Now that I began to think about dying as a personal matter which I should have to face within a time that could be more or less measured by hours, I shrank from the ordeal; particularly as it seemed that death from thirst must be my portion and by all accounts that is a very painful form of death indeed.
I wondered how I could circumvent it. If I had had my gun on me I could have blown my brains out, but I had left it in my room at the hotel. Whether I should have had the courage to put a pistol to my head and pull the trigger I do not know. Time is an illusion, as we see by our experience of everyday life, from the dreary dragging of school hours as opposed to the fleeting of lovers's moments; and I have often thought that from the explosion of a suicide's pistol to the moment when he lies limp and dead, he may experience what seems to him hours of appalling torture as the bullet smashes in the bone formation of his skull and sears like a white-hot comet through the delicate membrane surrounding his palpitating brain.
After the bravura display of The Golden Spaniard, Wheatley must have rightly felt he owed himself the relaxation of another straightforward adventure thriller. The result was The Quest of Julian Day, revolving around a treasure hunt in the sands of Egypt, somewhat in the manner of The Fabulous Valley. The story is based on something he was told on an Egyptian holiday, that the Persian army, after sacking Egypt and looting most of its golden treasure, got lost in the desert and perished, leaving their fabulous haul in the sand, waiting for an enterprising explorer to find it again. What follows are the expected assortment of perils and diversions, the travelogue descriptions of Egyptian splendour diluted here and there with a touch of iconoclastic realism, as when Day escapes the villains by diving into the Nile:
God, how it stank! Every sort of beastliness must have collected there since Cleopatra passed that way with her loves in her gilded barge. It was more like oil than water, and four feet down I hit the mud, which churned up in great, slimy patches all around me.
But while there are several significant points of interest in the book (and certainly there is nothing significantly wrong with it), it struck me as a considerable disappointment, and not merely in comparison with its predecessor. It feels rushed, like an early draft left unpolished, with very little of the author's artful plotting in evidence, rather sketchy characterisation, and a single (and not all that eventful) climax.
Further, it is the first of his novels to really justify the habitual complaint that his historical and geographical research is simply plonked into the gaps between chunks of plot and never integrated into or validated by the narrative. The accusation is normally very unfair but this time I take the point - note especially the late chapter entitled 'The Tombs of the Kings' which surely leaves most readers screaming for Wheatley to get on with it. (Personally, I enjoyed all the the Ancient Egyptian discussion, but only because I happen to find it interesting anyway. You too? And you don't have a copy of my new book Egyptomania Goes to the Movies? Then what are you reading this for? Off to Amazon with you!)
If I am correct and it really is a work that Wheatley signed off before completing his usual degree of second-draft tidying, it may give us a revealing insight into his working methods. By that I mean that the book, to me at least, reads how one might expect any Wheatley novel to appear at first assembly, whereupon one can imagine him going back and cutting new paths, and affixing new threads to the separate sections. In particular, the manner in which certain episodes are engineered and anticipated by seemingly trivial events earlier on, dazzling on the page, could be a simple matter of starting with the big episodes and then turning back, adding the hints and set-ups later.
It once struck me that the seemingly amazing plotting of the best Agatha Christies or Conan Doyles becomes a lot more comprehensible if one imagines the writer, as they surely must have done, working backwards: starting with the straightforward facts of a crime (what will eventually be the 'solution'), then setting up the scene of its discovery (the 'mystery'), then filling up the gap in between with as many red herrings and layers of distraction and confusion as possible to obscure the straight line between the two. The detective, armed with the author's knowledge, then comes along and cuts a seemingly superhuman swathe through the heaps of competing information. This retrospective method could well be how Wheatley achieves his distinctive corkscrew plotting. By the same technique, he may well have originally added the fruits of his research in discrete blocks, but then gone back and blended them, by having the plot feed in and out of them, and adding elements in which they pay off in the narrative. Both of these techniques are absent here, to say nothing of his best trick - the multiple finale. The book is like a Wheatley idea that's still waiting for Wheatley.
It's possible that he himself was unhappy with it. Though it's hard to get a truly fair impression from Drink and Ink (a book that really was an unfinished draft) it may be relevant that Quest is the first of his novels not to have its publication noted in the autobiography. Phil Baker notes that public reaction was comparatively lukewarm by Wheatley's own standards (it still counted as a bestseller) and it may have lodged in his memory as something of a letdown. It is mentioned once, in connection with the trip to Egypt that he notes as its inspiration, but its actual writing and reception is ignored, something he had not done with any previous title. (This is especially surprising in that it marked the debut of a lead character who would go on to appear in two further novels.)
But Baker also notes that "the public didn't take to him", speculating that he may have been "too embittered, or just too smug" in comparison with the usual Wheatley hero. Certainly he is another eccentric, with a definite eye for the ladies ("I've always preferred girls to ball games... young women either singly or in bunches have no terror for me") and a gargantuan appetite for sweets. On arrival in Cairo he heads straight for "Groppi's, the famous patisserie in the Sharia Kasr el Nil" and makes "a fine selection":
My eyes have always been bigger than my tummy when let loose in a good sweet-shop and, although I knew quite well that I should never be able to eat them all, I could not resist buying my favourite fondants, caramel moue, almond brittle, nougat, fruit jellies and violet chocolate creams, and I had to positively drag myself away or else I should have left with another half dozen boxes.
And before setting off on the expedition it's back to Groppi's again, this time for "a special supply of sweets in hermetically-sealed tins." The highlight this time: "Feuilletés Pralinés, those delicious satin cushions striped like golden wasps that which have thin layers of chocolate between their sugar instead of a solid chocolate centre". In one of the book's most suspenseful episodes, he survives the agonising thirst and hunger of being trapped in a sealed tomb for three days with the aid of a packet of fruit drops.
Lest we therefore picture Day as on the corpulent side of portly, he assures us: "It is quite wrong to imagine that sugar is necessarily fattening; that is only so if one's glands are not functioning properly or one is mentally lazy." It's hard not to imagine Wheatley writing this passage of pure wishful thinking with one hand rooting guiltily in a jar of mint humbugs.
Julian's opponent in the book, however, might have very much benefited from a little of this kind of oddball characterisation. Sean O'Kieff is the man responsible for Day's earlier disgrace, and "one of the seven men who controlled a vast organisation which had ramifications in every corner of the globe." Now, he re-enters the fray as the murderer of our heroine's father, Egyptologist Sir Walter Shane, and gatecrasher of the attempt to locate the hidden treasure. He is, furthermore, and with an obvious nod to Wheatley's glories past, "well known as an occultist".
Unfortunately, like so much else in the novel, the occult angle once raised is never revived, and has no bearing on the unfolding narrative. And the same goes, pretty much, for O'Kieff in general. Although he looks set to be another of Wheatley's delicious master criminals, we never learn anything more about him than is revealed in the first chapter, nor do we even get to spend much time with him. His personal engagement with Day is likewise minimal - just a page or two through the whole novel. They hardly say more than a handful of sentences to each other, and Wheatley delays their big showdown to the final few pages. Even then their interaction remains brief, and he dies coincidentally in a sandstorm.
Our official heroine is home counties heartbreaker Sylvia Shane, a tough egg and expert Egyptologist, who has borrowed Wheatley's own views on reincarnation from the Duc de Richleau. The most interesting character, however, is the on-off villainess Princess Oonas Shahamalek, up to her "abnormally widely-spaced blue eyes" in both dope peddling and a rape and prostitution racket.
We first meet her dressed as Cleopatra at a fancy dress party (there is limitless disguise in the book: our hero appears with and without a full beard, and in the guise of an Egyptian, a Greek workman and a Red Indian). Next, she is supervising a criminal transaction in her house in "the Park Lane of Alexandria", its decoration "positively hideous" and "packed with garish Tottenham Court Road furniture." But after seducing Day as a prelude to assassinating him, she instead falls for him so completely that she immediately betrays her criminal associates and switches to Day's side. He falls likewise for her charms, despite her certain role in several murders and an attempt to sell Sylvia into white slavery. But alas, their bliss falters when Day pays rather too much attention to Sylvia, and then when Sylvia proves to be a better dancer than she is, she flies into a jealous rage. ("I took the only course possible with such a woman in such a state and lifting my hand I struck her with the flat of it sharply across the cheek.")
Discovering that he intends to join Sylvia on the expedition and leave her behind, she opts to bury him alive in the tomb of Thutmose III. Through a combination of efforts - sucking fruit drops, eating cigarettes, buying imaginary Christmas presents and loud singing - he keeps himself alive long enough to still be functioning when she comes back to dispose of his body. Anticipating her return he has equipped a coffin lid with his panama hat and a pair of his underpants, and left it standing sentinel in the mouth of the tomb. Thinking it his ghost she flees in terror, leaving the tomb door open. When they finally meet again, on O'Kieff's plane as our heroes are making their escape, she again mistakes him for his ghost, leaps from the vehicle, and perishes in the same sandstorm we presume to have claimed O'Kieff.
I imagine Wheatley had it in mind from the first to re-use Day in subsequent novels. It seems unlikely he would have been encouraged to do so by the end product or its reception, and this might explain the oddly unfulfilling ending, in which the wider portion of his quest remains entirely unsatisfied and the heroes leave Egypt with only a small sample of the treasure they had set out to claim. Much more importantly, Julian doesn't get the girl. In fact, there are three beauties in the book and he doesn't get any of them, despite obtaining carnal knowledge of two thirds. But one is married to a silly ass and remains so, one dies, and the one we had marked for him ends up with a secondary character we had wrongly tagged as a bounder. Day's own future is not even hinted at.
As for O'Kieff: he shows up at the very end of the novel, slaughters the majority of the expedition team, and then foolishly allows Day to steal his plane while he's busy setting fire to their tents. We are never given specific information of his death (like Day, we merely assume it), neither does fate catch up with the remainder of his sinister gang of seven. Perhaps the idea was to pickup the threads in a future Day adventure? Given Wheatley's mania for cross-referencing I wouldn't put it past him. After all, as only the shrewdest-eyed readers will note, one of the seven master villains is none other than Lord Gavin Fortescue.