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.