Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Fabulous Valley (1934)


Upstairs, Patricia was humming a little tune to herself as she combed her brown curls round her fingers... 'Oh, how good it is,' she thought, 'to be young and attractive, and going out to dinner with someone one really likes...'
.
Roger Philip Wisdon Philbeach had seen the traces of powder on Michael's lapels that night in the Carlton after she had been up to Aasvoglerkop. He wanted some of that powder himself...
.
A mad, wild rage, which made his heart catch in his throat at the thought of the way in which he had been treated, filled him with a sudden renewal of energy and, completely forgetful that in his present state he could not have stood up to a well-grown girl, he set off at a brisk pace to pursue and attack his despoilers...
.
'Oh, for God's sake!' Michael pleaded. 'We're half crazy with anxiety. That swine told us before he pushed off in his boat that he'd got them in a nice little cage and he was going to make them both sing to-night. Can't you understand what that means?'
'What's that you say - cage?' The Captain's eyes brightened suddenly. Then he went on half-reminiscently:
'Could it be the same man, I wonder - but no - it's ten years since we heard anything of him. Yet now I come to think of it the description fits this chap from what little I remember.'
'Are you thinking of the Gorilla?' one of the other policemen broke in...
.
Ten minutes later it had disappeared over the crest, leaving the Van Niekerks and Sandy to face their last night behind the protective barrier of fire from the remaining timbers of old John's wagon. Then . . . eighty miles of desert or . . . the leopards!
.
The Fabulous Valley is a romp, a ripping yarn, the pulpiest of pulp fiction: a multi-character saga in which an assortment of greedy relatives and a few criminals attempt to beat each other to a vast fortune by following the clues in an enigmatic will.
According to the document, there is, somewhere in the remote desert of South Africa, a valley littered with diamonds. They are there for the taking, provided the seeker survives the various perils - natural, human and legal - that stand between them and the ultimate prize...
Like many another potboiler of its era, The Fabulous Valley begins with the reading of the will. The great advantage of the will-reading first scene to the novelist is that it not only sets up the plot but also gets most of the main characters in the same room at the same time. He is then able to introduce them to the reader one at a time at his leisure and convenience.
We can make pretty shrewd guesses from the first which are most likely to emerge as heroes and which as villains, and which are most and least likely to survive to the last chapter. And as always with Wheatley there is the strong reliance on phrenology, facial characteristics and the qualities (or otherwise) of the characters' chins, from which he confidently discerns and imparts reams of psychological meaning.
This job done, the fun and games begin, and the reader is swept into a breathless and always enjoyable treasure hunt, with the full quota of treachery, chases and murderous attacks, culminating in an epic trek through the South African desert. The ever-deepening spiral of deception, misunderstanding, revelation, cross, double-cross and coincidence becomes almost a bewildering comedy.
.
It's all very effective but entirely formulaic, and this is the first of Wheatley's books, really, of which there is little of especial interest to note. When reading the books for the purposes of this exercise, I always keep a notebook at hand, frequently stopping to note important passages and sketch out first drafts of what I want to say. It suddenly struck me this time, however, that I had got to page 82 and still not written anything.
This is not to say I wasn't enjoying it, because I was. But for the first time I had the feeling that this was a work by Dennis Wheatley, bestselling author, rather than Dennis Wheatley, young man with something to prove. The book is a trifle, in both senses: a thing of small ambition perfectly realised, and a dessert between more substantial courses.
.
Of course, he owed himself a trifle, if ever an author did. He had written four hugely successful books in less than two years, and he and Joan "felt that we deserved a holiday." They opted for South Africa, but Wheatley the novelist was immediately inspired by the things he saw and heard there, many of which found their way directly into The Fabulous Valley: a house previously owned by Gandhi when he was a lawyer practicing in Johannesburg (in the period when "he started all his stupid nonsense", as Wheatley has one of his characters express it); the Amalati, a gang who would creep up behind the unwary and throttle them with bicycle chains, the dangerous roads leading to Portuguese East, and the unfenced nature reserve with its roaming leopards and lions.
But, as Wheatley recalls in his autobiography, the primary inspiration for the book was a chance remark by High Commissioner Charles de Water:
.
Up in the vast wastes of South West Africa there is a small area known as 'The Place of the Great Glitter'. The sand there is sprinkled with uncut diamonds and in moonlight they give off a faint glow. Several prospectors are said to have stumbled on this field and picked up from it a fortune in an hour; but, as there is no water within many miles of it, many more have died of thirst in that arid land.
.
Whether or not it had been Wheatley's intention before setting off on the trip to look for likely material for his next book, The Fabulous Valley inaugurated what would soon become a regular tradition of using his holidays deliberately as fodder for the novels. In this way he felt better able to justify, as research trips, the lavish excursions all over the globe that almost uniquely had the power to drag him away from his writing desk for prolonged periods. He would return from these jaunts with a plot idea and a mass of historical, geographical and colloquial detail with which to embellish it, and bestow upon it that feeling of first hand reportage that was also the hallmark of Hemingway and Fleming.
He did not begin the book immediately on returning, however: first he knocked off a film script for Gaumont British. (His Guiding Star was intended as a vehicle for Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, but the bad luck dogging Wheatley's attempts to break into cinema continued to exercise its influence, and the film was never made.) This done, he set to work with a vengeance, producing the book with his usual energy and intolerance of all distractions, pleasurable or otherwise.
Two things stand out above all. One is his genuine talent for evoking the exact sensations of place and climate, conveying his characters' physical ordeals - exertion, endurance, exhaustion, heat, insects, thirst, burning sun - with a genuinely uncomfortable aplomb. He is a master of this far from negligible art, and his gifts are on full display in the book's second half. The diamond quest itself is resolved two thirds in, then just as we are expecting the plot to resolve itself neatly and predictably, Wheatley lets rip with his trademark climaxes upon climaxes upon climaxes.
Second, he also makes interesting use of overlapping and non-linear narrative, so that events we have already read of from one perspective are described again at the end of a later episode describing the experiences of another character. In this way the plot threads are tied together without the need for frequent cross-cutting. I have no idea if this is truly innovative, but it feels innovative.
.
Despite these points, Wheatley rightly felt the book fell below his best standards: "Although the book sold well," he writes in Drink and Ink, "I never thought much of it." Though never a tiresome or unengrossing experience to read, it is certainly not a book that lingers much in the memory. One suspects that Wheatley did not care for it for the same reason he dismissed Such Power Is Dangerous: because he wrote it quickly and easily. But while Such Power outweighed the hastiness of its formulation with a genuinely unusual and fascinating central idea, The Fabulous Valley sticks firm to the most basic formulae of popular adventure fiction. It is, unquestionably, a time-filler - for its author every bit as much as its readers.
But if any of those readers were nurturing the feeling that Wheatley had run out of surprises they were soon to have their fears rudely disabused. Writing at his usual furious rate he returned almost immediately to his very highest form with a book that remains one of the touchstones of British genre fiction, its title still common parlance nearly seventy-five years after it was written: a little something called The Devil Rides Out.