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.

5 comments:

Sextonblake said...

There has been a suggestion recently that Sallust directly inspired James Bond. It's one of those things that can be endlessly argued one way or another, but when you read CONTRABAND there are definite echoes of Bond. The opening in the gaming house recalls CASINO ROYALE. Then there's May, Bond's loving but disapproving housekeeper. Any relation to Rudd, I wonder. The fact that the book is shorter with less complex plotting is also similar to the Fleming novels.

The selfish, amoral Gregory of BLACK AUGUST was probably much closer to Toombe, but I imagine that such a character would be difficult to fit into the sort of stories that Wheatley wanted to write. I've always thought that long running series characters change from the people the writer thinks they are, and become something much closer to the writer. The hard nosed James Bond of the early books never entirely goes away, but he becomes much deeper and less severe. By the time of the last books he is able to crack jokes and relax with friends, which is something that the doesn't sit well with the original character. By the time of THE SCARLET IMPOSTOR, Gregory has become a patriotic middle-aged man determined to somehow make a difference to the war effort. In effect he has become Wheatley.

Matthew Coniam said...

Except in so far as I haven't actually read those later books, I'm inclined to agree with all of this.
In fact, two notes I made as I was reading Contraband that didn't find their way into the final post were that Sallust seems to be turning from Tombe into Wheatley, or at least Wheatley as he would most like to be (which is, I suppose, Wheatley with a generous dash of Tombe, and that's Sallust)- that struck me especially in the part when Sallust says he could have been a good thriller writer - and that I caught the scent of Fleming in the casino and the climactic torture scene.
Thanks for commenting!

Sextonblake said...

Another thought. Was Quex house a nod to William le Queux, the Edwardian spy novelist? He was obsessed with the idea of England being invaded, which ties up with the themes of this book.

Sextonblake said...

Having finished reading it again, I have to say that, shorter or not than usual, it is a very enjoyable book. It feels a little like DW's attempt to create a hero on par with The Saint or The Baron. Rudd very much resembles someone like Simon Templar's manservant 'Orace. Sallust is a little too much establishment to be one of those 'Gentleman Outlaws' described in W V Butler's superb book THE DURABLE DESPERADOES, but there is a family resemblance. He was a little too late to join the fray, although his finest hour came in the war, which gave characters like The Saint a number of problems. A final thought: could the shorter, simplified plot be an attempt to write something that could more easily be turned into a film? By this point he had seen two movie versions of his books, and he might have felt that there was no harm in helping things along.

Matthew Coniam said...

"He was obsessed with the idea of England being invaded, which ties up with the themes of this book."

And with bizarre codes, another.

That's an interesting point, too, about Wheatley thinking in terms of movies. He must have thought that they would be a fairly regular occurrence. He couldn't have guessed that would be it now until the late sixties.