn't have them, and assumed they'd be hard to get hold of. (The remaining three still might be.)
But just as I was about to embark on a reading of Contraband, a reader with the splendidly Wheatleyesque name of Zack Urlocker called my bluff, and compelled me to rethink my decision and track down what he considered a delightful piece of the Wheatley jigsaw.
Duly shamed, I acquired a second hand copy of the book that actually came next in sequence: not Contraband, but Murder Off Miami.

Lest any readers be unfamiliar what these crime dossiers were, they were an unlikely collaboration between Wheatley and his friend J. G. Links, not the sort of chap one might have expected to have any great interest in murder stories, or in Wheatley for that matter, being a highly respected art historian, world expert on Canaletto, and author (my wife reminded me this morning) of that delightful guide book Venice For Pleasure. Links and Wheatley had in fact been close personal friends since they met when the former was still a teenager; in Drink and Ink Wheatley describes him as one of his "Jewish lifelong friends" and adds "I am very proud to have had such a man as an intimate friend for over fifty years."
According to his account in the same book, the two were engaged in literary speculation in the mid-thirties when Links suddenly opined that there should be a detective story that abandoned all flights of narrative fancy and instead just stuck to the raw material of the investigation. Wheatley, intrigued by the idea, then suggested that as well as being composed of 'undramatised' police reports, interviews, statements and the like, the book could also include actual physical evidence, as well as facsimiles of letters, postcards, telegrams and all the other materials relevant to the investigation. By arranging all this material in sequence, a narrative will therefore emerge, stripped of all but its essential components.

It was a brilliant idea, although anathema to those who felt that the English detective novel should be setting its sights at high literary status: to such an outlook Wheatley's and Links's notion was retrograde indeed. But to those who savoured such books specifically for the intellectual exercise of pitting their wits against the criminal, and by extension the author, the idea was a brilliant one. You can imagine Sherlock Holmes turning gratefully to such a concept in the lulls between cases: a more sensible alternative to the cocaine bottle as remedy for lack of mental stimulation.
Therefore, it seems, Links set about devising the whodunnit plot - for which Wheatley admitted he had little aptitude - while Wheatley concentrated on the narrative structure and dialogue. (It remains to be questioned how accurately he maintains the lingo of thirties American cops and robbers: much of the transcripts play fair by the linguistic rules of a Warner Brothers gangster movie, though occasional references to characters being 'befogged' and 'no better than they should be' perhaps qualify as lapses.)
Delighting in their task, they assembled a rich assortment of realistic documents, on various types of paper in varying colours, thicknesses and sizes, and interspersed them with samples of hair, a discarded match and a piece of bloodstained curtain. (A measure of the fun they must have been having is indicated by the fact that a copy of 'No Ordinary Virgin', the first novel published by Wheatley's wife Joan under the pseudonym Eve Chaucer, is clearly visible in the police photograph of the victim's state room.)

The result was so plainly original that they seemed assured of success. What they hadn't accounted for, however, were the various practical obstacles to successful publication.
The complicated physical nature of the work would make it extremely expensive and time-consuming to produce, with a specially-employed staff to insert the samples of evidence, all of which would have to be separately provided - they would need a lot of hair, fabric and matches, even for a relatively modest print run! And then, because the book was presented as a dossier, in a cardboard folder, it was difficult for book shops to stock and display. Furthermore, the fact that the solution was revealed in a sealed section at the back, and various pieces of evidence were included in packets, meant that it was difficult for lending libraries to keep satisfactory copies. And all this in addition to the question of whether readers would take to the notion in the first place: it all added up to something of a risky venture.
In the event, by Wheatley's count, the book sold 120,000 copies in six months, despite initial scepticism from booksellers. ("Hatchards took only six copies," Wheatley notes in Drink and Ink, before adding triumphantly, "Queen Mary came in on the day it was published and bought the lot.") Declaring itself "a new era in crime fiction" on the cover, and dedicated inside to publisher Walter Hutchinson ("who always has the courage to back a new author of promise or a new idea"), it was deemed another spectacular success for Wheatley.

Set entirely aboard a pleasure boat, the book details the police examination of what is at first thought to be the suicide of eccentric soap magnate Bolitho Blane. But when heel marks are spotted on the missing man's carpet, consistent with his body being dragged to the porthole, and sponged-out patches of blood found on the curtains, Florida's ace Inspector Kettering decides to investigate more deeply, and uncovers a deadly rivalry between Depression-struck businessmen desperate to corner the world soap market. Even Japan is interested, in the form of inscrutable Inosuke Hayashi of the Shikoku Products Company, suppliers of soap to the Japanese armed forces. Could he have killed Blane to get his hands on his suds?
And what of the boat's owner, himself a soap tycoon fallen on hard times, or his pretty daughter, or the weird Bishop who faints when people enter the room, or the feckless married couple, the Honorable Reggie and Mrs Jocelyn, travelling with her wealthy mother, the formidable Lady Welter, whose fortune, with which she finances a string of loss-making Christian evangelical newspapers, is all tied up in - yes! you earn yourself a gold star! - soap.

Clearly, there are three angles from which to judge the book: as a technical exercise, successful or not on those specific terms, as a crime mystery in its own right, and as a Wheatley book.
On the first count the book is a delightful if superficial exercise in structural inventiveness. It's great fun to work one's way through the documents and consider the samples of evidence, but we don't actually learn anything from looking at a real sample of hair that we wouldn't glean from the accompanying description: no actual revelations are contained within the 'authentic' components, and the book would be just as clear and effective as a narrative if reissued without them (as it apparently has been). They're cute but not actually clues in themselves, and the novelty of their inclusion remains just that.
As a murder mystery it is pretty effective, I thought: I like to think of myself as no soft touch to a wily novelist intent on sleight of hand, and the revelation came as a complete surprise to me, at least. I think it's fair to say that all but the most practiced mystery buffs will feel as useless as Inspector Kettering, who declares himself "completely at a loss" in his report's final summing-up to his superiors, only to then receive the cable from Florida Police Lieutenant Schwab that opens the final, sealed section of the book, and begins: "To Detective Officer Kettering, Solution of murder perfectly clear on evidence submitted..."
The clues are all there and I certainly didn't spot them - I'd love to hear from any other readers who did.

Obviously, if viewed as a Wheatley novel Murder Off Miami can only be counted a pleasing diversion, albeit an extremely pleasing one. The characters are at best sketches, and I found myself longing for Wheatley's authorial voice to blunder inappropriately in and give us his true measure of them, especially when they are so obviously Wheatley characters in all but the degree to which we are able to get to know them. From their names (Carlton Rocksavage, Nellie Orde, Silas Ringbottom) to their interests (a copy of 'The Saint In New York' is passed around between them, earning Leslie Charteris his second name check in a Wheatley adventure), they read like the working sketches for characters in some forthcoming, 'real' Wheatley novel.
In particular there is the delightfully typical figure of Count Luigi Posodini, an Italian nobleman and playboy, revealed almost instantly to be one 'Slick' Daniels, a sharpie and all-round bad egg, no more Italian than anyone else on board. (One of his many aliases, it is interesting to note, is 'George Gordon-Carr', an echo, conscious or not, of Wheatley's shady friend and mentor, the late Eric Gordon-Tombe, himself never short of an alias or two.) Not dissimilar to Nicolas Costello in They Found Atlantis, or for that matter to any of Wheatley's other selfish, immature and excitable Latin types, he surely merits true fictional immortalising. ("Fire away, friend, fire away!" he cheerfully exclaims when Inspector Kettering, having discovered his true identity, suggests a few further questions.)

The same goes for perky young Miss Ferri Rocksavage who, as the only entirely blameless suspect, ends up a virtually unknown quantity, whereas in a straightforward novel she would presumably take centre stage as the heroine. (As to who would be the hero for her to pair off with at the end: well, none of this crowd, that's for sure: presumably Wheatley would have taken the pleasure cruisers out of radio range and beyond police assistance, and rewritten Inspector Kettering as an amateur sleuth already on board.)
I wanted more than a mere thumbnail sketch, too, of the dodgy Bishop of Bude, terrified of having his part in a frustratingly unspecified 'unsavoury episode' in 1917 revealed to the world. Indeed, all the characters cry out for a full Wheatley pen portrait, especially when they come immortalised in such delightful staged photographs.
There's lovely Ferri Rocksavage, looking confidently at the camera, a thoroughly modern cigarette smouldering unapologetically in her raised hand. Smiling a little too raffishly for my liking is the Hon Reggie Jocelyn, a pair of noisy checked socks prominently on display. His wife Pamela is certainly lovely in her slicked-backed Kay Francis hairdo, but unlike Ferri is photographed in uncommunicative profile - what has she to hide? For my money Mr Hayashi looks about as Japanese as Count Posodini is Italian, and I challenge anyone to hold the intimidating gaze of the terrifying Lady Welter for more than a second.
And as for the oddball Bishop... well he's posing a little too nonchalantly for a man of the cloth, I'd say, bald but for a few patches of white hair but sporting a fine pair of jet-black eyebrows. Under normal circumstances, Wheatley the novelist would surely have drawn our attention to those.

Monday, January 24, 2011

They Found Atlantis (1936)


I read most of They Found Atlantis in Cornwall, in early morning sessions by the sea, not far from Land's End, as the early morning breakers crashed against the rocks. The perfect backdrop for an entertaining if at times utterly insane fable.
The first half of the book is pretty straightforward stuff, a maritime adventure combining underseas exploration with a bit of high society intrigue, some sex, rivalry and a gangster plot above water level. Wheatley was by this time well practiced in the art of keeping two simultaneous plots on the move, and the opening chapters, mixing gangster thriller and sea adventure story, are as accomplished as ever.
But then, halfway through, it switches abruptly and - by me, at least - quite unexpectedly into outrageous sci-fi fantasy, as our intrepid heroes, stranded on the ocean bottom with no hope of returning to the surface, encounter an undersea kingdom of Atlanteans who grow plants in a sealed chamber, spend months asleep during which their astral bodies wander the surface of the earth and follow the lives of the inhabitants (on waking they then update their fellows with the latest developments, soap opera-style), see by earthlight, live for several hundred years, enjoy group sex, are forbidden from mentioning bad things lest they cause bad thoughts, and are plagued by a sub-race of blind, fish-eating sea humanoids and briefly glimpsed savage mermen.
Our heroes end up among them, get married and are then booted out again when sexual jealousy - long since evolved out of the gene pool of these enlightened ancients - leads to manslaughter. Not fancying spending the rest of their lives with the savage mermen they clamber up through the earth's crust to freedom.
Oh yes, and the one who's supposed to be an heiress isn't, and the one who's supposed to be just her dowdy relation turns out to be the heiress, and the attempt by smart-spoken gangster Oxford Kate (a man) to fleece her comes to nothing.
But I sense this is getting confusing. Let me retrace my steps.

What we have in They Found Atlantis is a Wheatley who has taken a gamble with fantastic and supernatural elements in The Devil Rides Out and seen that gamble pay off, plunging fearlessly into science fiction absurdity with a relish that I sometimes found myself wishing had been more cautiously applied. There is much wide-eyed fantasy, a schoolboy-like delight in the creation of alternative worlds, some left-over horrific detail from Devil (the description of the travellers' escape from the fish men is gruesomely described: "Tripping and stumbling over dead bodies and writhing wounded they literally hacked their way through the mass of short, naked, stinking, grey-white people"; Wheatley accurately describes the tableaux as "like a scene from hell conjured up by the vivid brush of some early Flemish painter"), and all combined with the usual clean-cut character dynamics of the straight, Rider Haggard-style adventure yarn.
Add to this the now customary fruits of his peripheral research, including lots of real, interesting scientific information about the techniques of undersea exploration that sits oddly indeed alongside the mermen, and you have a book that cannot fail to be interesting, but which must ultimately be counted among Wheatley's most eccentric diversions.

Of course, we don't doubt that they will find Atlantis - the title hints as much - but the discovery that it is still tenanted, and by a race of free-loving paganist weirdoes (this is the second book in a row in which characters have patiently explained to uptight western moderns the ancient glories of polygamy), will surely take most readers undefended.
Atlantis as a concept in a work of fiction I can swallow, but the non-Darwinian farrago of the book's final chapters I found a little too daft. Learned disquisition on the Atlantean phonetic alphabet further adds to the book's weird if often undeniably beguiling mix of rationalism and madness.

This is what Atlantis looked like, according to Wheatley, his wife, and his step-daughter

The book - which Wheatley described in Drink and Ink as "one of the best I have ever written" - was inspired by Wheatley's reading of Half Mile Down, adventurer William Beebe's account of the undersea discoveries he had made in his 'bathysphere', a reinforced iron sphere that allowed him to explore to depths previously impossible. The book had been published in 1934, and must have immediately set a train of thought in motion for Wheatley, who was fascinated by Beebe's account of the strange, twilight world beneath the waves, and the many strange and undiscovered lifeforms who make their home there. Wheatley dedicated the novel to Beebe when it was published two years later. (According to Phil Baker, Beebe was gracious enough to write him a letter of thanks, presumably for including so much of the technical detail concerning the bathysphere he had included in his own account.)

Beebe and his bathysphere

What Beebe made of the book's more fantastic episodes I do not know, nor am I sure how, when and why Wheatley decided to tie Beebe's invention with the myth of Atlantis in the first place. Judging by past form and Wheatley's own temperament, one might have expected something more along the lines of an undersea treasure hunt, with competing groups looking for treasure lost on the ocean bed. (This all sounds a lot like Peter Benchley's The Deep, and I was frequently reminded of Benchley's novel in the early stages of Wheatley's.) Almost certainly, I think, this would have been Wheatley's approach prior to the success of The Devil Rides Out, but the public response to that novel could well have emboldened (and drawn) him towards more fantastic themes.
It's possible that he may have read of the Atlantis myth during research for Devil: certainly there had been a revival of interest in the subject in the first half of the twentieth century, as an offshoot of Theosophy and similar occult and esoteric revivalist movements. But Wheatley does not mention anywhere that he took any particular personal interest, and it is relevant that (as noted in this extremely interesting discussion of the book and its influences) it is never clear when reading the book if Wheatley is himself a believer or simply using the old myths to help spin his yarn. (Whereas part of the unique power of Devil Rides Out derives from the reader's certainty of his absolute sincerity when describing Satanic powers.)
That the general occult research undertaken for Devil may have been his primary source of influence is further suggested by this passage, doubly interesting for its foretaste of the homunculi that would later become central to To The Devil, A Daughter:

"As with all other nations we had had in our midst from the beginning certain persons who practiced what, for want of a better name, I will call the Black Art. At first they were comparatively harmless, dealing only in spells, love-tokens and minor witchcraft, but the time came when they began to concern themselves with what you call 'science' and that proved the most unholy alliance which has ever entered the world.
"... the sorcerer-scientists saw their great chance to corrupt our people with their evil arts. They carried out many experiments in order to see if they could not succeed in creating life without the sanction of the Gods. 'Black' magicians in your upper world have endeavoured to do the same and have, as you may know, at times been partially successful. Such creatures are incubated in large glass containers and are termed Homunculi. They have the rudimentary form of man yet lack that God-given flame which you call the Soul. Our masters of Evil succeeded in the dread mystery at last, thus introducing a new and hideous race upon the earth. Beasts which moved and talked and functioned just like men although, unlike the lowest forms of true animal, they had not the faintest spark of the divine nature in them."

(That contentious swastika reappears too, in the pagan rites of the Atlantean women: "When she had done she kissed them both, made the sign of the Swastika on their foreheads, breasts, and thighs with a curiously scented oil from a tiny bottle...")
But another possible influence, of course, may have been his old mentor and prototype of Gregory Sallust, Eric Gordon Tombe (see here), who would have responded both to the wild esoteric fantasy and Greek classicism of the myth. Certainly the pagan Utopia that is Wheatley's Atlantis, all magic powers and no-strings sex, has a very definite touch of the Tombes about it:

"You see, each of us make what we require for ourselves and nothing more" Lulluma explained "and when we wish to eat we gather whatever fresh fruit is in season from the trees or net a fish in the lake and cook it. All waste is consumed immediately after by the earthshine."
"How does that work?" he asked. "It seems to have all the properties of sunshine."
"It has," she assured him. "You doubtless know that the centre of the earth is molten and gives off gases which are exactly similar to those which shoot out in great flames from the sun. Long ago our people tapped that source of heat and light and then it was a comparatively simple matter to conduct it through certain minerals so that it should give a steady glow. The circular arrangement round the roof enables the trees and plants to benefit from it at every angle in the same degree so that they are never distorted in one direction. The result is similar to that produced by the movement of your sun."
"Forgive me, but there are so many things I want to ask you" he smiled down at her. "From the way you speak you are obviously familiar with our upper world?"
"There is little do here" she answered enigmatically "except make love!"
"You find that pall at times?"
"No, never - because we do not abuse our zest for it. Once every year or two each of us has some tremendous affair which lasts a few months, then when we are satiated for the moment, we go away. Later the urge rises again and when we feel it really strongly we take our happiness with another."
"You speak of going away. What do you mean by that?"
"Two of us are always what you would call 'on duty' here. It was the turn of Nahou and myself when you arrived. The others spend most of the year in sleep. Sometimes we sleep for a month or more at a stretch, and during that time our spirit travels - as quickly as an ether wave. We have learned to direct it to the place where we wish to go. The eyes of our invisible bodies can observe your customs and our ears can hear your speech. That is how we have learned your languages and know quite a lot about you, but there are many things you do which puzzle us still."

The party's prudishness in particular tickles the Atlanteans: "They do not understand nakedness, as we do who are so old in time that we have come to appreciate the wisdom of reverting to the customs of simple savages in some things," they muse, then educate: "You will soon learn the joy of being free from such stuffy clothes and your skins will be the better for it."

I did find myself hoping, as the travellers become more and more enamoured of this dreary paradise, mooning about with a bunch of hippies twenty thousand leagues under the sea and never a thought for the world of fine wines and Hoyo cigars they have left behind, that the Atlanteans would suddenly prove less obliging than they seem, possessed of a sinister side, perhaps even that the whole thing may have been some kind of trap... but no, in true W. B. Yeats fashion it is we who are not worthy of the faeries, and when nasty human emotions cloud the antiseptic perfection of Atlantis it is time to travel back to the surface with all the other reprobates.

I get the feeling the champagne was flowing a little too freely at the Wheatleys' when much of this was being penned, and it is a relief on the occasions, not rare but not quite frequent enough, when the man's bluff cynicism shows through the hippy-dippy veneer. ("What do you hope to find if we go on," asks Nicolas in response to the suggestion that they should proceed further into the strange and perilous undersea world into which they have stumbled, "the Ritz-Carlton Grill Room round the corner or a handy Lyons?")
And there's a fascinating, lengthy passage in which the hero questions an Atlantean wise man as to the mechanical means of their survival underwater, and how such fantastic things as we have been bombarded with for several chapters could possibly be. Each absurd invention of previous episodes is accounted for in patient, thorough, painstaking and surely redundant detail, with each point made clear followed by some fresh objection, and again by a fresh explanation - of a sort demanded surely, by this time, by no more than one reader in a hundred. (Any who needed such validation to accept the events of the book would have given up on it long before it arrives!)
In moments like this it's as if the tension between Wheatley the fantasist and Wheatley the rationalist is actually being acted out on the page.
Certainly he is at his most relaxed and characteristic when then book is above water, the thrills are rational, and the pace measured enough for his customary expansiveness, discursiveness and trademark merciless characterisation.
The hero McKay (referred to as 'the McKay' throughout, and modelled on a recent acquaintance of Wheatley's, Captain Magee RN Retd, "a delightful character" who also contributed technical information to Black August, according to Drink and Ink) is a salty rogue, with Wheatley's own preferences in politics, women and lifestyle, presented, like so many Wheatley heroes, as somewhat rough around the edges, somewhat older and more dissipated than your average fiction adventure hero and by no means classically handsome, but possessed of tremendous strength of personality. And here is Wheatley on the heroine, Sally:

Sally's skin was good, her nose straight, her mouth full and red, her teeth excellent, the eyes wide set but not large enough to give her face distinction. She was attractive but not a real beauty.
Her cheeks were just a shade too full and nothing, she knew, could alter that any more than the most skilful plucking would ever convert her golden eyebrows from semi-circular arches to the long narrow Garboish sweeps which she would have liked. Besides, shame of all shames, her otherwise quite perfect figure was marred by thick ankles.

I say, steady on, old chap!
That reference to Garbo is one of a pair, by the way: elsewhere Camilla, the phoney heiress, contemplates breaking into movies and "outgarboing Garbo". Wheatley always took a keen interest in movies and movie people (a character called King Karloff is mentioned in passing, and one of the Atlanteans is likened to Mae West: a deliciously unimaginable image!), but it was perhaps ill-feeling towards their latest attempt to adapt his own work (The Secret of Stamboul, see here) that caused him to create the utterly repellent character of Nicolas Costello, crooning romantic lead of Hollywood movies, thief and coward, one of Carmilla's many jealous suitors and the ultimate cause of the travellers' ejection from Atlantis.
Sally and McKay have this exchange after the latter describes Costello as "that little filth":

"Nicky's not so bad. He's rather fun I think, and quite a famous film star. You've only got a hate against him because you don't like crooners - you said so the other day."
"I'd croon him if I had him in a ship with me," said the McKay grimly. "I took a dislike to that young man before I even knew what brand of idiocy he indulged in..."

Wheatley later describes Costello as "resplendent in a pale blue flannel suit that no man other than a film star would have dared to wear", and, as he exercises "the muted cross between a tenor and alto which he called his voice", observes:

Some people like listening to crooners. Obviously many people must, for the records of the theme songs from Nicky's pictures sold in their millions all over the world. Camilla certainly did, and lay back with half-closed eyes savouring to the full the primitive emotionalism of 'Dear baby God gave me, I'm holding your hands' and 'In all the world, Mother - there's no one like you'. Not so the McKay, who fifty feet away in the deck lounge, trumped his partner's trick, apologised and muttered fiercely: "God! how I'd like to tan that youngster's hide!"

It is in passages like these, rather than the more bizarre stretches of Jules Verne-like fantasy, that the authentic Wheatley voice is most clearly heard.