At ten to six his great silver Hispano-Suiza was waiting at the street door. The chauffeur and footman were clad in grey liveries and wore tall, wide-topped grey Persian lamb pepenkas at a rakish angle on their heads. Many people often turned to stare with interest or admiration at such an unusual display of personality when the Duke drove about London and some of the nouveau riche among his neighbours who could, if they had wished, have afforded a precisely similar turn-out but lacked the courage to appease their envy, spoke of it as the most vulgar ostentation.
It is quite true that de Richleau possessed a flamboyant taste in such matters, but that anyone should dream of questioning his indulgence of it never even crossed his mind. If he ever thought of the matter at all it was only to reflect upon the sadly degenerate age into which he had been born; an age in which he must content himslef with a mere couple of men seated in front of him in a motor-car, whereas many of his ancestors had usually driven through the streets with sixteen outriders preceding them. Completely oblivious of the looks of admiration or envy which were cast at his equipage, he was conveyed smoothly through Hyde Park to Knightsbridge, remarking only, in the light of the early July evening, how lovely the flowers were looking in the beds...
Is it possible for a Democrat voter and a Republican voter to be friends in the age of Hillary and Trump? Can a Brexiteer and a Remainer pull up a bar stool and talk about football? Would a Tory and a Corbynite knowingly sit next to each other on the bus?
If you fear the answer is no, take heart from The Golden Spaniard, in which the four inseparable 'Modern Musketeers' (they being, if you need reminding, which you don't, the Duc de Richleau, Simon Aron, Rex van Ryn and Richard Eaton, our pals from The Forbidden Territory and The Devil Rides Out) find themselves split into warring pairs during the Spanish Civil War.
As the story progresses, they impede, betray and conspire against each other, to the extent of frequently bringing each other to the brink of mortal peril. Further, they find themselves in opposite camps not through accident of nationality or circumstance but because of ideological conviction, with Simon and Rex siding with the Communists and the Duke and Richard with the Fascists. (They were always an odd assortment in any event: the Duke seemingly a connoisseur of anything cultivated and an authority on everything else, Simon hot-headed and impulsive, Rex strong, loyal and with the intellect of a prize ox, and Richard the totally dependable but none too imaginative backbone of England: "I never did like Trotsky," he volunteers at one point. "A vile fellow and a windbag to boot.")
Yet for all the figurative and near-literal backstabbing to which they relentlessly subject each other through the course of the novel, not for a moment do they renounce their friendship, or entertain serious doubt that sooner or later they'll be back in civilised England together, sharing a brace of partridge and something special from the Duke's cellar. That Wheatley somehow manages to make us believe this nonsense is just one of many balancing acts he pulls off in the course of this fabulously energised novel.
It has been said that the reason Ernest Hemingway's work declined in quality was not because he lost his talent, but because the world ran out of subjects worthy of it, condemning him to repetition and self-pastiche. As a popular genre writer, that was obviously never going to be a comparable problem for Dennis Wheatley. If the well of contemporary thrills seemed in danger of drying he could switch course and dabble in horror or fantasy or detective fiction. But there's no question that he was at his best when his imagination was ignited by the headlines, and after the slight 'conveyer belt' feeling of his last few titles, the Spanish Civil War gave him everything he needed to come back with all guns blazing.
So is The Golden Spaniard Wheatley's own For Whom the Bell Tolls? Well, no, not quite. But it is, nonetheless, an exceptionally impressive performance, filled with exciting action, rivetingly paced, and piling twist upon twist upon twist until literally the last sentence, while still finding time for all his customary diversions into politics, travelogue and history. In Drink and Ink he calls it "one of the best I have ever written." It is, I would suggest, unquestionably the most accomplished piece of work he had written thus far.
Wheatley was also disarmingly frank about its inspiration:
The main theme was a plagiarism of Alexandre Dumas's Twenty Years After, in which during the war of the Fronde, the four friends take opposite sides for political reasons; d'Artagnan and Porthos siding with the Court; Athos and Aramis with the Frondeurs.
|A less dramatic cover than the above, with a somewhat Grace Kelly-ish Lucretia-José|
Given that Wheatley's own leanings should be in no doubt (Franco "had my vote every time," he writes in Drink and Ink, adding that he considered it "inconceivable that any sane person would wish to see Spain in the hands of the Communists"), the book somewhat belies his popular image by giving a remarkably fair hearing to both sides, as well as shying from neither side's faults or injustices. Indeed, more or less the entirety of Chapter 4 is given over to a patient and sincere explication of the Socialist position, with Wheatley saving the opposing case for Chapter 5 ("The Other Side of the Picture").
There is much comparison with the fascisms of Italy and Germany, with Simon and his "unquestionably Semitic nose" especially attuned to the plight of Germany's Jews: a phenomenon which one could still, if one so chose, get away with underestimating in 1938. Wheatley gives Simon and de Richleau this exchange:
"... Look what's happened in Italy and Germany. No one can call their souls their own. D'you think I want to see Spain go the same way?"
"Never mind Spain. How about this country? If you had to choose would you rather live under a Fascist or Communist Dictatorship?"
"Communist, every time."
"But, my dear Simon, you're a capitalist - and a darned rich one. They'd not only take part of your money as the Fascists might, but the lot, and put you up against a brick wall in addition."
"They might rob me of my money and, because of it, of my life, but at least my people would not be persecuted on account of their race."
De Richleau sighed. "I'm sorry, Simon. I appreciate your feelings, but it never occurred to me that you would associate the Spanish Conservatives with the Nazis. Actually, of course, they are poles apart."
"Don't you believe it," Simon flared. "When the Spanish Right was in power its methods were identical with those of these German bullies - moral and physical torture applied to anyone who opposed them. Besides, if the Communists are going to try to get control of the country the anti-Communists have got to line up with the Fascists - haven't they? It's their only chance."
And this between de Richleau and Rex:
"... Like myself, of course, you are a diehard anti-Communist."
"Sure, but I'm a diehard anti-Nazi too for that matter. The things those skunks have done to the poor wretched Jews in Germany just don't bear thinking about."
"Thanks." In one of his elegant, slender hands which, on occasion, could so unexpectedly exert a grip of steel, de Richleau took the froth-topped glass that Rex proffered him. "Naturally we all deplore these senseless excesses against an unfortunate minority, but they are incomparably less terrible than the wholesale slaughter of an entire property-owning class, as has happened in Russia.
"However," he added with a fatherly twinkle in his eye, "international politics have never been your strong suit, Rex, and I'm confident you value my judgement sufficiently to leave that part of it to me."
The implication is not so much that their friendship had hitherto been strong enough to transcend political difference so much as that politics had not been felt sufficiently important to test it; Wheatley elsewhere notes de Richleau's bewilderment that this should be about to change:
A worried frown creased the Duke's broad forehead. Apart from the fact that they had risked their lives for each other in the past his friendship with Simon was based on their mutual love of beautiful things. When they met they rarely talked politics but discussed their latest discoveries in the world of art, and both of them could linger lovingly over a jade carving or a page of prose.
Indeed, when hosting the socialists at his house, Simon is still canny enough to serve "a drinkable but inexpensive" sherry: "Simon was one of the most generous men in London but he was far too sensible to waste fine liquor on people who did not understand it."
These passages, in which the Duke minimises the Nazi pogroms as regrettable but of little ultimate consequence ("German Jew-baiting is horrible, I know," he says in still another exchange, "but it isn't wholesale murder"), presumably qualify as text-book examples of the kind of thing that Wheatley's present day editor Miranda Vaughan Jones (see here) describes as "a faithful representation of how people spoke at that time", and therefore protected speech, rather than what she characterised, and pruned, as "authorial intervention". The trouble with Wheatley, though, is that he so often blurs the lines between the two, and especially so in this novel, so it would be interesting to see how much of this one in particular escaped her scissors.
|"The Duke got a Union Jack out of one of his suitcases, they ran it up on a short flagstaff over the office block, and there was nothing more they could do." - The Golden Spaniard, end of Chapter XVII|
The title character herself, who we first meet imploring the Duke to enter the fray on the Fascists' behalf, is the luminous Lucretia-José de Cordoba y Coralles, whose "golden hair combined with markedly Spanish features gave her a most unusual type of beauty." When we next encounter her, however, she is attending Simon's socialist soiree, and under the new identity of the Golden Spaniard. Working undercover, we learn that she has risen high among the ranks of the Spanish revolutionaries, and as the novel progresses we discover her to be exceptionally resourceful, cunning and intelligent. Wheatley's heroines are often made of fairly plucky stuff, but Lucretia-José is also ruthless and an expert tactician. "What a man that girl would have made," ruminates the Duke, presumably paying her his ultimate compliment. Wheatley even adds a dash of Romeo and Juliet as she falls for the sincere revolutionary Cristoval Ventura. To say that this outcome troubles her is to put it mildly:
It seemed inconceivable to her that she had fallen for a Red. It was one thing to consort with them for her own purposes and while doing so to forget, at times, the great gulf fixed; but quite another to admit for a second that she could really care for one of these warped, atheistic monsters who were out to destroy all that was best and finest in her dearly loved Spain.
But again, once Wheatley burns himself out on hyperbole, he relaxes enough to permit an even-handedness that we might not have expected of him:
At first she had loathed the people with whom she had to mix. Their whole outlook was so utterly at variance with her own passionate belief in the fitness of a Catholic and Monarchist Spain that it proved an almost unendurable strain to refrain from screaming at the blasphemies they uttered. Only the fact that she knew their jargon backwards and the story that she was the illegitimate daughter of a Catholic priest, which they swallowed greedily enough, gave her sufficient cover to remain unsuspected when she turned white from sheer horror at finding herself alone among these ghouls who thirsted for the blood of her friends and her class. In those early days the very smell of the unwashed crowds who gathered in the dreary meeting-halls had filled her with such nausea that it had been a struggle to prevent herself being physically sick. She felt that she would never be clean again from mental and bodily contamination but, as the months passed, familiarity with such surroundings brought a subtle change in her attitude.
She had begun to look with new eyes upon these denizens of a strange, squalid, twilight world. Some she recognized as professional trouble-makers who scraped a living from the meagre collections obtained after addressing meetings, but most were honest people made bitter by the injustices of fate. Once she had grasped the appalling conditions under which many of them were born and died, the ignorance that condemned them to slavery all their lives and how a whim of fashion or the ill-timed increase of a tax could rob hundreds of them of the bare pittance on which they lived, a new horror gripped her.
Before long realization had come to her that in their private lives most of them could be as gentle, as kind, as courteous and much more generous, within their limited means, than the people amongst whom she had been brought up. She found that they possessed abundant humour too and an almost unbelievable fortitude when fate dealt harshly with them.
|There's a touch of Mae West to this one|
Wheatley's keen (but usually fleeting) eye for sadism is here given freer reign than customary, prompted by extended scenes of mob violence. (The tyranny of the mob has been a feature of much of his previous work, in both fiction and non-fiction.):
The pavements were still hot from the long day of blazing sunshine, the air was stifling and the hooligans, male and female, only wore a minimum of garments. Led by criminal and sadistic lunatics, who for once were able to glut their revolting secret appetites without fear of being caled to account, thousands of normally decent workpeople - their better instincts drowned in looted alcohol - ran laughing and cursing about the airless half-lit streets. What did it matter that the red blood of life flowed in the gutters, that young girls were being violated until they died of exhaustion, and that strong men, fiendishly castrated, screamed like women in childbirth? It was only the putting into practice of the doctrine by which the mobs had been taught they would achieve riches and contentment.
Elsewhere the Duke himself kills an avaricious mayor by forcing "a large knife through his liver with as little compunction as one kills a rat", Simon deals a woman "a back-handed blow from his fist which sent half her teeth down her throat", and de Richleau and Richard are forced to stand by impotently as a group of nuns are soaked in petrol and burned alive.
Wheatley clearly feels he has special license to depict such atrocities because he is passing judgement on events that are not only real but also contemporary. It is important to remember that the outcome of the conflict was still to be decided when the book was published, which makes his now customary interweaving of fact and fiction all the more impressive here. Rather than beginning with an episode from a history book and then conceiving of a fictional narrative that would fit its contours, he has here begun with a fictional premise and laced into it real life personages and detailed accounts of the war's course not as window dressing but as integral elements - a considerable feat when one realises that Wheatley is taking his material straight from the morning headlines. For all his bombast, he has again thoroughly researched his subject: readers presuming he will be painting with only the broadest of strokes might be surprised, for instance, by passages which note (and derive narrative capital from) the differences between the F.A.I., the C.N.T., the U.G.T and the P.O.U.M.
|Our heroine re-imagined for the Heron edition, apparently on the end of a piece of unraveling string|
Preliminaries sorted, we then come to the adventure and the intrigue, and here Wheatley is absolutely in his element. His reputation for following one action sequence with another, giving the reader no time to catch their breath after deliberately making them think they would be allowed to, and topping a plot twist with a further surprise was already well-earned, but he surpasses himself here. Not for nothing is a chapter entitled 'Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire' followed immediately by another called 'Out of the Fire into the Boiling Oil'. For most of the book's second half the reader is kept constantly on the back foot as it twists first in this direction and then the other, and the final chapters have virtually a surprise on every page. In particular, he stages a twist in the climax so beautiful that it sends one flicking furiously back through earlier pages, trying to find and re-read passages where vital information might have been slipped past without awareness.
An additional burden the book has to bear is its status as a sequel to The Devil Rides Out. Would the reader be sufficiently excited by the return of the lead characters in another strictly materialist adventure, after the extravagant supernatural fantasy of their previous encounter? Might not there be the tendency to greet each peril and near-death with a shrug of the shoulders, as one wonders why the Duke doesn't just perform some spell or incantation to bring the forces of eternal goodness to their aid? Typically, Wheatley announces rather than shies from the problem. At the beginning of the book we learn that Tanith has died in the interval between the two stories, giving birth to her and Rex's first child. Wheatley then briefly allows the Duke to ponder:
De Richleau thought again of how he and his friends had fought the Devil - fought the Devil himself - and won... Having triumphed over such mighty odds, how, when they were once reunited, could they fail in this new encounter where only the human forces of evil were arrayed against them?
It sounds unmistakably like Wheatley is issuing a challenge, both to himself and by extension to the reader, and it is a tribute to his screw-tight narrative that the issue, for this reader at least, never really announces itself again. And this despite the fact that the plot is set in motion by a more or less identical restaging of the earlier book's set-up. As before, de Richleau surprises Simon by turning up at his house in the middle of a meeting of his new friends, forcing the younger man to prevaricate and flounder as he attempts to get rid of his friend without arousing his suspicions. Of course the guests this time, "seedy-looking individuals" all, are not Satanists but Socialists, not that the reader can easily tell the difference. "Comparatively few of them," we are told, "were British in appearance," and when we learn that the women among them "were definitely dowdy" we may confidently presume we have been told all we need to know.
In this pirouetting display we get to see the best of the author's every facet. We have Wheatley the self-referencer: "Good luck to you, my dear 'Lieutenant Schwab'!" says the Duke to Simon at one point, evoking the sleuth of his crime dossiers. And we have Wheatley the referencer of friends and rivals: half a page is devoted to describing the merits of a Peter Cheyney novel that Rex is reading, with two subsequent updates. ("It was much the swiftest thing Rex had read for a long time...")
Then we have Wheatley the wine man: "Queer that the finest hocks fetch so much more than the finest clarets, isn't it?" asks Richard. The Duke replies: "Not really... It simply proves there are more rich people in the world who would rather drink this than Château Ausone, and I'm one of them."
And where would we be without Wheatley the political theorist? It is he who we shall allow the last word, speaking through the mouth of his beloved Duc de Richleau. Faithful representation, or authorial intervention? I'll leave that one up to you.
He shrugged. "Unfortunately we can't put the clock back, but a few determined statesmen might stop the rot that has permeated the world since the Great War."
"By refusing to countenance the absurd claims of small minorities... Look at the mess there is today in Central Europe The old Austro-Hungarian Empire had no model Government but at least it was a happy country. A few fanatics made trouble from time to time because they wanted to force everyone in their districts to speak some aboriginal peasant language that no stranger could understand, but they were only locked up when they started breaking windows. Under the treaties of Versailles and Trianon statesmen who should have known better split Middle Europe up and created all sorts of new nations to quarrel with each other. Worse, the matter hasn't ended there because each of them has its minorities which want to rule themselves, and the appalling thing is that the great powers take these demands seriously. If they go on that way the only end can be Europe reduced to a patchwork quilt with frontiers every twenty-five miles and the whole place reduced to a Tower of Babel. How can there be peace and progress and the spread of culture in such a madhouse? It is the safety and welfare of the majorities that matter, and the majority of people all over the world don't want to be led into senseless squabbles by a handful of the sort of lunatics who in normal times would be boosting nudism, nut-diets, or neo-Gaelic poetry."