Herewith the Clues (1939)

Who killed Serge Orloff, Trotskyite enabler of the Irish Republican Army, dope-peddler and West-End club owner?

Herewith the Clues is the fourth and last of the crime dossiers Wheatley created in collaboration with J.G. Links. The series was already in decline but this is by some measure the weakest and least interesting: its original readers seem to have concluded that the idea had definitely run its course, and it's hard not to agree with them. (I have the advantage over them, of course, in knowing that it actually had.)

It's by far the most linear and  least convoluted; it makes less of an effort than ever to make the tangibility of its assembled evidence relevant to the solution, and there are no surprises at all. There's only one killing, and we arrive at the solution by examining the testimony of a series of interchangeable suspects, a fact which the authors make clear at the end by providing (for the first time) readers' score sheets, which explicitly tell them to list the suspects and their reasons for exonerating or continuing to suspect them. (The latter, one suspects, are as much a means of filling up space in the book as in offering help to the sleuths at home.)
It begins as a series of letters describing the events - this could easily be third person prose and would lose nothing - we then get a look at the bits of evidence, then see photos and descriptions of all the suspects, and that's that: we jump straight to the solution. It's all very mechanical, and I read the lot in half an hour. The cover boasted that it contained "five times as many clues as any of the previous dossiers", which may be true in a strictly numerical sense, but the amount of informed guessing the reader is able to do is virtually nil.
Wheatley, who had some frosty words of criticism for its predecessor, The Malinsay Massacre, betrays no feelings of disenchantment or disappointment with the present venture in Drink and Ink, stressing that the run of the series was curtailed only by the cost of producing them, which became prohibitive in wartime. Phil Baker is more blunt: "It flopped."

The photographs of the suspects makes for the strangest and most interesting element.  They are all impersonated by Wheatley and his friends, but while the basic idea is in keeping with the playfulness of the series up to this point, the joke dies in execution, since the book itself explains the real identities of the stand-ins under the character names. This robs the exercise of the verisimilitude that was its original selling point, and replaces it with a weak in-joke that is liable to freeze the smile on the reader's face, not least because for the most part the assembled cast are not terribly notable cronies of the author's. Among the more interesting are Wheatley's wife Eve Chaucer, fellow author Peter Cheyney (already lavishly name-checked in The Golden Spaniard), and Val Gielgud as the corpse. Also in the cast is Wheatley's step-daughter Diana Younger, to whom he dedicated The Golden Spaniard with the most fulsome of praise, but who was proving an increasing trial behind the scenes, given to excesses of frivolity and sexually provocative behaviour, to say nothing of the disinclination to shrug off a soft spot for Nazism she had acquired on a recent trip to Germany.  Wheatley and Links themselves appear as small time crooks 'Scab' Wilson and 'Mugs' Masters.

Wheatley and Links as a couple of lowlife villains
Wheatley seems to suggest in Drink and Ink that these photos were taken at a party in his house, which had been decorated to resemble the nightclub in which the events take place, and for which performer Ruby Miller, an old friend of Wheatley's, doubled-up as both real and fictional main attraction. However, he also says that the party was intended to celebrate the book's publication, rather than its conception, so I'm not sure how the two tie up.

The Crime Dossiers were only ever diversions, delightful interludes between Wheatley's more substantial works of fiction, but the first two, for my money, maintain their charm and fascination, especially if you are able to get an edition that duplicates the actual physical pieces of evidence rather than, as in later reprints, merely photographs of them. Nonetheless, by the time of The Malinsay Massacre it was obvious that the series was coming to an end. Herewith the Clues sounded the death knell; all too clearly the authors had run out of energy, enthusiasm and imagination. There is a desultory, perfunctory feel to the whole thing. The party's over.

The Quest of Julian Day (1939)

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.)

This debutante character is the titular Julian Day, retelling his experiences in the first person - a new departure for Wheatley. Day is in fact on two quests: the treasure hunt and, more importantly, the desire to expose the man responsible for causing his unfair dismissal from the Diplomatic Service and smearing his name as a traitor. 'Julian Day' is a pseudonym adopted by necessity (his real name is the superbly Wheatleyesque Hugo Julian Du Crow Fernhurst), and also an obscure pun which, as Phil Baker notes, allies him oddly with Gregory Sallust in the sense of the Julian and Gregorian calendars).
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".
At least, "well known as an occultist" is what I found him to be when I went to my beautiful 1953 Hutchinson hardback (with the fabulous cover seen at the head of this essay), specifically to check on the point: the 1972 Arrow paperback I had been using as reading copy for the purposes of the Project instead styled him as "well known as an occulist". This I found understandably confusing, partly because an oculist has never struck me as a thing one can be well known as, however good at it you are, but mainly because I couldn't for the life of me understand why a secret meeting of oculists might leave behind it "a quite unmistakable smell of goat".

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.

The Golden Spaniard (1938)

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."

The Malinsay Massacre (1938)

The third of the crime dossiers is something of an oddity.
On the one hand, it offers clear indications that the authors are tiring of their innovation, and are no longer willing to put in the degree of effort and ingenuity necessary to justify the format. There are hardly any of the variety of inserts and variant perspectives that made reading the first installment, in particular, a genuine exercise in detection.
Here we have a few photographs, newspaper cuttings which (with one exception only) tell us nothing of which we were not already aware, and one poisoned pill from which (we are assured) all trace of poison has been successfully removed!
The latter is fun, but no substitute for the wide variety of physical material included in Murder Off Miami and, in any event, is not any kind of clue. Indeed, there are only two decidedly obscure clues to be found in the enclosures, one by incredibly close study of the castle floor plan combined with impossibly close study of one of the photographs; the second is in a later photograph, but its relevance cannot be guessed until the moment it is explained.
The bulk of the book takes the form of typed correspondence between the same two characters, allowing us no chance to be directly misled by the words of any of the other characters. (As such, when a handwritten letter from one of them does suddenly appear it has the effect of leaping at the reader, who would be right to smell a rat.) A further symptom of the authors' weariness is a degree of overkill with regards the crimes themselves: as the title indicates, a steady succession of corpses pile up as the narrative unfolds, each leading to a different red herring suspect, while the police inspector we never encounter except in the third person stands impotently by.
The meta-textual humour that had distinguished the earlier volumes is also ramped up, at times to the point of parody. The book opens with a letter from Wheatley to Police Lieutenant Schwab, asking for more real-life cases to satisfy the demand of clamouring fans of the first two books. Schwab, however, declares himself empty-handed:

It would be a pleasure to help you further and I have been wondering how best to do so. I have been on a queer case recently that started with no more than a broken finger nail but so many of the leading figures of our public life are now involved in this scandalous business that it would be highly indiscreet to give the facts to the world at the present time. Another of my cases was solved after months of fruitless investigation by my studying a chair for twenty four hours on end... but unfortunately it now reposes in the Police Museum of this City and even if I could ship it to you, it could hardly be reproduced by the thousand for sale in bookshops all over the world.

Wheatley himself was less enamored of this than its predecessors, though for a rather different reason, and for which he blamed his co-author J.G. Links. As he writes in Drink and Ink:

I had written the story before leaving England but had had to leave the photographs to be taken in my absence. When I saw them I was livid with rage. The script was about mass murder in an ancient castle in Scotland. Joe had allowed the photographs of the characters and bodies to be taken in the Carlton Hotel, and the backgrounds could not have been less suitable. 

On the other hand, however, the actual mystery itself is rather a clever one, and most interestingly, relies upon the means in which it is presented in order to work. In other words, Wheatley and Links have reached a point where the content is dictated by the format, and what began as a cute gimmick is now integral to its structural efficiency. Indeed, if it had been offered as a straight novel written in epistolary form, it might have found a reputation as one of the classic English whodunits of its decade.

The first victim!

As always with Wheatley, it is the incidentals that provide the keenest amusement, especially when the correspondents break away from the matter in hand to briefly address other issues of the day, among them the Boer War ("It may cost us a few score lives but it will be a month's good exercise for our troops to teach these people a sharp lesson, and then we can settle down to run the country properly"), the erosion of class boundaries ("For a woman of title to have an affair with her groom is an appalling error of taste in any circumstances, but we must endeavour to be broadminded") and certain regrettable developments in politics:

McGregor is a more intellectual type than the majority of the Islanders and apparently has become interested in this newfangled nonsense called Socialism; which seems to be spreading through the writings of some crazy German called Marx. I know little about it, except that these people would like to turn the world upside down and ruin us all...

For all its pleasures, though, this is plainly the work of a Wheatley treading water and playing for time. But he would soon return to his best form: world events were again helpfully handing him exactly the kind of inspiration he most relished, and the stage was set for the return of de Richleau and the Modern Musketeers.

Wheatley on film: The Lost Continent (1968)

While everyone knows and loves Hammer's film of The Devil Rides Out, only hardcore fans of either studio or author know that it was one of two Wheatley adaptations Hammer released that year.

The other was this barnstorming adaptation of Uncharted Seas, one of the most elaborate and expensive productions the studio had ever mounted. Partly for the simple reason that it is not one of the studio's pure horror films, it tends to be dismissed or (more often) ignored in most histories of Hammer, although in the best of them, Denis Meikle's A History of Horrors, the author calls it "the single most spectacular production that Hammer have ever mounted."
Sadly, it proved a box-office disappointment and was more or less forgotten, though today it has become something of a cult favourite, largely account of its delightfully patchwork monsters and technical effects. (Note the scene where an octopus nearly carries off Unity, and leaves her bloodied and covered in green slime.) All the monsters, including some superbly horrible giant crabs, were the work of the distinguished Robert Mattey, later to design the model sharks used in Jaws. The miniature shots in the ship's graveyard scenes are likewise no less effective for not disguising their artifice.

Oddly, Meikle makes the preposterous claim, repeated in numerous other books on the studio and seemingly originating with the film's writer-producer-director Michael Carreras, that Wheatley had no recollection of the novel by the time the film was made. If so, he'd certainly regained his memory of it when he came to write Drink and Ink, where he dismisses the movie as a bad adaptation and a poor follow-up to The Devil Rides Out: "Hammer also made my Uncharted Seas, re-christening it Lost Continent. But the story was entirely altered, with the result that it was less successful."
Actually, the film is not the wholesale reinvention of the original Wheatley seems to imply: the first half is a pretty close adaptation (with only cosmetic changes), and while the second part differs radically from Wheatley in detail it retains the original's trajectory and form. (Wheatley's recollection gives the impression that it is of a piece with The Haunted Airman, a kind of riff on the original, but it is not.) It's actually one of my favourite Wheatley movies, and whereas The Devil Rides Out seems a touch over-keen to stress its respectability, as if half-ashamed of its inspiration, this one leaps wholeheartedly into the absurd spirit of the original.

The basic changes are, as I said, cosmetic, but nonetheless wholesale. The period is updated to that of the film (a not unreasonable decision, given the novel was only thirty years old), and all of the characters are renamed, with the sole and curious half-exception of Unity, who retains the first name of her equivalent character in the novel but not the second. The characters, however, are all recognisable variants of those in the book; they serve the same functions and interact in the same ways. Nicely cast, too: Eric Porter brings welcome gravitas to the lead, here the British Captain Lansen rather than Finnish ship's engineer Juhani Luvia, and Suzanna Leigh (as Unity), Hidegarde Knef (as Eva/Synolda), Tony Beckley (as Harry/Basil), Ben Carruthers (as Ricaldi/Vicente), Nigel Stock (as Dr Webster/Colonel Carden) and Jimmy Hanley (as Patrick/Hansie)  all bring the novel's characters effectively to new life, while adhering to their printed spirit. One could easily imagine Wheatley enjoying the opening sections thoroughly, especially when we see Webster nonchalantly reading the paperback of Uncharted Seas!

Three enormous studio tanks were used to create the storm effects (one was specially built for the movie), and very effective they are. All the same, it was clearly impossible to show the ship lurching on the waves in the manner described by Wheatley, so an additional motive for their abandoning ship is added: the hold is filled with an illegal cargo of high explosives that are ignited by contact with water. The most interesting structural change is that the film spends fifteen minutes introducing us to the characters before the action begins - just what we would expect in books and films of this sort, but the very thing that Wheatley had so masterfully avoided. (And in an agreeable sign of what is to come, Carreras ignores the novel's early notice of its race-war theme in the form of Harlem Joe and his attempts to rouse the black crew members to mutiny.)
On the other hand, the scenes where the characters are cast adrift in the lifeboat suffer a little from abbreviation: in the novel it is a major episode and we are left in no doubt that the crew come within an inch of death before the ship is re-sighted. Here it is over too quickly, there is no real sense of desperation, and their return to the ship now feels a bit pointless - Carreras might more easily have simply gone from the storm setting them off course to their discovery of the weed, and used the extra time to space out some of the other highlights.  But essentially, the narrative up until the point where the regained ship runs aground in the sea of weed is one with that of the book.

The first sign that the film is about to cut its own path occurs when it is discovered that as well as treacherous, the weed is literally alive, crawling up the side of the deck and into portholes, intent on grabbing the characters and dragging them into the deep, presumably to be in some manner eaten. It is so bizarre an idea one wonders if it even stemmed from a misreading of the original material: Wheatley on a few occasions describes the weed as if it were actively malevolent. At one point he speaks of its "countless tendrils... holding the ship back like the tangled skein of a vast, many-stringed bow", and one might perhaps misunderstand this section, when it is discovered that a crew member has gone missing during the night:

After the unavailing search had been completed and the others had gone below, De Brissac took Luvia by the arm and led him along to the spot on the port side of the ship just below the bridge. He said nothing but switched on his torch and pointed with it.
Luvia stared at the thing upon the deck. He stood very still, his hands felt cold and clammy. It was a single, long tendril of wet, bright-green weed to which De Brissac pointed.
Bremer was gone, and both men knew that in the darkness of the night some stealthy, hideous thing had come up out of the sea to get him.

In fact it is one of the octopi that use the weed as cover, but one could imagine a skim-reader putting two and two together and making five. Given that the film does retain the octopus attacks also, the decision to additionally give the weed itself sentience and carnivorous habits is inexplicable. It also makes a nonsense of the balloon jumping - in the book the characters use the balloons and stilts to leap across the weed, covering great distances between jumps, and only briefly making contact each time. Even then, it is not enough to prevent them occasionally falling prey to a lurking octopus. Here the stilts are replaced with large flat discs, and the characters don't leap but merely trudge across the weed's surface. This would give them no protection even against the octopi: with the weed itself also alive and hungry, it makes no sense at all. 

The remainder of the movie plays fair by the spirit of the novel - the travelers discover a strange island populated by the descendants of shipwrecked mariners - but entirely alters the details. As in Wheatley, they are approached by the balloon-jumping escapee (Yonita in the novel, Sarah here) described by Wheatley as "less than five feet in height, but with well-developed breasts" and played distractingly to the letter by actress/singer Dana Gillespie. 

In hot and murderous pursuit, however, are not the "devilish negroes" of Wheatley but zombie-ish whites in ragged sixteenth century costumes. We learn that this time round there is only one island, but it is an arcane tyranny occupied by the descendants of the conquistadors, and ruled over by an anaemic boy king and a sinister, hooded Inquisitor (a role intended for Christopher Lee but in the event played by his regular stunt double Eddie Powell). Miscreants are wont to be tipped into the film's oddest invention: a pit at the bottom of which waits something hideous, of which we see for certain only a gaping rubber maw. Disease and dementia are rife among the inbred population. 
Even more than the original book did, then, this may well remind you of Peter Benchley's The Island, as well as The Fog - the film, that is - and Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead series. It's all much spookier than Wheatley's original, more in keeping with his sixties reputation as a master of horror and with the kind of thrills expected of a Hammer movie, and - frankly - preferable. All builds to a rousing, explosive finale.
Wheatley should have swallowed his pride and given it a second look.

Uncharted Seas (1938)

Wheatley freely admitted that Uncharted Seas was a reprise of They Found Atlantis; he was even happy to pronounce the newer effort distinctly inferior.
It certainly is derivative, but I generally found it the better book (save in one respect that would scarcely have troubled Wheatley, and which I will get to shortly). The fantasy elements, when they come, are not quite so distractingly weird, and because it is almost entirely action it doesn't feel so much like a work of two (warring) halves. The book does not draw breath once until its final quarter, and then only very briefly.
Try this for size:

Another great wave hit the ship a resounding thud. She gave a sickening lurch, lifted with alarming rapidity, hovered a moment, shuddering through all her length as the screws raced wildly, and plunged again - down, down, down - so that the passengers scattered about her lounge felt once more the horrible sensation of dropping in a brakeless lift.

All good, suspenseful stuff, but the important point here is that this is the very first paragraph of the book. We are accustomed by now to Wheatley plunging us straight into the action, but never so literally as this! What these opening chapters reminded me of most was The Poseidon Adventure, but whereas that film (and most disaster movies like it) begin as soap opera, introducing us to the characters and their situations and then putting them in peril one third in, Wheatley starts with the disaster and lets us catch up on the protagonists, their pasts and their personalities in short gasps while the action is ongoing. As technique, it's both intelligent and effective.

So who do we have on this lurching Swedish cargo vessel? Well, firstly we have the expected selection of intriguing character names, including a heroine called Unity Carden and another called Synolda Ortello ("vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, but Marlene in a part where she was a bit shop-soiled and prematurely old"), with Yonita Van der Veldt showing up at half time.
Keeping them company are the typical Wheatley's winter assortment of disparate males. There's Juhani Luvia, a plucky Finnish ship's engineer, resourceful from first to last, save for a brief interlude when he gets drunk out of his nut in a jealous rage for the love of Synolda, and accidentally gets one of his own crew shot. ("How could you, honey - a sweet thing like you - interested in that greasy wop, and - snakes alive - he's old enough to be your grandad!")
Jean De Brissac is a French army captain with the inevitable D'Artagnan moustache, and a good sort, if a touch accident prone and hot-headed. ("Queer people, the English," he reflects at one point, looking at Unity, "and particularly their colourless, flat-chested women".)
Basil Sutherland is an Englishman who starts off a wastrel and a drunkard, but abandons his reprobate ways and comes good when he falls for Unity and starts writing her soppy poems. (This is the least he can do, considering his attempt to steal brandy in a lifeboat precipitates a race war that leads to the death of her father; luckily she hated him and stops just short of thanking Basil for the service.)
And lastly, there's Vicente Vadras, an "amorous dago," and shifty to boot. He's basically a reincarnation of Atlantis's Nicholas Costello, and caddish enough to use his knowledge of Synolda's guilty secrets as a means of manipulating her into bed. Synolda is at first apprehensive ("he probably wore woollen combinations"), but ultimately philosophical: "Her husband Henriques Ortello had been a Venezuelan and she was well versed in their idiosyncrasies,"
For various reasons they're all travelling slightly below the radar, hence the non-top drawer transport. The storm turns deadly, and they abandon ship, with several crew members killed in the panic (along with three nuns - an ill-omen, that!) It's almost too much for Unity, who reflects that she'll "never live to ride another horse":

It's no good fooling myself any more. We'll be swamped inside ten minutes; the boat will sink and we'll all be struggling in the sea. God! how I wish I'd allowed George to make love to me when he wanted to so badly.

Cast adrift in an open boat, with the corned beef running precipitously low, a black stoker called Harlem Joe seizes the opportunity to stage a mutiny, which ultimately fails, but leads to much loss of blood and life. With order restored, but no hope of reaching land, all seems lost until a distantly sighted ship turns out to be the same one they had abandoned, still upright and now in calm waters. Back on board they repair the damage and head for the nearest land, but become stuck fast in a thick carpet of green weed. Attempts to hack a course through it are abandoned when it proves a hiding place for vicious giant octopussies. Once again they find themselves seemingly helpless, albeit somewhat better provisioned than previously:

Unity's first thought was the happy one that she would be able to get all the things she had been compelled to leave in her cabin when they abandoned ship; her own hair tonic, brushes, bath salts; sleep the clock round in her favourite nightdress, and revel in clean undies when she got up.

Then when all seems hopeless again, they glimpse what seems to be a strange animal with long legs and a huge head making its way towards them across the weed, which turns out to be a person on stilts with a huge balloon strapped to them. This is the fair Yonita ("little more than a child, although an exceptionally well-developed one"), part of a 250 year old colony of shipwrecked mariners inhabiting the nearby island. But hot in her pursuit are some of the inhabitants of the next island along: a tribe of "devilish negroes" who kill any white men who land on their shores, but stage periodic midnight raids on the neighbouring island, snatching away their women and confining them in their grimly euphemistic 'marriage house'.

From here, stopping briefly for a brush with some giant decapitating crabs, the book overtly reprises Atlantis, as they prepare to settle in this brave new world, and learn of the strange ways and customs of the people. But while the Atlantean civilisation was like some ghastly hippy commune, this lot live in something approximating the manner of an English country house party in the 1930s. It is, unsurprisingly, a Wheatley paradise: no organised religion, no sexual hang-ups, good food and drink and plenty of feudal deference.  They acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ but have outlawed Catholicism and Protestantism, and radical politics get the Dennis elbow too:

"One of the German sailors who reached us in 1904 had some books by a man named Marx. He would talk for hours, I'm told, about a thing called a 'Proletarian State', but nobody here comprehended very fully what he had in mind, although his description of the way in which the lower orders lived in European countries was curiously grim. His strange preoccupation with this subject became a harmless enough hobby, since, despite his attempts to upset everything here at first, he soon settled down like the rest of us to plough his few acres and drift quite happily from day to day. But I digress..."

As Juhani puts it: "No taxes, no wars, no crook politicians, or any other darned thing to worry about. It'll be grand - simply grand!"
This much is Wheatley at his most charming. But paradise is lost when the heathens next door snatch away Unity and Synolda, and the whites stage their rescue in a long (and literally cliff-hanging) race war finale, that plays as an elaboration on the Abyssinia scenes from The Secret War and, while unquestionably suspenseful, is also unrelentingly bleak

Reading the novel at the same time as the dialogue between myself and Wheatley's new, posthumous editor, Miranda Vaughan Jones (immediately below this posting), I'm wondering just how she possibly managed to balance the twin needs of retaining authenticity and removing the distastefully outdated in this case. As Phil Baker notes, the racial issues are not throwaway here but of the essence: "ethnic conflict on board the ship is followed by the discovery of a black island and a white island". 
In other words, the casual racial insensitivity we know to expect from Wheatley (and which I tend not to make too much of) is on this occasion elevated to the status of one of the novel's key thematic elements, suggesting a temporary preoccupation on the author's part (and going far beyond his habitual fixation upon his characters' origins, appearance and racial composition). 
As well as the expected fact that the black islanders are presented as utterly degenerate savages, and the casual, inevitable appearance of outdated terms and attitudes, there is a grimly pessimistic tinge to  the book's take on race relations generally. One might have hoped for the black island, for example, to have nurtured a rebellious younger generation intent on overthrowing their leaders and making peace with their neighbours... hokey, perhaps, but better than the hopelessness Wheatley opts for, and which is everywhere evidenced, throughout the novel. It would seem there is simply no chance, even in this literal utopia, of overcoming a fundamental incompatibility between members of different races. Wheatley underscores his point still further in a terse dialogue between Luvia and the mixed-race Gietto Nudäa, who exclaims: "May der ole white sot an' der coloured bitch what made me rot in hell!"

Luvia nodded slowly. Poor devil, he was thinking. Half-caste - outcast - no race, no nation, neither liked nor trusted by men of either colour.

Somewhat in keeping with this glum cynicism, the ending is a strange and unexpected one. As in They Found Atlantis, the travelers are resigned to never seeing their world again when a surprise twist enables them to regain it after all. But this time, some stay and some go; some find happiness and others only a stoic resignation. Not every love affair ends happily, and not every problem is neatly resolved.

The most fun element of the book is all the splendid stuff about the balloons and stilts, the means by which the colonists negotiate the treacherous, octopus-stocked weed. The idea did not sprout from Wheatley's wildest imaginings but was instead inspired by a novelty craze of the time: balloon jumping. By incorporating it within a fantasy narrative Wheatley again shows that alertness to the zeitgesist that makes his books such lively little time capsules. 

This, then, is Uncharted Seas: sometimes surprising, often naive, and from first to last the sheerest tosh - and all delivered with such perfected story-telling finesse that the pages practically turn themselves.

Reviving Dennis Wheatley: A Conversation with Miranda Vaughan Jones and Matthew Coniam

(This is an edited version of a talk given by Bloomsbury's Miranda Vaughan Jones and I at the Bristol Crimefest in 2014.)

Dennis Wheatley is a perfect illustration of my contention that, if you’re an author of mass-market popular fiction, there’s almost literally no level of success or popularity you can achieve in your lifetime that will guarantee you cultural longevity when you’re done. In fact, sometimes, it almost seems to work the other way; a new generation will come along and automatically say, ‘oh, that’s that author my dad used to read,’ or, ‘my granddad had all his books…’ so, unless you’re very lucky, there seems to be a strict three-generational lifespan that goes: 1) on every bookshelf; 2) in every charity shop and jumble sale; 3) oblivion.
 I was born in 1973, so in other words at the height of the ‘jumble sale years’, and I began collecting Wheatley novels because they were everywhere very cheaply (and had intriguing titles and garish covers). When I actually settled down to read them I was surprised, not only by how much I enjoyed them but by the fact that I enjoyed many of the things that were supposedly their biggest flaws: specifically that they have no eye on posterity at all and speak to Wheatley’s own generation and what he takes to be his peers, with the absolute confidence of being understood on all points. And it occurred to me that, if you are looking for a really vivid kind of social history, where the past actually comes to life before your eyes, you shouldn’t go to a work of non-fiction because that’s history in a glass case, and you shouldn’t go to an historical novel written now (however skilled, it will still have a kind of ‘retrospective focus’), nor to any of the great works of any particular era. What you want is a novel from the era in question, but crucially one written by an author who is not in any way trying to set down any kind of record of the times, but is merely speaking to the moment, without serious consideration.
So I liken the experience of reading a Wheatley novel to coming across an island somewhere that was colonised in the thirties, or the forties, and then sealed off from all outside influences, and just carried on as was… And this is what makes Wheatley’s novels so interesting to me; the way you can see the times in which he was writing not just being evoked but actually living and breathing. It’s a bit like a puppet theatre: in the foreground are the puppets, the thing we’re meant to be looking at, and that’s his characters and plots. But what’s even more interesting are the backgrounds, the scenery, slowly changing as the years go by. And Wheatley is an especially useful example of this process because he wrote so regularly, so prolifically and for such a long period of time: virtually a book a year every year, from the thirties to the seventies. So that’s a big chunk of the twentieth century passing by as you read.
 I started my website the Dennis Wheatley Project, therefore, in which I document my reading of every Wheatley book in the order he wrote them, partly for the fun of it but mainly so as to be taken on exactly this idiosyncratic tour of the century, with Wheatley as my guide. (And it struck me that, outside of Wheatley himself and his family, I might be one of the few people to have ever done such a thing. Even his exact contemporary and biggest fan probably didn’t read them all, in order. They might have started late, missed a couple, read some out of sequence. And even if they didn’t, they still weren’t seeing the times pass by as vividly as we do now, because they were their times to. And inevitably, as I was reading, I was wondering how they would play to a contemporary audience, never dreaming for a minute that such a thought experiment could ever actually be enacted in reality.
So imagine my surprise when I received an email from Miranda Vaughan Jones, to say that I was not the only person to be reading them all in order after all! That she was an editor at Bloomsbury and that she was overseeing, through the miracle of E-books, the re-issue of Wheatley’s entire back catalogue. Indeed that some, even, were going to be coming back as honest-to-God paperbacks. I’m going to hand over to Miranda now, who’s going to discuss some of the questions arising from the process of re-introducing Wheatley to the mass audience of today. Questions like: if we presume the right to edit the words of a deceased writer, is there a tendency to feel a greater right when it’s ‘only’ an author like Wheatley, rather than one with a higher reputation? How can we edit the books, and to what extent? Censorship is obviously a factor: everyone knows that his books contain various kinds of outdated attitudes and expressions; indeed he deliberately cultivated the image of crusty reactionary even at the time. Can we go further; can we edit for pace, for effect? One of the things he is most notorious for is including what one critic called ‘chunks of undigested research’, whereby he would choose his subject, then read ten relevant history books, and ten relevant geography books, and then just splurge what he’d read into his novels in big lumps, while the plot waits for him to finish.
Of course this is not mature, considered writing, and it impacts on the pace and effect, but if we remove it do we risk ‘unsealing the island’ I spoke of earlier; do we risk turning the books into something they are not? In short, I suppose what I’m asking can be put very simply indeed: What would Dennis say?

Generally, the idea of interfering with the classics is frowned upon, but there are many instances in which we read a body of text not in its original form. We have the option to read bridged or unabridged versions, and even when reading work in translation we are experiencing a ‘once-removed’ interpretation of an author’s work. It was the request of the Wheatley family that, on re-releasing Wheatley titles that span decades of the twentieth century, someone look at the whole body of work and decide how best, if at all, to make changes to make them more appealing to a contemporary audience. At the helm was Dennis’ grandson, Dominic Wheatley – a director of a gaming company, a man engaged daily with new technologies and social media, so someone who can fairly be said to have his finger on the pulse. We have received a few emails supposing that we are trying to make Wheatley ‘politically correct’, but I hope to show that that was not the intention here; it was giving old novels an edit with a contemporary readership in mind.
 In 2011 there was a publisher in Alabama whose decision to edit Huckleberry Finn caused quite a controversy. They took out the n-word, of which there were more than two hundred instances, and replaced it with the word ‘slave’. Their reasoning for doing this was that the novel had fallen off school curricula because teachers were no longer comfortable with the language, but the publisher felt it was such a key part of the literary canon that it was important to get it back into the hands of the younger generation. But the point of the book, boiled down, is that Huck Finn starts out with racist views, in a racist society, and then through his experiences he stops being racist and leaves that society. These publisher’s changes mean their version of the book ceases to show the moral development of his character, and an integral nuance is lost. This brings us to the question of representation through dialogue, which to me is entirely different from representation through narration and context. Dennis Wheatley famously travelled for seven months of the year and wrote for five, so he was bringing into his novels some very worldly views that spoke to a generation of readers in an age where international travel was nowhere near as common or accessible as today. He was writing about civilisations fairly unknown to them, or that were known only in the fearful stereotypes of ‘otherness’. For this reason, my decision was to keep the dialogue intact – if characters are speaking to one another then the reader expects it to be a faithful representation of how people spoke at that time. However, there is something known as ‘authorial intervention’ in literature where the author, as omnipotent narrator, will chip in with a personal view not attributed to anyone within the fictional world of the story. This is a trespassing of thought into a narrative where it has no place. So, there was a lot of racial language that we wouldn’t use any more, and that stays there because it is, in the story world, reported speech. In narration, however, I would argue that the author has a certain responsibility to abstract himself – personal views can and should be removed, or attributed to a character through speech or internal thought. It is jarring for the reader to be inside one characters’ head when, all of a sudden, the author pipes up, because the author isn’t supposed to be there.
 The second point to consider in the editing process was pace, and Dominic Wheatley used a really good example to illustrate his desire to ‘tighten up’ the texts. He talked about the Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt, explaining that when it was released it was crisp, it was pacey, it was slick, but now we have moved into the Tarantino generation, so we have grown used to a higher velocity. As Matthew said, a predominant criticism of Wheatley’s writing was that it had these long, plodding descriptions that weren’t relevant or necessary to the plot, so that was going to be my main focus – seeing if it was possible to splice out bits of information that weren’t moving the story forward. I actually found myself doing less and less of that as I worked through each novel, particularly when it came to the Roger Brook series, which is set in the 1800s, and contains an astonishing amount of transposed research. Even though I had my red pen hovering, I thought it would be such a shame to lose all of this historical information when it was being spooned out in such a pleasurable medium. It may not make for a fast-paced, Tarantinoesque novel, but I deigned to keep it all in, because if you’re reading and learning by proxy I don’t think that’s ever going to be a bad thing for any generation. 

Member of audience:
It does seem, from personal experience of the Wheatley books, that I think you hit the nail on the head. The Roger Brooks, particularly. If you strip out the history, you really only have a shell. When I was working in Bosnia, the Roger Brook books greatly helped me. Maybe a tiny bit of editing is needed, of some of the more politically motivated parts, where he’s trying to make a contemporary political point rather than a purely historical point.

He did claim that he got grateful letters from school history teachers, saying ‘I’ve been trying to teach my class this subject for a year with no success, and now because of your book they’re all expert in the period.’

 Member of audience: 
I can believe that. And more power to them, if it gets youngsters finding out about these subjects without too much boredom.

 Question from audience: 
Is there an example you can think of where you most thought, “I have to take that out!”?

There were a few patterns that emerged, but certainly the political interventions stood out…

I got a message from somebody who had just read The Forbidden Territory, and they were expecting certain edits, but they were surprised that you had toned down some of the descriptions of atrocities. 


There’s a bit where De Richleau kills one of the baddies quite cold-bloodedly and one of the other characters takes him to task for it, and he says something like, ‘You’d have no sympathy for them if you’d seen what I’ve seen,’ and goes on to describe this long catalogue of barbarities he’s witnessed, and the guy said that had been considerably truncated. He wasn’t up in arms about it, but he wasn’t sure of the motivation.

It may well have simply been a question of pace and / or repetition, if it was indeed a long catalogue of events that did not read like natural speech. I very much doubt it was because of too much graphic content, which I don’t find in the least offensive in Wheatley’s work – he is hardly at the level of Chuck Pahluniuk or Irvine Welsh – but yes, on reflection, I do remember shortening some dialogue in The Forbidden Territory on the grounds that it read like a factual list. I suppose in that vein we can call it editorial intervention… basically we get the point, let’s move on with the story!

It’s very interesting to me what you were saying about authorial intervention, because that is one of his most defining features. And in terms of what you’re trying to do, which is to bring these books back to life for a new generation, it is one of the things that most stands in the way of that. But at the same time, if you’re silly like me, and actually enjoy the books in part because of these outdated elements, that is one of the things I find most enjoyable. The way he cannot shut up, he cannot just tell you what’s happening; if he wants to make a comment, suddenly he’s a character, he’s there in the book telling you what to think. And it’s not mature writing but it can be very amusing, and certainly once you get a sense of the man he was, it’s so very typical, and it fits his character absolutely. Of course he does that! How could he restrain himself?

Yes, I do see that. There is that wonderful sort of charm – the outspoken drunk Uncle at a wedding with all of the controversial commentary, and there is a fondness there. I would argue that the novels are still saturated with the Wheatley voice – it is really inescapable, and the characters behave as thinly veiled spokespeople for his views. So what would Dennis say? I don’t know, but I’m sure he would have no qualms airing his views one way or the other. Perhaps more importantly, what would I say to Dennis? I would say that, as somebody who had never read Wheatley before, perhaps I am this ‘new generation of reader’, and as such I am a converted fan. The notion of reissuing the novels alone is breathing new life into his legacy, so I would hope that a considered amount of nipping and tucking will lead to a new legion of fans.