Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The Forbidden Territory (1933)
It is one of the most charming features of Dennis Wheatley's debut novel that it came about more or less by chance.
To Wheatley fans, the story of how and why he embarked on a literary career is pretty well-known, but nonetheless bears retelling.
Following distinguished service in the First World War, he took on management of the Wheatley family wine merchant business in 1919.
(It was in this capacity, in fact, that Wheatley produced his first work as a writer: Historic Brandies , Old Masters: Catalogue of Old Brandies, etc  and At the Sign of the Flagon of Gold .)
The success of the business financed a lavish lifestyle during the roaring twenties, but Wheatley was hit hard by the Depression of the early thirties and ended up losing the business. Recently married, for the second time, and with many expenses, he found himself looking with some urgency for alternative forms of income.
From Drink and Ink, volume three of his autobiography The Time Has Come (1977):
Our most pressing worry was shortage of money. I was reduced to living on Joan, as my mother refused to help me, and I still had a number of debts... Joan was an excellent manager and we lived very quietly, practicing every possible economy. She sacked her cook and took over the kitchen. There were no more theatres, dining out or giving cocktail parties. For drink we had to limit ourselves, except on special occasions, to a glass of sherry each in the evenings.
But even economies this drastic proved insufficient:
I was perpetually harassed by letters from my new solicitor and accountant, enclosing long statements from Fearon, Block & Co. giving particulars of ways in which they claimed I had defrauded them... I could only sit, brooding, day after day in the flat.
It was my wonderful Joan who saved me from this ghastly, futile existence. I had shown her some of my short stories I had written years before, just for fun. One day she said: "Why don't you write a book? I'm sure you could."
I had little faith in my ability to do so and even if I did, and succeeded in getting a publisher to take it, I could not hope to make more out of it than about fifty pounds. But having a shot at it would at least take my mind off my worries; so I bought some paper and sat down to write a thriller.
It was accepted, and Wheatley made his fifty pounds:
The book was published on 3rd January 1933... The first printing of The Forbidden Territory had been 1500 copies, but only 800 had had the pictorial endpapers pasted in. The demand of the trade had been so large that the other 700 copies had had to be rushed out without endpapers; and orders to reprint the book had already been sent before it had even been published.
I had become a best-seller overnight.
The Forbidden Territory introduced the most celebrated of Wheatley's recurring characters: the Duc de Richleau, Simon Aron, Rex van Ryn and Richard Eaton. There were others: Gregory Sallust, of course, Julian Day, and Roger Brook. But, thanks largely to one of their later adventures called The Devil Rides Out, it is these, whom he sometimes referred to as "those modern musketeers" - inspired by his childhood love of Dumas, probably his greatest literary influence - that remain his best-known. The leader of the four, the Duke, is an elderly French aesthete and Royalist ("for us who preserve the loyalties of our birth, there is still a King of France"), unable to return to the country of his birth on account of his participation in a failed coup to restore the French monarchy, and now a citizen of the world who divides his time between wine, cigars and the imparting of a lifetime's wisdom to a coterie of younger accolytes. It was a character that, somehow, one cannot imagine anyone but Wheatley creating.
(Incidentally, my edition of the book - part of the beloved Heron series - spells the character's name throughout as De Reichleau - I have yet to discover if this is a misprint, or something that Wheatley deliberately revised - perhaps because of Nazi connotations - as the series progressed.)
Interestingly, however, The Forbidden Territory was not that first thriller he settled down to write at Joan's instigation, neither was it the first book he had accepted for publication, nor even was it the first appearance of the modern musketeers. The characters were originally created for a murder thriller inspired in part by Wheatley's feelings of resentment against his mother, in which he imagined her being drowned in her bath for her insurance. It is in the course of this narrative that the musketeers meet for the first time.
Inspired by his success at this first attempt, Wheatley then settled down to write a second adventure for the characters. It was this follow-up that became The Forbidden Territory, but both Wheatley and his publishers agreed it was much the superior of the two, and so it was duly published as his first book. (The murder thriller was eventually published as Three Inquisitive People in 1940.)
Wheatley and his wife Joan in the mid-thirties.
It is tempting to speculate what might have happened had Wheatley published his murder mystery first. Might it have typed him as a detective story writer in the Christie-Allingham-Sayers manner? Might it even, unthinkably, have been a failure, stifling his writing career at birth?
Whatever, the rousing mix of Boy's Own adventure, a very nineteen-thirties kind of sex and violence and sharply convincing incidental detail that characterised The Forbidden Territory catapulted Wheatley into the bestseller lists, where he remained until his death.
As seems to often be the case with the Modern Musketeers novels, the book deals with three of the team being assembled to rescue the fourth, in this case van Ryn, who has got himself locked up in Soviet Russia.
As a thriller, the book is virtually a textbook. Betraying none of its author's inexperience, it dives straight into the action, pencil-sketching the characters as it goes, building to climax upon climax, alternating chase and escape and cliffhanger, and always managing to offer just enough detail to make the settings vivid and believable. It was a justified success.
NB: It's definitely Richleau here.
The most interesting aspect of the novel to modern eyes, of course, is its attitude to Communism, which is one that goes well past condemnation and into hatred, characterised by a moral revulsion that remains surprising not in a man of Wheatley's class and experiences per se, but surely in a man of Wheatley's class and experiences settling down to write a crowd-pleasing thriller.
Neither should we underestimate the extent to which Soviet Russia was being sucked up to by English intellectuals and literary fellow-travellers at and around this time.
The year in which it appeared also saw the publication of Harold Laski's Democracy In Crisis (an "explanation of why capitalism and democracy are incompatible"), the year before saw Cole's Intelligent Man's Guide Through World Chaos ("I believe that the Capitalistic System has done its work, and outlived its strength and usefulness") and John Middleton Murry declaring that "Communism in some form is inevitable" in The Necessity of Communism ('32), while the Webbs contributed their comedy classic Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation in 1935. Then, of course, there was Bernard Shaw returning ecstatic from a visit to Russia, on what he seemed genuinely not to realise was a carefully orchestrated propaganda tour throughout which he was manipulated and deceived with heartbreaking ease, declaring that Russia was a more civilised country than his own. All them cornfields, and ballet in the evenings.
Then, smashing with an ingenue's incaution through all the sanctimony and sycophancy came Wheatley, blazing a path of burning vitriol through this swamp of vacuous credulity, and telling his readers that, far from heaven on earth, this Shavian paradise was a vile and inhuman hell. "I never did believe what they say in Moscow about being frightened of a combined attack by the capitalist countries," he has Simon say at one point; "they're out to conquer us - that's a certainty."
The anger that seems to underscore his convictions occasionally erupts into passages of extraordinary savagery for what is basically an escapist thirties thriller. In one sequence, the Duke kills a Russian, and Simon feels a wave of nausea at "this sudden slaying of a fellow human without warning." But De Richleau is quick to reassure him:
"There, there, my son," said De Reichleau, soothingly. "Do not waste your great heart on this scum. Praise be to God, I have killed many such. You would not pity him if you had seen, as I have, all that his kind accomplished in 1919 and 1920. I fought with Denikin's White Army, and we saw sights that froze one's heart. Little children burned to death - men with their eyes gouged out - women of our own blood, who had been kept in brothels, filthy with disease - a thousand horrors committed at the instigation of your friend Leshkin and his kind. It is a nightmare that I would forget. Come now, help me to hide the body of this dog."
Most impressively of all, Wheatley targets not just the brutality and despair beneath the surface of the Communist public image, but the actual propaganda mechanics of that image itself, the very things that made such a fool of Shaw.
The cinemas show "none of the productions of Hollywood or Elstree, only the propaganda films, in which the heroine was a strapping peasant wench or factory girl", and when naive Simon briefly considers remaining in Russia and marrying a Communist actress, he speaks for the useful idiots as he explains his thinking to Richard Eaton:
"Well - er - as a matter of fact, I'm not coming back to England, you see it's this way - Valeria Petrovna takes the New Russia very seriously. She simply wouldn't hear of coming to England - talked about her art - that it belonged to the Russian people. Besides, she really believes that the Communists are going to make a better world for everybody, and that Russia's the one place to live. I'll tell you - I think there's a lot in what she says."
"Simon, you're talking rot, and you know it. But seriously, are you really prepared to give up everything and live in a pigsty like this?"
And as for the constant loudspeakers:
"What's it all about?" asked Simon. "Loud-speakers never seem to stop here! I noticed them all morning, and again this afternoon - can't be news all the time, can it?"
"It is the Five Year Plan, my friend," the Duke shrugged. "Never for one second are the masses allowed to forget it. Those megaphones relate what is being done all the time - how many tractors have been turned out in Stalingrad today - how many new teachers graduated with honours from the University of Karkov last week - how many tons of ore have been taken from the great Kuznetsky basin, which they are now beginning to exploit - how the branch of the young Communist party in Nijni-Novgorod has passed a resolution giving up their fifth day holiday, for a year, in order that The Plan may be completed the quicker - and every five minutes the announcer says: 'You who hear this - what are you doing for the Five Year Plan? - what are you dong that the Five Year Plan shall be completed in Four?'" He shuddered.
"There is something terrible about it, my son. These fanatics will yet eat us alive."
Fittingly, somehow, the novel ends happily with the cold-blooded killing of the foursome's nemesis, Kommissar Leshkin, and the promise of more adventures for our heroes.
It is in the course of this adventure, incidentally, that Richard Eaton meets and marries the Princess Marie Lou, who becomes a decidedly unaristocratic Englishwoman - and he Paul Eddington, what's more - in the Hammer film of The Devil Rides Out...
De Reichleau raised one slanting eyebrow meditatively. Sly dog, that Richard; what a thing it was to be young and in Vienna, city of dreams. How fond he was of them all, and how fortunate he was - that, at his age, all these young people seemed to take such pleasure in his company. Life was a pleasant thing indeed. He drew thoughtfully on his cigar, and quietly strolled down the corridor.